Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon to Oxford conference

The following is a sermon by George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, delivered July 3 to the Conference on The Future of Anglicanism, held June 30 – July 5, 2002 at Oxford, England. Lambeth Palace forwarded the transcript to the Anglican Church of Canada.

Reading of ScriptureJohn 20: 24-29

Now Thomas, called Didymus, one of the twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, and put my finger where the nail was, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later, his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, see my hands; reach out your hand and put it into my side; stop doubting, and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Reader: This is the Gospel of Christ.

Congregation: Thanks be to God.

The Archbishop:

“Oh Lord, open your Word to our hearts and our hearts to that Word, in the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Well, my brothers and sisters, I am delighted to be here with you for this very significant conference, and I feel distinctly overdressed. [Laughter] Although it’s a self-imposed one, because you see this coming weekend we have our General Synod up in York and there is a motion from Southwell which is to do away with vestments in services and I could easily be a sort of wrong example of this [with people saying] “Well you know the Archbishop of Canterbury was in Oxford and he didn’t wear any robes at all, so …” I thought, well that I would have to dress up to the level of a cassock. So here I am.

But I do want to say that it is a pleasure to be here and to take part in this conference. I want to thank Dr. [Alister] McGrath and his entire team for the vision which led to this. It is a very timely and a very important focus – “The Future of Anglicanism.” How can we become a much more effective body of Christ in the world today? So I want to congratulate you, and congratulations to Wycliffe Hall. One hundred and twenty-five years you celebrate; and God bless the college and may its future be as bright as its past has been.

Now when Alister [McGrath] set up this conference, and set it going, it was with a long-term vision in mind. I want to urge you not to lose that long-term vision. What we need in the Anglican Communion today is that emphasis upon a dynamic, life-transforming encounter with Jesus Christ which we know can change lives, change societies, change countries. And in the meantime there are short-term issues that confuse us. I know that there has been one or two bubbling around this week and I just want to put the two together before I get into the substance of my address.

Of course I refer to the New Westminster diocese, and I’d like to make a few comments, comments that I made to the theologians and teachers in the seminar before [this meeting], and I want to say very firmly that my sympathy and concern are with the minority – but a very, very significant minority – in that diocese who believe, in my view rightly, that the issue is a most serious one, and I said in that group, that there are two problems about that particular motion of same-sex blessings. It, first of all, undermines marriage. And secondly, it is schismatic – in terms [that] it divides the Communion. It also makes us a very embarrassing partner in ecumenical circles as well. And the dilemma for all of us [is] what can we do?

If I can just point out one or two things I think we must be doing at a time like this. I, personally, have written to the bishop [of New Westminster] asking for clarification on five very important areas that we need to know what is going on, and I am awaiting that answer. I have written to all the Primates of the Anglican Communion offering them some advice on what we should be doing and asking them to tell me what they believe the issues are, and what I ought to be taking to the Standing Committee of the Primates when we meet in September.

It is also a time for us to support that significant minority, by prayer, by fellowship and to stand alongside them. But in the meantime, what can we do? Well the best theological answer I can give you takes us right into the passage I want to expound this evening – that wonderful story about Thomas, because you know the passage actually ends with his great confession, “My Lord and my God!” And if he is our Lord, we can trust him, and if he is our God, then he is in charge and we can walk with him.

Now in recent years poor Thomas has rather undeservedly acquired the reputation of being the apostle of unbelief. Now, to be sure there is a grain of truth in that accusation. For whatever reason, he wasn’t with the other apostles when Jesus appeared to them, and when they exclaimed with great joy “We have seen the Lord!” – Thomas’s reply is curt and dismissive. Not for him a simple showing of hands and side which Jesus did to the others; he wants more proof than that. He says he wants to see and to feel. “Unless I see the marks in his hands, and put my finger in the marks of the nails, I will not believe.”

What more evidence do we need to prove that Thomas was the great empiricist? Well, I have been guilty of that vein of interpretation. But let me this evening, in the setting of this service, give you another slant on the story, one that takes into account Thomas’s personality as this comes across in the Gospel of John.

In chapter 11, verse 16, at the raising of Lazarus, when Jesus speaks of his coming death, it is Thomas who says immediately with great alarm and great gloom: “Let’s also go that we may die with him.” And in Chapter 14, verse 5, it is Thomas alone of the disciples who raises a questioning voice about Jesus as the way: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we possibly know the way?” Now where have you heard that kind of voice before?

It was actually an American friend of mine who reminded me at the weekend, that the voice is exactly that of the marsh-wiggle, Puddleglum, in C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair. Now Puddleglum is introduced in this kind of way:

His expression was solemn and you could see at once that he took a serious view of life. “Good morning, guests, though when I say ‘good’, I don’t mean it won’t probably turn to rain, or it might snow, or fog, or thunder. You didn’t get any sleep, I dare say?””Yes, we did, though”, said Jill, “we had a lovely night.”

“Ah”, said the marsh-wiggle, shaking his head, “you are making the best of a bad job. You’ve learned to put a good face on things.”

“Please, we don’t know your name,” said Eustace.

“‘Puddleglum’ is my name. But it doesn’t matter if you forget it, I could always tell you again.”

And at another point he says of himself, “I am the kind of chap who always likes to know the worst and then put the best face on it that I possibly can.”

Now Puddleglum is essential for Lewis’ story because his gloominess is actually matched by his resourcefulness. He knows his way around, even though it is always expressed negatively. He says this: “We are not very likely to get very far in a journey to the north. Not at this time of the year with the winter coming on and all. But that must not let you become downhearted. Very likely, what with enemies, and mountains to cross, and losing our way, and next to nothing to eat, we’ll barely notice the weather.”

Thomas is very much like Puddleglum. We hear the same gloomy accents in John’s portrayal of him: “How can we know the way?” “Let’s go with him that we may die with him.”

Now whether Lewis had Thomas in mind when he created that loveable character, Puddleglum, I don’t know. However, there is a certain tenderness with it. It says somehow in both John and in Lewis’ description, that whoever we are, we belong in the story of Jesus. We are one of his disciples. Let me press the point.

Is there any reason to make Thomas the great unbeliever, and really the subject of the story? What is the story actually saying? You see, when we focus on Thomas’ unbelief, we are actually making Thomas the subject of the story. But surely the subject of the story is not Thomas but the resurrection and the incarnation – the flesh and blood reality of our Lord. Thomas is surely right to draw attention to the physical facts of the crucifixion. You see, he wants nothing to do with a glorified Jesus who is not the same incarnate, flesh-and-blood Jesus, that he loves.

And so when Thomas exclaimed “My Lord and my God!” it is not simply a discovery of something that moments before he hadn’t seen, but rather a joyful acknowledgement that it really is his Lord who is standing before him.

Will you notice also that while Peter is credited for recognizing Jesus for who he was, the Son of the Living God, it is Thomas – whatever his gloom, whatever his predisposition – it is Thomas who knows what it means to acknowledge Jesus as Lord – as the one who calls the shots, whose authority affects every aspect of his life.

It is Thomas in chapter 14 – I remind you again – who is keen to follow the right Christian path. “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Thomas is concern is to live under the guidance of God’s word.

Now this reading of the story of Thomas is entirely consistent with our understanding of John’s Gospel, and indeed of the Johannine corpus. In the background there were those who resisted the physicality of the Christian faith. They wanted something akin to the incipient Gnostic theories being advanced in the intellectual world of their day – and not terribly different dissimilar from some around the Communion – theories which the writers of the New Testament resisted. Their message is transparent and direct: the Lord is the crucified Jesus. They knew there could be no avoidance of the cross.

Now whether we are by temperament Puddleglums or not, we are all called to follow Christ, even unto death and to proclaim him as Lord and God. And this has to be worked out in our preaching and our teaching within our Communion. As we encourage this, there is one great consequence I would love to see flowing from it, and that is a resurgence of the preaching the cross and resurrection. Alas, too much of today’s preaching – and we are all guilty of it – is one dimensional, experiential and social. When did you last hear a sermon on the Atonement? When did you last preach yourself, a sermon on Ephesians 2 – “by grace and faith you are saved.” We are all guilty. Over the last twenty years there has been a decline in thorough preaching the cross of Jesus Christ.

And yet we need to, I think, respond to that kind of challenge. We need to relate the Christian faith to what is happening today, but without bypassing the once-for-all action of God in Jesus Christ. And we have to hold cross and resurrection together as one dynamic act of God. The cross on its own is a mystery and a sign of failure. The resurrection on its own is inexplicable and devoid of meaning. Together they express the victory of God, the way of life and hope everlasting.

But what about Thomas? What about him and what happened to him? You know there is a very strong tradition that Thomas became the apostle to India and was martyred there. We don’t know about the truth of that but what we can be sure of is that when Portugese missionaries arrived in Malabar in the sixteenth century, they were astonished to find a thriving Christian community who called themselves St. Thomas Christians. Who knows what St. Thomas got up to when he left the presence of the Lord, having met him as Lord and God?

You see, there is hope for some of us other Puddleglum Christians.

In the name of God, Amen.

Interested in keeping up-to-date on news, opinion, events and resources from the Anglican Church of Canada? Sign up for our email alerts .