Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 30th November 2014
30 November 2014 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
'Being British is about driving in a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, then travelling home, grabbing an Indian curry or a Turkish kebab on the way, to sit on Swedish furniture and watch American shows on a Japanese TV. And the most British thing of all? Suspicion of anything foreign.' I quote a letter to a newspaper.
We all live with caricatures of each other. But in this country there is a caricature that has begun to set hard and to be used as a definition. There has been a great deal of talk from the Government and from government agencies in the past few years about British values. I suppose those of us who grew up in this country had some idea—but only a vague idea—of what British values might be supposed to be. They could scarcely be identified in detail but might be summed up in the statement, 'That's not cricket.' I have only once tried explaining cricket to an American. But what 'cricket' means to an English person is a sense of decency and of fair play. That is all rather vague.
But the UK's Government's Prevent strategy, which means a strategy to prevent the rise of terrorism, issued in 2011, defined 'mainstream British values [as]: democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind.'
And earlier this year, the Prime Minister wrote an article for a Sunday newspaper on the 799th anniversary of the first issuing of Magna Carta. He there described British values as 'a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law.'
On 15th June 2015, next year, we shall celebrate the 800th anniversary of that day in 1215 when King John submitted to the power of his barons and signed at Runnymede on the banks of the river Thames the Great Charter that limited the hitherto unfettered power of the monarch. Magna Carta promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown. Paragraph 40, the most lapidary, reads, 'To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.' And judgement would be given by people's peers.
Magna Carta arose out of bitter disputes. King John had major disagreements with his barons but also with the pope. Pope Innocent III had placed England under an interdict from 1206, which meant that there could be no services in church. The king would later submit to the barons—but first to the pope. And in 1214 the pope lifted the interdict on condition that England become a papal vassal, subject entirely to the rule of the pope. So it would remain for more than fifty years. Then, soon after Magna Carta had been signed, the pope set it aside and ordered English magnates and prelates to submit their authority to that of the king.
By the end of the 13th century, during the reign of Edward I, Magna Carta was back in place again. Since then, it has influenced the development of national constitutions throughout the English-speaking world. The Constitution of the United States of America as well as the established practice in Commonwealth countries was heavily influenced by Magna Carta. So we might say that the values enshrined in Magna Carta at the heart of the British values were exported with British power.
But, can we say where those values came from? Was it just the political situation and expediency, a version of utilitarianism, or something deeper? It may seem dangerous to continue quoting politicians in a sermon, but there is one interesting and relevant comment from a well-known Member of Parliament who has served in major government posts, as Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary and Lord Chancellor. It was reported in April this year that Jack Straw had told the BBC, 'There has to be a clear understanding that this is the UK, and there [is] a set of values, that are indeed Christian based, which permeate our sense of citizenship.'
We might prefer to put it another way. We might say that Gospel values lie at the heart of British values. And by Gospel values we mean values that derive from the teachings and actions of our Lord Jesus Christ. These values have come to permeate our self-understanding through many centuries as a Christian country. And, even though these days people here are not at all sure whether ours is still a Christian country or not, Gospel values continue to exist in shadow at the heart of this country.
Consider what those values might be. They can be described in a number of ways but here is a list compiled to help teachers in church schools: respect; trust in God; honesty; compassion; forgiveness; mercy; community; service; equality; simplicity; justice; peace. These values might be expressed in other ways but it is not difficult to identify how they each link to the teachings and actions of Christ, though some might be more immediately obvious than others.
So, as we stand at the beginning of the Church's Year, on this Advent Sunday, when our attention is focused on a longing for the coming of God's kingdom on earth, a kingdom of justice and righteousness, of peace and love, we should face up to the task ahead for the Church and for us as disciples of Christ. It is no easy task at this time.
Understanding in this country of the Christian faith seems to be in recession. And any sense of the origin of our values seems to be fading away. While some of us hold them dear, others pay them no more than lip-service, if that. Our collective task as the Church and as Christian disciples is to reconnect these values with the Good News of Jesus Christ that gave rise to them and thus help people see the beauty and wonder and truth our Lord came to bring and that we begin to celebrate in this Advent season as we look forward to his coming in glory.
And, although we may call them British values, in fact these values are recognised around the world. They are universal values. Indeed it might well be thought that they are natural values, reflected by our Lord, taught by our Lord, but in fact built into our human natures by our loving God.
If that is so, we have an additional and vital task before us: to make strong and positive connections on the basis of mutual respect and understanding between the faith communities that co-exist in our country, as in other countries.
That surely means, even though to some this might seem paradoxical, that we must trust people of other faiths than our own to bring up their children in their own faith, in a strong and clearexpression of their own faith, in the confidence that none of the great faiths of this world is dangerous, none in itself leads people to terrorism, rather that it is a perversion of faith that leads people to violence.
What is needed is not an hysterical assertion and imposition of British valuesbut a humble recognition of the God-given humanity of each of his children—and that the mission to which we are called is no less than God's mission. And he will fulfil it. In God is our hope.