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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He also says this.

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

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

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

He went on.

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

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

Sermon for Holy Communion on the 15th Sunday after Trinity at All Saints’, Ockham, 28th Sept 2014
Ex. 17:1-7, Phil. 2:1-13, Matt. 21:23-32

‘Have you got a licence for that thing?’ I remember, when I was a graduate trainee, having a conversation with another trainee, visiting our office from Germany for a few months, who pointed out that, whereas In England everything is permitted, everything is authorised, unless it is forbidden, in Germany it is safer to assume that things are not allowed unless they are specifically permitted. Incidentally it used to be that way round in the golden age of the railways here too; coaches were designated ‘smoking’ rather than ‘non-smoking’.

I think that Jewish practice in the Temple around 33AD was closer to the German model which my friend described than to what we’re used to. ‘Have you got authority to preach in the way you’re doing? – to carry out miraculous healing, and so on?’ I suppose you might get a similar sort of reaction if a speaker prophesying the end of the world on Speakers’ Corner suddenly popped up in St Paul’s Cathedral. ‘Is he properly authorised?’ people would ask.

Authorised. I’m not sure that the concept of authority hasn’t sometimes brought its own problems. The whole question, to whose authority one defers, can be fraught with difficulty. In the time of the Reformation, Catholics were outlawed because it was feared that they owed allegiance to the Pope rather than to the King or Queen.

Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England are built on the concept of authority, on the apostolic succession, so-called, from Jesus’ Great Commission in Chapter 28 of St Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus said to the disciples,

Full authority in heaven and on earth has been committed to me. Go forth therefore and make all nations my disciples…

So every ordained person is ordained by a bishop, who in turn is in a line of ordination which, the church says, it can trace back to the disciples, or specifically to St Peter.

People who were against women’s ordination tried to say that the apostolic succession was just from male disciples (although there were female disciples like Dorcas or Lydia very early in the church). The idea of ‘authority’ wasn’t at all helpful.

Authority isn’t all bad, however. There was a very happy event in the Church of England at Evensong in Guildford Cathedral on Friday, when our new Bishop of Guildford, who will actually be installed and will start work officially in February, was introduced to us. He is Bishop Andrew Watson, who is currently the Bishop of Aston – you know, as in Villa – in Birmingham – the suffragan bishop, as it’s called, the number 2 bishop in that diocese.

So very soon we will have a Bishop of Guildford again, and the service, when he is inducted, will use the idea of apostolic succession to confer authority on him, that he is in the tradition of ordination starting with Jesus’ first disciples.

In our lesson from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, St Paul gives advice to that very early church in Philippi on how they should conduct themselves as Christians.

They should be modest and look out for each other, selfless in their desire to put others’ interests first. Because, St Paul said, Jesus was ultimately modest in the same way: he ’emptied himself, in the form of a slave’, even though he was ‘in the form of God’, so that, even though demonstrating utter human weakness, Jesus gained the highest status in the Kingdom of God.

Something which, in the Old Testament, in the book of Isaiah, was supposed to be an attribute of God, that

… at the name of God, every knee should bend (Isaiah 45),

has now been refocused by Paul to be about Jesus: that in heaven at least, Jesus would have authority, would command respect. That is the authority which is said to come down to a new bishop, and indeed in his first words to us, as he anticipated receiving his new authority, Bishop Andrew did seem to show real modesty. We will pray for a continuing welcome for him and his family.

If there was at least one happy authority-event this week, in Bishop Andrew being announced as bishop-designate for Guildford, there was unfortunately also an unhappy one. This is our Parliament’s vote to wage war yet again in Iraq, against the background of the continuing crisis involving Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and perhaps wider in the Arab world.

Yet again we are seeing pictures from aircraft, or from cameras in the noses of UAVs, so-called drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, which show a building in black and white, perhaps with a few small stick men outside it, and perhaps with the odd vehicle coming in and out: then the target designator places a cross on the building in the picture, and seconds later, you see cataclysmic explosions, after which the building is obliterated. And, of course, so are the people.

We have heard here, and also in the context of the conflict in Palestine, in Gaza, that what is called ‘collateral damage’ occurs, that when bombing and shelling takes place, you can’t guarantee to hit only combatants, only soldiers. You may risk hitting innocent civilians as well. The Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions are clear that you are not supposed to shoot if there is a risk that you will hit non-combatants – even when they are human shields. Sadly, this is a provision of the Geneva Conventions which has been observed in the breach recently.

There is a huge contrast between this military might – ‘shock and awe’ – and the way that Jesus went around, emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, not deploying overwhelming force. I’m worried that, by going to war, we are deploying overwhelming force, but we are not persuading anybody, we are not changing hearts and minds.

But I know that there are other arguments along the lines that it is necessary to go to war because there is no other way of preventing genocide, which the IS, the so-called Islamic State, is threatening against anyone who does not subscribe to their version of Islam.

But who has authority in this? The pilot of a Tornado will say that he is acting under orders. His orders come from the military hierarchy, who are in turn ordered by Parliament. Where does Parliament’s authority come from?

‘From the will of the people’, you might say. But as the Scots proved, there is democracy and democracy. They had an 80+ % turnout. I’m not sure what the equivalent at the last General Election was, but it was far less. Instead would anyone seriously say now that he had authority from God to take a particular line? There are no easy answers, but it does seem to me that the same question could be asked today as the Jews asked Jesus all those years ago:

By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?