Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 5th May 2013
5 May 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
As the liturgical season of Easter draws to a close, the month of May brings with it a series of hairpin turns, changing the direction of travel, moving us onwards and upwards from the celebration of the Resurrection.
This week we join the Christian church in the West in celebrating Ascension Day, followed ten days later by the Festival of Pentecost and then by Trinity Sunday. We will have travelled from the experience of the resurrected life, to the wonder and bewilderment of Ascension, through the empowering of the Spirit at Pentecost, and finally the celebration of the self-revelation of God as Trinity in a festival ascribed to John Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the thirteenth century.
Given the direction of travel, today’s reading from St Paul’s letter to the Colossians seems particularly appropriate:
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
Surely Christians should contemplate the higher things of life rather than be caught up in the day-to-day snares which drag us down?
When he talked about ‘earthly things’, St Paul was most certainly thinking about moral issues, behaviour that would not bring glory to God and indeed would bring shame on the household of Christ.
But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.
However, does this really mean that Christians should be ‘so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use’? Surely not. Surely there is a place for Christians to engage their hearts and minds and souls to tackle some of the most difficult issues facing us. Because to do otherwise would be firstly to give credence to the lie that the spiritual and material realms are entirely separate; and secondly, it would absolve Christians from taking any responsibility for their part in ordering society.
So, in this series of sermons in May, I am going to be swimming against the current: while on the one hand our liturgical pattern is pushing us heavenwards and Spirit-wards, I want to take us earthwards and – yes – God-wards as we seek that new kingdom where, as St Paul puts it,
there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
And each week I will be looking in turn at some of the specific political and moral challenges which face us today. I will be doing so as Rector of St Margaret’s, the Parish Church of the Palace of Westminster, reflecting on the new legislative programme which will be announced this coming Wednesday at the State Opening of Parliament.
Some six weeks ago an extraordinary letter appeared in The Sunday Telegraph, one of the UK’s national newspapers. In it, forty-three bishops of the Church of England – including the Archbishops of York and Canterbury – spoke out against a key piece of legislation relating to the reform of welfare benefits.
In common with many developed nations, the United Kingdom has suffered deeply as a result of the financial crisis of 2008. Billions of £s of public money were poured into shoring up a banking system which had vastly overstretched itself to the point of collapse. The summer of 2007 was marked out by the run on the Northern Rock bank, which far from being an isolated incident, heralded an implosion of bloated financial institutions.
The subsequent market panic and then stagnation transferred a crisis in a particular sector of the economy into a wider malaise, in which the size of Government, its very reach into the lives of individual citizens, has been called into question. Almost all of the countries represented here today will have experienced their share of pain: soaring unemployment, public sector cuts and an erosion of living standards have become commonplace.
In seeking to ‘balance the books’ as we say here, the UK government has identified areas of public spending which they believe should be trimmed in ways which even a few years ago would have seemed unthinkable. The bishops of the Church of England were writing about one sphere – cuts to welfare benefit payments.
The Government case is simple: in the ten years leading to 2011 working-age benefits increased by fifty per-cent in real terms. The annual bill of £90 billion is roughly what is spent on education, compared with £118 billion on health and £38 billion on defence.
But as well as a question about affordability, there was also a moral question. Significant numbers of those claiming benefits received more than the average salary of a working household, effectively meaning that for some it made better sense financially not to work, than to work. So part of the new legislation was to cap the benefit level, so that it would always pay to be employed.
So why did the bishops complain? The principal point they made was that these cuts had a disproportionate effect on families with a larger than average number of children, especially those living in more expensive urban areas. That’s to say, most of the savings would come from the poorest third of households, who also happen to be those with the largest families, while only three per-cent of the savings would be made by the wealthiest third.
The key point is that while 60,000 adults would be affected by the cuts, some 140,000 children - more than twice the number - would be. These children cannot change their circumstances and are, in effect, being disadvantaged because of their parents’ choices. Deuteronomy has something to say about children not bearing the punishment for their parents.
So what should a Christian response be? Should we wash our hands of these very earthly and mundane issues?
First of all, these are matters which are quite properly the sphere of the church to be concerned with. Much of the research which has looked at the impact of the reforms has come from the Church Urban Fund, established in the 1980s in response to the Faith in the City report, a milestone in the recession of that decade under the Thatcher Government. It’s not surprising that the present Conservative government has found this uncomfortable.
But secondly, there is a moral question which neither the Church of England nor the political opposition has yet been able adequately to articulate. All things being equal, and having made provision for those who will need enduring support, is it right that a household which is in work and pays taxes should find itself less well off than one supported by government benefits? This is a moral question about the nature of human flourishing, and of responsible, independent living – a moral imperative for those who are able to do so.
And thirdly, with the rolling back of state involvement in so many areas of local community life – because governments simply cannot afford to support them any longer – is this not precisely the sphere into which the Church, and other religious groups, should be stepping wholeheartedly? Not least, because in the words of our new Archbishop, we are no longer talking about ‘recession’ but of ‘a long-term depression’.
So in this series in which I will move on to look at International Aid and Immigration, I want to argue that Christians have a moral duty not to absolve themselves of responsibility for these mundane matters. Indeed, there is a case for setting our minds a little less on ‘things that are above’, and attending to ‘things that are on earth’