Archives for posts with tag: Justin Welby

Sermon for Mattins on the Second Sunday of Epiphany, 17th January 2016

1 Corinthians 12:1-11: John 2:1-11
Spiritual gifts, which God created in us, have given us a variety of aptitudes and skills. We are all rather different, but, St Paul’s point is, we are all bound together by being created by the same spirit. That’s appropriate to mention now, because next week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
I’m sure we could also have a nice time reflecting on the wedding at Cana in Galilee. Did you know that there has been a change in the etiquette of buying somebody a drink? This is as a result of the government’s recent health advice on safe levels of alcohol consumption. The other day, as I found myself entering the ‘Running Mare’ for some reason, as I sometimes do, one of my boon companions greeted me by saying, “Hugh, would you like a unit?” A unit. I responded, as I understand you have to do in the circumstances, “Yes please, make it three”. And accordingly, a pint of the finest Tongham Traditional English Ale, otherwise known as a pint of TEA, was duly produced.
Moderation in all things, μηδέν αγαν; ‘do nothing to excess’. It is not a Christian principle as such. It was the inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi in Classical antiquity. Perhaps discussion of wine, or even TEA, belongs to the jollifications of Christmas, and we really need to move on to more serious things.
Quite often at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we have discussed the relations between the various churches, have regretted our differences, and prayed for better understanding between the different parts of God’s church, and possibly the coming together of some of the different parts in unity. So for example, we have had a close encounter with the Methodists, and the relations between the Church of England and the Catholic Church have greatly improved.
What I think is more topical, more important for us today, is to discuss the idea of Christian unity not between our church and others, but within the Anglican church in the light of the meeting of Primates, that is, senior bishops (not gorillas), the leaders of the various national Anglican churches, but which has just taken place in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.
Over 30 senior bishops from all over the world were meeting, at Archbishop Justin’s invitation, to try to sort out their differences over various aspects of human sexuality, in particular, gay marriage and the ordination of openly gay people as ministers. Perhaps after all the wedding at Cana is relevant today – not in its wine, but simply as a wedding. Weddings are the same focus.
There are divisions between those churches which uphold a so-called ‘traditional’ view and those who believe that the spirit of Jesus’ teaching allows them to recognise that the definition of marriage may well have changed or widened to include homosexual people.
It’s probably true also to say that the dividing line is between those who rely on the letter of the Bible and those who allow the Bible to be subject to interpretation. The argument centres around the verses in the 10th chapter of St Mark’s Gospel, ‘God made them male and female’. Coupled with some gruesome prohibitions in the book of Leviticus and the less enlightened parts of Saint Paul’s letters, to the effect that homosexuality is wrong, the traditionalists argue that gay marriage cannot be allowed in church.
Against this, understanding of people’s sexuality from a scientific point of view has advanced in many countries so that there is a recognition that it may well be an oversimplification to say simply that “God made them male and female”.
We now know there are all sorts of, degrees of, maleness and femaleness, up to and including cases where people are literally hermaphroditic, that they have as many male characteristics as female. And there are also people who discover that the body in which they are born doesn’t reflect their true sexuality, so that they may have sex change operations as a result. Some very well-known people have started out as being of a different sex from the one they are now recognised to be. For example the travel writer and historian, Jan Morris, until 1972 was James Morris, who reported for the Times on the first ascent of Everest by Hillary and Tenzing.

Again, within homosexual couples, it is often quite clear that one takes a male role and the other takes a female role within the partnership, notwithstanding the fact that the partners are biologically of the same sex.
Having said all that, it is also true that people who are not gay or bisexual often find the idea of gay or bisexual behaviour physically repulsive. This is presumably a natural instinct aimed at directing us towards those who share the same orientation. Similarly, some homosexuals have a distinct aversion from the opposite sex.
But I am sure that homosexual couples feel the same love, and have the same aspirations towards lifelong commitment and fidelity, that heterosexual couples do in marriage.
The churches within the Anglican communion have adopted different attitudes. The Church of England, our church, will not marry gay people in church, have gay bishops or ordain gay clergymen. Some of the African churches take things much further. Uganda and Nigeria have both either passed or are planning to pass laws which make homosexuality a criminal offence, and their local Anglican churches support this. They are in the same position as was the case in England before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality. On the other hand, the Episcopal Church of the United States of America has consecrated an openly gay bishop, and is willing to marry gay people in church.
Archbishop Justin convened the so-called Primates’ meeting, or conference, because it was beginning to look likely that a number of the national Anglican churches would split away from the worldwide Anglican communion, because of this disagreement on sexual questions.
As you will no doubt have read in the newspaper or heard on the radio, the conference has finished and a communiqué has been issued, to say that, although the bishops regret any hurt which may have been given to homosexuals or LGBTI people, and although the church commits itself to opposing legislation against homosexuality wherever such legislation is introduced throughout the world, nevertheless they have sanctioned the Episcopal Church of United States of America by excluding them from voting rights in the various Anglican communion meetings and consultations for the next three years as punishment for that church changing their doctrine concerning marriage without first obtaining the agreement of the other churches in the Anglican communion.
Archbishop Justin has avoided a split in the church for the time being, but it is at least arguable that he is just putting a lid on a seething cauldron of disagreement which is bound to result in some kind of schism in future.
It’s not my function to tell you how to think. But I think it is legitimate simply to point out, that, from its earliest times, the church has had disagreements about how to interpret the Bible, how to strike a balance between the norms of secular society and Biblical teaching.
It has been pointed out, for example, that right up to the passing of the legislation against it in the middle of the 19th century, the Church of England had nothing against slavery. The slave traders, whose wealth went into the creation of the cities of Liverpool and Bristol, were all devout churchgoers, and the church at that time saw nothing wrong in their activity. The Clapham Sect around William Wilberforce developed their opposition to slavery at their church, Holy Trinity, Clapham Common: and in so doing they were going against the official position of the Church of England at the time.
So I think it may be a little naive to suggest that there is some such thing as “the truth”, which can be discovered simply by reading the Bible. You will, I’m sure, all know of the various ambiguities and internal contradictions in the Bible. If you read the book of Leviticus, chapters 20 and 21, where the bloodcurdling prohibitions against homosexuality are to be found, you will find that not only is homosexuality condemned, but many other things are also slammed, which we might not find particularly objectionable today. But it is only homosexuality whose prohibition is remembered.
Very early on, the church evolved a formula for the interpretation of scripture and the development of the correct doctrine, according to which the Bible was certainly the first source, but it should be understood in the light of tradition and the application of reason. If something doesn’t make sense or is contradictory, then you can use reason to correct it, and it is also relevant to see what the church in its history has believed.
But to me the bottom line seems to be that, in all these discussions, it’s difficult to see how Jesus’ great commandment of love, that ‘thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ is being observed, where the churches’ attitude to the gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is concerned. I find it very difficult to understand how the church can espouse anything as policy which results in such hurt.
We now know much more about how human sexuality works, as a matter of science. It seems to me that we should take advantage of that knowledge, so that in the mixture of scripture, reason and tradition we should give some weight to reason: and where scripture is concerned, we should recognise that some things are more central than others, none more so than Jesus’ new commandment that we love each other. Yes, we should acknowledge that there has been a tradition: but we should weigh this tradition appropriately against the other two factors.
We should give Archbishop Justin credit for keeping the churches in the Anglican communion together in one group and, we hope, keeping them talking to each other. The sad thing is, I can’t imagine that, if I went to a church in Nigeria or in Uganda, it would be very different, (except that it might be more jolly), from a church here or in the United States. There would indeed be ‘diversities of gifts, but the same spirit.’ And ‘differences of administrations, but the same Lord’, as St Paul says.
Let’s hope and pray that the Primates, (who are, after all, not gorillas), will recognise this in future. And then we can stop worrying about sex, and concentrate on all people who really need our compassion and love, like the refugees in Calais as they face a northern winter for the first time.

Rowan Williams has said in a BBC radio talk, ‘If somebody said, give me a summary of Christian faith on the back of an envelope, the best thing to do would be to write Our Lord’s Prayer.’ [http://tinyurl.com/pdsoosq]

Jesus told the disciples to pray ‘Our Father’, which reflects the Aramaic word ‘Abba’ or ‘Dad’. Even if it doesn’t justify our thinking of God as our boon companion rather than a figure of infinite mystery and awe, it does imply that Jesus was inviting his followers, which includes us, to join with him in addressing prayers to God. We aren’t praying to Jesus, but with Jesus.

‘Our Father – in heaven’. Actually if you were listening carefully to today’s Gospel reading from St Luke, it didn’t say ‘Our Father in heaven’; it just went straight from ‘Father’ to ‘hallowed be your name’. The location of God as ‘ο εν τοις ουρανοις, Greek for ‘the one in the heavens’, raises the question whether Jesus really did think of God as being a benign old man sitting up above the clouds – which surely no-one can seriously believe these days. The words about heaven come in the other version of the Lord’s Prayer, in St Matthew’s gospel chapter 6, towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount. There are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, according to St Matthew and according to St Luke.

I think we can accept that the heavens are not literally where God is, in a sense that he is at 65,000 feet or wherever. Plato and Aristotle both used ‘heavens’ as a word for the cosmos, the universe – and other classical authors used it as meaning simply the place where the gods lived. We can say that in a sense God is somewhere altogether other, altogether separate from the material world.

‘Hallowed be your name’. ‘Hallowed’ means ‘sanctified’, made holy or saintly. Remember that the Jews couldn’t say the Lord’s name; it was too holy, too awesome. In a sense also, to say that someone’s name is awesome is to say that that person is awesome. So this is a way to say that we totally respect God.

Christians have debated constantly about ‘your kingdom come’. Does it mean that Jesus was looking forward to the end of the world, to his Second Coming and the Last Judgment, or was he thinking more of ‘that day when your kingdom comes, and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth’, (beautiful words which we pray in Eucharistic Prayer E in Common Worship)? You may want to pray for heaven on earth, or ‘God be at my end, and at my departing.’ Jesus has given you the words for either.

Daily bread is a very apt thing to pray for today, when so many people are physically hungry. There may well be other metaphysical connotations – maybe the prayer for daily bread is looking forward to the Eucharist, to the sharing in a memorial of Jesus’ Last Supper. But today we do need to pray for the relief of hunger in the world – and on our doorstep.

What about ‘sins’? Leaving aside for a minute whether Jesus said ‘debts’ or ‘trespasses’ instead of ‘sins’, are we bargaining with God here? Are we asking Him to forgive us, provided that we forgive others? Or are we saying that we do forgive – honestly we do! We can be confident in asking God to forgive us.

This prayer is so full of good things. In St Matthew, Jesus even thoughtfully puts some doubters’ minds to rest with his introduction: no need for wordy and elaborate prayers, because ‘your Father knows what you need before you ask him’ (Matt. 6:8). Why then should we bother to pray at all? Surely God can’t notice our puny little intercessions? Jesus says that He does. It is worth praying. There’s no possible way to prove this – and anyway we can’t boss God around. This, prayer, is prayer, not magic. It isn’t a question of saying the right words and cooking up a spell in order to bless or curse someone, like the witches in Macbeth. But those of us who do pray, do believe, do believe that, very often, our prayers are answered.

When we have prayed, what are we going to do? First, let’s say three cheers for Archbishop Justin! Yes, three cheers, not only because he has spoken out against the pay-day lenders like Wonga, who charge astonishing rates of interest – over 5,000 per cent – to the poorest people in this country, but also three cheers for him being honest and straightforward in response to John Humphrys on the Today programme, when it was pointed out that the Church of England pension fund had invested a very small amount of money in a hedge fund which had been one of the major investors in Wonga.

Actually, the amount invested by the Church of England in the hedge fund was just £75,000, out of a total invested by the C of E of £5.5 billion. But even this tiny amount was a mistake, and Archbishop Justin openly admitted it. It was so refreshing.

Wonga, its urbane spokesmen say, only lends very small amounts for very short periods, so in effect, the percentage charged is meaningless. They are, after all, lending to people who can give them no security for repayment. What is the harm in that?

Wonga could argue that an interest rate is like an insurance premium: the greater the risk of default, the higher the interest rate. It seems to me that any interest rate over 100% has gone beyond the function of an interest rate as a sort of insurance premium, because in fact, if you’re charging 100% interest, you are saying in effect that it isn’t a question of risk, but it is a certainty, that there will be a default. 5,000% interest presumably means that Wonga is charging 50 times more than it needs to charge, if all it is trying to do is to cover the possibility of a bad debt. 50 times more.

The banks are just as bad, in a different way. Wonga lends at an extortionate price. The banks often don’t lend at all. In both cases, you can see that the interest rate mechanism, the market price mechanism, doesn’t work. Banks have become so defensive and so averse to risk that they won’t lend at any price. Wonga, on the other hand, will lend, but at a price which bears no relation to risk and ruthlessly exploits the weakness of its borrowers.

Both are wrong. The banks who won’t lend to young people looking for their first house or to people setting up small businesses are quite plainly not doing what they are supposed to do. A functional economy needs banks as a source of capital, and that capital has to be really available, has to be used.

Equally, there should be protection for the weaker members against ruthless market players like Wonga, whose loans will tend to make borrowers even worse off than they were to start off with.

What principles is Archbishop Justin relying on? ‘A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another’ (John 13:34). Or from the sentences of scripture before Communion in the Prayer Book, on pages 243 and 244, ‘Whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassion from him: how dwelleth the love of God in him?’ Or how about, ‘He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord. And look; what he layeth out, it shall be paid him again.’ Love God, and love your neighbour: the two great commandments of Jesus (Matt.22:40). They mean that we mustn’t simply use the market as the sole index of distribution or risk or fairness – or indeed, of value.

But since the time of Margaret Thatcher, all British governments seem to have agreed that the ultimate measure of value, of worth, in our society, is the market, is what people will pay for things. That is what has led us to Wonga. The rich have got massively richer, without any care for the poor. The people who are paid enormous salaries and bonuses refer to their ‘market value’. They are worth, they say, what somebody is prepared to pay. No other criteria are worth bothering with. Just the market: just money.

The poor people don’t have the skills or anything else to make themselves expensive in the marketplace. Governments have made it difficult for them to stand up for themselves and to organise, because most of the powers of the trades unions have been taken away.

And so there are many people in our society today – and they are here on our doorstep in Cobham and Stoke as well – who don’t have enough to eat. The politicians shrug their shoulders. They say, ‘there is no alternative’ to austerity. They talk about government debt being unsustainable – ‘There is no more money’, they say. Never mind that in ‘quantitative easing’, they are manufacturing more money, and that our level of national debt is less than half what it was in 1945.

Against this, up pops Archbishop Justin, challenging the system of pay-day loans, and against this, up popped Archbishop John in York, challenging the fact that the minimum wage is not enough to live on, and suggesting that the government should force everyone to pay the ‘living wage’, which is a couple of pounds more per hour.

I won’t go into the detailed economics of these propositions, but suffice to say that the two Archbishops are not looking at the market as their index of value.

Just think: there was nothing in it; no money to be made, by the Good Samaritan. But nevertheless I am sure that the value of what the Good Samaritan did easily outweighs any price in money. So what Archbishop Justin is saying is that he wants to take on the pay-day lenders and put them out of business by offering, from the Christian churches,
something better and fairer.

He wants to build on the credit union network, and offer church premises as places from which credit unions can operate; and I think he wants church people, who have the right skills, to come forward and help to operate credit unions. Here, locally, we do have a credit union, called Surrey Save – http://www.surreysave.co.uk/ . It’s excellent to hear that it will be one of the first tenants in the new Hub in Cobham, where the Library is going to be. Also on the premises will be Oasis Childcare Centre; and of course the Food Bank will be just opposite, in the Methodist Church.

So if you agree with me that, as Christians here in Cobham, we need to follow Archbishop Justin’s – and indeed Jesus’ – injunctions, to care for our neighbours in need, then please do consider seriously letting Godfrey or me know whether you would be willing to help with the Food Bank or with the credit union. They are going to be major focuses of Christian activity here in this village. St Paul says: ‘We are free to do anything’, you say. Yes, but does everything help the building of the community? (1 Cor. 10:23 – NEB). Archbishop Justin has got it dead right.