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A letter which I have submitted to The Guardian

As a Corbynista I was prepared not to like Sir Keir’s ‘essay’. I understand that The Spectator is offering a bottle of champagne to anyone who can read more than half of the 36-page Fabian Society paper. I qualify. You can read it at https://fabians.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/The-Road-Ahead-FINAL_WEB-fri-1.pdf

Keir identifies the major tasks facing a future Labour government as restoring the proper balance between the functions of the state and the job of private enterprise, so as to restore an effective NHS, excellent state education, an adequate welfare state providing a proper safety net for those who are unemployed, disabled, ill or otherwise unable to earn the means of living; to protect civil order by having enough police, and to restore the civil and criminal justice systems with adequate numbers of courts and access to justice irrespective of means.

All fine: but I do feel that the ideas in Keir’s paper need more, in order to be really credible. ‘Who will pay for all this public spending?’ people will ask. 

That seems to me to be the only question Labour must answer, in order to make a really credible offer. Keir mentions the great challenges met in 1945, and others – even Tories like Iain Duncan Smith – have recently suggested that after the devastation of COVID (and of Brexit, although they don’t admit it), what is needed is a ‘wartime solution’. That is, much higher government spending, financed by borrowing and higher taxes, not austerity. 

It’s important that Labour should explain that this is economically highly literate: that the country can, and should, spend its way back to financial health. Indeed, in the USA President Biden is already doing just that. Higher taxes, on the rich and the offshore multinationals, are fine: they will benefit most people and enable the state to function properly. 

The ‘big idea’ which Keir has identified here is the need for a ‘contribution society’ so everyone makes a fair contribution to the maintenance of society, reducing the gap between rich and poor.

Labour, in the person of Gordon Brown, saved the UK economy after the 2008 crash. But the Tories persuaded the electorate to accept an untrue economic narrative which portrayed the rescue as profligacy. Twelve years of economic pain and failure have followed. 

It is vital that Labour should communicate how Keynesian economics, which restored the US economy after the great crash of 1929, and the UK economy after 1945, can turn things around and restore a fairer society where greater overall prosperity is shared fairly between all the people. Maybe Yanis Varoufakis, who has explained all this so well, could become the next Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Hugh Bryant

I have written to Stephen Doughty MP and Vaughan Gething MS as follows.

I am one of your constituents and a Labour Party member. I moved to Penarth from Cobham, Surrey, just before Christmas.

In Cobham I was the general manager and trustee of Cobham Area Foodbank. An important tool in our fundraising was Ken Loach’s powerful and moving film ‘I, Daniel Blake’, which as you will know, shows accurately how food banks and their clients operate.

We also used Ken Loach’s film to badger our local Jobcentre to treat benefit claimants more humanely. The DWP managers were unaware of ‘I, Daniel Blake’, and took on board our suggestion that it should become part of Jobcentre staff training.

Loach is a socialist, whose views represent the best of what Labour stands for. So I am very concerned to read in the ‘Guardian’ that he has been ‘expelled’ from our Party. I feel that this is wrong and should be rectified as soon as possible.

Could you please take note of my view and let me know if you are willing to represent it in the higher echelons of our Party?

In solidarity, yours

Hugh D. Bryant

Today the Archbishop of York writes in the Daily Telegraph (see https://www.archbishopofyork.org/news/latest-news/courageous-and-compassionate-search-english) that English people should celebrate and cultivate

‘the courageous, entrepreneurial spirit of a trading, island nation; and the compassion of a nation slowly facing up to some of the failings of its colonial past; a pioneer of common suffrage and healthcare for all; the birthplace of the World Service.’

But if these admirable objectives are supposed to be what Englishness is all about, why has England (for it is primarily England rather than the whole of the UK) elected a government which works hard against every one of those virtues?

‘Courageous … entrepreneurial… trading’ are not adjectives I would use to describe the policy of slamming the door on free trade with the EU on our doorstep, over 40% of our exports, in exchange for a woolly search for more trade with our former colonies on the other side of the globe, which with a fair wind might amount to less than 5% of exports.

‘Compassion’ is not an adjective I would use to describe a 28% cut in our overseas aid, resulting in death by starvation, disease and lack of education, especially in countries which figure in our ‘colonial past’. ‘Facing up to our failings’ is not how I would describe what is actually happening. Both the government and, if polls are to be believed, two-thirds of the English support this murderous meanness.

‘Common suffrage’ is under attack from the government’s plan to require voters to prove their ID – when there is no evidence of voter fraud and a substantial minority (largely poorer people) do not possess such ID.

‘Healthcare for all’ is also under threat from this government, members of which, including the previous and current Health Secretaries, have expressed admiration for US-style privatised healthcare paid for by private insurance. Meanwhile the government spends less on healthcare than any other major European country, and insults our nurses by offering pay which has not even matched inflation, and is in effect a pay cut.

Mention of the World Service recalls this government’s regular attacks on the BBC, requirement for it to fund TV licences for the elderly out of its own resources instead of providing government funding – which amounts to a 20% cut in overall funding; and as the World Service is funded by the Foreign Office, its funding has been cut as well, and five foreign-language services ditched (see https://www.theguardian.com/media/2011/jan/26/bbc-world-service-cuts?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other).

Maybe the Archbishop is writing about, wishing for, what he would like ‘Englishness’ to be about. Whatever these elusive qualities are, the result of the last general election and the policies of the current Conservative government do not reflect them. Indeed, it seems somewhat naïve to publish his prescription in a newspaper which, in its comment section, has seized on his Grace’s piece as a prayer in aid in its “war on ‘woke’”. It risks being a misdirected arrow, I fear.

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, 7th March 2021

John 2:13-22

‘My house is the house of prayer – but you have made it a den of thieves.’ The story about Jesus turning out the moneychangers and people selling animals and birds for sacrifice in the temple is one that we are all very familiar with, probably particularly the ‘den of thieves’. But you’ll realise that the version of the story which was our gospel today doesn’t actually contain those words, ‘den of thieves’. The ‘den of thieves’ version appears in all in all the other gospels, in Matthew, Mark and Luke [Matt. 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-48], but not in St John’s Gospel, which we read from today.

Here in St John’s account, Jesus ejected from the Temple all the various people selling things there, saying, ‘…you must not turn my father’s house into a market’ [NEB]. In St John’s Gospel, the people that Jesus kicked out of the temple were not thieves, but were simply people running a market, a shop – the word in Greek, το εμπορίον, is the same as our ‘emporium’ – running a shop in a place where they should not have done. Maybe that can give us an idea what Jesus thought about commerce and places of worship. So how should the church interact with the market?

I went once to a very interesting seminar on charity fundraising, and one of the speakers was the Revd Dr Sam Wells, whom I’m sure a lot of you will have heard on ‘Thought for the Day’ in the morning. He is the vicar of St Martin in the Fields in Trafalgar Square.

Sam Wells’ contribution to the seminar was all about the commercial activities of Saint Martin in the Fields. For example the church runs, and charges for, concerts, and they have a big restaurant in the crypt in the basement. Dr Wells was robustly in favour of his church’s commercial activities because, he said, it made it possible for them to do more charitable things than if they just had to rely on what people put in the collection plate. And I’m sure no-one thinks that St Martin’s is a den of thieves!

Perhaps we get a better idea what Jesus was driving at from the context of the story in the Bible. In St John’s Gospel this story of the cleaning out of the temple comes at the beginning of the gospel, immediately after the story of the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana in Galilee. In the other gospels the story comes right at the end just before Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.

Whereas, in the other three gospels, the ‘cleansing’ of the temple was taken as a provocation by the Jewish authorities, leading on to Jesus’ trial, in John’s account the emphasis is much more on the bit about rebuilding of the temple in three days, looking forward to Jesus’ resurrection after three days, with a sort of pun on the word ‘temple’, so that it’s not only the building, but also the physical body of Jesus, and his resurrection – the quintessential sign of his divine nature – that they are talking about.

The way that the first three gospels look at it, they emphasise the den of thieves, the corruption, the cheating; but in St John’s Gospel Jesus simply says you mustn’t be running a shop, any shop, in the temple. There is no suggestion in John’s account that the shopkeepers were ripping people off. It was just that commercial activity wasn’t appropriate in the temple.

If Jesus’ saying about pulling down and rebuilding the temple in three days was a metaphor, a metaphor for his own death and resurrection, was the chucking out of all the paraphernalia of animal sacrifice perhaps not also a metaphor, a metaphorical way of showing that God no longer needed to be appeased, bought off, by being given the carcasses of poor innocent dead animals and birds?

If we see God in that light, instead of a God to be feared, who has to be bought off by sacrifices, Jesus’ message is that after him, divine retaliation and retribution will not be the way forward, but that forgiveness and hope are the ways of the kingdom.

I don’t think we should picture the Temple with any old shops in it – surely these were special shops, just selling what you needed for the worship in the temple. It wasn’t a question of opening a branch of Marks & Spencer in a side chapel of the temple.

But even so, Jesus was passionately opposed to having those shops in the Temple. For him I think it was the whole question of values, and possibly false values, implicit in the idea of markets. Are markets really the only way which we have to reach a fair assessment of the value of something? Do you value things only because they have a certain value in the marketplace?

Take footballers, for instance. Footballers are exceptional in all sorts of ways, but one of them is that leading footballers have a very visible price tag. They are bought and sold almost like a commodity. We are not quite back in the world of the slave trade but, you know, people refer to each of the stars by reference to the cost of their last transfer. We say that a player ‘cost £20 million’. One of you, I’m sure, will be able to tell me immediately what David Beckham’s last transfer cost or what some of the current stars have cost their clubs. The other side of this, of course, is that when a footballer gets near the end of his career, he will get a free transfer. But – does that mean he’s not worth anything at all any more?

Is it right to value something or somebody highly only because they have a big price tag? Surely we’re not really talking about those kind of deals. Granted there are silly prices for exceptional things like football transfers, but still, surely it is all right to buy and sell ordinary things honestly for fair value. Or all right, provided you don’t have your shop in a place of worship.

Jesus doesn’t appear to have anything against people earning money, after all. There’s the story about the labourers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-17), getting the daily rate for the job irrespective of whether they have worked all day or just in the last hour. The argument was about how much they should be paid, not whether being paid at all was the right thing.

Because Jesus said that, if the one who works just for the last hour gets paid the same as the one who worked all the day, it shows that in his Kingdom the first shall be last and the last first – and so market values don’t work in heaven.

So what about the here and now? How should we value someone? Do I hear 1 per cent, for a nurse or a doctor? Or 40 per cent, for Dominic Cummings? What would our Lord say? What price would he put on those NHS angels?

But even though we might well say that doctors and nurses are worth more than any footballer, we need to remember the eternal truths about this. In this week’s Church Times, Dr Cally Hammond, the chaplain of Gonville and Caius, says, ‘Our relationship with God is not a financial transaction.’

She is surely right. You can’t buy your way to heaven in the Temple gift shop. Perhaps heaven is, like Kronenbourg – you know, ‘reassuringly expensive’. Or maybe not.

Hugh Bryant

Sir Keir Starmer: So what is Labour going to do? You know, we keep being told that we are world-class in this and that, and probably the only thing that we can think of that fits that description is the vaccine programme. We have brilliant scientists who have developed the vaccine and our super-efficient NHS is distributing it faster than anyone else.

But you don’t need me to tell you that not much else is world-class at the moment. The number of people who have died in the UK is the highest in Europe and our economy is doing worst among the developed nations. 

Literally millions of people are having to go to food banks, and thousands are homeless on the streets, even in winter time. Universal Credit, to pay everything for a family of four, comes to less than a typical middle-class family will spend just on groceries in the supermarket. 

At the same time some people are getting massively richer through their private contacts with the Conservative party, making contracts to supply things which they know nothing about and which they fail to do, trousering billions in the process.

You know all that. What did you vote for in connection with Brexit? I can’t believe that you really wanted our farmers and fishermen to be unable to export to the EU, or our performing artists, actors, musicians, opera singers, orchestral players or dancers to be unable to go on tour anywhere in Europe, or for none of the stars that we used to welcome from Europe to be able to come here. The Brexit deal leaves out not only the performers but also our financial services industry – together that means half our economic output is effectively subject to a no-deal Brexit. Is that really what people wanted?

Let’s start thinking about what we in Labour could do, if we were in government. People liked the idea of an extra £350 million per week for the NHS as a result of our leaving the EU. Leaving the EU has actually cost us far more than this each week so far. But let’s stay with the idea that the NHS does need more money. Because it does! 

So people were right to vote for more money for the NHS; and Labour will give the NHS the funding that it needs, which is much more than £350 million per week. There needs to be enough investment to ensure that we have sufficient hospital beds – at the moment we have the lowest number per head of population in Europe – enough doctors – we have a shortage of several thousand – enough nurses – we have a shortage of 40,000 nurses – and all the necessary equipment and facilities that the NHS needs. The NHS needs massive extra investment, and Labour will provide it. 

Just remember the Nightingale hospitals. The army came in and very efficiently did what they are very good at, creating instant buildings, and the government managed to cobble together enough ventilators – but we didn’t have any doctors or nurses to staff these new hospitals. It was an illusion. Labour is not in the business of illusions. We want to give you the real thing, something solid and reliable.

What about our housing? When did you last meet someone who lives in a council house? We need to build hundreds of thousands of council houses. Yes, council houses, not so-called ‘affordable’ houses. Because current housing is not affordable. For somebody on an ordinary income even the deposit for a private rented flat may be out of reach. To buy an ‘affordable’ house, as it is defined, in parts of the south-east, costs half a million pounds. 

The government needs to invest in things which provide solid, lasting benefits for society and at the same time provide real jobs. If we built another half million council houses, as they did at the end of the Second World War, this would employ thousands of people and provide work for many subcontractors and manufacturers all over the country. Labour will provide the necessary finance to local authorities so that they can afford to do this.  

And local authorities need the proper funding – which they used to have – in order to do all the things which they can do to make our lives more civilised. We need to make sure that they have enough funds to pay properly for social care which can work closely with the National Health Service, so that old people are not just dumped.

We need children to be properly catered for. The Sure Start scheme needs to be reinstated and properly funded. Our schools and their teachers must have proper funding. It’s interesting that if you send a kid to a private school (or what is called a ‘public school’), it’s going to cost over £30,000 per year, whereas in the state system the budget for each pupil is around £4,000. 

Nearly eight times less! We need to invest in our schools, so that our teachers can take their proper place in society – and indeed so that we can attract the best and most talented people to become teachers – and so that those schools can have all the facilities to educate our children to the highest standard. It’s no good when Dame Louise Casey, the Children’s Commissioner, says in her leaving report that a fifth of children leaving school cannot read and write. We are the sixth richest country in the world, and that is disgraceful. Teachers need to be in the same league as other professionals.Every child should have a proper amount spent on them. We should rejoin the Erasmus educational exchange scheme. Labour will do this.

We must get away from this idea that public is bad and private is good. Think where you would rather live, if you couldn’t live where you do now. Which country? I expect quite a lot of people would say Italy, France, Germany, or Spain, where every town has an elegant square and fine buildings around it; fine public facilities – in Germany even modest sized towns have their own opera house – whereas our whole country has only three major opera houses.

We have to get through this pandemic. It seems wrong to us in Labour that there are still hundreds of thousands of people who have fallen through the net and are not receiving any kind of state benefits even though they are prevented from working, perhaps because they have just changed their job or they have gone self-employed – and by the way, being self-employed, we think, is often a scam, so their employers can cheat the tax-man. 

We are very pleased to see the judgement in the Uber case which is, we hope, going to outlaw much of the ‘gig economy’ so that everyone who works hard can have paid holidays and sick leave when they need it. Good work by the trades unions got this result, and Labour will legislate to make sure of it.

But, you will say, Labour is always very good at spending other people’s money. We need government to be prudent. Frankly, you need to know, that is an over-simplification. As Mr Sunak has proved, when the money is needed, money can be easily found. If you compare our situation now with that at the end of World War II, we were far worse off then and borrowing was much higher – and yet the Labour government successfully started the NHS, built half a million council houses and created the modern welfare state. Margaret Thatcher and her handbag are not a good economic model!

And what about our relations with Europe? We don’t think that people voted to leave the Customs Union and Single Market. Indeed the Brexit campaigners constantly assured us that there would be no question of this happening. 

Again, people wanting to stop immigration have perhaps forgotten how many immigrants keep the NHS going. How many doctors and nurses there are from other countries all around the world. How many teachers and researchers in our leading universities – and indeed how many plumbers and fruit pickers – there are from our friends and neighbours in other countries.

Immigrants, as a group, contribute over 10% more in tax than people who were born in this country. We should welcome them. Freedom of movement would actually be a very good thing for our country, so long as we have proper resources in place. 

If there is a competition for public services, it is because those services have been cut to the bone. If we had properly funded public services, then everybody would be able to benefit, wherever they have come from. 

Labour wants this country to be really world-class, not just world-class for the spivs. A Labour government would lead the country, all the country, into a better place. We know that it will cost money, at least in the short run, and we need to look again at the taxation of the giant multinational companies who use our public facilities but contribute hardly anything in tax.

There is a reason why it is cheaper to shop online than to visit a shop on the High Street. It is because the likes of Amazon and Apple and Google play the market in international tax and pay little or nothing in this country. Labour will put a stop to this and will tax the multinational companies not on profits but on turnover from sales in this country. 

And yes, we will introduce higher rates of income tax for the wealthy. It’s true that the wealthy already pay a lot of tax. But frankly if you earn several hundred thousand pounds a year you can afford to pay some more.

We will look sympathetically at the idea of universal basic income. It is frankly wrong that anyone in work should have to go to a food bank, as many nurses do. It is wrong that people who are disabled or unable to work for whatever reason should have less to cover all their living expenses than what many people spend every week just on groceries in Sainsbury’s or Waitrose.

Mention those shop names; what’s happening on the High Street is something which Labour wants to address too. The great department shops can’t survive if people can buy everything online at a cheaper price. Your local bookshop won’t survive if Amazon can sell books for less than the local book shop can buy them wholesale. Labour will ensure that online retailers have to bear the same costs as physical shops who employ local people and provide real service face-to-face.

Labour will invest in our justice system. We will actively seek to rejoin the European criminal intelligence network; we will reopen courts and provide properly resourced Legal Aid, including for family cases, so that justice is no longer open only to the rich, and people charged in criminal cases do not have to wait for up to a year to be tried. Justice delayed is justice denied, and Labour agrees. Labour will uphold the Human Rights Act.

Welcome to our world – to the Labour world. Really world-class.

[Applause]

29th January 2021

A dispute has arisen between the UK and the EU concerning the distribution of Covid vaccines made by AstraZeneca. For what it’s worth I offer the following thoughts, as a long-retired English solicitor who once specialised in shipping and international trade.

There are two contracts involved: an ‘advance purchase agreement’ (the APA) between AstraZeneca (AZ) and the European Commission, (EC), acting as agent for the 27 states who are members of the European Union (EU), a redacted copy of which is available at https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/api/files/attachment/867990/APA%20-%20AstraZeneca.pdf; and a presumably similar contract between AZ and the British Government (UK govt). The terms of this second contact have not been disclosed.

UK govt are said to have ‘bought’ a certain quantity of Covid vaccine from AZ. Perhaps it is more accurate to say they have ‘agreed to buy’ a certain number of doses, when available. UK govt have bought and used some vaccines already.

In the recitals to the APA, AZ ‘has committed to use its Best Reasonable Efforts (as defined …) to build capacity to manufacture 300 million Doses of the Vaccine [defined terms], …. for distribution within the EU … with an option for .. [EC] .. to order an additional 100 million Doses …’

‘Best Reasonable Efforts’ is defined at clause 1.9.

The contract is subject to Belgian law.

Clause 5.4 specifies that AZ will use Best Reasonable Efforts to manufacture in the EU. This clause is to be understood so as to include the UK temporarily within the EU.

Clause 8.3(b) ‘In the event that … the number of Doses set forth in the Binding Allocation [as defined in 8.3(a)] does not equal 300 million, then … the .. allocation of the Initial Europe Doses shall be made on a pro-rata basis to reflect the respective populations of each of the Participating Member States …’

AZ’s obligations under the contract are to make ‘Best Reasonable Efforts’ to make and supply vaccines.

In the English law of contracts a distinction is made between an undertaking (a contractual promise) to do something, and an offer to ‘use best endeavours’ to do something, which is not an undertaking, or contractual promise – it is merely a promise to try.

What does Belgian law say about this? Is ‘Best Reasonable Efforts’ a legally-defined phrase, in the way that to ‘use best endeavours’ is in English law?

The reason why, in English law, a party may contract only to use best endeavours is because in the particular circumstances, they cannot control or guarantee the outcome. They will try to bring it about, but they cannot guarantee it.

I do not know whether there is a similar distinction in Belgian law.

Given the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 epidemic and the very rapid development of vaccines, it is understandable that any supplier of vaccines would not guarantee a particular level of supply, and indeed cl 8.3(b) sets out a mechanism for distribution in the event that targets are not met, despite ‘Best Reasonable Efforts’.

In cl 13, Representations and Warranties, AZ says, (e), ‘.. it is not under any obligation, contractual or otherwise, to any Person or third party in respect of the Initial Europe Doses or that conflicts with or is inconsistent… with the terms … or would impede the complete fulfilment of its obligations ….’

Cl 13 gives some assurance that the operation of the second contract, with the UK, does not interfere. Supplies of vaccine which would otherwise have gone to the EU are unaffected.

Vaccine nationalism does not help the human race. Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation has said that squabbles among the rich nations about how the cake should be divided are particularly repugnant to people who do not have even the crumbs.

Hugh Bryant

29th January 2021

PS – 31st January 2021 – In the light of various press reports.

In the AZ context, there are at least two contracts, the ‘Advance Purchase Agreement’ between AZ and the EU and (probably) a similar agreement between AZ and the UK. Nobody mentions the second agreement and nobody knows what it says. 

In that these ‘APAs’ are in effect contracts to contract, or agreements to agree, in English law they would most probably be construed as being of no binding effect. Only the eventual actual agreement to purchase vaccine would be contractually binding. But Belgian law may not agree …

Commentary on ‘Identities are reduced to politics’ by Angela Tilby, Church Times, 6th November 2020: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/198908

Hugh Bryant

Angela Tilby has written about being made to feel uncomfortable. She says, ‘We are all gradually being persuaded that to make anyone feel “uncomfortable” is tantamount to a hate crime’.

What she is talking about is not comfort in the sense of warmth or a nice armchair. The contrary – what it is to be uncomfortable, in the sense she intends – is the opposite of being ‘comfortable in one’s own skin’; and that ‘skin’ is not the characteristic of an individual but of a group, of ‘class, colour, ethnicity, or religion’.

In other words, it’s not a good thing to make people feel uncomfortable on the basis of those generic characteristics, of what they are, as opposed to anything which they may have done or said. Tilby says, ‘This is why I regularly feel uncomfortable at hymns and preachy prayers that glare unforgivingly at various social injustices’.

What brought me up short in her article was this reference to a feeling of discomfort at ‘hymns and preachy prayers that glare unforgivingly at various social injustices’.

This is something I have often wondered about. For instance, I have often wondered about people who profess to be Christians in positions of power, who, in the exercise their power, do things which would seem to contradict Jesus’ commandments, (usually the commandment to love thy neighbour as thyself).

A case in point, I have thought, was Prime Minister May, who is said to be a regular churchgoer, but who created and promoted a policy of a ‘hostile environment’ for intending immigrants, leading to various inhumane consequences including the EMPIRE WINDRUSH scandal. What did Mrs May do in church? Was she asleep there? I wondered. The policy which she promoted was something which hurt people, which ruined innocent people’s lives. How could a practising Christian justify doing such a thing?

What is a preacher to say? I think that Canon Tilby is really aiming not at certain hymns and prayers, but rather at what is said from the pulpit. I’m not sure what hymns she has in mind – ‘Fight the good fight’, or maybe the suppressed verse in All Things Bright and Beautiful: ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate …’ It might well be uncomfortable to sing that, and it might well be uncomfortable – certainly for the rich man – to hear it. Is there anything wrong in this? Specifically, does the hymn ‘glare unforgivingly at social injustices’? If it did, I feel, contrary to Canon Tilby, that it is a good thing. The injustices deserve to be glared at.

To pray for wrongs to be righted isn’t ‘preachy’, I would suggest. If the prayer is of the ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz’ type, it’s clearly inappropriate, not because it makes anyone uncomfortable, but because you can’t tell the Almighty what to do. Thy kingdom come: Thy will be done. Thy will. Or see Psalm 115: ‘Our God is in heaven; He does as He pleases’.

Some would say that this is political, and therefore to be avoided. I have to reply that Christianity – and, for that matter, Judaism – is political. The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), for instance, is a revolutionary manifesto in twelve sentences, and there are many other examples. Jesus would have us sell our possessions and give money to the poor: would have us welcome strangers: become servants, rather than the masters that many of us are.

It is said, however, that a Church of England congregation often represents the Conservative Party at prayer. Bishops and clergy, by contrast, tend to vote Liberal Democrat or Labour. Perhaps this is because the ministers actually read, study and inwardly digest the liturgy and Bible lessons which they lead, whereas their flock follow, if not blindly, seemingly without much appreciation that acceptable worship does not involve a prosperity gospel!

But what if light dawns, say during a well-expressed sermon, and the hearer realises that the evil which the preacher is criticising – the social injustice, even – is something in which they, the listener, are complicit? This may indeed be uncomfortable. But surely it is all right, for ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:29). Unless our devotion is tested in that fire, it may not be worth that much.

But is it a ‘hate crime’ to make someone uncomfortable in that sort of way? The essence of a hate crime, I would suggest, is to do harm to someone because he or she represents a racial or national type and for no other reason. Because someone is black, or LGBTi, say. What Canon Tilby is suggesting is that some hymns or prayers, in praying for relief from certain types of oppression or inequality, themselves oppress some people (or make them uncomfortable).

That would require the person discomfited to be in some way oppressive or otherwise reprehensible, as opposed to their doing something oppressive.

Canon Tilby mentions being a woman; but I cannot think that ipso facto she is worthy of chastisement as such – if at all. If she is being made to feel uncomfortable, it is not because of what she is, but because of something she may feel she ought not to have done – and that she resents being reminded of.

Put another way, as the Roman Catholics say, hate the sin but pardon the sinner. So a prayer or a hymn directed against social injustice is not a ‘hate crime’. It invokes the aid of the Almighty against the evil but does not condemn the person who does that evil. It is not directed against what that person is; but rather it may well call down condemnation on what they do.

14th November 2020

Sermon for 1030 Holy Communion at St Mary, Oatlands on 14th October 2020

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=469611667

Galatians 5.18-end; Luke 11.42-46

In our Gospel reading today, it leapt out at me, when I was reading it in preparation for our service today, that Jesus was saying rude things about lawyers. Although, in the Bible translation which we are using today, Jesus doesn’t actually talk about lawyers but about people who are ‘experts in the law’, in Jesus’s time there wasn’t such a thing as a ‘lawyer’ in the same sense that we understand it. Then, what you had were ‘advocates’.

You will recall that the Holy Spirit is referred to sometimes as the advocate, or even a ‘comforter’; in John 14:16, Jesus says he will send us his Holy Spirit to be an advocate and guide. If you went to the right Bible classes you may even have heard the word Paraclete, which is one of those words you only hear in church, but it means an advocate, it means somebody to be with you, to speak for you, in court.

What we have here isn’t a Paraclete, but a νομικός, that Jesus is being rude about. Νόμος, substantive, the thing, means the law; νομικός, adjective its characteristic, means ‘to do with law’; as a substantive, it means somebody who is familiar with the law, so the word is usually translated as ‘lawyer’.

As some of you will know, I used to be a lawyer, a solicitor. It’s now a dim and distant memory – I retired 15 years ago – but still I feel that I should stand up for my old profession. That is, if Jesus is really slagging off lawyers.

Actually, of course, when you see the other lesson, from Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians, you will see that we are into the distinction that St Paul draws, picking up on what he learned of Jesus’ teaching, that on the one hand you have the Law, meaning the Jewish law, the first five books of the old Testament, the Pentateuch, and on the other hand you have the state of grace for those who have been saved and have come to faith in Christ Jesus. So maybe it is indeed right to talk about people who are ‘expert in the law’, meaning the Jewish Law, rather than simply about ‘lawyers’.

But as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it [Matt. 5:17]. He said that all his teaching can be summed up in two supreme commandments, commandments taken from the Jewish Law, to love God and to love your neighbour [Matt. 22:36-40].

Galatians 5 tells you what to expect from someone who has been saved, who has had that revolution in their life and doesn’t need to have a policeman standing over them, but just does the right thing. The right thing is to love your neighbour. All those things that St Paul lists as the Fruits of the Spirit lead to various ways of loving your neighbour. So fortunately it turns out that nothing in our Gospel today is really against lawyers.

Well, I know that Folli [Revd Olokose] and Hugh [Montgomerie, Reader] have an excellent style of preaching here, which always ends with a challenge. So I thought I would try to enter into the spirit of that too; but first of all, I need to tell you a little story.

When I was starting my ministry training nearly 14 years ago, it coincided with my elder daughter Emma starting her university studies in medicine at Bristol University. Very soon in the first term I visited her to see how she was settling into her hall of residence.

When I came back, I was at church for the 10 o’clock service, and after the service I was having coffee with some of the other faithful people. Somebody asked me how I had found my trip to Bristol. Had it been an easy journey? I said that it had been a very easy journey, but that I just suddenly thought – a little cloud had crossed my brain – that it might turn out to have been rather more expensive than I had bargained for.

Why so? Because, just before I turned off on the M32 to go into the city of Bristol, I had passed under a bridge, which, too late, I’d noticed was bristling, bristling with things that looked mighty like cameras. ‘So’, my faithful friend asked, ‘surely that’s not a problem? You were doing 70 miles an hour’.

‘Hmm’, I said, ‘if only; but I did manage to get it below100!’

She took my arm and marched me off into a corner. ‘Now Hugh’, she said. ‘Now that you are in ministry training, you have to do two things. You must stop breaking the law – and the other thing is, you must stop crowing about it!’

Oh dear. She was, of course, right. The Fruits of the Spirit hadn’t quite taken root in me at that point, as you will realise. But what about you? Have you had those sort of moments? Has the Spirit taken root in you and borne fruit yet? What do you think?

And that’s my challenge to you this morning. Not just to get it below 100 – but you know what I mean.

Sermon for 1030 Eucharist at St Mary, Oatlands on 21st October 2020

Acts 16:6-12; 2 Timothy 4:5-17; Luke 10:1-9 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=470148758)

On Sunday we were remembering Saint Luke, the ‘beloved physician’, as Saint Paul describes him in his second letter to Timothy, the one who wrote not only the Gospel according to Saint Luke but also the Acts of the Apostles, I want to carry on remembering St Luke this morning, looking at the same Bible passages as we used on Sunday.

Folli [Revd Folo Olokose] treated us to a theological masterclass in his sermon on Sunday. I don’t want to go over exactly the same ground again, but he did make some points which I will just briefly mention, particularly for anyone who was not there on Sunday.

Folli took, as the heart of his sermon, the name of the person to whom Saint Luke dedicates his two books, Theophilus. Who was Theophilus? Folli argued that it is a name for a type of person, not someone in particular – not who, but what. It literally means, ‘a friend of God’. It could mean any of us.

All the other things which might seem to make us different from each other, such as our education, our physical characteristics, or the ability to run a four-minute mile, are all things which can come and go, and might depend on where you have been born, who your parents were. However, being God’s friend is something which lasts forever, and which any of us can be.

So Folli argued that, in dedicating his books to Theophilus, Luke was in fact dedicating them to all of us, to all who love God. And we see from today’s lessons that Luke was a companion of Saint Paul on his travels. ‘We did this..’, rather than ‘they did it’, in the passage from Acts 16 which was one of the lessons prescribed for Sunday.

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.’

Luke says, ‘We’. He was there, travelling with St Paul. In a wider sense, who are ‘we’ in this context? From Paul’s letter to the Romans, ‘… there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all…’ (Romans 10:12).

So in our lesson today, Luke reports on Jesus sending his disciples out ahead of him, to prepare people for him coming and preaching among them. Roughly the same report comes in St Matthew’s Gospel too.

You might note that Jesus instructs the apostles, ‘Do not move around from house to house’. I had a bit of an unholy thought – do you think our Lord might have had tier 2 or tier 3 in mind?

Of course they didn’t have a plague then. Sending them out they were a bit like Billy Graham’s people, arranging one of his crusades, securing the venues and booking the hotels – although Jesus stipulated that it should all be done on a shoestring – but what was the message that Jesus was going to preach?

The message wasn’t going to be about life after death. Jesus hadn’t died at this stage. Let’s look at the Gospels where Jesus sends out his disciples to do the Billy Graham thing, that is, our Gospel passage today from St Luke, chapter 10, where Jesus sends out 70 or 72 apostles, and St Matthew chapter 10, where he only sends out 12 apostles.

By the way, the word ‘apostle’ comes from the Greek verb αποστέλλω, which means ‘I send out’, so an αποστολος, the noun from it, means someone sent out, in the same sense that an ambassador is sent out.

The other difference is that in St Matthew’s account, Jesus wanted the apostles just to go to the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’, and not to go to the non-Jews, the Gentiles and Samaritans, whereas in St Luke’s gospel the only thing that mattered was whether they were welcomed or not.

Given that Luke and Paul were together for some time, and that actually Paul wrote his letters, like the letter to the Romans, before any of the Gospels were written, I’m inclined to say that Luke’s account is more likely. Paul’s idea that there was no difference between Jew and Greek, between Jews and non-Jews, Gentiles, seems to me to be more in line with what Jesus was teaching.

In St Luke’s Gospel, immediately after the 70 are sent out, we read the story of the Good Samaritan. The point is, it doesn’t matter what nationality he was. He cared for his neighbour, for the person he found hurt on the road. Surely Jesus wouldn’t have warned the apostles off having to do with Samaritans, if he was going to praise the Good Samaritan in his next breath, as He did.

Bear in mind that St Matthew’s Gospel is generally reckoned to have been aimed at a Jewish readership, whereas St Luke probably wasn’t a Jew and was writing for everyone – for ‘Theophilus’. And St Paul definitely had the same idea. No such thing as Jew and Greek.

One thing that these two accounts, in Matthew and Luke, do have in common is that the apostles were sent out just after Jesus preached his great Sermon on the Mount. You know, all those great challenges: love your enemies, turn the other cheek. Think of the lilies of the field: they neither spin nor weave: yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Don’t worry about material comforts. The Lord will provide.

Surely, you might say, the sermon on the Mount is great in theory, but not really doable. Impractical instructions. How literally can we take what Jesus said? Why would we have armies, if we really always turned the other cheek?

And according to St Luke, it was all for Theophilus. For anyone who loves God. No one has any special qualification to receive God’s blessing.

So if we are thinking about Jesus’ teaching as he sent out the apostles, and the idea that in God’s sight we are al equal, neither Jew not Greek, can I pose a question for you to think about?

My question is about refugees, about ‘migrants’. If we believe that it is true that all people, from any nationality, are equal in the sight of God, why should we be entitled to live in bounteous Surrey in England whereas a person from another country – Syria or Afghanistan or South Sudan, say – has to pass rigorous checks before they are let in? Why are they not equally entitled?

Is it because will overwhelm our public facilities, schools, hospitals and so on? Is that true? They will be a drain on our economy, some people say. The statistics say that immigrants contribute 15% more in tax than people who were born here. Or, should we sift out the applications so that we only let in people with a certain minimum level of qualifications?

But just a minute. I wasn’t born in the UK only because I’d won an Oxford scholarship. What does ‘Theophilus’ mean? Are British people more entitled to salvation than, say, Ethiopians? In St Luke’s terms, both could be ‘Theophilus’.

What do you think? It might be a good idea to imagine that we could be like the people on the road to Emmaus, that we might suddenly meet Jesus. What would we say to Him? Would we justify to Jesus what we do, keeping poor immigrants out of ‘our’ country? Even if our country is supposed to be ‘full’, how would we, who have so much, justify drawing up the drawbridge against people who have so little?

I’m not telling you what to think. We have quite a few refugees who’ve come to this area, and we have a local charity to help refugees, Elmbridge CAN. Through them I’ve had refugees and, yes, ‘economic migrants’ staying for a few months in my own spare room. I felt that I was being called to help them. They are all now settled – productively. Should we be doing more of that sort of thing for refugees?

Well, I hope that is food for thought. Please do keep on thinking about St Luke and Theophilus. Theophilus. Everyone.

Sermon for Holy Communion at 1030 on Wednesday 4th November 2020 at St Mary Oatlands

Matthew 5:1-12

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=471270293

If you had to say what was the real essence of Jesus’ teaching, the true essence of what it means to be a Christian, I think that a good place to start would be Saint Matthew’s Gospel chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount.

In his great sermon, Jesus built on the foundations of the Old Testament. He put himself in the tradition of the prophets, like Moses. For instance, Moses went up on Mount Sinai to meet God, and Jesus, who was God, also went up a mountain to give his most important teaching.

Jesus highlighted the old teaching, according to which, if somebody did you harm, you should pay back ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. Jesus took that much further by saying you should turn the other cheek, go the extra mile; again under the old Jewish law, the rule was to love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but Jesus taught that you should love your enemy and pray for your persecutors.

Jesus said that he had ‘not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it’. He was not rejecting the old Jewish law, but rather developing it. It would be a mistake for us to ignore what is in the Old Testament, but Jesus went much further.

The ‘blessed are they’ sayings, these Beatitudes, are at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve always thought the first one was rather difficult to understand. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Or, as the New English Bible translates it, ‘Blessed are those who know that they are poor.’ Poor in spirit – what does that mean? Is it really that they ‘know that they are poor’?

I’m not really sure what it means to be ‘poor in spirit’. It might have connotations of lack of character, being weak-willed or spineless, not, on the face of things, what Jesus might want to give a prize for, in the kingdom of heaven.

The Greek word which many Bibles translate as ‘spirit’, as in ‘poor in spirit’, is the same word, πνεύμα, that is used for the Holy Ghost, sometimes as a translation for the Hebrew word ‘ruach’, meaning a sort of rushing wind, reminiscent of the events on Whit Sunday, when a sort of rushing wind came upon the assembled disciples, lighting tongues of fire on their heads (which didn’t burn them, just as the burning bush which Moses came across was not burned up: again, another parallel between Old and New Testaments in the Bible: it’s a sign of God’s presence.)

That word in Greek, πνεύμα, is related to the word that you have in French for a tyre, pneu, or for something inflated like a tyre, pneumatic; they all involve wind or breath. So, what are the poor blessed in? – they are blessed for being short of wind. Blessed are the people who don’t know which way they’re blowing, don’t know whether they’re blowing hot or cold, say.

Or is it in fact better translated the way the New English Bible has it,‘Blessed are those who know that they are poor’? There, the translation has taken the ‘in spirit’ bit and turned it into a sense of consciousness, knowledge. They know that they are lacking, deficient – but deficient in what? On this interpretation, it doesn’t say. They are just ‘poor’.

But the word which means ‘poor’ in this passage goes grammatically with the word for ‘spirit’ the other way. You are not spiriting out the poverty, the being poor, but being poor, deficient, in spirit. In Greek it says, ‘Blessed are the deficient in wind’. To say they are simply ‘poor’ isn’t really right. They’re not short of money, but short of puff.

On Sunday, the preacher said it meant, ‘Blessed are the humble’. Humble. Not people who think they are big-shots. People who know their limitations. Again, that’s not what the Greek says literally, but you could argue that it’s closer to what the words really imply. In need – lacking; in spirit – in self-esteem, say: so, humble, lacking in self-esteem.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Think about it a bit, and think what it means for you. Are you humble? Are you running out of puff? Never mind. You are blessed.

But when are you blessed? The other thing you can say about the Beatitudes, and obviously specifically about this first one, is that they are a vision of the future, a vision of the kingdom of God, which Jesus is promising to his followers, but which hasn’t happened yet.

Things may be awful now, but in the world to come it’ll all come right. There might be a snag in this; because you might think, on the basis of this passage, that it was all right to tolerate slavery and oppression in this life, keeping people oppressed, but pacifying them by giving them an assurance that they are on target to inherit heavenly blessings later. That would conflict with what I think is the the heart of the revolutionary message that Jesus gives us.

Those bits of the Sermon on the Mount don’t mean, put up with bad things now because you will be all right later in heaven; but rather, you must do this extra thing, go the extra mile, and not just pay back evil for evil: you must even love your enemy. And the reason for doing that is because it’s the right thing to do, not because it leads to a payoff in heaven.

People often say that the Sermon on the Mount is all very well, but it is just not practical. It demands more than mortal man is capable of. But then you read about people like Nelson Mandela. People can do those impossibly generous things that Jesus recommended. They really can. Really? People like that must need to be saints, you might say.

It’s a good point to make, especially at this time in the Christian year, when we do think about saints. Sunday was All Saints’ Day and the list of the various Beatitudes is, if you like, a list of the things which mark out a saint. Saints – in Latin the word is ‘sancti’ – are people who are marked out, distinguished, holy – holy, which is another word which means the same thing, separate, kept apart from the general run of people. But not necessarily marked out because they’re exceptionally virtuous.

The things that Jesus blesses are all characteristics of saints; but they aren’t superhuman; they are ordinary characteristics, ordinary virtues. Anyone can be a saint. Anyone in any of our churches could be a saint.

St Paul addressed his letters to the ‘saints’ in the various churches he was writing to, and it’s clear that he was just writing to the people in the pews. For example in his First Letter to the Corinthians he wrote: [This is from] ‘Paul, …. unto the Church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints’. Sanctified – there’s the ‘sancti’ word – but I don’t think there’s any suggestion that he was only writing to part of the congregation, just to the good guys. He was writing to all of them.

When you work through the list of the Beatitudes you will realise that it is far from being a catalogue of success or perfection; it’s a catalogue full of weakness and need, the sort of thing that ordinary people suffer from. Jesus is affirming that. He is saying that in the kingdom, people like that, ordinary people, will be saints. Just as they are, they will go marching in.

So be a saint: be a peacemaker; be gentle in spirit, care about justice; you are allowed to be sad; people may make fun of you or even actively persecute you for trying to do all these things as a Christian. But don’t worry; you are a saint; you are blessed, and you do have a place in heaven.