Sermon at Evensong on the Third Sunday of Advent 2019

Here, in this country, we are in changing, exciting, and challenging times.

The Venerable David Stanton Canon in Residence

Sunday, 15th December 2019 at 3.00 PM

Well, what a momentous political week! You may have already come across the official Church of England prayer for the general election, that mercifully originated from the other side of Dean’s Yard, because rather unfortunately it began with these words:

God of grace and truth, send your Spirit to guide us as we discover your will for our country.

Although written with the best of intentions, I am afraid this doesn’t work as either a prayer or as theology precisely because doctrine, liturgy and spirituality cannot be separated from one another. Let me explain:

The prayer seems to lead us to the idea that whatever the outcome of the election, this result will have been proved to be God's will. It falls right into the trap, the very optimistic trap, of believing that whatever the result of the election, this is precisely what God wanted.

So although one could debate at length whether this is actually the divine will, there is no doubt about the fact that we now have a new Conservative government and historically, this must go down as an absolutely remarkable result.

Not only has the party gained a fourth consecutive term in power, but this is only the second time that we’ve all granted such a thing in the history of universal suffrage.

So this position leads to a more substantive and intriguing question: now that the general election is over, we must face the ever recurring conundrum: should the Church (in other words all Christian people lay and ordained) continue to keep up an active involvement in politics or should we take the opportunity to say ‘thank God that’s over’ and step back from the fray.

Many are outspoken in their assumption that all faithful believers (especially meddling bishops) should not interfere in politics, but rather stick to religion.

Others, such as Teresa May have said quite unequivocally that ‘faith guides me in everything I do’.

Indeed a very former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron (remember him?) was blighted by questions about his faith and his active Christianity was deemed to be positively dangerous and offensive.

In his opportune yet strangely titled Christmas book, ‘A Better Ambition: Confessions of a Faithful Liberal’, he claims that his two years as leader of the Liberal Democrats, from 2015 to 2017, were made extra difficult and problematic precisely because he held a living faith.

So should Christianity be kept at arms length from the murky world of politics, and social justice and community re-regeneration?

Here at the very heart of Westminster, this (perhaps surprisingly) remains a live question; Some MP’s and not a few others forcibly argue that religion must be seen as a deeply, deeply personal and private thing, and certainly not a community or social issue.

Others argue that our long Christian heritage is not only part of our very identity,

but as human beings we are created in the image and likeness of God and therefore we all have an inherent worth and distinction.

When Dean Inge the outspoken Dean of St Paul's, retired from his post back in 1934, he took up writing for various newspapers and once told a friend: ‘I've stopped being a pillar of the church and become two columns in the Evening Standard’.

But on a more serious and historic note, it was Aristotle who argued strongly that politics is simply the way of thinking about ordinary civic life in an intelligent and consistent way, and indeed the very practical way of managing it rationally and justly.

In other words politics is all about the science of being able to live peacefully together without too much conflict and without enduring too much injustice. 

With this in mind, its also worth considering that the very word for Church in Greek is ekklesia, originally meant 'a citizen's assembly' in the ancient world.

And so in the earliest Christian period, to become an adopted child of God in Jesus Christ, was simultaneously to become a political being, albeit in a new way: to become a citizen of a larger society. 

To my mind, that helps make a constructive connection, but there are still many people today who argue that Jesus was essentially a-political, in other words just not interested in politics.

If we turn to the Gospels I think it's perfectly clear that what Jesus intended to do - was establish a community in which God was revealed in the way in which people related to each another.

For example, his healing miracles are very often all about bringing excluded people  back into the fold of the community.

At various times, many try hard to get him to support their particular political position, but he resists.

The heart of the matter is that he evades them not by retreating into a private, internal spiritual world, but by positively re-creating  community in his own terms.

And, of course, this is what the church is really all about. Not a private gathering like many other specialist interest groups, but a community whose only ‘interest’ is the interest of all.

So to my mind its quite natural to say that the kingdom of God we proclaim is both political as well as spiritual, and the arrival of a ‘prince of peace’ in the midst of Roman rule began a great movement of change.

We must also not forget that the scriptures were written in political times, albeit different from ours, but if we miss that cultural context we miss out on some of the scriptural richness for our times too.

Today the major political upheavals of brexit and austerity (and the North, South divide) expose the very complex pastoral and spiritual issues that we all now face.

But the richness of the scriptural picture of God’s kingdom within the politics of its own time can offer us tools to hear God speak now in our own particular situation.

And so the established Church (as well as the government) is now faced with a very particular social care crisis and political challenge.

For two decades, not only have political parties (of all colours) failed to deliver social changes, especially to the housing system and how care is funded and what individuals are expected to pay, but Churches have also failed to give a substantive lead.

Indeed for the last 3 years the government was essentially impotent; it legislated for almost nothing, it changed almost nothing and it consequently improved almost nothing.

The fundamental problem surrounds the fact that very few governments (and Churches) are actually any good at multitasking.

As a Church we need to keep pressing to influence decisions on the economy and public finances, because for years to come these could easily be crowded out by other things such as trade negotiations and the renewed question of Scottish independence.

As a Church we need to help facilitate a complex healing process, and this places an even greater responsibility on us all for shaping the next chapter in British politics. 

From the Scriptures we clearly see that the physical, emotional, social and spiritual well-being of all people are closely interconnected.

Christ’s work of reconciliation extends well beyond the purely personal to the social order and the whole creation.

Its also worth remembering that the Gospels use the term ‘healing’ both for physical healing and for the broader salvation that Jesus brings.

But finally, we should never forget that God chose to enter this world in the form of a helpless baby, and so his plan of salvation includes the here and now as well as the not yet fully realised kingdom of heaven.

God promises us that his plan of salvation will indeed transform everything and we are invited to join him in this journey.

We cannot say that the result of the election was categorically the will of God; but we can say that we are given hope when politics may feel hopeless, inspiration when politics may seem pointless, and grace to keep walking with God.

Here in this country, we are in changing, exciting and challenging times.