Sermon for Evensong after the AGM of the Guildford Branch of the Prayer Book Society, 15th June 2013
Psalm 78: Judges 7: Luke 14:25-end. Human ‘flourishing’: ‘that peace which the world cannot give’

On Wednesday I went to a very interesting panel discussion in St Paul’s Cathedral, chaired by Stephanie Flanders, the BBC economics correspondent, in a series called ‘The City and the Common Good – what kind of City do we want?’ under the auspices of St Paul’s Institute, which, even if it may not actually have been set up in response to the Occupy protest outside St Paul’s, certainly has raised its profile since.

The title of the session was ‘Good Banks’, and the panel was led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who gave the keynote presentation. As you can imagine, it was a fascinating evening. Archbishop Justin is a leading member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, so he definitely knows what he is talking about in the banking area as well, of course, as being the temporal head of the Church of England.

Archbishop Justin talked about what it was for a bank to be good. The ultimate objective, Archbishop Justin said, was that a bank should contribute to the common good; and the common good he explained as ‘human flourishing’. ‘Flourishing’. I’ll come back to that.

The panel all, in various ways, talked about what it was for a bank to be ‘good’, or what ‘good’ things a bank could do – or what bad things a bank could do. Although they were sitting under the dome of St Paul’s, even the Archbishop of Canterbury didn’t spend very much time on what it was that made things good or bad. He just said that the key objective was to promote ‘human flourishing’.

I think ‘human flourishing’ is one of those almost circular terms dreamed up by philosophers and theologians to get away from terms like ‘rich’ or ‘successful’ or ‘happy’, which might invite objections of one kind or another, if they were put forward as ingredients of ‘goodness’. ‘Flourishing’ has perhaps some connotation of St Irenaeus’ famous saying, that ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’. A human being who has realised his or her potential, who is fulfilled in that: not just successful – not necessarily successful at all. Antony Jenkins of Barclays, another panel member, recalled that, when he was being questioned by the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, he was ticked off by Archbishop Justin for forgetting that Barclays was originally a Quaker company. Their values were derived from their Quaker Christian faith.

It’s just not the case that everyone will automatically agree on what is good and bad. There’s a famous instance in Herodotus’ Histories, written right back in the 5th century BC, [Book III.38.3f], where the Persian king Darius asks some Greeks how much he would need to pay them in order to persuade them to eat their fathers’ corpses when they died. They replied that would never do that, not at any price. After that, Darius summoned some Indians of a tribe called Callatiae, who did eat their fathers’ corpses, and asked them how much money it would take to persuade them to cremate their fathers’ corpses. They, the Callatiae, cried out in horror and told him not to say such awful things. Our perception of what it is to be good or bad has always been heavily influenced by our surroundings and our culture, what it is that we agree on to be a good thing.

However, these days we don’t very often go very deeply into what it is that makes something good or bad, what it is that makes us generally agree that something is good or bad: what the quality in the thing which is held out to be good or bad, what quality in that thing will make us decide that it is good or bad morally. But if we do think about it, it is that as Christians, just like the founders of Barclays Bank, we derive our justification, our perception that something or other is good or bad, from our Christian faith: from the 10 Commandments, from Jesus’ sayings in the New Testament.

There is of course a spectrum of opinion within Christianity concerning whether you can simply refer to what the Bible says, as being the Word of God, the literal Word of God, as being decisive in all moral questions, or whether you have to understand the Bible in the light of experience and scholarship.

For instance if we take another current moral conundrum, what to do about Syria, it seems fairly clear that, certainly in the Old Testament, in our Psalm and in our lesson from Job today, the use of force was regarded as being a perfectly legitimate way of settling differences between nations.

It seems odd, in the light of this, that the 10 Commandments quite clearly include the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’. What has happened is that over time, scholars such as St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas have developed the doctrine of the ‘just war’. You not only need what’s in the Bible, but also scholarly interpretation in the light of experience.

Now we are here to worship at the time of our meeting, as members of the Prayer Book Society. We are celebrating and supporting the use of the Book of Common Prayer. How is it that the orders of service and words for worship which were composed by Cranmer, evolved in the century beginning after 1549 and turned into this little book, the Book of Common Prayer – how is it that these are still valid for use today, in the face of these contemporary moral issues?

What are we doing in worship? We are coming to God in prayer, to ask forgiveness for our sins, to thank God for the blessings which we have received, to praise God – just a minute: we are coming ‘ … to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.’ I think that those words, in the Prayer Book, really can’t be bettered as a neat and comprehensive statement of what we are doing in our services of daily prayer.

In this little Evensong service, expressed in the most beautiful words, we are bringing ourselves before God in the best way we know how. Cranmer’s words are full of meaning; they give us the widest scope in prayer. If we say or sing Mattins and Evensong each day, if we use the psalms and the lessons prescribed in the Prayer Book, we will read the whole Bible from end to end, and we will have before us each day powerful examples, in the Prayer Book, of Jesus’ teaching and the meaning of the divine revelation.

Look at Mary’s song, Magnificat, which is all about Jesus’ almost revolutionary message. ‘He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden … He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

What a strong message for the G8 Summit on Monday and Tuesday! Who is this message for? In the Magnificat, ‘He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel’, but in Nunc Dimittis also, ‘Thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.’
Christianity is for everyone.

Back to those moral questions, for the good bank and for those who want to stop the killing in Syria, or who want the G8 nations to deal with world hunger and poverty. Where does goodness come from? What is the standard that we can rely on? As Christians, it comes from revelation, from the revelation that is the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.

‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty …’ Again, it’s there in the Prayer Book. That is the mystery in which we believe. That is what Christian morality is rooted in. God is not just an unmoved mover, the great creator, but He has revealed Himself personally to us in Jesus.

We can’t stay silent in the face of that great and wonderful truth. So we pray. We pray in the Prayer Book, in the way that Jesus taught us: ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, …’ In the Lord’s Prayer we glorify God; we pray for His kingdom; we pray for our physical needs – ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ we pray for forgiveness for our sins and we pray for grace to forgive people who do things against us. We pray not to be put to the test, and we pray to be good – ‘deliver us from evil’.

In the set prayers, the collects, the state prayers for the Queen and for the Royal Family, the prayer for the clergy and people, all wrapped up together in the great prayer of St Chrysostom, the Prayer Book encompasses and puts into words all the other things that we will want to lay before God. These prayers are very inclusive. Anyone can say these prayers, and mean them. You don’t have to believe in particular types of theology in order to use the Prayer Book. An evangelical, charismatic, waving their arms about and chanting worship songs, can still use these words just as effectively as a learned chaplain in an Oxford college or a canon in one of the great cathedrals. This is truly common prayer.

It is liturgy. It is the ‘work of the people’, which is what liturgy, λειτουργία, means in Greek. The Prayer Book is still a practical guide, a powerful tool which gives us the best words to bring ourselves before God. ‘Give us that peace which the world cannot give’. That peace – that flourishing, even, as Archbishop Justin would put it.

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