From a Homily for the Sisters of the Love of God, Fairacres, Oxford
Wednesday, 6th of May, 2015, 9 a.m.
Eve of the United Kingdom's General Election
THE PERILS OF PRUNING
Gospel: John 15:1-8
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-dresser. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."
+ May I speak in the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost
There's a lot of nice, positive, stuff in this passage, but what it made me think of was excommunication. It's not something, in nearly twenty years of ministry, that I've ever done to someone. There's a line in the film "Priest" - controversial at the time, but I doubt it would be now - on the subject, in which an older parson says "I always figured they had more right to receive it, than I had to give it", and I pretty much go along with that. But, although I've never excommunicated anyone, I've been there when someone very nearly excommunicated himself - by accident.
It happened in the parish of S. Giles-in-the-Fields, which is a lovely place, but it was peopled by fundamentalists. Not the kind you see on the news from America - or Iraq - they were fundamentalists for the Book of Common Prayer. It is a rare condition, and meant that almost everyone in the congregation was there because they were cross with some other church for NOT using the BCP. Rather a challenge, pastorally. There was one young man - and he was younger than me, back then, so he really might have been young, not just by comparison with everyone else - whose name I think was David, who delighted in writing long, detailed, letters to the clergy about our failings, and especially our failure to conduct the liturgy properly. What really got his goat was the words for the administration of communion. I'm sure you've heard them - rather wordy, almost a paragraph really, which sometimes get muttered over two or more communicants to save time. Well, we didn't do that. Every communicant got the same words, but not the full words, for the practical reason that my senior colleague the rector was also an archdeacon, so in the nature of things, he had to gallivant about to all sorts and conditions of churches in the course of a couple of months, and he simply couldn't remember the full words. So we abbreviated them. Much to David's fury.
One morning, David came to the altar rail carrying a book. I'm sure the sign is familiar to every church-goer - you carry a book, or the order of service, if you wish to receive a blessing, rather than communion. I thought to myself "well, it's a rum deal if he's not prepared to receive communion from me, but still wants my blessing, but hey-ho" and promptly did so, whereupon he said in a panicked voice "you can't excommunicate me without telling the bishop!" "I thought you didn't want communion - why are you carrying that book?" "To say the proper words". "So, you do want communion?" "Yes". And it was so. But, poor thing, by this time his hands were shaking so much he'd lost his place in the book, and he couldn't remember the pesky words - which was the whole point of our not using them all in the first place! By misadventure and confusion, he had almost excommunicated himself, pruned himself out of the vine, and risked being left for burning.
And I got to thinking, when I saw this reading, about what it means to be in the vine, to be pruned for good, and to be pruned out for ever. Much is going on in the world at the moment. In this country tomorrow, we get to cast our votes for the first time in five years on the fate of the nation, the Union, the European Union, even the earth itself. Yes indeed, there are weighty things for us all to think about. But what's bothering me is my aspidistra. The thing is that it has outgrown its pot and it's time to re-pot and divide it. But this isn't such an easy thing because the aspidistra is of immense sentimental value to me - it was a most unexpected birthday present when I was 45. I'd wanted one ever since I read George Orwell's book years ago, and all the more since hearing Gracie Fields singing her song. This is a most cherished pot-plant. But, if it divides into three, as I think it might, which bit will remain the original? Which will be the gift? And if one of those bits ends up with a friend in Liverpool - which is a very long way away, so far that I've never been there - will the gift remain somehow symbolically, sacramentally, present, in Liverpool, as well as in Barton? Will it continue to be the whole, true gift, but in more than one place, or will a part be pruned away, and consigned to the fire?
Well, we have more important things to think about than aspidistras, and this is a celebration of Holy Communion, so we must find some Good News. I think it lies in those words at the beginning of the Gospel - "My father is the vine-dresser". It's God who does the pruning. And it might be no bad thing should certain persons in the wider church bear in mind that it's none of their business to prune the vine - lest they find themselves the chopped off bit, and fit only for the fire. If the vine is in God's hands that is Good News for us all. Amen.