Sometimes serendipity is a fact of life. Mark, Timothy and I have been planning for many weeks to do a series of sermons in Lent about Anglican social teaching, to support the Lent groups using material from the Church Urban Fund. And then the day before Lent began, the Bishops of the Church of England issued a pastoral letter to Anglicans in England on this very subject.
I don’t know how many of you have read the whole letter. It is quite long, and it is obviously written by a committee. There are things in it that probably shouldn’t be there, there are some major omissions, and there are a few actual inaccuracies about employment statistics and so on. But the Bishops have every right to address us on the subject of how Anglicans ought to engage in public life.
The letter is written to us, the people in the pews, not to the nation at large, as in the Faith and the City report 30 years ago. It is not addressed to politicians. The reason it was written is because a whole generation of young people is becoming disengaged from politics. Now this touches a very sore spot for me.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a woman and I think with gratitude of the Suffragettes, or perhaps it’s because my family link with the American Civil Rights movement that I spoke about last week, but I can never forget that people have died for the right to vote. When my children turned 18 we told them that in our house, if you don’t vote, you don’t eat. You are welcome to go into the booth and spoil your ballot if you don’t like any of the parties, but you must and will fulfil your democratic duty as a citizen.
About 18 months ago, the comedian Russell Brand confessed on TV that he had never voted and never would. He said, “It is not that I am not voting out of apathy. I am not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery and deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations.” His words have resonated with many disillusioned young people in our society, and the Bishops decided that they had to put the case for Christians to be involved in the political life of our nation. What they want to do is to start us thinking about a new vision of the common good.
So they issued a 56-page document to do just that. In the introduction they write, “There is a growing appetite to exploit grievances, find scapegoats and create barriers
between people and nations. The issues around the election call for a fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be. Followers of Jesus Christ believe that every human being is created in the image of God. But we are not made in isolation. We belong together in a creation which should be cherished and not simply used and consumed. This is the starting point for the Church of England’s engagement with society, the nation and the world.”
They go on to state clearly that they are not suggesting that any one political party has the best mix of answers. They are simply raising the questions that we all need to consider carefully. They touch on many different issues, though they omit discussion of more personal issues like bio-ethics, end-of-life care, abortion and equal marriage; I assume this is because the bishops themselves hold divergent views on these subjects. But they give us plenty to think about under many other headings, such as poverty, unemployment, welfare reform, health, immigration, housing, education, the environment, international affairs and a number of other topics. If you haven’t yet managed to read the letter online, I strongly urge you to do so. It can be found under its title, “Who is my neighbour?” If you do not have access to the internet, you might like to pick up a copy of a guide to the letter that is only eleven pages long – there are a number of copies at the back of church.
Today I want to look at just one section of the letter, and that is the one that relates directly to the tradition of Anglican social teaching. An explicit Anglican theology of the Common Good goes back to the 19th century, to the writings of F.D. Maurice, B.F. Westcott and Charles Gore, who were deeply concerned about the plight of the poor in England’s urban slums. Their writings inspired Archbishop William Temple during the Second World War. He offered some really rather modest critiques of the status quo, and took a pragmatic view of how institutions could help people to flourish. The “intermediate institutions” he spoke about are those voluntary, cooperative associations that exist between the family and the state, and they may include clubs, credit unions, youth groups, trade unions, community associations, professional organizations and parish churches.
It is the decay of many of these social networks that has contributed to the fragmentation of our society. Indeed recent research shows that only half the British population belongs to such an organization, and of that half, only 21% belong to a church or other religious community. That is the second largest group after membership of sports clubs.
How can we recover the vibrancy of these networks, these intermediate institutions? Without them we are a collective of mere individuals, each intent on our own economic status, with nothing between us and that state apparatus that it seems we no longer trust or have a stake in. This is a very un-Anglican situation. From the Elizabethan settlement on, our tradition has been founded on Richard Hooker’s vision of a Church for the people of England. It is a broad church that rests on Scripture, tradition and reason.
The Church of England, says Malcolm Brown, is essentially a coalition of three completely different groups, each with an unfinished project. One group wants to complete the work of the Reformation and turn us into a Puritan sect with a fundamentalist view of the Bible. Another group wants to complete the Counter-Reformation by elevating tradition and returning us to Roman obedience. And a third group is wedded to the Enlightenment tradition, seeking to move with the times, be rational and make human beings the measure of all things. This is the project of modernity which has now been countered by the post-modern suspicion of all truth claims and grand narratives.
Now you may not feel much affinity with any of these tendencies, but they are all pulling our church life in different directions. How does such an unwieldy Church hold together? With difficulty, obviously, but also with truly heroic commitment to mutual respect and generous inclusion, as the recent debate around women bishops, at its best, has shown.
This is a particularly Anglican problem. Roman Catholic social teaching has a solid top-down teaching authority, the magisterium, and a universal reach. It is concerned with global issues, not national ones, though it does teach the doctrine of subsidiarity, that decision should be taken as close to the people they affect as possible.
But we are members of a Church for the nation. The political and public life of this country is where we need to make the gospel values heard afresh. If we are all made in the image of God, as the Bible clearly states, then we cannot pursue only our own self-interest. We belong to one another. The common good is an imperative. We may have quite different ideas about what that good looks like, but we certainly cannot ignore our duty to work together to help everyone to flourish.
The story of Noah in Genesis describes the utter destruction of a society that had turned to evil and corruption, each one seeking only his own good, and ends with the covenant God made not just with Noah but with “every living creature”. In the gospel reading today, Jesus came out of the wilderness, after his baptism, proclaiming not a private relationship with God for the righteous but the arrival of the kingdom of God, which was good news for the poor.
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is concerned with how we safeguard each person’s infinite value as someone made in the image of God, how we obey the commands of Christ to meet the needs of the weakest in our society, and how we live in hope as citizens of God’s kingdom.
This Lent, as we look up and out, I hope that we will all engage with the social teaching of the Church. We can do this by taking part in the Lent groups – there are still spaces on Monday and Thursday evenings.
We can do this by studying the Bishops’ letter and perhaps doing some other reading about the Common Good and how both the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions understand it. The Catholic bishops will be issuing their own pre-election letter shortly.
We can do this by informing ourselves about the issues that we will all have to vote about in May. There will be hustings with parliamentary candidates in churches in Kilburn and Hampstead in the next few weeks and the details will be publicised.
Finally, we can engage with social teaching by praying for and acting generously towards those who are in need. Who is my neighbour? It is whoever needs my help, or whoever helps me. We are all one family, children of the same heavenly Father.