One summer, a couple of years ago, I was standing on the white cliffs of Dover, in southern England, staring out over the expanse of the English Channel, towards France.
In that same spot, 1400 years ago, a Benedictine monk called Augustine, with 40 other monks, landed their boats. They were on a mission to bring the light of the Gospel to the English people. They were scared to death. They had already tried to turn back once, because the people they had met in France had told them horror stories: those Britons are violent and barbaric. With Brexit, I think the French may well have the same opinion today!
But the man who had sent them on the mission told them no– don’t turn back. And he encouraged them and gave them new courage. That remarkable man, who had the vision and drive to send Augustine to evangelize England, was Gregory. And we remember him today.
As Anglicans, we have I think a special closeness to Gregory. The Venerable Bede affectionately called him “our own apostle.” Gregory was a man of many gifts, but essentially he was a monk, a Benedictine monk, like Augustine, living peacefully in a monastery perched high on the Coelian hill in Rome. But Rome was anything but peaceful. He was experiencing the horrors of war – barbarian invasions, plague, and famine. Although Gregory wanted to live the monastic life, he was one of the most gifted men of his time, and he was almost dragged out of the monastery. And both the secular and religious authorities pleaded with him to help. His energy and abilities and holiness were so great that after a few years, he was elected Pope – the first ever monk to become Pope.
As Pope, his three greatest gifts came to the fore. First, he was a remarkable administrator. He personally organized the defense of Rome against the barbarian attacks, and he fed its people from the papal granaries in Sicily.
Secondly, he was a man of profound prayer and spirituality. Much of the worship life of the churches was in a terrible state, so drawing on his own monastic experience, he re-ordered the church’s liturgy, including the introduction of a beautiful chant, later named after him: “Gregorian chant.” In many ways his genius for worship and liturgy has molded the spirituality of the western Church till the present day.
But thirdly, he was a wonderful pastor. The Gospel reading today includes words which get to the heart of the kind of pastor Gregory was. From Mark’s Gospel, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you: “Whoever wants to be great among you must be a servant.”That was Gregory’s mandate. So, of all the titles which were conferred upon him, the one he chose for himself was “Servus, servorum Dei”: servant of the servants of God. For him to be a leader was to be a servant, like his Lord. And this colored all his pastoral theology. He expressed his theology in beautiful writing. His most famous work is the Regula Pastoralis, or “the Pastoral Office.” It’s a wonderful work, written for new priests and especially new bishops. It’s still very popular, and it’s still probably the best held ever written about the inner life and work of a bishop.
It was written 1400 years ago, but still packs a punch. His harshest words were against bishops who did not preach God’s saving word. Listen to him: “There is a feature, dear brothers, in the life of pastors, which causes me great affliction. We have descended to secular business. We abandon the duty of preaching, and to our disgrace, we are bishops in name, and have the title but not the virtue that befits that dignity. For those committed to our care abandon God and we are silent. They commit sin, and we do not stretch out a hand to correct them.”
Gregory was ferocious about bishops who were guilty of the sin of silence. They allowed grave disorders to go on in their jurisdictions and they were silent. They were silent because they wanted to avoid trouble. They worked to maintain the status quo. They wanted to remain comfortable and secure, and highly thought of.
Over these past months, details of sexual abuse which had taken place over many decades in the Church of England have been brought to light. And it is clear that bishops had kept quiet. Over the past year, the extent of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church has been revealed, and it is clear that bishops have kept quiet. “They have the title, but not the virtue that befits their dignity,” says Gregory. Guilty of the sin of silence. Those powerful, courageous words of Gregory, uttered 1400 years ago, still have the power to convict us today. But not only the bishops, but each one of us who follow Jesus.
Through the centuries Gregory’s words ring out with the same conviction and point to each one of us, and ask us, “Where were you silent when you saw injustice being done? When were you silent when you heard others saying things which you knew were untrue – gossip or cruel words? When were you silent because, well, I just don’t want to get involved? And so you said nothing.”
Today we celebrate a man who was a true servant of God. And man of huge courage, who spoke out the truth without fear or favor. A man who spoke out whenever he saw evil or injustice both within and outside the church. A truly great man, holy and courageous.
Shortly after his death the church unanimously gave him the title of great honor: Gregorius Magnus – Gregory the Great. But for Gregory himself, Gregory, the humble follower of Jesus the Benedictine mon, the only title he ever aspired to was the one modeled on his Lord: “Servus, servorum Dei:” the servant of the servants of God.
Here Jesus is speaking about following him by becoming a servant, being a slave. It would have been very difficult to hear this teaching in his own day, It is even more difficult for us, here in this culture. We know how Jesus’ teaching and also St. Paul’s writing about servanthood and slavery were twisted in the most appalling ways to justify the most cruel, ignominious practice of slavery of African peoples in our own land. And then there is the subsequent, unconscionable residue of discrimination that has carried into this very day. Hearing Jesus talk about becoming a servant, being a slave-for-Jesus, is very difficult to hear, and should be, given our own history.