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Sermon given at Evensong on the Second Sunday of Epiphany 2018

The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence

Sunday, 14th January 2018 at 3.00 PM

In the late 1940s, a man in late middle age with military bearing, neat moustache, hair balding under his bowler hat, would walk down Whitehall to number 22.

Back then it was a bank; a discreet, exclusive establishment for members of the military. The bank's name, Holt’s, is still carved in stone above the door, although the building now houses part of the Cabinet Office.

The man would give his name as Captain Theo Spencer and withdraw money from one of his accounts. He would then walk back down Whitehall and head to his office at 54 Broadway. The destination is a clue that his name was not really Captain Theo Spencer.

His office was the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service, best known as MI6. The man was Sir Stewart Menzies, the service’s chief, often known simply by a single letter: C. The newly revealed story of his bank account throws new light on how MI6 worked and also Britain’s role in the Middle East.

In a meeting in 1952 with the two most senior officials from the Treasury and the Foreign Office, Menzies offered a confession. The record of this meeting lies in a remarkable document recently unearthed in the National Archives by an academic from the University of Nottingham.

For close to a decade Sir Stewart had an account that would become known as the ‘unofficial reserve’, in practice his own secret slush fund. Even by the standards of a secret service the account was remarkably clandestine. In today’s money the sum was more than £40 million.

In stark contrast, this evening’s exciting and beguiling anthem, ‘Seek him’ by Jonathan Dove, is a beautifully crafted dialogue between voice and organ, that speaks to us about the power of light and transparency. Its dissipating energy encourages us to see sharply beyond ourselves towards God.

This music also helps us to see that Sir Stewart’s covert slush fund would be seen as a complete anathema today, as now our culture extols authenticity in a quite different way. Nowdays people all around the world are looking for increasing transparency: greater access to data, more freedom of information legislation and broader attempts to involve the public in decision-making.

In many ways this fundamental change has embodied sound theological principles: When we look on the person of Christ in Jesus, we see someone who’s transparent, who allows us to see in him, the eternal principles of God.

When we look closely, we see the enduring values of his Father in heaven: mercy, acceptance, and forgiveness, and, of course, that’s far more than just a translucent glimpse of glory.

As a man, Jesus was fundamentally transparent, and as his popularity grew, so his transparency was severely questioned. This was one reason why he was hated and despised by so many.

As St John records, ‘For everyone practising evil hates the light and does not come into the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.’ (3.20).

Because of Jesus, we are free to be who God created us to be, and we are free to be ourselves in fellowship with each another. This freedom is what helps us all to grow into the fullness of Christ.

When we refuse to be ourselves or when we refuse to allow others to be themselves, faults and all, we take God’s freedom from each other. Yet, to a greater or lesser extent, we all live behind a veil of secrecy.

We often pretend to know more than we know. We often act as if we are better than we are. We invariably only offer the presentable parts of our lives—and feign a perfection that we do not possess.

At the Morning Office this month, the book of Genesis is being read, and there we hear starkly how Adam and Eve miserably failed, and what’s the first thing they thought to do? They hide.

In a way, it’s very much in our nature to cover, to deny, to fake it with the hope that we might eventually succeed. We hide our sin. We conceal our struggles. We cover our inadequacies behind a mask of perfection. And yet we all instinctively recognise and value transparency and trust when we see it.

We all know that trust is the foundation of any relationship. For as transparency increases, so trust increases. And, of course, the converse is also true.

When we speak openly and freely mutual trust increases, and as we’re more transparent, so trust grows and the strength of relationships grow too.

But when a relationship goes wrong, one of the first signs (as an early warning signal) is the decline in transparency. When our trust is low we start withholding information and we are pulling back from others.

If you reflect for a moment on Sir Stewart’s walk down Whitehall to access that clandestine slush fund at Holt’s bank, he must at times have asked himself: Is all undercover activity justified by the general security benefit? Could transparency conceivably better serve the country? It’s a sobering thought.

But it’s an even more sobering thought to remember that transparency, as a concept, raised its head in East Germany during the Soviet era as a way of attacking the Federal Republic, and indeed how it rapidly spread through other Western countries who couldn’t throw off the vestiges of the paternalistic state quick enough.

I’m reminded of the phrase, ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely’. As such, transparency in our world is both a personal and a corporate virtue, and to act in a non-transparent manner is to act unethically.

I finish by recalling something that Pope Benedict XVI said in a talk he gave to seminarians in Rome, just before his resignation in 2013.

He invited them to journey with a soul open to truth and transparency, to answer in a humble way our Lord’s call to free themselves from the danger of seeing their vocation as a merely personal project.

That’s a challenge for us all. If we each strive to lead a transparent life we will bear witness not only to our own humanity, but also allow the divine light of Christ, so beautifully portrayed by Jonathan Dove this evening, to shine through our lives. We must never lose sight of the fact that the ministry and life of Jesus Christ testified to his own unique humanity and divinity.

In a similar way the life and ministry of each of us here, must testify to Christ’s presence in both the ordinary daily round of things that we do, but also in the most sacred and intimate moments of our discipleship.

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