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Sermon given at Evensong on the Third Sunday of Epiphany 2018

The Venerable David Stanton, Canon in Residence

Sunday, 21st January 2018 at 3.00 PM

Two people, James and John, were standing at the top of the Shard; that tapered 310-metre-tall glass-clad tower next to London Bridge station. Both were all set with harnesses to begin a sponsored abseil for charity.
John was looking decidedly nervous and edgy, so his partner attempted to put him at his ease.
James asked: ‘Are you religious?’ He said: ‘Yes.’
James continued: ‘Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?’ ‘Christian.’
‘Me too. Are you Catholic or Anglican?’ ‘Anglican.’
‘Where do you come from?’ ‘Not that far away, you can almost see my house from here.’
‘Wow! Me too. Are you from the diocese of Southwark or London?’ ‘London.’
‘Me too. Are you ordained or are you lay?’ ‘Ordained.’
‘Me too. Are you a traditionalist or a liberal?’ His eyes lit up and said, ‘Traditionalist.’
James said: ‘That’s a shame’, and pushed him off!

I’m afraid many today still think of the Church as being dominated by internal squabbles, and, of course, there’s no denying the fact that a wide range of views still exist within both the conservative and liberal wings of the Church.

Indeed many also think of the Church in the Western world as a dwindling organisation, quarrelling self-destructively over minor matters.

It’s therefore highly refreshing and very positive to hear about this year’s initiative taken by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland for our current week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

This year’s motif for the Week of Prayer comes from Churches in the Caribbean, and is based around combatting social oppression and inviting all Christians to unite around social justice.

To begin, the Churches of the Caribbean region describe their own context, how the hand of God was active in ending slavery, and how God’s mission in the world is a call to us all to unite together in ending injustice.

To do this they have chosen to highlight some very contemporary Caribbean issues. But, as we all know, such issues are certainly not exclusive to that part of the world.

Firstly, abuses of human rights that challenge all of us to consider how we welcome strangers into our midst. Secondly, human trafficking and how, as Christians, we respond to modern-day slavery. Thirdly, how all societies today are blighted by addiction to pornography and drugs.

Fourthly, how the debt crisis has a negative impact upon nations, especially the developing and poorer nations; how both individuals and economies have been put in precarious positions; and how family life continues to be challenged by the economic restrictions which lead to migration, domestic abuse, and violence.

The Churches of the Caribbean have invited us all to pray and work together to heal these wounds in the body of Christ. And as I’m sure you all know well, reconciliation demands repentance, reparation, and the healing of memories. In other words as a Church we’re all called to be both a sign and an active agent of this reconciliation.

This, of course, has always been the case. From the very early days of the Church, Christians have pursued a vision of Christian unity, including a passion and commitment to seeking God’s peace and justice for all.

Our challenge today is to rekindle and nurture the visible unity of the Church as a witness to the reconciling nature of the Gospel and to the unity and renewal of humankind and creation. To build cultures where prejudice, racism, domestic violence, and abuse are addressed and where all can live safely and securely.

Here at Westminster Abbey, the Dean and Chapter are firmly committed to a new vision of social engagement and social justice. In particular we are committed to fighting against human trafficking.

Back in 2016, the UK’s first ever Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner hosted an event here at Westminster Abbey to mark the UK’s commitment to combat modern slavery.

The service was the first of its kind, and a huge range of leaders, both nationally and globally, joined the commissioner to recommit to the work of William Wilberforce who led the movement to abolish the slave trade. At the crux of all this is a vision for social justice that flows from our understanding of God’s heart and character.

And this, of course, is not something unique to the Abbey but a unifying force among all Christians world-wide. Throughout the New Testament we see how Jesus intentionally addressed very specific causes. He radically addressed the diverse and complicated conflicts of the time and challenged the status quo.

He wasn’t just preaching a universal salvation message for the world, but he was also addressing specific political, social, and racial issues. He was helping those who were being abused, violated, and oppressed.

This theme of social justice for Christian unity supplied this year by the Churches of the Caribbean gives fresh perspective and approach to those who may have become cynical about Christian unity.

The theme directly challenges the petty differences and mentality of those two clergy abseiling down the Shard but also the many post-Christian sceptics who view religion as corrosive, divisive, and a source of injustice.

Make no mistake: the faith of the Church is rooted in justice that flows from the heart of God. On this point, it’s so crucially important that we stand together as Christians, for this is one of the most mystical and deeply human founding concepts of the social teaching of the Church.

It’s based on the belief that together we can make a difference and together we are much stronger. When we value fellow human beings, we respect each other as unique individuals, and we can stand up for what is right for one another.

In doing this, we seek to bring all things into the wholeness and unity of God.

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