Bishop Stephen address for Ash Wednesday at Salisbury Cathedral

Bishop Stephen's Ash Wednesday Cathedral Service 2023

Readings: Joel 2.1-2, 12-17 

John 8.1-11 

Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. 

Having worked in cathedrals for the last twenty-one years I thought I knew a thing or two about dressing up. Deans and Canons rarely miss a day with a long outfit or two to process around in. There is no such thing as a mufti day. But I was, I realise now, merely moving with the crowd. 

Dressing up as a bishop beats most other theatrical performances. What colour mitre; hat on or hat off; surrender stick or retake it; have you forgot your pectoral cross yet again, the list goes on and on and wherever you go the rules are slightly different and no one really knows what they are anyway. 

Self-importance shown through how our dressing up clothes are worn is a sin, and those in church leadership need to be wary of ourselves. ‘Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.’ 

Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Tearing your clothing was and is for Jews a sign of sorrow, of the need for repentance, or confession of sins. An outward and visible sign of an inward state of being, just as we wear the cross of Christ on our foreheads in ash for a moment, we show outwardly what we feel like, or should feel more like. ‘Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful.’ 

We tend to concentrate on these outward signs of piety or reaction to the world around us. Letting others see how holy or correct we are, makes us feel better about ourselves. 

But in this visual age, it really is not enough. Rend your hearts, not your garments. A garment is an addition, a covering, a costume, a front. Our hearts are our life force, our place of emotion, our home of healing, and today, we are being called to rend them. Lip service uses outward signs, however liturgical. Tearing your heart open is a risky business and exposes you to ultimate vulnerability. In our darkest moments, we still speak of heart-wrenching events or words, of being heart broken, of dying even of a broken heart. 


For Christians, the heart is the place of response to God, not just the head. We do not follow Jesus because it is the logical thing to do, although for me, Jesus Christ has always made more sense than anything else. Our hearts are the source of passion, of love, of grace, and of forgiveness. It is the cradle of faith. So, to tear your heart and not your clothing is a tough call. 

In a divided world, with war not far from here, in a world that is in climate crisis everywhere, and in a country where people will be cold and hungry tonight, it is only a change of heart that will change these things. It is only when we disagree deeply with someone, or choose to reject them as different, or judge them – and then we have a change of heart, that we can ourselves return to the Lord. It is costly, it is painful, but it is our calling this Ash Wednesday. If, when you receive the sign of the cross in ash on your head, this does not change your heart, it is still sinful. ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’. 

There is much noise this week about the future of the Anglican Communion. Statements here and there, including those from our brothers and sisters in the Sudan; well some of them. These things are a distraction; it is garment rending. To rend a heart is to feel the pain, not to seek control, to break a heart is to know the cost of love; to die, is to live the promise of Easter. Cold hearts do not rend. ‘Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing’. 

The same is true of our political leaders and our community leaders. Big hearts are better than big egos. 

So this Lent, each and every day, rend your heart and feel the love of God fill your heart more and more. Do not fall into sin, judging the woman caught in adultery or the gay couple wanting to live faithfully or the person with different skin colour. ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone’. 

No, rend your heart, not the garment that protects you. ‘Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children’. Let no one ever say about you because our hearts are cold ‘Where is their God?’ 


+Stephen Bishop of Salisbury 

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