Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 28th September 2014
28 September 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Martyn Gough RN, Deputy Chaplain of the Fleet
For those people who may know just a little about the Royal Navy, you would be aware that we have, not quite our own language, but uses of words that are mix of naval terminology, seafaring and words from around the world. This lingo called Jack speak is possibly unique to us in the RN. Bathrooms are called heads, mornings are the forenoon, drinks are wets; bootnecks—Royal Marines, skimmers—those who exist solely in the Frigate or destroyer world. I am not the Padre—dreadful army slang, but the "Bish". And there are hundreds of more examples. One of the prized bits of paper that is given out is a 'make and mend chit': permission given for a freebie afternoon off work, usually after the middle watch. It gives a small gift of freedom in an otherwise regulated world. Freedom to do what you want? Well, no! Freedom to not work, but not carte blanche to break the rules; to do what we wish.
Today HMS Westminster has exercised its right to freedom in this city: a rare privilege indeed, and one that they have fulfilled this morning with honour and with pride. But in recent months the Ship's Company has been deployed to the Arabian Gulf, working in co-operation with many other Navies to ensure free passage on the high seas; free from international and piracy threats. Ensuring free movement is a core skill of any maritime power; we want and we do live in a society that values freedom. But what is freedom?
American forces use the term "freedom" far more in their operational language. Operation Enduring Freedom is their name for the allied co-operation in Afghanistan and there is the philosophy, right or wrong, that what the West and, in particular, the US is bringing, is a notion of freedom to peoples whom we assume to have had the tenets of freedom denied them and instead bound by the shackles of servitude and fundamentalism and most importantly, poverty.
People generally use the word freedom in order to describe many things: the first and perhaps most persistent meaning of the term is simply lack of subjection to any kind of ownership or tyrannical authority, the lack of restriction of one's actions, the absence of obstacles to self-determination or personal choices, the right to make up one's own mind with regard to occupation, speech, assembly, religion, and so on.
Naturally, this kind of freedom is entirely desirable and although our democratic system of government has experienced many pitfalls and defects, and throughout the course of our history we have not always been able to achieve perfect freedom in the sense just described, it is none the less true that few would question the desirability for such freedom. Men are still willing to make enormous sacrifices—their very lives at times—for the ideal of freedom. One only needs to look towards the sacrifices made in WW1 and most recently amongst those of us who have served in Afghanistan; searching and trying to secure peace, a peace that leads to freedom.
Christian teaching lies at the very heart of such an ideal. And in spite of the ups and downs of Church history, wherein even the Church has seemed to be an accomplice to agencies and forces that would deny this kind of basic right to the human race, it would be inaccurate to say that the Christian Church in most of its classical forms teaches that men are not destined to be free in this very sense. It is incompatible with Christian teaching to maintain that man should be shackled with restrictions against his personal freedom to pursue a way of life to his own choosing.
But free to do what she wants? Free to run riot? Freedom in many contexts gives us choice. For the people of faith, freedom is to be set free from the bonds of sin; that which stops us become who should be—children made in the image of God. So we come to know God and will know what true freedom is about. When Martin Luther King spoke those words, "free at last, free at last, I thank God almighty that I am free at last", yes, the bonds of slavery were well passed but equality was far from available for all African Americans. But if we view Dr King's words in the light of Christian thought; then freedom is dependent not upon human legislation but upon divine action on the cross.
But Christian freedom can only work if we understand that redemption is not an individual gift, Jesus is not a personal Saviour, "for me and my friends only." Freedom is to become who we are able to be. Christian freedom is free from the bonds of sin but also free to live within the grace of the Christian faith. Freedom in Christ, accepting that we are made free enables us to serve. Nelson Mandela called his autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom, not just the story of his own incarceration, but about how he sought to build a country where freedom was for all, regardless of colour, creed, or orientation.
Those men and women who marched before you this morning and who sit here now; they are but a small example of the thousands who serve in our nation's Armed Services. For them it is more than a job, more than a chance to travel, more than a way out of poverty: it is the chance to serve, to make a difference, to bring freedom to others and so enable people to fulfil their potential. Yes, they sacrifice the ability to go home each night, they are away long periods very frequently; they literally put themselves in harms way. We may be the unseen, silent service, ploughing our trade upon the high seas, but the effect they bring is the freedom that you enjoy.