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Sermon for Civic Service

Very Reverend John Hall Dean of Westminster

Sunday, 1st July 2007

Those of us who live and work in Westminster have good reason to be thankful for the vigilance and speedy reactions of people guarding our security and no reason to change our behaviour or way of life. On Friday in the Abbey, we kept the feast of St Peter, our Patron Saint.

In St Matthew's Gospel, it is to Peter that Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven. You have perhaps heard about the man who met St Peter. He had died and arrived at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter welcomed him and invited him to follow him. They passed a room where people in saffron robes were chanting in unison; the man asked who they were. St. Peter replied, "Oh, those are the Buddhists." Then they passed a Black congregation singing, swaying and clapping their hands. "They'll be Pentecostalists!" "Yes", replied St. Peter. So it went on. They saw room after room, each with their different religious groups, until they passed a room with the door firmly closed. "Who's in there?" he asked. St. Peter replied, "Shh! They think they're the only ones in heaven!"

Of course the story as usually told identifies as occupiers of the closed room whichever religion the story-teller thinks most unfriendly to others, the one to have the most exclusive theology. In a version I came across recently it was the Catholics; in another I remember it being the Exclusive Brethren. Unfair, and not very funny!

There could soon be a rather different version of the story in England. There seems to be a growing sense here that most people will get to heaven, that it's their right. There will be odd exceptions: Hitler, Stalin and those criminals most execrated at any one time. But we are often told, by popular columnists, that religion is not a proper basis for a good life, that it is a sign of intellectual and moral weakness, and a breeding ground for extremism, and that it is best avoided. So my revised version of the story would have the recently dead person having his first experience of heaven, walking past rooms full of happy secularists, agnostics, popular scientists, media philosophers, columnists and other atheists, some of them slightly surprised at what has happened. On enquiring where the religious people were, he would be told that they had been consigned to another place altogether. All right! I exaggerate. But my clippings file is full of articles and speeches culled during my time as the Church of England's chief education officer attacking church schools and other faith schools as divisive, exclusive, socially selective, and bound to drive apart integrated communities. These caricatures were difficult to eradicate, though happily ignored by parents keen to choose where to educate their children.

I wish to assert today that religion is not for the feeble-minded, nor does it promote wicked attitudes or acts, but that it is intellectually sound and morally good. I wish to assert today that religion is not responsible for fanatical terrorism; that derives from the frustration and perversion of the religious instinct. I wish to assert today that a great and vital contribution is made to the development and welfare of communities by those who allow their in-built spiritual and religious instincts to influence their way of life. I wish to assert today that religion should not and cannot be relegated to the private sphere of life but that it should play a full part in public debate and the development of public policy.

As Dean I am proud of the part played by my predecessors at Westminster Abbey in the rule and governance of our neighbouring communities and delighted that our continuing close partnership with the City of Westminster is symbolised and strengthened through this great annual Civic Service and by the role of the Lord Mayor of Westminster as Deputy High Steward of the Abbey. There will I know be many special occasions during the coming year when the entrance of the Lord Mayor will be a significant part of the pre-service ceremonial. As her predecessors have been, she will always be most welcome. In the City of Westminster, we have always lived out the reality of the religious life of the community having a major impact on civil society and local government.

This is not strange for the Church of England, for Christianity. The Lord Mayor read Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is so familiar that we perhaps ignore the most important aspects of it. A former Prime Minister was of course right to say that, unless the Good Samaritan had been able to earn the two denarii he gave to the inn-keeper, he would have been unable to help, but the parable is not a story about wealth creation. Nor is it a simple story telling us that we ought to help someone in trouble. The parable of the Good Samaritan makes two particularly strong and challenging points that we need to hear.

The priest and Levite who passed by on the other side were on their way to Jerusalem. Presumably they were going to perform their ritual duties in the temple. Since they were travelling to Jerusalem, they did not live there, so it is safe to assume that this duty was at most occasional and even possibly once-in-a-lifetime. If they had touched a dead body, they would have become ritually unclean, and unable to perform their religious duties. Their journey would have been in vain. So they kept a safe distance. Jesus is implicitly critical of them. It might be that he was criticising the whole edifice of Jewish sacrifice, of which he certainly seemed to disapprove when he cleansed the temple of the money-changers and of the animals destined to be sacrificed, and which, in Christian belief, was replaced by his own sacrifice on the cross. It might equally be that Jesus was criticising the tendency of the most religiously observant to get in a tangle about what really mattered and was saying, as he often said in his arguments with the scribes and Pharisees, that acts of mercy and generosity mattered far more than strict obedience to religious laws and observances. That is a message we need to hear in our inter faith relations.

The other sharp and challenging point of the parable is that the man who had been mugged was not helped by his fellow citizens, by the members of his own community. For whatever reason, they avoided him. The Samaritan who was a neighbour to him was a member of a different ethnic group, a different religious community; he was a hated outsider, one who had no reason to think of the victim remotely as a friend and ally or to owe him anything. Jesus is saying that the false divides between people of different ethnicities and religions need to be transcended. Jump over the barriers. Reach out. Be neighbours to one another.

This is a powerful message that speaks direct to the Christian majority in England and in the City of Westminster, with its rich diversity of religions and ethnicities, many happily represented in this service this morning. It is a powerful message to the Church of England, the Church by law Established, which enjoys a close partnership with the Sovereign, with Government and with Parliament. It is a powerful message above all to Westminster Abbey standing as it does at the key point of encounter between the Church and the State. The message is this: you are not to enjoy these privileges for your own benefit; we hold them in trust for the other religious and ethnic communities as well. Jump over the barriers. Reach out. Be neighbours to one another.

The one God, whom in our various ways we understand and worship and who will always surprise us by being greater far than anything we can conceive, empowers and enables us to work together to build a better society, a model on earth of that society which by his generous grace, and not by any right of our own, we believe we shall one day enjoy in heaven. "Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised." May we all in this City, of whatever ethnic background and of whatever faith, grow together in God's love and in loving service of one another.

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