Homily for the Mayor’s Civic Service at St Modwen’s Church, Burton upon Trent, on 19 May 2019.
Colin, thank you for inviting me to be your Chaplain. You got in just in time, for I’m 69 in a couple of weeks, and I retire in October. I was surprised to be invited because I’m told I’ve gained a reputation for rattling cages and pricking pomposity. But you, Colin, intimated to me that was why you asked me. So fasten your seatbelts and off we go.
This is not a good time to be a Church of England clergyman. It’s not a good time to be a public representative of a deeply flawed institution that comes across as arrogant, hypocritical and inhuman: an organisation perceived to have provided a safe haven for child molesters, and one that cares more about its own reputation than its victims. Reprehensible behaviour by a few clergy tarnishes us all. If it’s the case that to err is human and to forgive divine, then to deny and cover-up and ignore belong to the Church of England. This is far removed from the wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth, and indeed from the wisdom of all cultures and religions worth bothering about.
Similarly, I don’t suppose this is a good time to be a politician. Worse, in fact, because unlike the church—which is pretty irrelevant to most people—politicians affect everybody. Over recent years in this country we have had politicians feathering their own nests, favouring friends and members of their families, fiddling expenses, spending public money for private gain. And now brexit: the stupidity and pride of buffoons in Westminster at their pernicious playground politics fiddling while the UK burns. Reprehensible behaviour by a few public representatives tarnishes you all.
So, council members, you have my sympathy and support in trying to do all that is good, all that is noble, all that is delightful and admirable. If I can do anything to help, even if only by listening, then here I am.
All this raises the question why we humans behave like this. What goes on in the human psyche?
Those of you brought up with some residual knowledge of Christianity might recall that Jesus’s three temptations in the desert can be whittled down to one: the urge to show off: “look at me, look at me” we are tempted to shout. Resist it! About 2000 years ago, Evagrios in what is now northern Iraq, set down some profound observations concerning these temptations. He wrote that our human frailty arises from three so-called demons.
- The first is the demon that incites us to take more than we need. Greed. And not just greed for food or drink, but greed for emotions, for pleasure, for possessions. For power.
- The second is the demon that incites us to take what we want simply because somebody else has it. Envy. Begrudgery,
- And the third, the worst of all, is the demon that incites to seek the approval of others—to please other people into whose good books we wish to slither, into whose beds we wish to crawl. By the way, don’t be put off by the word demon. These days we think of demons in terms of addictions or obsessions.
What has all this to do with councillors? The answer is everything. It’s these demons that, despite our best intentions, drag us down. It’s these demons that we need to be on guard against if we are to replace selfishness with selflessness for the sake of the common good. And I don’t imagine that, as public representatives, you are in the game for selfish reasons.
When making decisions, and weighing up options, I encourage us all to think about what motivates us. Is it personal gain? Is it revenge? Is it the common good? Which of the options before us is likely to bring delight? Which is likely to lead to misery?
All of us, public representatives and private citizens, would do well to set aside the needs of the clubs or parties we belong to, and instead concentrate on the needs of individuals. It’s the effects on individuals that make the headlines. It’s the effects on individuals that lead to misery or delight. If we get the little stuff right, the big stuff will look after itself.
The second reading today was the story of the Good Samaritan. In those days, Samaritans and Jews hated each other, I suppose a bit like the tribes that support rival football clubs. Nevertheless, it’s the enemy that stops to help—he puts compassion for another human being before tribal loyalty. Help can come from the most unlikely source. We’d do well to accept help from anybody. We’re all in this together.
The priest and Levite who went out of their way to avoid the injured man were not bad people. They were on their way to Jerusalem in order to do their jobs in the Temple. For them to come in contact with a bleeding man would render them ritually unclean and unfit to do their jobs. In refusing to help they put duty before compassion. I guess we’ve all fallen into that trap, some of us many times over. I urge you as public representatives to keep compassion at the forefront of your minds in all that you say and do. Compassion for the underdog.
We’re all in this together. All humanity. I don’t know what image of the thing called God you have—if indeed you have one. I try not to have one, because it limits me, but I can live with the idea that God, the Divine, is beauty in all its manifestations: beauty of character, of action, of intent, of the senses, of craftsmanship—whatever is delightful. Delight. Furthermore, I have no doubt that there is God in every single one of us on the planet. We are all made in the image of God. We are all bits of God, even though we often do our best to hide it.
Some of you may have heard of particles in the blood called platelets. When we cut ourselves, platelets are attracted to the site of injury where they plug the hole to help stop the bleeding. Platelets are broken off bits of huge cells called megakaryocytes, which is Greek for, surprise, surprise, very large cells. Just as platelets are broken off bits of a megakaryocyte, so we are broken off bits of God. Just as platelets plug gaps and aid healing, so we must plug gaps and aid healing. We’re all in this together.
Finally, I ask you to look at the text of hymn we shall soon sing: And did those feet …
It’s easy to read the words of Blake’s poem as the worst sort of jingoistic piffle. And that is indeed how many people read it. But I doubt it’s what was in Blake’s mind. He was a deeply subversive writer, revolutionary, political, angry. The poem’s first verse is in fact a list of ironic questions:
- Did those feet walk upon England’s mountain green? No, they did not, but oh that they might.
- Was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen? No, he was not, but oh that he were.
- Did the countenance divine shine upon our clouded hills? No, it did not but oh that it would.
- Was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills (Oxbridge degree mills by the way)? No, it was not, but oh that it might be.
The second verse inspires us to work for the answers to be yes. Inspire me to act, to work for justice without which there will never be peace. I will not cease till we have built the holy city here.
And that, sisters and brothers, is what I invite us all to do. We’re all in this together.