Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 14 August 2011
14 August 2011 at 10:00 am
I am sure I cannot be the only person in this Abbey this morning who was quite appalled in this past week to see the gratuitous violence, arson and other criminality that seemed to have taken over parts of London, and which then spread to other cities in England. The apparently wanton disregard for property, businesses and even life itself was horrific. When the trouble started last weekend, it seemed to be limited to one particular area where there had been a specific grievance on the part of some with the police, and the original protesters did so peacefully. But as it turned to violent rioting, and then spread, especially on Monday evening to various other parts of London and then, later in the week, to other parts of England, it became an episode, or really a series of episodes, that brought shame and disgrace to this nation, but perhaps especially to London. We must all be pleased that the police appear to have won back control of the streets, and some sort of more normal calm has returned to what is otherwise one of the great cities of the world. But, one has to ask, at what cost both in terms of money and reputation? It would, I think, be wrong for that to be ignored in the pulpit of this Abbey when such events even recalled Parliament to discuss what many saw as a moral collapse.
But any thoughtful person will want to ask why and how this all came about. To ask the question is not in any way to excuse what happened, which was by any standards dreadful and criminal behaviour and of course the individuals involved must bear responsibility for their own actions. No doubt a firm sentencing policy in the courts will bring that home both to them and to other observers. But the question remains why did it happen? I suspect there is no one answer; it was probably a mixture of a variety of causes, including the strength of gang culture, the consequences of family breakdown, for some at least a sense of social exclusion and for others sheer opportunism when they saw they could take something that was not theirs. As cases go through the courts and the identities of some of those involved become known no doubt a clearer picture will emerge. But what is already obvious is that this was not just the actions of the socially deprived nor just of the very young, those involved crossed all sorts of divisions in our country, racial, social and financial; some quite well off people were involved in the rioting as well. And of course we must recognise and be grateful for the fact that other people across all those divisions were equally strong in their condemnation of what happened, including very significant numbers of younger people of all racial and social backgrounds, and, most impressively, many were actively involved in the clear up.
Now I do not think it helps very much if clergy simply fulminate against the wickedness of others, although let there be no doubt about this, what the rioters did was wholly wicked and wrong. But a thoughtful response must require a measure of standing back from those initial feelings of outrage to ask what the challenges are posed by this for our nation and its institutions. Well, there are many, and I only have time to touch briefly on three of them.
First, we have to ask what it is that has generated a rather greedy and acquisitive culture that is un-moderated by any moral considerations of what those pursuing that are doing to other people. Lots of people seem to think that it is OK to grab what they can, and that is not the exclusive preserve of the poor. Some rather more wealthy individuals, whether politicians with over lavish expense claims or bankers behaving in irresponsible ways with other people’s money, must, I think, bear some of the responsibility for creating such an atmosphere. Obviously that does not apply to all or even to the majority of politicians or bankers, but when individuals in such public positions behave badly, we should not be surprised if others think that is an example that it is somehow acceptable to follow. Of course restraining greed has long been an element in the Christian moral tradition, and maybe that needs to be reasserted, but it would be much more powerful if that notion of restraint came not just in words but also by example from individuals in more financially and politically public positions. In a well reviewed film of some years ago called, I think, Wall Street, Michael Douglas played the part of a banker who, at one point advocated greed as the motivating force behind capitalism. Well, the figure he played may have been right, but what are, and from where come, the constraints on such greed? That is a challenge for all of us to think about.
Then the second challenge I think this poses for us is to our notion of justice. The calls for firm and exemplary sentences by the courts must be right and proper, and I do not want to advocate leniency in what might be done. And that extends even to those who benefit from social housing, if subsidised housing is offered to people there is an implicit social contract contained in that, and that contract has to be observed by both sides including by those who occupy the property. But in the English legal tradition while the purposes of punishment certainly include deterrence and an element of retribution, justice should also provide the opportunity for restitution and rehabilitation. There has always been a notion that judgment should be tempered by mercy, that genuine repentance should be a mitigating factor, and that the long term rehabilitation of the offender should be part of the aim of justice. I hope and pray that even in the present febrile atmosphere the courts will remember that, and that local councils will reflect on that when they contemplate evicting families from their homes. Of course when there has been a long history of a household disturbing and even terrorising their neighbourhood firm action might well be needed, but to evict someone from their home simply because they were not able to have total control over a rebellious teenager does seem to me to raise questions of proportionality. I was glad to hear that there will be a process of judicial appeal against such evictions, and I hope and pray the council officials and the judges involved will retain such a sense of proportionality in coming to their judgements.
Then the third institution that I think faces challenges from all of this is the Church itself. I am very glad to read from something the Bishop of London has sent out that many churches in those parts of London that have faced destructive disorder have been very actively engaged in helping those whose lives have been disrupted by what has happened, and that many over a far longer period have also been engaged in seeking to relate to disaffected young people and those caught up in gang culture. That is obviously good work and this Abbey will do something to support it.
But there is a more fundamental challenge for the Church. A moral stance is obviously not the preserve of Christians, many people of other faiths and those of none have clear and good moral standards. But the basic morality of this country has been over the years profoundly influenced by the Christian tradition, not least of all, the notion that you should love your neighbour as yourself. Had that been internalised by those who rioted they would not have done what they did. But the Christian moral tradition is built on a theological tradition as well, and I have never forgotten what a bishop told me some years ago after he was talking with some of his son’s friends from school. ‘I suppose you do not go to church because you think it is boring’ said the Bishop to them. ‘No’, said his son’s friends, ‘we don’t go because we don’t think it is true.’
If we want Christian morality to permeate our society then the credibility of the Christian Faith is not just the private concern of inward looking Christians; it is a public matter that has important implications for our society. If the Church is really to influence the moral basis of our living together it must engage seriously with that scepticism about the truth of the Christian Faith. And it will only do that by listening carefully to why many are sceptical, and by engaging with that discussion not by simplistic knock-down arguments but with real personal engagement with men and women, both young and old, trying to understand and almost to get inside their scepticism so that it can be responded to creatively and genuinely. That does happen. I hope and believe it sometimes happens even from the pulpit of this Abbey Church. But it needs to happen more, so that the Christian moral tradition can make a thoughtful and intelligent contribution to our society’s needs based on an honest and open understanding of the Christian Faith. If the events of this past week can force the Church itself to accept more of that challenge then, dreadful though those events undoubtedly were, they may form the stimulus to a proper wake-up call that would be good for us all.