Bishop Libby's installation sermon Marc h 2015

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undefinedShe preached on the theme of ‘Confidence in Christ', with reference to the lessons from Isaiah 6:1 - 8 and Philippians 3:4 – 14 during her installation with choral evensong at Chester Cathedral. Nearly 1,900 people heard the sermon, in which + Libby also mentioned the TV show ‘Call the Midwife'. Read on for full text …

May I speak in the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I can’t tell you how thankful I am - for this welcome, for the support and encouragement, for your generosity. It is a remarkable thing to feel this carried by goodwill and shared delight. It offers me confidence to hope that perhaps, just perhaps, all that this anticipates might be possible after all.

Confidence is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. At the announcement of my nomination I began by saying that I was “grateful for confidence placed in me by Diocese of Chester”. And that is no small thing. It is, I think, always immense to have the church recognise in you a call episcopal ministry. But the confidence in me, of those who know me well, to shoulder additionally the weight of expectation of being the first woman bishop in the Church of England has helped make the past three months manageable, and make the joyful anticipation of the years to come possible.

In the second series of ‘Call the Midwife’

I couldn’t not mention ’Call the Midwife’ could I? I’m thinking it might become the recurrent theme of my public ministry. It seems to be what many remember most clearly from my consecration. When, on that occasion, Sarah Bullock, Archdeacon of York, made reference to it in her sermon, she introduced the extract by explaining that she watches it on catch-up while doing the ironing. I’m quite happy to admit to being a fan too, but I think it only fair you realise at this early stage of my ministry that I’m more likely to be found on a Sunday evening collapsed on a sofa nursing a glass of wine than wielding an iron.

So, you may recall that in the second series of ‘Call the Midwife’ Chummy, played by the wonderful Miranda Hart, follows a call to missionary service as a midwife in Africa. Chummy is awkward, physically and socially. She is big and clumsy, and her privileged mother disapproves of her life choices. When we first meet her Chummy, despite her apparent advantages – rich, connected, educated, capable – is frightened and trapped by self-doubt. We observe through the series the transforming effect on Chummy of the acceptance of the community at Nonatus House, the satisfaction of work well done, and the love of a good man. This transformation culminates in Chummy realizing her call to missionary service and the confidence to move away from the environment that has helped make her secure, trusting in her own capacities.

As she departs at the end of the programme with her husband to fulfil her calling overseas, we hear the voice of Sister Julienne: There is a greater gift than the trust of others. That is to trust in oneself. Some might call it confidence, others name it faith. But if it makes us brave, the label doesn’t matter… for it’s the thing that frees us, to embrace life itself.

Where does confidence come from? Some of us may be fortunate to have had confidence instilled in us through our parents, our education, our careers, through our loved ones, through financial success or the admiration of others. But same experience that breeds belief in some creates doubt in others. Some people seem to have everything and yet know no confidence. Others seem to have little, and yet know confidence deeply. Perhaps confidence is an accident of genetics rather than experience.

I’m not thinking about cocky assuredness or self-promotion, but deep rooted security; that which informs who we are and determines what we do.

The word ‘confidence’ comes from two Latin words: ‘con’ - with, and ‘fides’ - trust. Confidence is ‘with trust’. But ‘fidere’ in Latin was to be trusted in; it was about relationship not self-assessment. To be described as confident was not about a person’s own self-belief but about the belief of others in them.

By the end of both our Old Testament and New Testament readings today, both Paul and Isaiah might be described as confident. They seem to be very different sorts of people; Isaiah full of self-doubt -“Woe is me! I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips”; and Paul full of self-belief  - “If anyone has reason to be confident, I have more”. Isaiah might have the tendency to underestimate himself, Paul perhaps the opposite tendency, to overestimate himself. But they both come to realise that confidence cannot be founded on self-assessment. And what’s more, they realise that it cannot be secure if it relies on the assessment of others.

It is not that these things don’t matter. Self-doubt can be crippling, and self-reliance can be poisonous. Relying on the affirmation of others for security can be debilitating. Healthy self-awareness and self-regard, and a proper ability to understand and respond to others is essential for our mental health. But in the end I want to encourage confidence founded on that which is eternally secure.

What transforms both Isaiah and Paul, as it transformed Chummy, is knowing the confidence of the living God. It was not that they found faith in God. They each had that already. But when they realised that God had faith in them then their lives were transformed. They discovered that they were precious to God and honoured in His sight; that His assessment of them was that they were beloved children, inheritors of the Kingdom; they realized God had confidence in them. And so that’s my question today. Not “Do you have confidence in God?”, but “Do you know that God has confidence in you?”. This, I think, is the truth that sets us free, “not that we loved God, but that He first loved us”. Knowing the confidence that comes from God’s faith in us is liberating precisely because it doesn’t, it can’t, rely on us. It is a gift - all about who God is and what God does, not who we are or what we do.

For every one of us, knowing that the living God, maker of heaven and earth, loves us so much that He gave Himself for us, taking our flesh and bearing the consequence of our sin, our weakness, our failure, our wickedness; that he lived and died and rose again, not just for all of us, but for each one of us; and that love is made real in his call upon our life, on your life - that God has confidence in you, has faith in you and trusts you with His purpose. That changes things.

That is what enables Isaiah to respond to God “Here am I; send me”. That is what gave Paul the freedom to declare “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ”.

Coming to know Christ and the power of His resurrection, and the sense of call that placed on my life, which I first realised as a teenager, has brought me here. But my call is no more important in God’s scheme of things than yours. I might be getting the media attention, but you are building the Kingdom of God. Having confidence in Christ is not, must not, be the preserve of clergy – though we too need to be reminded that God first loved us, and that our faithfulness to Him grows out of His faithfulness to us. 

For all of us, knowing that we are loved without limit by the living God and called by him to share in His work, offers security and assurance, confidence, both to know forgiveness of sins and the hope of heaven, and also to proclaim that good news, to live it and speak it not only in our churches but in our homes and communities, our places of work and leisure, through our relationships, our endeavour, our economics, our politics – in every corner of our lives.

And we can only do this together. Though confidence in Christ is offered individually, it cannot be lived independently. Part of our calling is to draw such confidence from each other, to be, as it were, midwives of one another’s faith.

Our confidence is in Christ. It matters not what our heritage is, what our status is, what our achievements are, what we think of ourselves or what others think of us. Christ is our sure foundation; and Christ our confidence alone.

Thanks be to God.