Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on 15th September 2010
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8
“Just as I am, without one plea” is one of the most personal statements of faith in our hymnbook. It was an expression of a deep personal faith in Jesus and it challenges those of us who sing it to think about our own faith—what is it that we believe?
The hymn was written by Charlotte Elliott whose grandfather, Henry Venn had worked closely with John and Charles Wesley and who had been leader of a small evangelical group in the Church of England called the Clapham Sect. Her grandfather’s associates had included the social reformer William Wilberforce, and group played a major part in the campaign for the abolition of slavery.
Charlotte Elliott had been born in 1789, but never enjoyed good health and in 1821, at the age of 32, she suffered a serious illness that left her weak for the rest of her life. Living with her clergyman brother in Brighton, she often felt useless; that her family were engaged in all sorts of projects while she sat at home, unable to make any contribution.
Housebound, she began writing. Much of her poetry was devotional; intended for use as hymns for people like herself. Charlotte Elliott was concerned with writing about personal faith, rather than writing for congregations. Charlotte Elliott’s work was to appear in various Christian books, but she was often beset by these feelings that there was nothing she had to offer.
It was during one of these bouts of darkness in 1835 that Charlotte Elliott wrote “Just as I am”. The family were engaged in great activity in support of a fundraising bazaar for the building of a school for the daughters of poor clergy. Housebound and unhappy at feeling that she could do nothing tangible to support the fundraiser, Charlotte Elliott set about the writing of ‘Just as I am’.
‘Just as I am’ is a hymn about grace. It is a hymn that recognizes that, as Saint Paul writes, it is by grace that we have been saved; it is not by anything we have or we can do, nor is it by anything that we are.
Charlotte Elliott’s hymn was tremendously successful; it raised more money for the charity than any bazaar might have done and touched many, many thousands of lives. It is said that when Charlotte Elliott died in 1871, amongst her papers were over a thousand letters from people who had written to her to thank her for the hymn and to say how much the words had meant to them.
‘Just as I am, without one plea’ is a hymn that tells the truth about our standing before God. It is a hymn that recognizes that we are a wretched lot and that whatever we have, we owe to God. Charlotte Elliott, growing up with the influence of the Clapham Sect, would have grown up with a very strong sense of depending on grace.
It is when we try to apply her words to the church that we realize how far the church has moved from dependence on God’s grace and on God’s grace alone. ‘Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind’ – can we imagine bishops admitting that they are poor, wretched and blind in their ways? Probably not, yet this is what Scripture says we are like.
It’s not just about a theological point. Charlotte Elliott’s words ask us questions about the church and about its future. A church which took the words of ‘Just as I am’ to heart would be very different from the church we know; it would be a church that realized that we were meant to be about telling the story of Jesus. It would be a church that would be attractive to the sort of person I was.
The church to which Charlotte Elliott belonged was already losing touch with the growing working class population in England; a century and a half later and it has completely lost contact. In Ireland, we have gone in the same direction, yet if we took Charlotte Elliott’s words to heart – ‘Just as I am, without one plea’ – we might be a church for ordinary people; for people who have no church background; who don’t know when to stand up or sit down; who don’t have the right words, or the right clothes. The church might be a church for people like me.
The word ‘bloke’ was very popular when I was growing up in England. Being a bloke when I was young tended to mean particular things – a bloke was a person from a particular background who lived a particular lifestyle. A bloke was a blue collar worker who went off to his work every morning with his box of sandwiches. He lived in a council house with his wife and three kids. He had garden or allotment where he grew vegetables. He was a member of a trade union and always voted Labour. He did the football pools every week and read the ‘Daily Mirror’. He went to football on Saturday afternoons and went fishing on Sunday. The family went to a caravan in south Devon on their holidays. He was a proud man, a good man, a decent man; if you met him down the pub he would buy you a pint of bitter. He would be happy to talk but, being English, two subjects were barred – religion and politics.
The man I have described is the sort of person I knew when I was young; being a bloke was about having these sorts of characteristics. My Dad was a man in ‘bloke’ mode. We lived in a council house. He went off to work in blue overalls at seven o’clock every morning. He grew Home Guard potatoes in the back garden. He was a member of the Electricians’ Trade Union, voted Labour, went fishing, played darts, and so on.
One thing blokes didn’t do was to go to church. Church in England was not ‘Just as I am, without one plea’, it wasn’t about grace, it meant the C of E, where there would be a gathering of posh people who spoke with posh accents and a vicar who dressed up in a funny way, or it meant one of the non-conformist chapels where they talked about the end of the world and didn’t drink. Blokes and church didn’t go together. Blokes went to church for weddings or funerals, but not otherwise; we weren’t religious and the church was about being religious.
Coming from that background, I sometimes suddenly think on Sundays, ‘Why am I not fishing or digging the garden or doing all the other things that ordinary people at home in England do on Sundays?
I became a Christian in 1980, not a very good one, I’m still not a very good one, but enough to cause consternation in the family. Going to church when there was no-one dead and no sign of anyone being pregnant was an odd thing to do. The following year I met Katharine whose father was a clergyman in the North. One Sunday afternoon, just before Christmas in 1981, he died in his armchair. I travelled to the North through snow and ice to attend his funeral. The following week I was back at home and it was Christmas Eve. I went along to the midnight Mass in our village church (it was very high church). Sitting in a pew near the back I looked up at the vicar standing behind the altar and a voice said to me, ‘This is what I want you to do’. (Maybe I shouldn’t have had that last pint before leaving the pub). That was the start of the process that led to me being here.
Since then I have had this problem with the church, that it simply doesn’t appeal to the ordinary punters whom we all know.
The church needs to take to heart Charlotte Elliott’s words. In Ireland the church has become so much about culture and ethos and history and tradition that Jesus has disappeared and as ordinary people have become disillusioned with all these things, so the church has been left behind and they have been left with nothing.
‘Just as I am, without one plea’, writes Charlotte Elliott; “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”, writes Saint Paul. May we recover that sense of grace, that we may share it with all whom we meet.