Today, Shrove Tuesday, is the day before Ash Wednesday which is the beginning of Lent. Lent is the period of about six weeks for preparation for the great celebration of Easter.
Shrove Tuesday has two facets to its celebration. First of all, it was the day, in times past when fasting during Lent was strictly observed, that the household supply of eggs and milk and butter and meat were consumed before the fast of Lent began. Pancakes were a popular way of using up those eggs and flour and milk. Shrove Tuesday came to have a party atmosphere. Mardi gras is a French expression meaning Fat Tuesday and culminates on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday as a party. It’s still quite common for this day to be called pancake day and for there to be pancake eating events. Not many people fast during Lent anymore. It’s as though we have kept the party but forgotten the fast.
The second facet of Shrove Tuesday if from the word Shrove. Shrove comes from the old middle English word shriven which means to make one’s confession. Shriven became Shrove and the name stuck. The idea was that people went to confession on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday so as to be ready for the beginning of Lent. Even though there are two understandings of Shrove Tuesday both are about getting ready for something very important – Lent and the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter.
In many ways its entirely appropriate that we are here tonight getting ready for the start of Lent. The Dean will tell you that the change from Ash Wednesday to tonight was because there is a Queen concert at the oval tomorrow night, and it will be bedlam around here then. But I think there is a providence about how things have worked out.
Part of what we are doing tonight is marking the installation of a plaque in the narthex of the cathedral. On that plaque are the words of an apology approved by the synod of the Diocese of Adelaide in 2004. The apology was to those who had been harmed by child sexual abuse perpetrated by people holding positions of power and trust in the church. The apology was also for the shameful way the church actively worked against and discouraged those who came to the church and reported abuse.
Those words will be read again in a few minutes. In a very real way, the 2004 apology was a confession. It was a confession of wrong that had been done. The synod being shriven. In 2004 the apology was very important to those who had been abused and their families, as well as for those who had been pushing for the Diocese to face the reality of the abuse. But these things get forgotten. And synod apologies, even apologies like this, tend not to be very public for very long.
The idea to install the plaque with the words of the 2004 apology as a permanent reminder of that apology and the appalling abuse that it was a response to, was an idea which came from a small reference group of people who either have been sexually abused in an Anglican church context or supporters of those who have been abused. It was their idea to have something permanent so what happened in terms of the abuse and the church’s response to it would never be forgotten. The abuse was appalling and so was the church’s early response. There is no escaping that. Hence the plaque. It is very appropriate that the plaque is dedicated today on Shrove Tuesday.
The second Bible reading tonight from the letter to James reminds us to be doers of the word and not just hearers of it. A slight twist on that is that it’s important we are doers and not just speakers. The words of an apology are very important but even more so is the need for actions to back those words up.
Those who have been abused and survived as well as their families are asking that the child sexual abuse that happened in the context of the Anglican church in this Diocese never be forgotten. Never moved on from in a way that will lead to the ongoing pain of abuse victims and their families being under-rated or minimised. Never moved on from in a way that will lead us to become lax in our vigilance for the safety of children and vulnerable people. Never moved on from in a way that the ongoing response of the church to those who have been abused or their families is off the agenda.
The words of the apology commit the church to action – to listen to survivors of abuse, to respond with compassion to those who have been harmed and to deal appropriately, transparently and fairly with those accused of abuse and negligence. And I would add – to do all we can to keep children and vulnerable people safe. The presence of the plaque right at the doorway to this significant church will be an ongoing reminder that we must never think that all that can be done is being done. It is an apology but also a commitment to ongoing action.
In a few minutes we are going to use two symbols. The second of those is ashes. There will be an invitation to come forward and receive the sign of the cross in ash on our forehead – that’s the Ash Wednesday part of tonight. The ashes are a symbol and reminder of our humanity. From dust we come and to dust we will return. The cross is a symbol both of Jesus’ life given for us on the cross and the firm assurance we have of resurrection because of Jesus resurrection. At the beginning of the time of preparation for Easter, both those things are important.
The first symbol we will use is a candle. In a few minutes Michael Sandona, one of the members of the reference group will lead us down the aisle to the place where the plaque is, and Michael will be carrying a candle.
The candle is to remind us that no matter what dark place we might be in in our life there is the light of hope. There is hope because God is with us, and nothing can separate us from the love and presence of God.
This is not a forgetting the reality of the darkness kind of hope, like a numbing drug that wears off. This is a transforming the darkness kind of hope. A taking up and embracing kind of hope.
I said at the start of this talk that both ways of seeing Shrove Tuesday, as an opportunity for celebration or an opportunity for confession, both ways mean we are preparing for something important. At the end of Lent, the very important event is Easter. That celebration of the defeat of death and evil by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
On the cross, Jesus experienced rejection, humiliation and shame. On the cross, Jesus experienced the worst death imaginable and took upon himself the sin of the world and died for us all. In the resurrection, Jesus came through death, defeated the powers of death and so brought life to all creation.
Easter doesn’t minimise the suffering and hardship of life. The injustice, the unfairness, the powerlessness. That sadly still exists, and we live in the midst of it and suffer from it. Easter embraces all that darkness and offers light and hope and life.
I really want to thank the reference group for their suggestion to install the plaque with the 2004 apology for all to see. To remind us of the failure of the past which has a very real impact in the present and will have into the future. To remind us of the importance to care for the vulnerable and powerless first. All the good words in the world are no good without action. We commit ourselves again to that action, to do all we can to protect children and vulnerable people, to respond well to those who have suffered in the context of the Anglican church in Adelaide, and to pray for those who still suffer because of child sexual abuse. Somehow, may the light of the risen Christ, bring light and hope to this darkness.