Sermon given at a Service for Europe Day: Sunday 9 May 2010

9 May 2010 at 18:00 pm

Canon Guy Wilkinson, Secretary for Inter-Religious Affairs to the Archbishop of Canterbury

It is an daunting, humbling and emotional privilege to have been invited by the Dean to give this address to this gathering of friends and colleagues from across the European Union

37 years ago in 1973 I moved from working in development aid programmes in Mauritius, Uganda and Kenya to a desk in the Berleymont Building in Brussels. I was part of that wave of young adults – I was 25 – who were attracted and drawn by the first expansion of the European Community to include Britain, Ireland and Denmark, to what we saw as being a movement for the well being of humanity.  We saw ourselves being able to bring a fresh contribution to the movement which had begun 23 years earlier in the Schuman declaration and which has its concrete expression in the Treaty of Rome’s aspirational phrases:

  • determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.
  • Resolved to eliminate the barriers that divide Europe
  • Anxious to reduce the differences existing between the various regions
  • Intending to confirm the solidarity which binds Europe and the overseas countries and desiring to ensure their prosperity
  • And, resolved to preserve and strengthen peace and liberty.

These were key elements to the vision that drew us to work in that glass fronted four armed building, later discovered to be full of asbestos as well as idealism.

My very first tasks were in the realm of statistics.  Then it was the technicalities of regulations for the labelling of wine or grants in aid for silk worm breeders and hop growers.  Hardly the stuff of the vision – but no matter, these were elements, building blocks, that we needed if the vision was to become real.

We held together the early reality and the heavenly vision. This was our daily bread and our sacrament.

And we were fortified by finding friends with common understandings across the boundaries of nationality, language, politics and religion.  It was here that I first entered the world of ecumenical endeavour preaching my first sermon as a lay Anglican – and in French – in the Roman Catholic Basilique du Sacrecoeur in Brussels as part of the Anglican Roman Catholic Dialogue Group.

We were delighted by our six year old son returning home from school to say that he had made a new Danish friend who spoke no English and he no Danish, so they engaged in French.

Idealism?  Romanticism?  Unreality?  Yes, perhaps, but also a way of seeing which tried to hold together what is with what could be.  It is that tension, that creative tension between the experienced now and the hoped for then which produces desire, hope and motivation.  The wider the gap between the two, the stronger the desire and the motivation for change and thegreater the willingness to work at the graft and grind of daily reality.

Both are essential:
Without a vision the people perish says the Book of Proverbs.  Just so: if all is reduced to the level of survival, or the will to power, or to might is right, then we perish in the unrestrained exercise of our human animal appetites. But without a grip on the day to day realities of human struggle with the complexity and desperations of life, then vision becomes escapism, fantasy and pie in the sky when we die.

Hold the two together and more can be achieved than could ever be imagined.  Two moments in the Europe of my lifetime are powerful illustrations of this:

The first is what we celebrate here today  - that declaration in May 1950, sixty years ago and just five years after the first VE day which we celebrated for the 65th time yesterday. Whether we were there in 1950 or not, anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge and imagination must see the extraordinariness of the moment. After only five years from the most recent of the seven centuries of warfare between the tribes of Europe and latterly engulfing the whole world in the first and second world wars, now a prospect of a permanent end to the cycle. An ending not just in yet another pipe dream peace treaty to end all wars, but a harnessing of the materials of war – coal and steel – and the combining of economic policies in co-operative rather than competitive hands. It was the strength of the motivation produced by the tension between what had been: world war, and what could be: an ever closer union, which drew me 23 years later to commit to the enterprise

The second illustration of the power of the desire produced from the creative tension between the ‘what is’ and ‘what can be’, is more recent and in the generation of my children.  It was the ending of the division of Europe – and indeed of the world – in 1989.  We, my family and I, went to Poland and East Germany and to the wall in Berlin to experience and contribute physically to that moment – I have the concrete here. Who had expected it?  That sense of extended possibility, of a new heaven and a new earth in which the ‘what is’ could now be replaced by the ‘what can be’.

In these days of managerial ordinariness, of risk averse culture and of a dullard reductionism, we do well to remind ourselves of the extraordinariness of those moments   - and of others such as the Mandela release from Robben Island and the ending of apartheid, and the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland. This is not to indulge in romantic reverie, but to ask ourselves

What now is unthinkable, impossible, even if so desirable? What things of the European human condition are now equivalent to seven centuries of warfare and five decades of cold war? What is the present day equivalent of the five years from May 1945 to May 1950?

Is it the environment – a new green earth to match a new heaven? Is it the harmonious welcome of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants – the dispossessed? Is it the removal of the gross inequalities of wealth, education and experience which increasingly again distort the face of Europe?

What vision does it need and what commitment to the daily realities does it take to produce sustained desire and motivation?  Something for each individual in each generation to ponder.  And something for the EU to seek to recapture if it is to re-ignite imagination and desire.

The two readings from Scripture – from the Revelation of St John the Divine and from the Gospel of St John, provide the rooting for this way of seeing things.

The vision of a renewed heaven and earth is not ‘other worldly’.  It is to be understood materially and in continuity with what is: “I saw the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” and  “behold, the home of God is with his people – he will dwell with them”.  It is a vision of what can be and at the heart of it, its core motivation, the essence of heavenly earth or the earthly heaven, is the river which flows through it and the leaves of the trees that are watered by it which are for the healing of the nations.

It is in other words, the well being of human beings which must be at the heart of the vision which motivates and energises.  It is not any vision which is to be espoused – we have seen the visions of Hitlers, Stalins and Pol Pots, the vision of Al Qaeda. The heavenly vision is rooted in the well being of all people, not just Aryans or the ideologically or religiously pure.

Robert Schuman was a man of deep Christian faith and a scholar of the bible.  He attended mass daily and was influenced by Catholic teaching on social responsibility.  It is written of him that: “his faith determined all his commitment and illuminated his political action”.  He himself wrote: “Democracy owes its existence to Christianity.  It was born the day man was called to realise in his daily commitment the dignity of the human person in his individual freedom, in the respect of the rights of everyone and in the practice of brotherly love towards all”.

Perhaps in two phrases of the declaration that bears his name we can see clear reference both to the divine desire for the healing of the nations and to his convictions about the well being of human beings as driven by divine love. In the declaration he writes:

“the coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age old opposition of France and Germany”
and
“This production will be offered to the world without distinction or exception with the aim of contributing to raising living standards and to promoting peaceful achievements”.

Here is the healing of the nations and the well being of the people that is his driving motivation, the vision of what can be.  He uses language that is accessible to all, religious and otherwise, but there is no mistaking his Christian conviction and motivation.  He could equally well have said that he was motivated by a desire for the glory of God to be seen in the world.

If the new heaven and the new earth is the scriptural basis for staying with the world as it really is, then Jesus’ words: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world”…and… “as you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world”, are at the heart of Schuman’s incarnational understanding and ours. The declaration is shot through with a clear awareness of political and economic realities: “the application of a production and investment plan”… “international cartels and restrictive practices”, “the modernisation of production”.  Above all the declaration opens with the understanding that “Europe will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity”.  Without that rootedness in the actual and the daily reality then talk of vision and the healing of the nations is meaningless. 

At the heart of our present reality in every aspect of our lives, is the vastly increased and complex diversity of our worlds.  Whether it be today’s 27 nations of the EU rather than the 6 of 1952; whether it is our religious, ethnic and cultural diversity; or simply the fact of living alongside neighbours of great difference, the task on the ground is to do with discovering and rediscovering the relationship between unity and diversity.  This is the soil in which the trees which provide the leaves for the healing of the nations must be grown.

I pray that again in my lifetime I shall see another – perhaps many – of those impossible moments when the force of the gap between what is and what could be once again catches the imagination of a generation such that God is glorified in human well being.


 

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