Bishop Martin's Address to Diocesan Synod
16th November 2019
One God and One Mediator
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.
(1 Timothy 2:1-5)
At times, the centre seemed unable to hold. Politicians urging unity and moderation watched aghast as factions tore at each other. This was a landscape…of fearful self-interest and hungry ambition, and justified with the merest skim of legal process. Speaking the language of populism and clamouring for reform, squabbling elites…manipulated public discontent to their own advantage, sparking insurgency and revolt against a battered political establishment. The system of hereditary monarchy itself seemed to teeter on the brink.
This statement resonates with the political and social turbulence of the present day but it clearly describes an era of the past. Which era? It could well be the 1640s, when the nation descended into civil war. But in fact, this is from the introduction to a book about the 1460s, the war of the roses, so called, and what many historians would regard as the birth pangs of the modern era.
These echoes of the past indicate to our own age the cyclical nature of human history. Thrown back onto the processes of social and economic power that can be manipulated for self-interest, nations and social networks reinvent familiar patterns of envy, conflict and dominance.
It is in this over-arching context of human history, that St Paul writes about the dynamics of revealed truth. The language that we find in this passage from the first letter to Timothy invites us to think big. The themes are God, truth, society, and the mystery of who Jesus is, a mystery that is explored elsewhere by Paul.
In the letter to the church at Philippi, Paul says that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7), and Paul expands this further in his second letter to the church at Corinth, reminding them of “the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
The glory of God, full of grace and truth, is seen in Jesus Christ, who reconciles us by his life and death and resurrection. This is the catholic faith, in the sense of being the fullness, the wholeness, catholic in its intensity, of God’s creative and redemptive purpose.
It might seem a long way from Brexit, and the turmoil of our political, social and economic life as we prepare for a General Election. But there is wisdom here that I commend to you as the Christian contribution to an election debate that is characterised by much noise, and the bitter fruit of social discord.
Let us speak wisely and act generously as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, the Christian identity that determines our character as subjects of an earthly monarch in a material kingdom that belongs to time and place.
Here are three questions that might usefully inform your thinking and how you cast your vote. The first is: “What does it feel like to be poor, right now?”
There seems to be something of a race by all parties in the election debate, to spend more money than we have done recently in the areas of social benefit.
But let us be clear. Austerity, the harsher end of the virtue of prudence, can be a necessary corrective to unregulated Government expenditure. However, the effects of austerity have not been uniform in their impact. The fear and damage caused by universal credit and the two-child limit in the allocation of benefits have been devastating.
It has been shocking, for people working in the foodbank of an affluent city like Chichester, to discover that the people using the foodbank are not feckless, homeless or out of work. They include working people who have to make a choice between whether they and their children can be warm, or whether they can eat.
The poor are also migrant workers on whom we have grown dependent in the provision of care, of hospitality for tourists, and of labour in the horticultural and agricultural industry that plays a major part in the economy of Sussex. The poor are those, young and old, who struggle with their mental health. The poor are children in care, asylum seekers and refugees. The poor are elderly people who feel left behind and unwanted – and they might not be materially poor, but there is little to enrich their lives with the value of recognition in the self-absorbed culture of today.
How we vote and what we do in response to the needs of the poor is a challenge we as Christians should be considering.
Second question: “How can we contribute to rebuilding trust and relationships in the public arena?”
There should be no doubt in our minds that as a nation we have been seriously damaged, at every level, by the nature of the Brexit debate and its political consequences.
The first thing to say here, is that any contribution from the Church must be made in full recognition that we have damaged others. We speak from a position of being humbled by our failings, historic and present. But it is precisely this experience of damage, failure, and a change of heart which should encourage us to speak out.
In moral terms, what we have learnt is that telling the truth is itself a process of reconciliation.
St Paul acknowledges this in his first letter to Timothy. Jesus Christ, who is God our Saviour, “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
Knowledge of the truth is an indispensable part of the accountability that we speak of in the Christian tradition. We describe it as divine judgement, the perfect blend of mercy and justice that is the manifestation by God of the light of truth, when we are fully known for who and what we are.
Truth-telling and a sense of accountability before God (but also accountability to each other) are essential for the recovery of trust in the fabric of society. So also, is the virtue of kindness. So also, is the virtue of self-restraint. So also, is the virtue of generosity. So also, are the virtues of repentance and of forgiveness.
We already have a significant range of opportunities to model and promote the exercise of these virtues, learning them ourselves, as much as modelling them for others.
Crucial in this regard it the work in our schools, especially our primary schools, where these fundamental lessons in social life must be demonstrated.
But so also should they be seen in our community engagement, in our pastoral outreach, in the quality of our working life, the scope of our recreation, the contribution of our neighbourliness, and the commitment to causes, such as the urgent protection of the environment, in which we advocate for truth and justice.
When we cast our vote, we should be seeking a Member of Parliament who will contribute to rebuilding trust and community relationships across the whole of the constituency that he or she will represent.
Third, and last question: “How do we hold all this in prayer?”
The quality of our worship in church, Sunday by Sunday, must ensure that we are rehearsed in the practice of standing with the poor, and indeed as the poor in recognition of our need of God’s love. Church is where we should rehearse those virtues that contribute to the mending of the wider society. This is the sacred space of this gymnasium of the Holy Spirit by whom we are trained and exercised.
“Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins and are in love and charity with your neighbour”. “We have done those things that we ought not to have done…and there is no health in us.”
These words, familiar to those who know the Book of Common Prayer, indicate the extent to which the liturgy is a public work of repentance, healing and restoration. They are underlined by the Prayer for Unity in the Accession Service – a rite perhaps not widely used these days!
Addressed to God the Father of the Prince of Peace, this Prayer asks, “Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly Union and Concord.”
These are powerful words, and their repetition, like all training, can shape our attitude and behaviour. But words are not the only way we train ourselves in prayer that can transform life beyond expectation.
We all know the power of silence. The two-minute silence that commemorates those who lost their lives in war is, today, widely observed, both on Remembrance Sunday and on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour.
And for a nation that is largely unfamiliar with the words and rites of liturgical prayer, silence, in sacred space, with the simplicity of signs such as the lighting of candles, is perhaps the first opening of a door into the world of faith and of God who abides beyond our comprehension. Here, too, we can, in our often-ancient buildings, set out the evidence for hope in the mercy of God who loves each part of all creation and is faithful from one generation to another.
The offering of an open door into the silence of sacred space is also part of our gift to a pluriform society of many faiths and none. But the location of something binding and abiding has rightly been seen in these buildings, and it is still sought in moments of national distress.
So, when will we open our churches for all to use? And how will our liturgy prepare us for the casting of our vote and the work of restoring the damaged relationships in public life? Will we stand up for the poor when the votes are cast, because Jesus Christ stands for us, our great High Priest, in the limitations of our mortality, so that we might stand redeemed and joyful, at the last, in the glory of heaven.