Address given at the Civic Service on 7th July 2013
7 July 2013 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Joanna Jepson, Chaplain to The Lord Mayor of Westminster
In the past two and a half years I have gone from living with the fast-paced beat of this city’s many sounding rhythms, to the sounds of waves, blasts of foghorns and the humming and churning of ships on the Solent down in Portsmouth, where I began married life. And now this summer I am settling with my baby son into life in a new city, a city which chimes its welcome to us hour after hour from the Cathedral outside our house, whose streets resound with music-makers, flashmob singers, the market buskers and, of course, one of the best choirs in the world – though I probably shouldn’t mention that here! But it is the sound of water that really shapes the very foundation and life of my new home, Wells. Back in the Middle Ages Bishop Beckynton redirected the springs of water bubbling up outside his magnificent palace to flow down through the very streets of the city thereafter named after them.
It is a medieval tribute mirroring that which city of God so often sought after, envisioned, prophesied and promised in the Bible. This morning we have heard two readings about such a place and, far from being a grubby and worldly image, it is one transformed, in John of Patmos’s wonderful vision, into the type and perfection of common life. That some of the more sordid facets of city life can be transformed into a place where God is pleased to be its most glorious inhabitant says, of course, much about the good which God can draw out of our half-hearted attempts at living life abundantly. But it also says something about the resilience and sheer screwed-on-ness of a human ideal. So I think we must take it as read that - after John’s brilliant description of the heavenly city, the New Jersualem - if we talk about the good city then we are to be aspirational and we are to expect it to be an idea with which God can work.
So to what will we aspire as the leaders and citizens of the City of Westminster this year? What does the slogan Better City, Better Lives conjure up in our imagination and in our hopes for human flourishing? And how do our personal and political agendas give space for God’s vision to be realised through us?
In our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah we hear of a people who pay lip service to the ideal of a good city: desiring the fruits of integrity and power they strut around with an outward show of justice and good traditions and religious rituals. They tick boxes with a holy day here and there believing that God might be fobbed off by occasional piety. What they fail to see is that God desires real peace for them; a way of making decisions and ordering their communal life that joins with the goodness and joyfulness and hope that God wants to bring about with them.
Just like Bishop Beckynton and the wellsprings of water that he diverted down the city hill, the justice and right relationships upon which God calls us to build our city life are not metaphors; they are the very attitudes that allow humankind to flourish; they are real choices that need to flow through our decision-making and direct our vision. We are to be a city founded on truth, so that our pomp and ceremony isn’t tired or empty but rather sounds with the echoes of something real.
But then what? We find new ways to meet those most basic needs; we keep looking to provide affordable and safe housing for those who are homeless; we continue to educate and turn the tide of hatred and oppression away from whichever group of people has become a collective scapegoat for our human malaise. But beyond this, to what do we aspire?
Threading its way through the Old Testament are the attempts by generation after generation to create the city of God. But it is from one particular season that I think we should draw inspiration. In the time of the prophet Nehemiah the city is rebuilt, not by stone masons and builders, but by the people themselves. All the people; each contributing their own gift and effort to the repair of the city. The records tell how the metal workers, the perfumiers, the priests, the business men, the goldsmiths, the sons, the daughters, the different people groups make their own contribution to the walls, the entrance, the pools and gardens, the roof and so on. A city made glorious indeed by its people’s gifts and talents each offering their own reflection of the Divine.
And so for us the question becomes, How might we each make our own contribution to this City of Westminster? If, as Ireneaus once said, the glory of God is a human being fully alive, then I ask you, What makes you fully alive? With what creativity, insight, ability and gift can you enthuse life and energy into this community?
God’s intentions in giving us visions are not to tantalise us with fantasy: they are there for us to enflesh, to be a chord sounding each person’s voice. When we relinquish harsh insistence on our own way we stand a chance of harmonising with the Divine vision, joining with the God who invites us to participate with him in making all things new.