Sermon May 4th.
As it is now public knowledge that I am an official Labour candidate at the forthcoming election later in the month, I thought it appropriate to begin my sermon this morning with a very clear endorsement of the leader of one of our 2 major political parties.
I am talking about David Cameron, of course!
Those of you who follow the news will have noticed a minor spat around Easter between our Prime Minister and some eminent- I’ll qualify that- fairly well known- atheists, as to whether or not it is sensible to call Britain a Christian country.
I can declare myself an authority on this story for the simple reason that as one of the 34,000 people who buy a Church Times every week, I have actually read what David Cameron wrote. But I want to begin with the letter of objection which turned up in the Telegraph a few days later because in many ways it is more interesting than what the Prime Minister had to say.
The first thing that jumped out to me was the list of signatories. The main one, who I believe penned it, was the incredibly genial and likeable host of the radio programme- ‘ The Life Scientific’, Jim Al- Kahlili .’ There were other notable public intellectuals, such as Philip Pullman, and then there were the comedians.
Times have certainly changed. I really can’t imagine that 3 decades ago Morecambe and Wise, or Tommy Cooper would have been recruited for such a polemical enterprise- although maybe that would have been about right- with Les Dawson to add a due note of solemnity.
But there they were. I didn’t count them all, but amongst their number was Tony Hawks. Best known for his occasional appearances on Just a Minute, carrying a fridge around Ireland for a bet, and challenging the whole Moldovan football team to a game of tennis.
Context is surely important here. David Cameron’s article was written for a small newspaper, which is almost exclusively read by active members of the Church Of England to mark Easter!
What he wrote could be interpreted by the suspiciously minded as a buttering up exercise in the wake of the ongoing tension between the government’s Welfare strategists and the churches, which run most food banks, but it seems to be stretching it a bit to read into his words a contemptuous and menacing attack on everyone who is not a committed member of a church.
The letter of rebuke said this.
, we object to his characterisation of Britain as a “Christian country” and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders.
The Prime Minister was very careful to say.
.. Being more confident about our status as a Christian country does not somehow involve doing down other faiths or passing judgement on those with no faith at all.
”. Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities.
In the last census, just short of 60% defined themselves as Christian; 21% as having no religion.
They also said
At a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces.
Really? Did the druids have a bigger influence than I had noticed? The classicist, Mary Beard, has argued that the main conduit by which the classical world of Rome and Greece has seeped into our culture is through the public schools, most of which have always been explicitly christian foundations.
One of the arguments that Cameron did make that all the faiths in Britain help to provide social and spiritual glue, and that this is a good thing.
By coincidence I was invited to a meeting at Balham Library on Wednesday. I have mentioned my involvement with the Wandsworth Community Empowerment Network before. It has been going for about 10 years and its main purpose is to try to connect the work of the NHs more directly with local communities and their needs.
Its main areas of concern at the moment are mental health and dementia.
The gathering was diverse- as a white Caucasian male, I was very much in a minority.
In the room were Muslims, Hindus, members of the New Testament Assembly- a black pentecostal church, an outpost of which we host here on Sunday afternoon.
Charity workers and an academic who is an expert in dementia and practical ways of mitigating its effects on individuals and families- brighter lighting being as effective as medication. Mainly people of faith but not exclusively.
The meeting was chaired by the Vicar of Roehampton.
That seems to me to epitomise one of the very positive contributions that faith communities can make to the well-being of society. There was nothing triumphalist or exclusive about the conversation and all there wanted to offer help to those outside their own faith communities.
As David Cameron put it.
From giving great counsel to being the driving force behind some of the most inspiring social action projects in our country, our faith based organisations play a fundamental role in our society.
I am glad he is proud of that- I am too!
In the Gospel today we heard the story of the appearance of Christ on the road to Emmaus. What a story?
Disciples who had been captivated by Jesus’ vision of a world healed and redeemed are downcast by his death and fear it was all for nothing. Then in one moment of illumination their vision and hope are restored. There lies one of the great claims and gifts of our faith.
Hopefully we don’t open St Barnabas for theatrical performances, run clubs for the elderly and for those who care for children, collect for Christian Aid, or as individuals do what we can to bring hope and healing where it is needed, to get noticed or exercise power, but because we are inspired by that vision.
The ongoing promise of Easter.