Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 12th May 2013
12 May 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
If you had been here at the Abbey on Thursday evening, you would have witnessed a very special occasion. Not unique in our history – far from it, something which happens every dozen or so years – but nonetheless a moment to be savoured.
On Ascension Day the recently enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, paid his first official visit to Westminster Abbey to celebrate the festival day and to cement institutional relationships which go back a thousand years.
But that’s not all that happened: over a glass of hospitality in the Drawing Room of the Deanery, a ritual dating from the thirteenth century was enacted. This strange event is a ritualised legal protest, which goes something like this:
The Dean greets the new Archbishop as ‘Primate of All England, and as a Brother in Christ, with warm affection and with the assurance of our continuing prayers’.
This is all well and good: we’re being terribly English and polite.
But then comes the protest – ‘However, we are in law and duty bound to declare and protest in your presence that the Dean and Chapter, … are immediately subject to The Queen's Majesty alone and acknowledge no other ecclesiastical authority’.
Having received the Protest, the Archbishop – who himself does homage the Monarch – has little choice but to accept it in good humour, which he did most graciously.
But is this really the sort of thing that Christians should be protesting against? Standing on the rights and privileges of a thousand years? In the immortal phrase of the Occupy Protest, ‘WWJD – What Would Jesus Do?’
In this sermon series in May, I am exploring some of the tensions inherent in the liturgical progress which takes us from Easter Resurrection through Ascension, Pentecost and finally towards the self-revelation of God as Trinity.
I am arguing that while these are powerful, indeed essential, components of our spiritual formation, nonetheless they should not absolve Christians from getting involved in the day to day business of earthly matters. And here in our own local context, where the Palace of Westminster is our longest-standing and closest neighbour, I am advocating that Christians have a moral duty to get their hands dirty in the real world of political engagement, and not to be ‘so heavenly as to be no earthly good’.
In short, we have to combine the heavenwards longing of Ascentiontide that we see in Luke’s gospel, with the unconditional commitment to the physical land, its people, its economy and resources, that we find in Deuteronomy.
Last week, in a sermon you can find on the Abbey’s website, I began by looking at how the Church might respond to the current welfare reforms which are being introduced in the United Kingdom.
This week, however, I want to begin with a Protest – but one very far removed from the mediaeval one enacted here on the Feast of the Ascension.
This particular protest came in 1958, and from no less a body than the World Council of Churches. In a visionary and forward-thinking move, the World Council of Churches protested against the inequalities evident in the world and recommended that each nation of the developed world should give 1% of its Gross National Product in international aid and development. The story of how that came about lies beyond this sermon, but the aspiration – watered down to 0.7% in the translation – has become embedded in the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations.
The United Kingdom does have a good story to tell in this regard as it is currently the only large, developed economy in the world to have both pledged and reached this particular target – something our Prime Minister was keen to trumpet at his speech to the United Nations last September. He spoke of the moral duty to move the 1 billion people who live on less than 1 dollar a day from poverty to prosperity, and also of the national self interest in the enhanced security this brings around the world.
So my question is – ‘This drive towards International Aid was a global initiative of the Churches ecumenically: should we now leave it up to the politicians? Should Christians get on with enjoying the life of the Spirit, while the politicians are left with the eternal search for the Promised Land?’
My answer is an emphatic ‘no’: Christians have a moral duty to be engaged, to be involved, to be committed to righting the wrongs of this world, as well as acknowledging our citizenship of the world to come.
And this week gives us a fantastic example:
Christian Aid is one of the United Kingdom’s largest charities, and each year holds the longest running and most successful street collection campaigns.
Its work is focussed on international aid and development, tackling the root causes of poverty, and this year has highlighted the plight of people in Zimbabwe.
The terrible price paid by the people of Zimbabwe for the political instability that has wracked the country has been well documented elsewhere. Despite an economic recovery since the days of hyper-inflation up to 2009, the Zimbabwean Finance ministered reported in January of this year that there was $217 dollars in the treasury account!
The response of the Christian Churches, through charities like Christian Aid, has been longstanding and impressive. Their partners in the country tell the story of Jabulisa Ndlovu and Zuzeni Nyathi who used to struggle to put food on the table. ‘It was difficult before,’ says Zuzeni. ‘We had relatives living with us and we couldn’t afford to feed them.’
‘Now they eat a wide range of healthy and nutritious food, thanks to the hard work of their local communities and the support of Christian Aid partner Dabane Trust.
Dabane Trust worked with communities in the Gwanda district to access the clean, naturally filtered water that is stored, hidden, beneath sand-bed rivers … A mature sand dam can store millions of litres of water and refills each year after the rains, providing a fresh and constant supply of water. This water allows communities to water their gardens all year round, meaning they can grow a variety of vegetables to eat and to sell’.
But the support of Christians is not just practical and financial – it is spiritual and political as well. At a time in 2011 when many Christians in Zimbabwe found themselves literally locked out of their church buildings because of suspicions about political activism, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, visited the country and gave a sermon which was widely-regarded as having had immense impact on the political landscape. This is what he said:
In your faith and endurance, you have kept your eyes on that open door when the doors of your own churches have been shut against you.
You have discovered that it is not the buildings that make a true church but the spiritual foundations on which your lives are built.
And as we together give thanks for the open door that God puts before us, we may even find the strength to say to our enemies and persecutors, 'The door is open for you! Accept what God offers and turn away from the death-dealing folly of violence.'
May we indeed never be so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good!