Sermon given at Civic Matins 2022

What are you supposed to be? That interests me this morning.

The Venerable Tricia Hillas, on behalf of the Dean

Sunday, 3rd July 2022 at 11.00 AM

Let me take you back nearly 500 years. In December 1540, the City of Westminster is born. Letters Patent give new city burgesses authority in the city. It is the beginnings of a civic life that leads us here today. The same Letters Patent make what was Westminster Abbey into Westminster Cathedral. It is an experiment that does not last long, but it is critical to us both. We change together, we pass responsibility one to another. We are in conversation over years and years. And we navigate difficulty. If you think contemporary politics is brutal and volatile, think again. In 1540, the king’s Chief Minister has fallen. He does not stand outside his house telling people he will be spending more time with his family, he is executed, without trial, on Tower Hill. Everyone is disorientated the Reformation that was surging forward is in reverse, but King Henry is murdering protestants and Catholics. A monk of Westminster, Thomas Epsam, dies in the summer; ‘the last monk seen in his habit in all England’. The king’s new marriage to Anne of Cleves is an instant disaster. William Benson, last Abbot of Westminster, refuses to become the first Dean and gets out as fast as he can, this is no time to be in charge. Dangerous times, uncertain times! There is no sure star to steer by. It is our shared history and it is up close. Anne of Cleves is buried just there and William Benson is only a few feet away too.

Lord Mayor, you and I are just the latest version of a relationship, a conversation about Westminster, about place and people. We will both get told it is difficult. A Christian and a Muslim, faith and politics. Well it may be difficult, but it has always been difficult. We have always had to think hard about how you choose, what you do, how you try to live. That is always the question we have to ask. It is always a challenge.

Years ago, a Franciscan Friar was travelling the London Underground, he sat there in his sandals and his brown habit with a rope girdle tied at his waist. Now, in Westminster Abbey this morning, we are at ease with dressing up. It is not an issue if we look a little eye-catching. On the tube things are not quite so simple. Around our friar, people were trying not to stare. Two lads got on at Holloway Road. Not a bit bashful, they did stare. After a while, one of them spoke,

‘What you supposed to be?’ he said.
‘I’m supposed to be polite’ said the friar,
‘What are you supposed to be?’

So that is the question, ‘What are you supposed to be?’ That interests me this morning. How do we live in hard times?

What are we supposed to be? It is a hard question to answer and there are wrong turnings. I am just back from the College where I worked thirty years ago. I saw people I had not seen in a long time. Lots of lawyers, financiers, and medics. They were impressive I admired the achievement. That, though, is all about what they did. It could not tell what sort of people they had become. That is a deeper question that might start with wondering if they are kind to the family pet and give money to charity and might lead to questions about whether they are hopeful, forgiving, loving. Even then, there is another question to answer about what we are supposed to do when we live in dangerous times: What am I supposed to be doing now in the midst of all this? What am I supposed to do when we ask fundamental questions about public life? What am I supposed to be when I am a City Councillor and face questions about poverty and price rises, about planning, schools, or the environment.

Lord Mayor, how do you and I live in public space in dangerous times? It was the question that one of our readings tried to answer.

Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.

It was apart of a letter written by someone called James. James is very interested in how we live, what we are supposed to be. He is very clear we are one thing or we are another. We have to choose. He rather suspects that most of us find the choice difficult. James thinks we have to try to be consistent. It cannot be lies and truth, it cannot be gossip and discretion. Put another way there must always be a connection between what we say and what we do. We must be one thing, not two. We must not be hypocrites.

That is part of the reason James says,

Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.

A good life, gentleness, wisdom. It sounds nice. Indeed, it sounds a bit like motherhood and apple pie. There is a danger we will all go home thinking that what the Dean said this morning is that if we are all a bit nicer the world would be nicer. That is not what James is saying.

You see James knows there is a temptation. If I may say so Lord Mayor this is a temptation for you and for me—and lots of other people too. It is the temptation that comes with having a role, even an outfit. It is the temptation of office and authority. It is the temptation to perform. You see it is quite tricky for me to do a good job of being David Hoyle. In fact, that is a life’s work. It gets almost impossible when I get all tangled up in being David Hoyle who is also being Dean of Westminster. My problem is I keep trying to be more than I am, something else, a version of myself doing that job.

It is the temptation to perform. It is the temptation to try to be more than I am. It is the temptation to put the cardboard cut-out called ‘the Dean’ in front of people and ask them to talk to that. It is that nasty trick of having a version of myself that gets in the way and stops me living in this moment and being myself now.

There’s a wonderful moment in a book by C S Lewis when he points out just how dangerous county cricket and stamp collecting can be—he could just as well have said supporting Chelsea. They are dangerous because they are such simple pleasures and you can lose yourself in them. When we really start taking delight in what is happening, in where we are and who we are with, when we really start enjoying simply being ourselves and not worrying about whether we are being clever enough, or decisive enough, or funny enough we are really not very far from heaven.

Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.

That is what James is talking about. Do that, he says, live without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Lord Mayor, Hamza, if I may, We are delighted that you are here this morning, delighted that you are first citizen in this great city. You offer us now a glimpse of who we are, in our diversity and in all the difficulties we have in working how to live in difficult times. How to live with ourselves, how to live with each other. We will pray for you and for the City Council in the Abbey as we always do. We will pray that you will enjoy being yourself and living a good life in gentleness born of wisdom. I know, because we have talked, that you do not give in easily to the temptations of office. With all my colleagues, I wish you joy and success. Ask your chaplain to pray for me, for us. May we all overcome particularity, may we turn from hypocrisy and make peace. May we take delight in what we do.