Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist with Imposition of Ashes on Ash Wednesday 2015
Start Date: 18th Feb 2015
Start Time: 17:00

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The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

The House of Bishops of the Church of England yesterday released a 52-page pastoral letter to members of the Church encouraging them to engage with politics and raising issues they should think about before casting their vote in the forthcoming General Election. Reactions in the media have been varied. Perhaps they say more about the political stance of the particular radio or television broadcaster or newspaper than about what the Bishops said. The pastoral letter is worth reading.

One newspaper, under a banner headline that suggests the Prime Minister was 'incensed' by the Bishops (a joke not everyone will have appreciated), goes on to identify certain Bishops' 'form' on poverty. 'Form' in common parlance in this country normally means something approaching a criminal record. So, we see where they are coming from. We can see too where the bishops are coming from. Their position is based on that of our Lord Jesus Christ who proclaimed 'good news to the poor.' The cartoon in one paper has a mitred bishop kneeling at the keyhole of a door marked politics, as if the Church has no right to say anything about politics. The cartoonist should come here and reflect on the significance of King Edward the Confessor rebuilding this Abbey and building his palace beside it. That speaks clearly to my mind of the fundamental understanding in this country of a deep and critical engagement between Church and State. And, in fact, the Bishops are politically even-handed. They avoid indicating any right-left prejudice, aiming instead for the building of stronger communities.

The Bishops also encourage young people not to be led by figures they admire into neglecting their democratic rights and duties. One bishop said they should not accept Russell Brand's, or indeed anyone else's, cynicism about politics and public life. The battle for the right to a universal plebiscite in this country lasted over a hundred years. Don't throw it away now, they say, less than a hundred years after it was won.

There is a long tradition of criticising young people for their deplorable attitudes. 'The trouble with young people today…' 'Everything is going to the dogs…' Hesiod, a Greek poet writing about 700 years before the birth of Christ, said 'I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young ...' etc. etc. And, round about the time this current Abbey church was built 750 years ago, a pious hermit called Peter wrote, 'The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them.' He reserved particular criticism for the way girls dressed 'these days.' It is perhaps troubling that a hermit noticed.

Well, we seem to have survived. And recent statistical information has something interesting to reveal about young people in this country today. Three indices people have monitored, who fear that our civilisation is going to hell in a handcart, have moved in a surprising direction. The number of teenage pregnancies is on a sharp downward curve. The incidence of excessive drinking amongst young people is reducing markedly—40% down in the past ten years. Levels of crime, much of which is attributed to young people, have been reducing year on year for the past twenty years or so. Now all this is encouraging and wonderful. And if young people were also to vote in large numbers there might be unexpected results.

It would be a brave commentator who sought to identify a particular cause for this development in the behaviour of young people. No doubt in fact there are many and various causes. But let me be brave.

There has been a remarkable change in the nature and character of education in this country in the last twenty five years. The changes have arisen from political pressure. So, they have been controversial and heavily criticised by those representing teachers. There are aspects of the pressure on schools that many have regarded as distasteful. But the pressure has been relentless and education has changed and improved dramatically. One powerful political figure during that time was motivated by the recognition that the system was writing off too many children and condemning them to an unfulfilled life. A man born blind, he had been told that his best hope was to be a piano tuner. Risen to be Secretary of State for Education, he was determined that no young person would be discouraged and held back as he had been.

The publication of frequent school inspection reports and of particular schools' outcomes in terms of examination results have helped drive change in the past twenty five years. Scrutiny has proved salutary. Schools with children from the least advantaged backgrounds have been challenged to provide an education that allows them to transcend these difficulties and schools with more advantaged pupils have been challenged if they were thought to be 'coasting' rather than seeking constant improvement—a good word 'coasting'. All this has had a marked effect; even though it has been unpopular with the professionals, it has been welcomed by parents. And it has gradually ceased to be severely contested between the political parties.

Now imagine for a moment that such levels of scrutiny were applied to the Bishops and to the Church—that would mean to you and me. How would we fare if the commentators and columnists were to turn back on us the spotlight the Bishops have sought to shine on the politicians and the inspectors on schools? Not very well generally, I think you might agree. Many of us might not like but would benefit from a spotlight on our performance and outcomes as Christians. Does any of us retain the early excitement or determination we had when we first took to ourselves and made our commitment to the Christ we seek to follow? I hope the answer is Yes. Even so, none of us fully lives up to our baptismal commitment, to turn away from sin and to follow Christ. Many of us have become 'coasting Christians'.

Allow the spotlight to shine on you for a moment as you prepare to repent of your sins and to have on your forehead the mark of the ash, the symbol of the sackcloth and ashes that denoted in ancient times a penitent sinner. The spotlight in this case will not be harsh. It will be the light of the love of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ.

And as you face the charge of being a coasting Christian and as you take a few faltering steps towards the God who loves you, both this evening and during this Lent, recall how in our Lord's parable the grieving Father ran out with joy to meet the prodigal son. And stage by stage by God's grace you will become what you really are through baptism: a child of God and an inheritor of his kingdom.

Jesus said, 'Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.' Thanks be to God!

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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