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Sermon for Evensong on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 25th August 2019 – Prophetic and Theological Considerations in the Brexit Debate

Isaiah 30:8-21; [2 Corinthians 9] – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=433650150

The first part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, sometimes known as ‘First Isaiah’, (because scholars think that there were three prophets whose work is collectively known as the Book of the Prophet Isaiah), ‘the first book of Isaiah’, was written in the 8th century BCE. It’s been pointed out that that century was one of the pivotal points in the history of modern civilisation.

It was the time when the Homeric legends, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were first being recited by travelling bards; in the British Isles, Celts, refugees from mainland Europe, were pouring into Cornwall; Egypt was where the most sophisticated culture was, and Assyria (Syria, roughly) was the most powerful imperial power. It was a time of religious stirrings. Zoroaster was born in Persia in about 650BCE. The Upanishads were written in India probably between c. 800 BCE and c. 500 BCE. It was the time of Confucius and Tao in China.

E. H. Robertson has written, ‘Over the whole world the spirit of God stirred the spirit of man. In Judah and Israel, four men spoke in the name of the living God, …’ [ Robertson, E. H., Introduction to J.B. Phillips, 1963, ‘Four Prophets’, London, Geoffrey Bles, p. xxv] These were the four prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. Just as in the middle of the 19th century it was a time of revolutions, and the end of the 20th century it was the beginning of the digital age, this, in the 8th century BCE, was another turning point in human history.

The spiritual narrative of this historic period was supplied, in Israel and Judah, by the four prophets.The great historical event in this period was the fall of Samaria in 732BCE, when the whole of the Northern Kingdom, Syria and Israel was depopulated and turned into Assyrian provinces. It was a great shock to the people of Israel left in the Southern Kingdom, Judah. Her prophets, particularly Isaiah, were finally listened to. ‘The general line taken by the prophets was, trust in God and keep out of foreign alliances.’ [Robertson, p.xxvi]

Our lesson tonight from chapter 30 of First Isaiah is exactly on this point. The prophet is saying that God has told him to tell the Israelites not to make an alliance with the Egyptians. But he complains that they are not taking any notice. How does God communicate with us?

I heard on the radio an absolutely fascinating programme about the fire in York Minster [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0007pws]. This year, of course, we have had the terrible fire in Notre Dame in Paris, but in July 1984 there was a terrible fire in York Minster, which destroyed the roof of the south transept and caused extensive damage to the magnificent mediaeval Rose window.

Just before the fire, a new Bishop of Durham had been consecrated, David Jenkins. He was an academic theologian in the liberal theological tradition; in other words, he did not hold with a literal interpretation of everything in the Bible. Indeed, he went as far as saying that he didn’t think that the Virgin Birth necessarily literally took place.

When he was consecrated as Bishop of Durham, in York Minster, there was an outcry from some parts of the church; today no doubt it would have been a ‘Twitter storm’, protesting that Bishop Jenkins, Prof. Jenkins, was flying in the face of the traditional beliefs of the church over the previous 2,000 years. Some people went as far as to say that the fire in the Cathedral, in the Minster, which was attributed, by the surveyors who came to examine the wreckage, most probably to a lightning strike, that it was an ‘act of God’, literally, in that God had struck the Minster with lightning and set fire to it, as a way of showing His disapproval of the preferment of David Jenkins to the bishopric of Durham.

Isaiah was prophesying to the Israelites in the Southern Kingdom, Judah, against their making an alliance with Egypt. Judah heeded the prophecy, and did not make an alliance with Egypt. The Israelites were able to build the Temple and live in peace for nearly 100 years.

Now we are perhaps at another pivotal time in history – well, certainly in the history of this country; and perhaps if one includes as a key element in this current historical perspective the rise of populism, this pivotal time affects not only our country, but also the USA and Italy at least. We are noticing changes in our society as a result; there have been increases in nationalism and xenophobia, (with an unhealthy interest in where people have come from), leading to opposition to immigration, which also involves a ground-swell of racism.

In the British manifestation of this wave of populism, in the Brexit debate, there is also an emphasis on sovereignty – ‘take back control’, they say – as well as all the other features of populist politics. So in relation to all this, is there an Isaiah out there speaking to us? A prophetic voice, guiding us in relation to this turbulent time? And if there is, are we listening?

We look at some of the prophetic utterances in the Bible, and wonder if they might also be talking about our present age. Last week’s Gospel reading for instance, in which Jesus asks, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided father against son and son against father. ..’ [Luke 12:51f.]

Dare I say that Brexit has had very much the same effect? Friends have stopped speaking to each other. Families are divided. Literally billions have been spent on preparing for something which there is no agreement about, either within our population, our Parliament or with our European neighbours; at the same time our hospitals are desperate for resources, our schools, similarly, have often not got enough money for books, and our local authorities can’t afford to fill the potholes – and that’s not saying anything about the need for housing or the closures of our fire stations.

Is this another time when a prophet might say that God is punishing us, or that He may punish us? Revd Dr Jonathan Draper, the General Secretary of Modern Church (which used to be called the Modern Churchmen’s Union), who was the Dean of Exeter, in his conference speech in July, has tried to identify the theological aspects of the Brexit debate. I’ll put a link to his paper on the website with the text of this sermon. [Published written version: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5ees6m98pb25bh9/theology%20after%20brexit%20-%20final.docx?dl=0 – version as delivered: https://www.modernchurch.org.uk/2019/july-2019/1494-how-theology-has-failed-over-brexit]

He says, ‘Our national so-called ‘debate’ on Brexit has exposed deep, damaging, and shocking divisions: divisions that cut across families and friends, divisions that have exposed the raw experience of some of being entirely left out and ignored by the political and ecclesiastical ‘elite’, divisions that pit one part of the nation against others. Without even leaving, a deep and disturbing vein of xenophobia and racism has been exposed and even normalized in our public life.’

He goes on. ’Dr Adrian Hilton wrote ‘A Christian Case for Brexit’ on the website christiansinpolitics.org.uk. … His …. reasons for why Christians should want to be out of the EU [are], he writes, ‘about liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’.’ As Dr Draper points out, these are not theological reasons. There is nothing in the Bible to support these reasons.

In relation to the various things we have identified in the Brexit debate, it seems doubtful whether the ‘Christian case’ would in fact elevate ‘liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’ over such things as loving one’s neighbour – who, as the Good Samaritan found, might not be of the same nationality – and that anyway there is ‘no such thing as Jew and Greek’ in the Kingdom of God (Galatians 3:28) [https://biblehub.com/kjv/galatians/3.htm]- that nationality is not something which mattered to our Lord; and that political power, democratic or otherwise, wasn’t very important either, in the context of the Kingdom. More important to love (and therefore obey) the Lord your God. ‘Render unto Caesar’, indeed; but in those days democracy was practically non-existent.

Another theologian, Dr Anthony Reddie, has pointed out ‘a rising tide of white English nationalism’ and ‘the incipient sense of White entitlement’; that participants in the Brexit debate seem to have emphasised White English interests to the exclusion of other races and nationalities. Dr Reddie feels that the churches should be speaking out against this. He asks why the churches have not ‘measured Brexit against the standards of justice and equality’, loving God and loving neighbour. Dr Reddie also argues that churches ought to consider ‘not just the rights and wrongs of Brexit, but what it has done to us’. [Quoted in Dr Draper’s written text]

Dr Draper goes on to consider the theology of incarnation, of being the body of Christ, Christ incorporated in His church. It isn’t an individualistic thing. He quotes John Donne’s poem, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’:

Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

He also says this.

‘This is not an argument for saying that we ought to stay in the EU. It is an argument for saying that a Christian theology of the Kingdom of God, being all one in Christ, drives us away from things that divide us and towards things that bring us together. … The impulse to unity ought to be strong for Christians. Walls, barriers that divide, theologies that exclude, have no part of the Christian vision.’

Where do we as a church stand in relation to the concept of human rights, for example? Our own MP, who is now the Foreign Secretary, has recently campaigned to abolish the Human Rights Act. This is something which our country adopted by signing up to a European convention – a convention which was actually drafted by English lawyers. Although the European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution, it is seen, mistakenly, by some Brexit supporters as interference in our country’s sovereignty by the EU. What do we as Christians have to say about this? Surely, at this pivotal point in our national life, it is too important for us to stay silent. How does Brexit square with Jesus’ great human rights challenge at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel? Dr Draper, [in the version of his paper that he delivered], quoted it in this way.

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. [Matt. 25: 37-40]”

He went on.

‘And let’s not spiritualise this either. To feed the hungry is a political act; to welcome the stranger is a political act: enacting, embodying the Christian faith is a political act. And sometimes that means not just praying for everyone but taking sides.’

That’s what Dr Draper said to the Modern Church conference. I don’t think Isaiah would have kept quiet either: but would we have heard him?

‘But I thought you were our friends’, said a German friend when I was in Hamburg soon after the Brexit referendum in June 2016. ‘So did I – and you are’, I answered, churning with embarrassment.

Since then I have been puzzled and disappointed by the fact that not everyone, whom I would have expected to be, is solidly opposed to Brexit, which fact, in my view, flies in the face of the EU’s worth, as the most successful movement for peace, security and comity between peoples ever in Europe. 

I believe that the European Union has brought 70 years of peace in Europe; that it has brought about a consensus, which has become law in all member states, that human rights (defined by a British-drafted convention) shall be upheld and the exploitation of workers outlawed; introduced limits on working hours and requirements for the active provision of safe places in which to work and play. It is an area where students can study freely in any member country, and academics are free to work in whatever nationality of university they choose. The vision of Europe United seems to me to be profoundly Christian, in that it espouses the idea of a brotherhood of mankind, that all humans are children of God and dear to Him, irrespective where they come from. This is the ‘human values’ side of EU membership, if I can put it like that.

There are economic benefits of membership in the EU, based on free trade and the absence of customs duties for movement of goods between EU countries, as well as freedom of movement and common standards for food and various types of hardware: the ‘four freedoms’ – movement of goods, capital, services and labour – guaranteed by the Single European Act of 1993. The ‘single market’ this has created has become one of the biggest trading blocs in the world.  None of the proposed forms of Brexit would avoid major harm to the UK economy when compared with the status quo.  This is the economic side of EU membership. We are better off remaining where we are. It is true that the nations who are members have given up some of their individual sovereignty, but this is in return for being part of a much greater collective whole, and therefore they are actually more powerful as such than they would be on their own.

But yet there are people who, one would think, would agree with all this and be enthusiastic about it, but who favour Brexit. One such is Revd Canon Dr Giles Fraser, and another (probably) is Jeremy Corbyn. There has recently been a podcast discussion between Giles Fraser and Baron Glasman, Dr Maurice Glasman, the founder of the so-called ‘Blue Labour’ movement (listen at https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/confessions-with-giles-fraser-unherd/id1445038441?mt=2&i=1000426741962) in which they both ‘confessed’ – or rather, celebrated – that they were both in favour of Brexit, despite both being generally in favour of the ‘human values’ side of the EU. Both are Labour Party members, and both practise their religious faiths.

This was – is – because they both see the EU as a powerful instrument of neoliberal economics, under which the rich get richer and the poor poorer, big corporations have unfettered power to harm our lives, and the values of the market trump all others. They both see value in nationhood and patriotism, and they believe that the rules of the Single Market would prevent a future Labour government from giving state aid including borrowing to invest in the steps necessary to rectify the effects of the current Conservative government’s austerity programme. They distance themselves from the overtones of racism and xenophobia which often seem to arise in the context of Brexit.

Fraser is, otherwise, a caring social liberal. His most recent article for the ‘UnHerd’ website created by the founder of ‘Conservative Home’, Tim Montgomerie, is ‘Why Brexit Britain should welcome more Refugees’ [https://unherd.com/2019/01/why-brexit-britain-should-welcome-more-refugees/]. 

As an aside, I am rather unsure whether I like ‘UnHerd’. Apart from Giles Fraser, its contributors all seem to be right-wing. In the body of Fraser’s article are suggestions for further reading. I show these links above. One gets an uneasy feeling that this is not really an enlightened, liberal publication in the way that Dr Fraser’s previous home, the Guardian, is. Some of the images used are quite disturbing. ‘Economic rationalists … immigration’ is alongside a picture of our leading black – British – politician, Diane Abbott. ‘How bigoted is Brexit?’ appears alongside a picture of orthodox Jews playing what looks like a playground game. In both cases, one asks why these images were used, if there is not some appeal to unenlightened instincts.

Pace what the Brexit faction alleges, the EU is democratic, and upholds democracy. There is an elected European Parliament and an elected Council of Ministers, which bodies are sovereign. The European Commission is the civil service, the administrative arm, of the EU. Its powers are analogous with those of our British civil service as between themselves and the elected bodies. We currently enjoy considerable influence on the policy-making of the EU. Brexit would deny us any representation or control of EU policy in future. In ‘taking back control’, Britain would risk being governed by people who are not so committed to human rights, for example. One recalls that when he was a justice minister, Dominic Raab wanted to abolish the Human Rights Act.

It seems to me that we would have more chance of being able to put right the cruel excesses of austerity if we are inside the EU and able to benefit from its collective strength. If Jeremy Corbyn feels that, if he were Prime Minister, he would be able to negotiate more favourable Brexit terms than those obtained by Theresa May, then surely he ought to be confident that, among his many socialist colleagues in European parties, if we remained in the EU, he would be able to build a consensus away from neoliberalism.  After all, just as neoliberalism has failed in the UK, it has clearly not succeeded in several parts of the EU: certainly in Greece, and probably also in Italy, Spain and Portugal, the case for a change to Keynsian economics is strong. Note, incidentally, that the leading economist and former Finance Minister of Greece, Prof. Yanis Varoufakis, does not think that either his own country, Greece, or the UK, where he teaches, should leave the EU. Reform from within is the better route.

The argument that EU rules on state aid would frustrate Labour policy on rebuilding a fair and humane welfare state has been demolished by the leading competition lawyer, George Peretz QC. See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/27/four-reasons-jeremy-corbyn-wrong-eu-state-aid. 

Now, with weeks to go before the date recklessly set by the government for Britain to leave the EU, I do hope that those respected thinkers on the Left such as Giles Fraser and Baron Glasman, as well as the Labour leadership, will come round to a similar view to that held by Yanis Varoufakis, that reform from within is possible, that the EU need not necessarily always be in thrall to neoliberalism, and that Brexit is ‘a disaster for Britain’ – see https://www.yanisvaroufakis.eu/2018/12/22/talking-brexit-bernie-and-left-internationalism-with-yanis-varoufakis-vice/. Then the Labour Party can solidly oppose Brexit and ensure that the Article 50 clock is stopped in order to allow a further referendum to take place, in which the people can decide whether they really want to make our country catastrophically poorer and less influential in the world, by leaving the EU (either under the current May ‘deal’ or without a deal), or whether, now that they can see what Brexit actually involves, they would prefer to remain in the EU.  Then I can hope to greet my friend in Hamburg and be recognised again as his true friend.

Hugh Bryant

5th January 2019 

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday before Lent, 2nd March 2014
2 Kings 2:1-12; Matt. 17:9-23 – Elijah and Jesus

I’m not quite sure whether you still find some of the stuff in the Bible surprising or not: just in case it did just flow over you, I will just highlight a couple of surprising things which we have heard in this evening’s lessons.

In the second Book of Kings, we heard about the prophet Elijah being taken up into heaven – but first of all, parting the waters of the River Jordan, so that he and his successor Elisha could pass through to the other side: ‘They went over on dry ground’ (2 Kings 2:8). And then ‘a chariot of fire appeared, and horses of fire, and took Elijah up in a whirlwind to heaven’ (2:11).

Then if we turn to St Matthew’s gospel, we have picked up the story, as Jesus, Peter, James and John the brother of James were coming down the high mountain on which they had seen Jesus ‘transfigured’ with Moses and Elijah. A bright cloud had suddenly overshadowed them and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him’ (Matt. 17:5).

And then as they came down the mountain, Jesus cured a man’s son who had epilepsy, by ‘casting out a devil’ which had made the boy have fits. Jesus challenged his disciples by saying that they did not have enough faith: ‘If you have faith no bigger than a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, move from here to there: and it will move. Nothing will prove impossible for you.’

What do you think? Is there any way these days that we could understand Elijah suddenly appearing with Moses and Jesus, in some way ‘transfigured’? I’m not sure what ‘transfigured’ really means. There is that wonderful piece of music by Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Verklärte Nacht’, Transfigured Night, a night of strange light, a supernatural aspect. What do we feel? Are we in the camp which feels, along with C. S. Lewis, that anything is possible for God, and therefore there is no reason why God could not make miracles like the Transfiguration, or Elijah being taken up into heaven?

Elijah being taken up into heaven, of course, is somewhat like the Ascension of our Lord Himself. So are we comfortable saying, ‘Because of the omnipotence of God, there is no reason why, given that Jesus was God, he shouldn’t be able to have transfigurations and ascensions: and no reason that Elijah, as the prophet of God – as the other great prophet with Moses – couldn’t be taken up into heaven in the way described?’

On the other hand, we could be sensitive to the charge of humanists and rationalists, who object that everything that we believe in ought to be subject to the same rules of logic and science, and that you could not make sense of stories such as Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind or the Transfiguration in the normal way: just contrast the way in which you would describe the arrival of a number 38 bus with the way in which these stories about Elijah and Jesus are told. Quite different.

We can generally agree that if I tell you about seeing a number 38 bus, you will know what I am talking about, even though perhaps what you and I actually see when we look at a number 38 bus might in fact be different. We can’t get into each other’s heads to prove what it is exactly that we are looking at: whether it is the same thing. Nevertheless it’s sufficiently similar for us to be able to communicate about it successfully. What it is for something to be a number 38 bus is sufficiently similar in my understanding to what it is in yours for us to be able to talk about it.

But on the other hand, if we talk about something like Elijah going up to heaven in a whirlwind, or Jesus being transfigured with Moses and Elijah, we can’t necessarily be confident that we will be understood by everyone in the same way.

Jesus adds a twist, by asking whether or not the disciples have enough faith; if they do have enough faith, even the tiniest quantity, it will be sufficient to move mountains.

But – are you going to beat yourself up over the fact that you aren’t able to go out there and transpose K2 for Everest using pure will-power and faith? Nobody else has done it. So what did Jesus mean? Clearly we are in a different area, different from simple mundane questions like whether the 38 bus has arrived or not.

Of course some of the Oxford philosophers of the 50s and 60s, like the late, great, A. J. Ayer, would have said that, unless a statement is verifiable, in the same way that something about the number 38 bus would be verifiable, then it is meaningless. So everything about Moses and Elijah, transfiguration, being caught up to heaven in a whirlwind and so on, is, according to Prof. Ayer and others, meaningless.

So on the one hand you have C.S. Lewis accepting miracles and saying, ‘This is just the sort of thing that an omnipotent god would do’, and on the other, you’ve got a sort of common sense view, either that they’re not true, or that there’s no way in which we could make sense of these stories in any literal way.

Does it matter? We are just about to start Lent. Ash Wednesday is this Wednesday, and in fact our Lent courses are going to start on Monday morning, so that we can get six sessions in before Holy Week. We’re going to be studying St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, under the heading, ‘Be Reconciled’.

St Paul wrote, ‘He has made known to us His hidden purpose – such was His will and pleasure, determined beforehand in Christ – to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely that the universe, all in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.’ We will be studying all the various aspects of this ‘unity in Christ’, this reconciliation, over the next six weeks.

But for the purpose of this sermon, I simply want to draw attention to the process, to the way that our faith can work. There must be a very strong suspicion that unless something very remarkable did in fact happen, it’s tempting to feel that no-one would have said that Elijah was a prophet, someone through whom God spoke.

Without the miracles, the revelations, perhaps no-one would have said that Jesus was not only a prophet – as the Moslems and Jews acknowledge – but was in fact God on earth, the Son of God. But it’s not so much a question how God manifested Himself through Elijah, or became incarnate in Jesus Christ, not a question of how, but that He did. The exact mechanism is beyond our powers of understanding.

One can say that these big miracles, like the Transfiguration, or Elijah being taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, are indeed beyond our power fully to describe or explain. But that doesn’t mean to say that they did not happen in some sense. Because if they did happen, we can recognise through them that God cares for us, that God is involved with us.

And in the light of that wonderful fact, we ought to be reconciled, to be reconciled with God and with each other. Sin is being separated from God: salvation is being brought back together, reconciled.

So much for this rather philosophical excursion. You might be rather scornful that I could stay in this rather rarified vein in the face of all the momentous events which have been happening this week. As Christians preparing to rehearse, to act out, the drama of Jesus’ Passion, prepared to accept the reality of God on earth, how do we look at the conflicts in the world, in Syria or in the Ukraine?

Nearer to home, what do we think about the two criminals who murdered the soldier, Lee Rigby? ‘ROT IN JAIL,’ in bold capitals, read the headline on the front page of the Daily Mirror. What is the Christian perspective? How would we see it if we ourselves had just come down from the mountain with Jesus?

Who are the good people and the bad people in these stories? What happens when the dust has settled? When the Syrians have finally stopped killing each other, and the Ukrainians have decided whether they want to go with the Russians or with the Europeans, where are we going to stand as Christians?

Are the killers of Lee Rigby really condemned to rot? Is there no redemption for them? Clearly now the killers don’t appreciate that what they did was wrong. They have a crooked justification for it. But let’s suppose after years in gaol, they appreciate the wrongness of what they have done, and they repent. What shall we say then? Jesus’ message was a message of forgiveness, not ‘rot in jail’. How would it feel to us if we had just come down from that high mountain?

The same with the civil war in Syria and the terrible divisions in the Ukraine. Will people be reconciled? In these situations the church can speak. The church can remind the world of Jesus’ message of forgiveness and reconciliation: we Christians should be fired up by the thought of that mountain-top experience.

We can be prophets; we can let the Holy Spirit speak through us. Let us pray that, at the end of the conflicts in Syria and the Ukraine – and in all other places where there is a breakdown of law and order, where there is civil war or civil unrest – that there will be a resolution, not based on victors’ justice, but rather on true reconciliation. Truth and reconciliation, in Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s words: truth and reconciliation. Come down from the mountain. Be reconciled.