Archives for posts with tag: nhs

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

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]

A Reflection at Easter, April 2020

By Hugh Bryant

‘The language around COVID-19 has sometimes felt trite and misleading. You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the Prime Minister’s colleagues’ll tell us. And the disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same. This is a myth which needs debunking. Those serving on the front line right now, bus drivers and shelf stackers; nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shopkeepers, are disproportionately the lower-paid members of our workforce. They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed. Those who live in tower blocks and small flats will find the lock-down tougher; those in manual jobs will be unable to work from home. This is a health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, and it’s a welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health. Tonight, as France goes into recession, and the World Trade Organisation warns the pandemic could provoke the deepest economic downturn of our lifetimes, we ask what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark.’ (Emily Maitlis, introducing ‘Newsnight’, BBC Two, 8th April 2020.)

That was such a grown-up and eloquent comment on the COVID-19 plague, that my first reaction was to scratch around to see whether Emily Maitlis had been quoting some eminent philosopher or grand old man or a woman of world affairs when she introduced ‘Newsnight’ on BBC2 on Wednesday night. But my instinct was unworthy. She is a very talented journalist in her own right and those are her words.

Her words are among the most apt and most challenging words in the torrent of verbiage which the first week of lockdown has produced. I can’t really get excited by this procession of metropolitan sophisticates discovering the joys of birdsong and blue-skies-without-aeroplanes, empty roads and silence.

I’m sure there is a place for all those good things, but somehow I don’t think that, when this is all over, historians will look back and celebrate stumbling prose about the unaccustomed joys of birdsong. Instead our generation will be judged on how we dealt with this ‘health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare, [or] …welfare issue with huge ramifications for public health’, as Emily Maitlis so eloquently put it.

It seems extraordinarily apt that Emily Maitlis said what she did on the eve of Maundy Thursday. For Christians, Maundy Thursday is the day when they remember Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. The son of God, arguably the most important man who has ever lived, doing the same sort of thing that a care home worker does, washing the dirty bits, becoming a servant. As we have seen in this COVID-19 plague, the sort of thing that Jesus was doing can become very dangerous. So dangerous that only people who don’t matter are put in the line of risk. Only the expendable ones, although nobody spells this out. As Emily Maitlis said, the bus drivers, the shelf stackers, nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shopkeepers. The government has advertised jobs in the new Nightingale Hospital at the Excel Centre including receptionists at £37,500 per annum, when at the same time nurses and doctors, after years of training, start at less than £25,000.

Somebody will say that the market justifies this, that there are fewer people willing to be receptionists in the Nightingale hospital than there are willing to be doctors and nurses in that dangerous place. Therefore by the inexorable laws of supply and demand the willing, the brave, are worth less than those in short supply. Put that way, the proposition looks quite indefensible. How could the market, even if it is correct in identifying shortages in that way, be the only guide to the value of these vital people’s work?

But wait a minute. How does the market account for the fact that there is a shortage of doctors and nurses, tens of thousands of doctors and nurses? Either the market is not functioning properly, as their value is not rising to reflect their scarcity, in which case all these political statements based on “realism” and “the market” are not true, or the market as an index of value is not actually accurate. Either way there is a glaring injustice. As Emily Maitlis put it, ‘… what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark?’ How are people to be valued in future?

Christians have a number of pointers in front of them, particularly at this time in Holy Week and Easter. So much of what Jesus did and said was counterintuitive and back-to-front. Before he was born, when an angel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah, what she said, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour…’: this speech, this aria, this canticle, is one of the most subversive, even one of the most revolutionary, passages in the whole of literature. ‘For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’. God chose an ordinary young girl; he selected her knowing that she was one of the little people. ‘He that is mighty hath magnified me’. The omnipotent, the divine, the greatest power, has chosen me, small and insignificant, and made me great.

‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

This is what God is doing. This is the implication of his having chosen someone not special, just an ordinary girl; but having chosen that person to be the mother of the divine incarnation, God with us. God in human form. She wasn’t in any way rare or perfect or uniquely suited to this job. She was just an ordinary girl from a humble background. God’s choice implies a direct challenge to the value system that we have had and we have in our world today. The Magnificat shows up and challenges head-on the great divide in our society between the rich and the poor, between the great and the little people.

That was before Jesus was born. The Magnificat points to how he is going to operate. It points forward to the Sermon on the Mount, the longest sustained piece of counterintuitive argument that you are ever going to come across. The Beatitudes: ‘blessed are the – poor: blessed are the meek. Not ‘blessed are the people in large houses riding about in Lamborghinis’. (See Matt. 5,6 and 7 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=453535527)

In one sense I disagree with Emily Maitlis. She says, ‘And the disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone, rich or poor, suffers the same.’ I know – indeed I passionately agree with – what she means. But in one important sense, there is equality. We are all – wherever in the world we come from – we are all creatures of God, made in His image. The virus is not a leveller, as Emily Maitlis rightly says. It affects all humans – and, unfortunately, tigers too.

Where it does not level us is shown by what happens when the virus has struck someone. Then it depends where you are and how wealthy you are, either as an individual or because you belong to a rich society, whether you will get full treatment. Even so, so far we have not yet discovered a cure, so even with the best treatment in an intensive care unit in a European or American or Far Eastern teaching hospital, you may still die – but you will be made as comfortable as possible, and you will have the very best chance of survival.

If on the other hand Coronavirus strikes and you are in a refugee camp on the border of Syria, in Jordan perhaps, or if you live in the slums of Calcutta or Bombay, or in many parts of Africa, there are far fewer doctors, far fewer hospitals, and no money or National Health Service to pay for your treatment. In the USA, except in one or two enlightened states such as Massachusetts, unless you can afford to buy expensive health insurance, no-one will treat you.

But perhaps the reason why this is so wrong, and why this is a ‘health issue with huge ramifications for social welfare’, is that there is no good reason why some people should be so much better off than others – or rather, that so many people should be so much worse off than the fortunate few. Why should there be any entitlement in an accident of birth? Rich and poor, G7 or Third World, we are all susceptible to COVID-19. But if we are all liable to suffer, should we not all share the means of salvation?

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke recently about the objective of the Good Life (with a capital G and L) being, not, as theologians and philosophers from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas have argued, ‘human flourishing’ (ευδαιμονία) but rather, the objective, the objective of the Good Life, is to be safe. Safe. Safe from harm. Safe from disease. Safe from hunger.

Again, Christians can turn to the teaching of Jesus. Think of the Great Judgment in St Matthew chapter 25 (from verse 31), the division of the sheep and the goats, the saved – the ones who are safe – and those condemned to eternal damnation. Hunger. Thirst. Disease. They are at the heart of it. What did you do for them? No suggestion that some hungry people, or thirsty people, or poorly people, might deserve to be safe, to be saved, more than others. Absolutely not. Jesus says that He is in all of us, however lowly.

Again, just as God chose the humble Mary, so ‘the righteous will [say]…, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you, or thirsty and gave you drink, a stranger and took you home, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and come to visit you?” And the king will answer, “I tell you this: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however humble, you did for me”. (Matt. 25:37-40, NEB). (Jesus would surely have wanted to be explicitly gender-neutral if he had been saying this today, and would surely have said, ‘anything you did for one of my brothers and sisters here, however humble, you did for me.’)

So at this Easter time, when we remember Jesus’ amazing self-abasement, his humbling himself to wash the disciples’ feet, and then his enduring the most terrible torture and death – being the most important man on earth, but beaten and strung up to die with common criminals, as a common criminal, because that was actually his rank, his lowly position in society – and then rising in triumph, leaving the empty tomb: when we reflect on that extraordinary sequence of events, the Triduum, the Three Days, we can realise that there is an alternative. There is an alternative to the dominion of the market. There is an alternative to people who know the price of things but not their value. The fact that Jesus beat death – and that must be about the most counterintuitive thing he ever did – has given us hope: the ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’. And that is for everyone, for everyone who could possibly catch COVID, wherever they are and whatever flag they fly.

Emily Maitlis concluded, asking ‘what kind of social settlement might need to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark’. That is the most important thing we have to do when the medical campaign against COVID-19 has been won. It is a huge challenge: but Jesus has given us hope, hope that we can do it. The Easter message is one of hope, and of salvation, that we can make that Good Life, where all people, everywhere, are safe.

Sermon for Evensong on the 21st Sunday after Trinity, 21st October 2018

Psalm 141: Matthew 12:1-21 – ‘Smite me Friendly’

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works with the men that work wickedness, lest I eat of such things as please them.

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

That’s from Psalm 141, which is the one set in the Lectionary for tonight.

‘Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth

and keep the door of my lips.’ Make sure that I only say the right things. But if I should inadvertently stray off-piste,

‘Let the righteous rather smite me friendly

and reprove me.’

I rather like the idea that the righteous should ‘smite me friendly’! Anyway, I have been warned.

As quite a lot of you know, I haven’t been very well. I’ll spare you the details, but I spent a week in Epsom Hospital three weeks ago, and then had a quiet week at my daughter Alice’s outside Exeter, before spending last week getting back up to speed at home in Cobham. It was very nice to hear from so many friends from St Mary’s, and to have some lovely visits too. Thank you for all your kindness!

I don’t know what it is that makes this happen, but my irregular stays in hospital have coincided with momentous events in the world outside. The last time I was in Epsom Hospital, in 1997, coincided with the death of poor Princess Di. I became quite an expert on all the various theories and odd facts surrounding that sad story. Now, just recently, and again in Epsom Hospital, I’ve been trying to keep on top of all the twists and turns in the Brexit negotiations, and particularly the ideas which our government and the European Commission have each come up with in order to avoid creating a ‘hard border’ around Northern Ireland.

Now you will realise why I adopted the ‘smite me friendly’ words from Psalm 141. I may find that you’re smiting me, but not friendly, if I’m not careful when I talk about Brexit!

Well, here’s the thing. There’s a nightmarishness about all the twists and turns of the Brexit process. If you go one way, you bump into an obstacle, perhaps something we’ve agreed beforehand or that Parliament has decided on, which rules out what you now think might be a good idea. So you turn down another entrance, and head off in another direction. You come up with something that you think will square with what the EU will accept – but your own MPs don’t like it. Nightmare. And of course, all the time there are plenty of people reminding you that they feel that nothing can compare with what we already have, as members of the European Union.

People are very passionate about it. Friendships have been broken. Families aren’t speaking to each other. And the worrying thing is, that no-one seems to agree how to decide who is right. People cling to the principle of democracy. More people voted to leave than to remain: 52% to 48%. But other people point out that 67% didn’t vote to leave. So people even disagree about what the democratic outcome was.

A factor in all this, this inability to decide who is right, is that there has been a lot of cheating and lying. There was the infamous red bus which had a banner down each side saying that, if we left the EU, there would be £350m a week more for the NHS – whereas even before Brexit day, as soon as the vote to leave was passed, the NHS has taken huge hits, from the devaluation of the £, making many drugs 20% more expensive, from doctors and nurses from the EU leaving, because they feel that the Brexit vote shows that people don’t like them – and from the 98% drop in numbers of nurses from the other EU countries applying to work here. The message on the bus was a wicked lie.

How do people know whom to believe? What is true in all this? Is it just a question of shouting louder?

Sitting in my hospital bed, and on Dr Alice, my daughter’s, couch, I started to wonder. Does it make a difference if you are a Christian? What would Jesus have done?

Today’s lesson from St Matthew shows him facing a rather similar set of conundrums to the ones that Mrs May and Dominic Raab, our MP, who’s now the Brexit minister, have to wrestle with. The question of eating on the Sabbath. Maybe what was held to be wrong extended to the act of gleaning, picking up the ears of wheat left at the edge of the field. Healing sick people, again on the Sabbath Day. Conflicting realities. Being hungry; worse, being ill: and you have the means to solve the problem. You can see where there is food freely available. Just pick it up. You have the power of healing. Just get him to stretch out his withered hand, and you can restore it to full strength. Does it matter if the Sabbath rules make it wrong to do these things?

Jesus gives a scholarly answer. He quotes the Hebrew scriptures to show that there are exceptions. King David and his men ate the bread offered on the altar in the Temple when they were hungry, which was something only the priests were allowed to do. Jesus pointed out that they had moved on from the limits of the old Temple worship. He was here. He was something else, something more. In Hosea [6:6] is a prophecy which includes these words, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice’. In Hosea those words follow a prophecy about rising again from the grave on the third day. This is all about Jesus, Jesus as much more than just a teacher, a rabbi. More than ‘a priest of the order of Melchizedek’ as the letter to the Hebrews describes him. (Hebrews 5:5, 5:10)

And he goes on to give the lovely example of a shepherd rescuing one of his sheep which has fallen into a pit on the sabbath day. We always want to help if an animal is trapped or hurt. That is why I was angry the other day when our local Painshill animal rescue team were not able to be on duty because the austerity cuts had reduced their numbers, so that a cow which had fallen into a ditch locally, and was in distress, had to wait for a crew from Sussex to come. Never mind what Jesus would say about austerity – the point is that He said that the animal, the sheep, must be saved, whatever day it is.

And finally Jesus quoted from Isaiah chapter 42, a prophecy again about the Messiah. Gentle, quiet – and trusted, even by the Gentiles, the non-Jews. ‘A bruised reed he shall not break’.

What can we bring from this, from how Jesus squared the circle with the Pharisees about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath? He, Jesus, rises above any day-to-day considerations. The Temple rules don’t apply to him. But almost more important, Jesus is the servant, the gentle spirit of kindness. He expects mercy, not ritual sacrifice. It’s not about Him, but about the ones in need. The man with the withered hand, maybe a Thalidomide victim, in today’s world; the sheep which has fallen down into a hole.

So what could we learn from Jesus about the Brexit ‘conundrum’, as Godfrey [Revd Godfrey Hilliard, Rector of Stoke D’Abernon] calls it? What principles can we use as followers of Jesus, as Christians? Obviously no-one can say for sure what Jesus would have said or done. But surely it would be good if we at least thought about it.

Would Jesus have wanted the Jews, his people, to get their independence from the Romans? Was it a bad thing to belong to the great Roman empire? After all, St Paul did very well out of being able to say, ‘Civis Romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’, Acts 22, after Cicero, In Verrem, 2.5.162) – and indeed he was very proud of being able to say that. Jesus himself seems to have felt the same way: ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, is what he said. (Matt.22:21)

What about immigration? The Jewish law protected the widow, the orphan – and ‘the stranger that is within thy gate’ (Deut. 10:19, Leviticus 19:34). That stranger is in the same position as the injured man in the story of the Good Samaritan. He was saved by a Samaritan, who was a foreigner, not someone Jewish people would ordinarily have wanted to have living next door. But this foreigner showed compassion and kindness. He showed that human dignity, human rights, the right to life, the right to medical treatment if you are hurt, are far more important than nationalistic considerations. Being a neighbour, a good neighbour, is far more important than what flag you fly.

But as I sat on Alice’s couch I realised that I wasn’t hearing those sort of arguments very much. There are some of our bishops who have said things along the same lines. [See, e.g., https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2016/1-july/news/uk/church-leaders-seek-to-unite-divided-country] But it occurred to me that we ought to try to work through it, through the Brexit conundrum, with Jesus on our shoulder. What would He think of as important? Would He ‘smite anyone friendly’ for things they said? What about that red bus? What else do the politicians know about that they aren’t telling the ordinary people? Aren’t all the doctors and nurses from other countries who work in our NHS ‘Good Samaritans’, just as Jesus would have wanted?

And we, when we argue passionately for one side or the other, do we give any thought to what our Christian faith might bring to the argument? And if not, why not? I have a feeling that things might work out rather better if we did – and if our leaders remembered Psalm 141.

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works ….

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Advent, 4th December 2016

1 Kings 18:17-39, John 1:19-28

‘John Vavassour de Quentin Jones
Was very fond of throwing stones
At Horses, People, Passing Trains,
But ‘specially at Window-panes.

Like many of the Upper Class
He liked the Sound of Broken Glass.

It bucked him up and made him gay:
It was his favourite form of Play.’ (Hilaire Belloc, 1930)

Those of you, who have watched, perhaps with consternation, the referendum and its aftermath in this country and the election of the seemingly appalling Trump in the USA, might like to pause and reflect on these words by Hilaire Belloc. John Vavassour de Quentin Jones. In the first half of the last century, ‘like many of the Upper Class, …he liked the sound of broken glass.’

People sometimes rebel in a very irrational way. John Vavassour de Quentin Jones lost his inheritance because a stone which he threw hit his rich uncle by mistake, and he cut him out of his will. John Vavassour just wanted to break things: he clearly had no idea what his actions would lead to.

I think one is tempted to say, that neither did many of those, who voted for Brexit or who voted for Donald Trump, know what they were voting for either. These were votes against things rather than votes for anything in particular.

They were expressions of alienation. When Michael Gove – who used to write leaders for The Times, and so presumably is an educated man – encouraged his supporters to have nothing to do with experts, he pandered to this sense of alienation. It has been said that this populist backlash is a rejection of the elite, of the intelligentsia, of metropolitan liberal sentiment.

In this climate, we Christians are somewhat on the back foot, in the face of a rising tide of secularism. It might seem rather far-fetched, to imagine a scenario today like that described in our first lesson: a sort of bake-off of sacrifices, in which the prophet Elijah is bringing King Ahab back into the fold after he had lost his faith in the One True God and started to worship the Baals.

Elijah organised a ‘spectacular’. ‘You call on your God and I will call on mine, and let’s see whose god can cook the beef on the altar’. And if we are to believe the story in the Bible in 1 Kings, God responded to Elijah’s prayers and roasted Elijah’s ox in a spectacular way. Whereas of course Baal, being just a figment of the heathen imagination, did nothing – or rather, wasn’t even there at all.

So not surprisingly, Elijah was listened to. He was the greatest of the prophets. He was in direct touch with God. He was God’s mouthpiece on earth. But we can’t imagine anything happening even remotely like Elijah’s spectacular today.

In St John’s Gospel, the introduction to the Good News, to the story of Jesus himself, is the story of John the Baptist, ‘preparing the way of the Lord’. Again, it’s really difficult to imagine a modern scenario which is anything like this. Just as, by and large, people don’t become influential or command an audience by doing miracles, as Elijah did, so if you take another step back and try to imagine the scenario involving John the Baptist, it is very, very different from our experience today.

What John was doing is mentioned almost just in passing: he was baptising people. The account in St John’s Gospel concentrates much more on the significance of what he was doing. ‘Why baptizest thou them, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?’ Today, if you talk about baptism, it is synonymous with christening, with Christian initiation of a little child; and it’s also how the little child gets his or her name. Naming, not repentance.

There is no equivalent of what was by all accounts a mass movement, something that people naturally did, to go and wash ritually in the river Jordan: to wash away their sins and iniquities, as well as becoming physically clean.

You will recall that passage in St Mark chapter 7, where the Pharisees pull Jesus up for eating without washing his hands first. I’ve always felt that if you came across that passage for the first time today, you might protest that, from a public health point of view, anyone following Jesus’s advice might well catch some disease or other! They even saw things like washing completely differently.

If we try to tell people about the true meaning of Christmas, and the Gospel story, I think we should be a bit cautious about the fact that quite a lot of the story reflects a world which is totally different from our world. I think that there is a danger that people listening to Christians talking about the Gospel and the true meaning of Christmas may be put off, may even be alienated.

There was somebody in the audience on the BBC Question Time programme on Thursday night, which came from Wakefield in Yorkshire, a very assertive and gruff person, who, despite the fact that he was shaven-headed and dressed as a football hooligan, was said to be some kind of teacher.

He loudly asserted on several occasions during the programme that everyone who had voted to leave the EU had been voting to leave the Single Market. He said things like, ‘Everybody knew that a vote to leave meant a vote to leave the Single Market’. Now leaving aside the point that, as a matter of fact what that man said can be challenged on a number of levels, starting with the fact that the question put to the referendum was just a simple choice between leaving or remaining in the EU, and nothing else, the striking thing was that he was impervious to reason.

I’m not sure what subject he was a teacher of, but one hopes, for his pupils’ sake, that it was woodwork or PE: because although several people on the panel gave him very clear and well argued responses, which if true, completely contradicted his proposition that, if you voted one way in the referendum, that automatically meant that you were in favour of something else, he was completely deaf to all argument. But maybe that’s being rude to woodwork and PE teachers. This alleged teacher wasn’t interested in argument, or reasoning, or experts, and he certainly discounted all the posh people on the panel. They were obviously not gritty or Yorkshire enough for him to take them at all seriously. Sadly, almost the whole audience was with him.

So what would a prophet today have to do or say in order to carry conviction? What is the good news, or the call to obedience, if we follow Elijah, that a prophet today should be crying in the wilderness? What is the equivalent of baptism in the river Jordan for today’s people? How would a preacher get through to the man on Question Time?

I’m not making a political point. I’m not saying whether Brexit is good or bad, or Trump is good or bad, but just that, in those cases, people seem to have ignored reasoned argument and voted as a sort of knee-jerk reaction, voted for something negative, something which they perceive as not coming from the ivory tower of the elite liberal establishment.

People have in effect been throwing stones. And they’re in very good company. John Quentin de Vavassour Jones came out of the top drawer of society ‘.., like many of the Upper Class,… he liked the sound of broken glass’. This man in Wakefield, who asserted his non sequitur so positively, that something unsaid was the unanimous will of the people, this man was voting for something which would almost certainly harm him: it would very likely harm a lot of his fellow citizens. But he didn’t care. He was throwing stones.

How do we Christians deal with this? How do we deal with somebody who is impervious to reason, and is convinced that Christianity is wrong, or does not have anything relevant to say, or is going to disappear anyway? Because if you do follow that rather bleak outlook, and believe that there is no God, would you necessarily think that it is wrong to be xenophobic, or racist?

Unless you believe that it was God who created all people equal in his sight, how would you justify the concept of human rights? How would you avoid being led astray by seemingly reasonable voices, like a friendly man in the pub telling you that he’s not a racist, but that we just have too many immigrants – even though there is ample evidence that immigration is really good for this country and that it fulfils a number of really important needs?

Even though there is considerable evidence that the National Health Service will be in even greater trouble if it loses its doctors and nurses from abroad, both from the EU and from outside, although there is plenty of evidence that immigrants as a whole contribute over 30% more in taxes than they receive in benefits – even though there is this positive evidence, there are still people in numbers who will parrot sentiments which are not rational. If they’re not racist, they are very similar to it.

The other irrational thing is that the anti-immigration sentiment seems to be strongest where there aren’t actually any – or where there are very few – immigrants. The audience in Wakefield the other night cheered every xenophobic, little-England statement to the rafters. But I believe there are hardly any immigrants from the EU in Wakefield.

This is very strange. Clearly people were not operating rationally. They were not listening to the experts, and they were not bothering to think about where our moral imperatives come from. If you are a Christian, you will believe that we are all children of God. If you are a Christian, and indeed if you are a Jew or a Moslem, you will believe that God has told us how to behave, in His Ten Commandments.

‘Blah, blah, blah’. Yes, blah, blah, blah. For some people, what I’m saying is just meaningless noise. I wonder if that scares you as much as it does me. Let us pray that God will make himself known, not in some cosmic bake-off, but in everything that we say and do, and that we will not be dismissed as people with nothing relevant to say.

Eve

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday before Lent, Quinquagesima Sunday, 7th February 2016
John 12:27-36 Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you.

I was rather shocked to find out that this year the Boat Race is going to be run on Easter Sunday. Not just on a Sunday, but on Easter Sunday of all Sundays! It does seem to me to be quite shocking that the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Clubs have completely ignored the fact that there are an awful lot of people who enjoy the Boat Race, as one of our main national sporting fixtures, but who are also Christians. For us, Sunday, and not just any Sunday, but certainly Easter Sunday, is surely far more important than the Boat Race. They should not be on the same day.

Time for a letter. Dear Mr Raab – ‘Dear Mr Raab’, I want to write, to our MP. ‘I understand that Parliament has very nearly finished considering the Enterprise Bill which started in the House of Lords and which has already received its first and second readings in the House of Commons. On Tuesday the Business Secretary, Mr Javid, announced that provisions would be added – even at this late stage – to the Enterprise Bill to allow local councils to relax Sunday trading restrictions. Parliament hasn’t debated it at all so far. The bishops can’t say anything, because it has already gone through the House of Lords, without this Sunday trading proposal. I am unhappy that this is surreptitiously slipping in yet another watering-down of the idea that Sunday should be special.’ I hope he takes some notice. If only a few Conservatives vote against, this late addition to the Bill can be defeated.

Yes, I know that I often go to Waitrose after Sunday morning service, and I often have a curry from Cobham Tandoori after Evensong. But I think the time has come for us to review the need for there to be a day of rest and the need for those who, because they are doing essential jobs, are not able to rest on the day of rest, the need for them to be paid extra for their trouble, or to be assured of a substitute day of rest as a matter of right. Well, I am going to go on and finish, elegantly, my letter to our MP along those lines. I would ask you to consider writing a letter to him too.

The church is just about to embark on Lent. Lent, the lead up to the high point of the Christian year, Easter. In our Gospel lesson tonight we have heard St John’s slightly different account of the beginning of the Passion story. It’s different from the order of events in the other Gospel accounts, in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a donkey after he has raised Lazarus from the tomb, and some Greeks have come, saying, ‘Sir, we would see Jesus’ [John 12:21]. And Jesus starts to tell them, and his disciples, what he has to face in the coming time. That’s the context of tonight’s lesson. It leads us up to Lent.

It will be Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, this Wednesday, and I hope that you will be able to begin your Lent devotion by coming to the 1030 service that morning. That’s the service with the imposition of ashes. If you are at work and unable to make the morning service, you can come to Saint Andrew’s in the evening for a similar service, at 8 o’clock.

Afterwards, as we pass through Lent, we will have a Lent communion service here every Wednesday morning at 10:30, and there will also be Lent study groups which are being organised ecumenically by all the churches in Churches Together. I will be helping to lead a group on Tuesday evenings. There will be other groups in various places and at various times to suit everyone. The topic which is going to be followed is a course which has been designed by the Archdiocese of York called the ‘Handing on the Torch’, which is all about being Christian in a secular society.

The question of Sunday trading is very much a case in point. Does it make any difference to be a Christian today? Should Sunday be special?

All the churches around here have to deal with the fact that a lot of young people now play sport on Sunday mornings. It can be rugby or hockey or many other sports. These children are put in a difficult position. They either drop out of the sporting activities in order to go to church with their folks, or, as happens more and more, they feel they have to keep up with their contemporaries, if they’re going to have a chance to get into school teams, through taking part in sport at the weekend. That is, not just any old time at the weekend, but very often specifically, on Sunday morning.

Some churches, for example in Great Bookham and West Molesey, have changed the time of family worship to the afternoon, so that people can take part in sporting activities in the morning, but still come to church at, say, 4 o’clock to have a ‘teatime church’. I think that’s probably fine. Otherwise, of course, slightly more grown-up people often go to 8 o’clock service in the morning and then go on to do various activities later on in the day. That’s all right as well. We are making time for God, but it doesn’t mean to say that everything else has to stop. ‘The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath’, as Jesus himself said [Mark 2:27].

But as Jesus said in our Gospel reading,’Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you’. If we don’t keep spaces for the light of the Gospel to shine through, then we will be in darkness.

So going back to my letter to the MP, who does benefit from ever longer opening hours on the Sundays? Not the people who work in shops, for sure. Mr Javid, in his statement on Tuesday, made a point that the rules would be changed, so that employees who wanted to opt out of Sunday working on religious grounds would only have to give a month’s notice, instead of the current three months.

But that does not get over the point that, in many working environments, people who are unavailable, who won’t work whenever their employers want them to, limit their chances of promotion and career advancement, whatever the reason.

We have heard a lot also about the so-called ‘seven day NHS’ in the context of the junior doctors’ fight for decent conditions. As you may know, both my daughters are hospital doctors, so-called junior doctors. One is a house officer in England, at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital – and she has been on strike – and the other an ENT surgeon in Wales, at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital. The one in Wales is not in dispute because of the government in Wales has not followed the policies of the Westminster government.

Both my doctor daughters, however, are equally affronted when they see the Secretary of State talking about what he calls ‘the need for doctors to accept seven day working’. Mr Hunt seems oblivious of the fact that all hospital doctors work a seven day rota already. The point is whether or not weekend working should be special. If you work on a day which most other people, including Mr Hunt himself, regard as a normal holiday, then I agree with the doctors in thinking you should be rewarded specially for giving up your holiday time. I don’t think that Mr Hunt has ever worked any of the 13-hour weekend night shifts which my daughters regularly do.

But even if he has, I think that it is very important that the principle of a sabbath, a day of rest, which was part of the law of Moses, the 10 Commandments, and which has come into Christianity on Sunday rather than on Saturday, should be preserved, should be defended. As Christians we ought to take a lead in this.

There is likely to be no real benefit to anyone, other than the owners of big shops, if opening hours on Sunday are extended. I really think that there should be a proper calculation, setting the extra convenience which we are supposed to enjoy through extended Sunday opening, against the disruption to family life it would cause, for very many shop workers, people who live in the centre of town, and small businessmen. My ability to buy a couple of AA batteries, at 5 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon from Sainsbury’s, frankly does not weigh very heavily against the damage to the quality of family life which is likely to result for an awful lot of people if shop hours are extended to make my trivial purchase easier.

I would suggest that, as Christians, not only is it important to us that there should be a day for God, but that also that this day should be a sabbath. It should be a day of rest and recreation, and all those people who have to give up that day, because they are, for example, doctors or other kinds of emergency workers – or indeed because they are working in some of the shops – should have it properly recognised and rewarded.

I don’t think that it is necessarily an answer that Mr Javid, or Mr Hunt, or any other politician, should have to work on a Sunday. I think that the basic principle ought to be that nobody should. Let’s stand up and be counted on this one. ‘Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you.’ Sunday is special.

The article [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/10/jeremy-hunt-junior-doctors-nhs?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other] is wrong in saying, ‘Why should doctors be paid on an antiquated basis that encourages them to work absurdly long hours on weekdays rather than to make themselves available for weekend shifts?’ Doctors have no say in their rotas, which already provide for 7-day working. If there is anything lacking at weekends, it is ancillary services, not doctors. Essentially the government is asking doctors to work longer hours, with no safeguards against exploitation by those who fix the rotas – that is, the administrators – and at the same time confirming to the Treasury that ‘there will be no extra cost’. Tired doctors are a danger, not some imagined lack of their availability at weekends. To cut their salaries at the same time (as the increase in their basic salary does not compensate them for the loss of ‘banding’ overtime payments) is insulting, to say the least.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fifth Sunday after Easter, 3rd May 2015
Isaiah 60:1-14

‘Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. … The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD.’ [Isa. 60:1 and 6]

This is a vision of the City of God, the new Jerusalem, ‘Jerusalem the golden’, that we just sang about in our second hymn. What is the City of God? Is it stretching things to think of Jerusalem, City of God, as being in England’s ‘green and pleasant land’? Is it even more risky to have that kind of vision four days before a General Election? Let’s consider it.

I’m not sure what the ‘multitude of camels’ would be, in today’s ‘new Jerusalem’ – let alone the ‘dromedaries of Midian and Ephah’. Perhaps in today’s world the camels, the ships of the desert, would be super-yachts, and the dromedaries, the ‘road-runners’, Ferraris and Porsches. But they are all signs of riches, surely. We have an echo of the entry of the Queen of Sheba in the back of our heads, of course, as soon as we hear it – perhaps accompanied in our mind’s eye by a picture of a beautiful diva, say Danielle De Niese or Joyce Di Donato, singing Handel’s oratorio Solomon, where that lovely music comes from.

What splendour could rival the entry of the Queen of Sheba today? Do you think that the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is the sort of thing that we would put up against it? Or, now we have a royal baby, a royal christening? Maybe so. We certainly can do grand spectacles and grand ceremony here in England’s ‘green and pleasant land’.

But, you might say, surely this is the time of austerity. There’s no money, no money for showy ceremonies! I don’t suppose that you have room in your minds for any more politicians, each one claiming to be leaner and more fiscally correct than the next: everything is costed; nobody will have to pay any more tax; miraculously, important services will be preserved, even though we will spend less money on them. Our arts, our great opera houses, our concert halls, will continue to lead the world – running on air. Our National Health Service has been promised £8bn by one party – but only after £20bn of ‘efficiency savings’. That’s really £12bn of cuts.

Both the leading parties want to ‘cut the deficit’, and offer to do it at different speeds, but both do promise to make cuts in public expenditure. It’s interesting that at least one Nobel Prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman, has written recently under the title ‘The Austerity Delusion: the case for cuts was a lie. Why does Britain still believe it?’ We are, after all, the sixth-richest nation on earth. [http://www.theguardian.com/business/ng-interactive/2015/apr/29/the-austerity-delusion]

I’m sure it would be quite wrong for me to say anything political from the pulpit. But our bishops have written a pastoral letter – which is still well worth reading: you’ll find a hard copy at the back on your way out, if you want to pinch one – it’s called ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ Archbishop John Sentamu has also assembled a very interesting collection of essays, designed to inform Christian voters, called ‘On Rock or Sand?’ and every newspaper has contributed its six-penn’orth of economic and political analysis. You don’t really need me to add to the Babel chorus.

I think also that one has to be realistic in our own local context. We inhabit a ‘safe seat’; so safe that the retiring MP didn’t feel it was necessary actually to turn up at the hustings which Churches Together arranged up at St Andrew’s in Oxshott on Thursday. Which was a pity, because all the other candidates made a very good effort to explain their positions and to answer questions.

I’m going to assume that St Mary’s will follow the national statistic, as I understand it, which is that 55% of the faithful in the Church of England vote Conservative – and I might risk a guess that here, the percentage might be even higher! So I wouldn’t dare try to persuade you out of your ancient loyalties; but I do hope that all the excitement and debate which the election has caused in the last few weeks will at least have stirred up in you renewed interest in what it is to be the City of God, what the good society, the Common Good, as the Archbishops call it, should be.

St Augustine’s great work was called that, City of God, De Civitate Dei. Anyone who thinks that the church shouldn’t become involved in politics should remember that they have to contend with Archbishops John and Justin, both of whom passionately disagree with that proposition. The Archbishops passionately believe that the church should be engaged in modern society, and that that engagement necessarily involves contributing to the political debate.

That tradition goes right back to St Augustine, if not earlier. The City of God was written in the fifth century AD, right at the end of the Roman Empire, after the Goths had sacked Rome. There is of course also a lot of Biblical authority for the idea of the city of God: the hymn, Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion City of our God, is based on Psalm 87. Citizenship was pretty important to St Paul. In Acts 22:25 he raised the matter of his being a Roman citizen – perhaps he quoted Cicero, ‘Civis Romanus sum’ – ‘I am a Roman citizen’ (Marcus Tullius Cicero, In Verrem, 2.5.162), in order to stop the authorities imprisoning him without charge. ‘Is it lawful for you to scourge a man that is a Roman and uncondemned?’ he said to the centurion.

And of course, Jesus himself said, ‘Render unto Caesar’. [Mark 12:17, or Luke 20:25] That wasn’t a command not to engage in human society, but rather positively to do one’s duty both to God and to mankind.

So whichever way you vote on Thursday – and of course I do think that you should vote rather than not vote – even if the result in Esher and Walton, our constituency, is rather a foregone conclusion, I do think that we all ought to keep alive in our minds the vision of the City of God. In our new Jerusalem, will we be covered by camels, will God smile on us in our abundance – or will we forget who our neighbours are? Let us pray that even those MPs who don’t have to make much of an effort to be elected, will still bear in mind what Jesus said about neighbours.

Think about what Jesus said about the last judgment in Matthew 25: ‘I was hungry, and you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home, when naked, you clothed me; when I was ill you came to my help, when in prison you visited me.’ You remember the story. The righteous people asked when they had done these good deeds, and Jesus replied, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ (Matt. 25:40)

So following this, Jesus’ explanation of who was his neighbour, and following the bishops’ letter, does our government policy on refugees, especially those risking their lives in the Mediterranean, square up? Our MP wrote to me recently that the Mediterranean refugees should be the concern just of the states with Mediterranean coastlines, like Italy, France, Greece or Spain. I wonder whether his parents, who were Czech refugees from Nazism in 1938, would have made it to safety here if we had had such a narrow policy then.

‘I was hungry,’ said Jesus. Would He have thought that it was acceptable that over a million people turned to food banks last year? 1,300 food parcels were given out in Cobham alone between April 2014 and March 2015.

‘When I was ill,’ He said. I think that the answer today is not just to buy private health insurance, and stand idly by while the NHS is steadily and stealthily run down, but to look out for each other: everyone in their hour of need deserves help. That help, in the NHS, depends on proper funding. That massive enterprise, the National Health Service, was founded when the national debt was several times the current size.

As the bishops have said, we should be good neighbours internationally as well. Would our Lord have approved cuts in overseas aid, or threats to withdraw from the EU? He wanted us to care for those poorer than ourselves, and to look out for others who might need our skills. I think He would have praised the EU for giving 70 years of peace in Europe.

I could go on, but you know the areas where the bishops have focussed. Civil rights and freedoms should be balanced by obligations, human rights. British lawyers drafted the European Human Rights Convention on which the Human Rights Act is based. Is it really right to want to get rid of it?

Think of the multitude of camels. Whatever government we end up with, whoever is our MP, after Thursday, we must press them, we must speak up for the City of God. We must try to ensure that our leaders work to create a fairer, more neighbourly society. Or else, as Isaiah said at the end of our first lesson, ‘For the nation and kingdom that will not serve thee shall perish; yea, those nations shall be utterly wasted.’

[The House of Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, ‘Who is my Neighbour?’ is at https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2015/02/house-of-bishops%27-pastoral-letter-on-the-2015-general-election.aspx%5D