Into the wilderness, or regaining the Promised Land?

From a sermon preached on the Feast of St John the Baptist, and following the EU Referendum

I have made a promise – to myself and to one or two others – that today, I will not mention the “R” word. Which will no doubt be a relief to at least some of you!

I do, however, want to refer to Friday morning’s “Thought for the day” on Radio 4 – which came as people around the country were just beginning to register what had happened.

The speaker was Bishop Richard Harries – who was Bishop of Oxford when I was there as an undergraduate. So it was very nice to hear his calming tones again, among the rather more frenetic activity that was otherwise filling the airwaves.

He explored the question of identity – something which can either give us a sense of solidarity with others, or separate us from them.                                                                                   And he suggested that whether we identify ourselves as European, or British, as English, or Scottish – as a northerner, a midlander – even perhaps as a proper Wiltonian  – there is a more fundamental question, for all of us, of “who we are” as human beings.

.We are not just fellow citizens”, he said “we are from a Christian point of view made in the Divine image and called to grow into the Divine likeness.” And from that basis he made a plea for a broader sense of identity which binds people together – even those who disagree with one another.

To those of us who identify ourselves as Christians, St Paul makes a plea for a similar kind of self-understanding in his letter to the Galatians.  “As many of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

That’s a very powerful image – if we take it to heart.

Baptism is the one element of our faith that all of the major Christian traditions recognise and value in common: East and West, Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox – recognise this Sacrament as universal and fundamental to all Christians. By virtue of our baptism, then, we are fellow members of the worldwide family of the Church.

And that offers us at the same time both reassurance and challenge.                                             It brings us a strong sense of mutual support, but also a responsibility for and to our fellow Christians – in a way that transcends both national borders and political systems.                 The problems of the Church in Syria are our problems – the challenges of life in the Diocese of Cueibet are our challenges – because we are all baptised into the one Body of Christ.

And that mutual obligation is at least as much a part of our core identity – as our own nationality or political allegiance.

Perhaps, as a national Church and as a local congregation, we can signpost that broader perspective – that concern for both local and global welfare – so that negotiations around our future national identity will not be allowed either to dominate our lives or to perpetuate the divisions that currently exist among us.

In his “Thought for the Day”, there was also  a note of caution from Bishop Harries:               that the shared religious identity which binds us together,  also separates us from those who are not Christians – and that can be a source of all sorts of troubles if we allow it.

It’s important to remember, then, that another key part of our Christian calling is that of service to our neighbours – whether or not they happen to be Christians.

Since ALL people are made in the Divine image – it is our vocation be “salt and light” to all people: it’s the shared duty of Christians everywhere to work together to help and encourage ALL people to grow into the Divine likeness.

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A right royal dilemma?!

Last year, her majesty the Queen, became the longest serving British Monarch. Overtaking Queen Victoria’s record of 63 years and 254 days – Queen Elizabeth has now notched up 64 years and 126 days. That’s quite some term of office.

It may surprise you, therefore, to note that in the worldwide league of longest serving monarchs she ranks only 44th.

The gold medal goes to King Sobhuza II of Swaziland – who ruled from 1899 – 1982 – a reign of 82 years and 254 days. To be fair, he did have an advantage – ascending to the throne when he was only 4 months old!

Among his other notable achievements were the fact that he had 70 wives and 210 children. Given that fact, I think HE did rather well to survive to the age of 83!

For size of family, then, I don’t think our Queen is going to come even near the top of the list –  so let’s park that thought to one side and begin again on another tack!

 

A report published this week, in Science Advances, revealed that some four fifths of the world’s population live beneath light-polluted skies. And some 60%of Western European are unable to see the night sky as it really is – such is the level of artificial light that we produce.

And so many of us are deprived of the sense of wonder and timelessness that comes from finding ourselves beneath a clear night sky – entranced by the brilliance of the stars and appreciating, perhaps the sheer vastness of the universe beyond – still expanding, way beyond the limits of our imaginations.

Instead, what 80% of the world’s population see is the murky glow from street lighting and neon signs – blotting out the natural wonders that lie beyond.

And it seemed to me that, in our industrialised nations, there is something of a paradox there: our developing technologies now enable us to see in ever greater detail the realities of life in other parts of the globe – whether it be the horrors of war in Syria or the drama of some sporting event thousands of miles away.

And yet, it now appears, one side-effect result of that technological development is to blot out the worlds beyond – to make our perspective smaller – not bigger.

Our attention is rarely deflected from an obsession with ourselves – with what people are doing – rather than with the changing backdrop beyond us.

There is nothing intrinsically good or evil about advancing technology – it makes possible many things that were unimaginable when our queen came to the throne. And yet, if we allow it, it may distract us from the timeless truths that underpin our very existence.

And so, as with anything else, it’s important to keep it all in proper perspective.

Without wishing to stir up a hornets’ nest, or to steer you in either direction, I want to suggest that the matter of perspective has also dogged much of the recent debate around our membership of the European Union.

Rather like those poor people who never see beyond the orange glow of the street lamp, almost all of the arguments being made seem to focus on this tiny island – what will make keep US safe, what will protect OUR jobs and OUR incomes.

Precious little has been said about what impact our membership of the EU has on the stability of Europe as a whole, or the wider family of nations. Almost nothing has been said about the greater vision of global development.

It’s almost as if we’re so obsessed with defending our own way of life that we are blind to the bigger, long-term questions of how we can sustain life on earth against the backdrop of global warming and rising populations.

I am very much afraid that we have NOT got all things in proper perspective – and, with a referendum looming, that concerns me.

IF we are going to make an enlightened choice on 23rd June – we do need to consider both the global perspective and the perspective of history.

 

One of the terms we HAVE heard within the debate is “sovereignty” – by which those using it have meant our right to national self-determination… choosing our own laws, for example without interference from others.

And yet, for us, national sovereignty is inextricably linked with the sovereign – with the Queen. Our national self-determination is rooted in the monarch – who symbolises for us a way of life that is bigger than any political system.

Our unelected Head of State is a living, breathing reminder – that there are always bigger issues at stake than the latest whim of politicians and bureaucrats – on either side of the English Channel.

And that perspective I think is too easily ignored.

Our present Queen has been a constant – and a model of duty and service – throughout her 62 years’ reign. During that time Britain has moved from Imperial power, to “lead nation” among the Commonwealth, to a more equal partner among those nations AND to membership of the European Union (amongst other groupings).

Our own population has grown and changed, almost beyond recognition – we are far more aware of other cultures, other ways of doing things, than we were. Our food is probably more exciting that it was! At the same time we have become less good at keeping a healthy sense of community – especially in our bigger cities and conurbations.

All of those developments, all of the advantages and the challenges, need to be borne in mind as we attempt to map the future – for our own nation and for our relationship with others.

Within the British constitution – which emerged from a backdrop of political tensions and religious intolerance – Church, Parliament and Monarch are locked in balance and so, at least in theory, all are kept in check.

And it seems to me that, in an age of rising nationalism and religious fanaticism, that model of mutual accountability has something valid to offer.

The Queen provides both an element of continuity and also a reminder of the bigger picture – of the politicians’ accountability BEYOND their own party, of faith communities’ accountability to the population as a whole, and the accountability of all of us to God, not JUST our neighbours or our families.

That, I think, is a very valid perspective and one which can sustain our sense on national identity – whether that be within a reformed European Union as some of our leaders hope, or as a newly independent nation as do others.

The role of the monarchy has changed enormously since the Queen’s coronation in 1953. And yet, despite some tricky moments and an annus horribilis or two, the institution of the monarchy has not only survived but flourished.

This particular monarch has allowed her role to flex and evolve as the world has changed, but never lost touch with the promises she made at the outset.

And I think that there is something valuable in that: Our queen’s example is a reminder – to our politicians and to all of us perhaps – that we can’t go back to past, and neither can we pretend that the past didn’t happen.

It’s unrealistic to suppose that an exit from the European Union would allow us to go back to the way things “used to be”. It’s equally unrealistic to pretend that life has always been like this – that there is no alternative.

Life CAN always get better – within Europe or outside – IF sufficient people are determined that it should and are prepared to work at making it happen.

Like the Queen, we as a nation, are challenged to reflect on what is fundamental to our identity – to preserve those things and to learn how to apply them in the new and changing circumstances in which we live.  We are challenged to remember our mistakes – and the mistakes of others – and to avoid repeating them whenever possible!

It is as a broadly Christian, but instinctively inclusive society – which doesn’t take either its political or religious leaders TOO seriously – that we can best hope to forge a useful future among the nations of the world. And if our monarchy can play a role in preserving and encouraging that national spirit – long may it continue!