Pentecost Message 2001

The Most Reverend and Right Honourable George Carey
103rd Archbishop of Canterbury

Birthdays should be happy events when we celebrate the gift and continuity of life - and that's certainly the case today. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church and we commemorate in our celebration God's gift of life through Jesus Christ. In the gospel Jesus spoke of the Comforter who would come to his followers on his departure from them. In the Acts passage we have the astonishing narrative of a new community created by that same Comforter, the Holy Spirit, a community which is sent out to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom.

If there is one word which for me sums up the message of Pentecost it is the word 'boundaries.'

Boundaries are on the whole good things. We all need lines of demarcation to tell us what belongs to us and to them; to my family and theirs; to me and to her. The merits of boundaries are famously celebrated by a character in a poem by the American writer Robert Frost, who remarks: 'good fences make good neighbours.' And there is plenty to commend that view. We need such boundaries, not only to feel secure but also for others to recognise proper limits.

However, in the same poem Frost also remarks: 'Something there is that doesn't love a wall'. There is a less attractive side to boundaries, and in two particular ways Pentecost enlarges our thinking about them.

First of all we are challenged to think differently about the human family.  The Acts of the Apostles speaks of a new community created across the boundaries of language, nationality, tribe and gender. Christians have long seen this as the reversal of that strange story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis, a story which tells of social and moral disintegration. Pentecost, in contrast, is the beginning of a social miracle as the old divisions are challenged and swept aside. The reason for this is the dramatic impact of Jesus Christ on the thinking and attitudes of the first Christians. It is as if Peter is saying to his audience: 'For generations you have longed and prayed for the day when God would break into history - now, in Jesus, that Day has come.' Former boundaries were being challenged through the impact of that man.

It is clear from our reading of the New Testament that this unnerving realisation took some time to be fulfilled. Many boundaries remained firmly in place for a good while: the boundary between Jew and Gentile; the boundary between male and female; the boundary between slave and free - to mention but a few.

This came alive for me when I visited Nigeria a few months ago. Again and again we found ourselves following in the footsteps of a remarkable Nigerian, Samuel Ajayi Crowther. His story is the stuff of an exciting novel. He was a boy of 10 when was taken into slavery and sold to the Portuguese and put on a boat for the United States. The boat was intercepted by the Royal Navy and the slaves were taken to Sierra Leone. There Ajayi was rescued by the Church Missionary Society and taught to read and write. He was brought to this country and his education continued. He was ordained in 1843 and returned to Nigeria to work as a missionary among his own people. And then came the breathtaking event when in this very Cathedral in 1864 Samuel Crowther was consecrated as the first black African bishop in the Anglican Church. We are told that the Cathedral was packed to the door, and a boundary was surely crossed that amazing day. Sadly, one of the most effective missionaries in Nigeria, a white missionary who had been a great influence on Crowther did not truly believe that a black man could be an effective bishop and pastor and to his dying day opposed this distinguished and godly man. Crowther's great legacy is the present church of Nigeria, the largest in the Anglican Communion. His is the story of Pentecost in action - that in Christ all artificial boundaries are destroyed.

The second boundary which the Holy Spirit helps us to cross is that between an inward- and an outward-looking spirituality. It is all too easy for faith to become a possession which concerns only me and my inner life. As the chorus goes: 'You ask me how I know he lives - he lives within my heart.'  Yes, that is true. But when faith stops there it can produce an inward-looking, self-focused spirituality. The Book of Acts shows how the coming of the Holy Spirit created a community which demonstrated its faith in compassion and care, in practical service and help, in sacrifice and commitment to others.

An illustration springs immediately to mind in the form of a young Ugandan priest we met in Uganda a few years ago and again just recently. Possibly the name Gideon Byamugisha is not known to you. In 1991 his wife died after a short illness. Her death stunned everyone and Gideon was encouraged to get his blood checked. It was found to be HIV positive. He was devastated. After much reflection and prayer he decided to spend what time he had left to devote to HIV/AIDS work in the Church of Uganda. Three years later, he became the first practising priest in Africa to state publicly that he was living with HIV. In 1995 he married Pamela, recently widowed and also HIV positive, and they are bringing up both his children and hers. They have dedicated their lives to demonstrating how Christian couples living with that terrible virus can maintain family and married life in a way that is both realistic and faithful to Christian values. They have set up a Centre for those suffering from the disease - a Centre which seeks to spread good practise, to educate children and to fight despair. His Centre is one of the great beacons of hope in Africa and Gideon has become a leading figure in the fight against the disease - and all because his spirituality reaches out in compassion and loving action.

So Crowther and Gideon are examples - past and present - of the meaning of Pentecost. In their stories we see living proof of how, in such people, the Holy Spirit continues the mission of Christ, breaking down barriers which have no place in the Kingdom of God.

Now, I do not expect there is anyone here who is unaware of the fact that just four days separate Pentecost from the General Election! Elections are important moments in a nation's life - a time to take stock and consider the abiding values and goals which must underpin the health of our democracy and our society. As well as giving politicians the opportunity to explain what motivates them personally, we can also explore the policies and platforms of the parties they represent.

Our electoral choices are rightly entirely individual and made in private. However, the message of Pentecost can help Christians form a framework in which to reflect on the broad issues which confront the nation. For example, concerning asylum-seekers and refugees; concerning the poor in our society and the absolute poor of the world who make up 50% of the human family; concerning the degradation of our planet and the precious gift of God's creation. Pentecost gives us a vision that is just and generous, compassionate and life-affirming. So we see that Pentecost is far more than a private birthday celebration for Christians. It may truly be said that St Peter's Pentecost sermon is the Living Christ's Manifesto for a new community. As such it sends us out to cross those man-made boundaries which divide and demean the human family. It empowered Samuel Crowther's great work in Nigeria and Gideon Byamugisha's pioneering work in Uganda.

And it is because Christ has returned to the Father, and has given us His Spirit, that we also are commissioned to cross boundaries.


Anglican Communion