Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 27th July 2014

27 July 2014 at 11:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

In a week's time we shall be in the final stages of preparation for the national commemoration here in the Abbey of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. At 11 pm London time, Midnight in Berlin, on the night of 4th August 1914, the British ultimatum expired and the Government of the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.

In a Solemn Vigil of Commemoration that will be televised live by the BBC from 10.00 pm on 4th August this year, we shall aim to capture the particular moment, exploring how it was and how it felt as Britain went to war with Germany. We are familiar with the idea that the troops joining the British Army supposed that it would all be over by Christmas. Indeed it is widely thought that they joined with a light heart, a confidence not only that they were doing the right and necessary thing but that success was more or less guaranteed. The true picture is inevitably much more diverse and complicated.

In truth, the politicians agonised as they and the diplomats failed to halt the apparently inexorable slide to war. And it was only when war had been joined that the general public began to sign up. Even so, no one could have known how the war would progress. From the beginning of the war, the destruction was terrible. By the end of the war on 11th November 1918, life, attitudes, beliefs across the continent of Europe and beyond had changed dramatically.

Both Germany and Great Britain regarded themselves as Christian countries. On both sides, religious leaders proclaimed confidently that it was a duty to wage war against the enemy; indeed that the war was just and that God was on our side. Politicians and church leaders in the past hundred years have often debated whether a particular war or campaign was legally and morally justified. But since the end of the First World War it seems unlikely that anyone could simply claim that God was on our side and would deliver the victory.

And the question whether and to what extent the United Kingdom—or, come to that, any other nation—can be regarded as a Christian country is strongly debated. Christian belief has not been, if it ever really was, a driving or decisive force here for at least the past two hundred years. And this country could never have been described accurately as a theocracy. Despite the sanctity and piety of our much loved eleventh-century Saint Edward, king and confessor, whose tomb and shrine is behind the high altar here, much of the story of the later Middle Ages is of division and rivalry between Church and State, a story that intensified in the time of King Henry VIII. What is true is that Christian belief and the Christian ethical code have been powerful shaping forces that have helped form our national way of life.

But our biblical readings this morning warn us away from a belief that religion can or should be imposed by force. The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, God's rule, God's reign, is a central feature of our Lord's teaching, but is not a matter to be enforced. There are after all many rich parables, even in today's Gospel reading, that seem to point in different directions. Is the kingdom understood to be present or in the future, now or not yet? The parable of the mustard seed growing into a great tree that can offer space to all the many and diverse birds of the air (presumably that must mean the lark and the hawk, living peaceably together) suggests that the kingdom is here and now, as does the parable of the yeast. By contrast the parable of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price seem to suggest that the kingdom is absolutely precious and wonderful but must be awaited. The parable of the net of fish suggests, as elsewhere does the parable recorded in St Matthew's Gospel of the wheat and the tares, that there will be a sifting at the end of time. But that means not now, means no imposing of absolute religious rule that must be followed on pain of death.

When asked by Pontius Pilate whether he was a king, Jesus replied, 'My kingdom is not of this world.' And when he was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus replied, 'The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, "Look, here it is!" or "There it is!" For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.'

As we look back at the development over many centuries in the West of the freedoms we take for granted and at the end of a time when the law imposed penalties on heretics and demanded adherence to particular religious practices, we recognise that there is much of which to repent in our past. As we give thanks for freedom of religion and freedom of speech, even while we regret many of the opinions and attitudes that are freely followed and expressed, we see that there can be no return to an imposed Christendom.

This recognition intensifies our prayer for the people of the Middle East and parts of North and West Africa where a reborn militant Islamism seeks to impose an intensity of religious practice and adherence to one faith that allows no freedom of religion or of conscience or of speech. Our prayer in particular is for the Christians deprived of home and hearth, of their ancient communities and their settled way of life. The resurgence of active and destructive conflict between Israel and Palestine is another urgent cause for prayer. It seems deeply sad and strangely ironic that as we approach the centenary of conflagration in Europe with all that it implied for the rest of the world, so now we face a terrible conflagration in the Middle East with potential implications for Europe, America and the entire world. Pray earnestly that the West does not respond to the threat as we did a hundred years ago.

Our leaders need the Wisdom of Solomon and we ourselves need the assurance of the letter to the Romans from which we heard as our second lesson. St Paul was aware of the bloody persecution that threatened the emergent Christian community. He himself before his conversion had been responsible for severe assaults on the early Christians. But his comfort is to assure them that whatever they suffer, be it the loss of life itself, they can never be separated from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Most of us, perhaps all of us here, may pray with some confidence that the fate befalling Christians in Iraq and Syria, in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa, is unlikely to befall us. But however cushioned our lives feel or indeed are, we live with uncertainty. We cannot see the future. There may be many perils awaiting us. Whatever befall us, whether hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword, it will not, it cannot, separate us from the love of Christ, love that conquers everything.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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