So says Our Lord Jesus Christ in Luke, chapter 4, verse 43, when the people of Capernaum try to detain him. “I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose”.
The sense of urgency, of the need to keep moving on which Our Lord felt, is clear to us, as is His knowledge that He was called to this task.
Also evident is His firm conviction that the Kingdom of God is a present as well as a future reality, and that its proclamation is truly “good news” for all. “I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose”.
It is the urgent conviction of our own calling to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God which must underpin the work of this Synod over the next five years.
When later in this Group of Sessions, we come to debate the report by the House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council on Challenges for the new Quinquennium, we must be guided in all that we say and do by the pressing need to equip the Church confidently to discharge that calling.
Within the context of our God-given calling, I want to offer today some reflections on the first of the themes in that report, namely on what it means for the Church of England to contribute as the national church to the common good. I make clear at the outset that I recognise the enormous contribution to the common good made by other churches and by other religious communities.
I hope their representatives here will understand, however, when I say that, as by Law Established, the Church of England in England has a particular responsibility to advance the common good and in so doing to strengthen the social fabric of England. The call to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to all communities in England is, for us, a particular duty.
Bishop Hugh Montefiore, in his Installation Sermon as the Bishop of Birmingham on 4th March 1978, said, “The first priority of the Church is God. The world has urgent, pressing needs, but the Church is not primarily in the welfare business; it is about God. The Church itself has urgent pressing needs, but these too are not its concern. ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.’ The Church is a worldwide company of people who acknowledge in their lives the reality of God, and who through their discipleship of Jesus Christ, and through the power of his Spirit, speed the coming of God’s Kingdom over all the earth.”
What does the church exist to do?
“It lives towards God and towards the world. Towards God it worships: towards the world, it preaches the Gospel, it brings people into fellowship with God, it infects the world with righteousness, it speaks of divine principles on which the life of humanity is ordered.” So said Archbishop Michael Ramsey.
The report which the Bishop of Birmingham will later introduce to us rightly sets out something of the enormous investment the Church of England already makes in advancing the well-being, generosity and safety of communities up and down the land.
It quotes, with appropriate modesty, something of the particular contributions the Church has made to the advancement of the common good in recent years.
I do not need to repeat that material now, although I hope that every member of Synod will heed it and be proud to reiterate, whenever appropriate, something of the breadth and depth of our church’s contribution to national life. Instead I want briefly to review the context in which we are currently making that contribution and to suggest some ways in which we can, during the lifetime of this Synod, add further real value to public debate and to the development of the common good.
The context in which we find ourselves is easily, if depressingly stated. It is one of economic uncertainty; of worryingly high levels of unemployment, particularly but not exclusively among the young; of a gulf between those who have and those who don’t have and are struggling to make ends meet; of fiscal deficit and deep cuts in public expenditure; of rising levels of student and trade union unrest; and of low levels of trust between elected representatives and those they govern. We live in fractious and uncertain times, in which the role of the national church, like other elements in the social fabric, is constantly questioned and often attacked.
What is the particular contribution the Church of England can make in such a time and how should we go about making it? First, we must assert the value and importance of the contribution of trust in God to our national life. Believers in God and their communities are part of the glue which holds our society together.
Of course, religious faith can be a source of division in society, but so can many other differences in human understanding and allegiance. The fact is that all our communities benefit from the contribution of those who adhere to the worship of God, expressed in a life of service to their fellow human beings.
Secondly, among the religious communities, the Church of England, as the national church in England, is, as I have said, particularly called to the task of building up the wellsprings of solidarity in our society. Those outside the Church of England often see our established status as being about privilege.
From the inside, the privileges (in the sense of benefits solely available to us) appear to be rather few (particularly perhaps from the perspective of a bishop forced to endure yet another long sitting in the House of Lords!).
The greatest privilege we have is, of course, not a unique benefit but rather our greatest responsibility – that of living alongside and ministering to every community, large and small, up and down the country. That is both the opportunity and the obligation we have, which sits at the heart of how we in the Church of England seek to give expression to the duty we share with other Christians to proclaim to everyone the good news of the Kingdom of God.
It is fashionable among some contemporary religious progressives, as well as among secularists, to question the established nature of the Church of England. But in its contemporary expression, Establishment by Law, and the obligations it brings with it, witness to certain enduring Gospel truths. One is the fact that the love of God extends to all, rich and poor, saint and sinner, believer and unbeliever. A second is that everyone, and every institution in society including the Church itself, sits under the judgement of God.
These truths have informed the development of all our social institutions. Of course, the Church of England was born out of political as well as religious motives and to our shame we have not always behaved as we should have done towards those whose theological views differed from our own.
But, as the influential social and political thinker, Philip Blond, has argued, the established nature of the Church of England, as it has evolved over the centuries, has helped to create conditions favourable to the development of “a more diverse political and social life, prevented religious extremism and helped to minimise partisan conflict and secular violence”.
So, within the context of asserting the contribution all faith communities can make to the common good, the second contribution the Church of England can make to that good is confidently and vigorously to exploit all the opportunities we have been given as the national church to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to all of the communities in this land.
Nor should we fail to engage with those who would seek to take our particular responsibility as the national church away from us. They do not understand the damage they are potentially doing to the social and political fabric of our country.
Thirdly, we must actively continue to seek to influence the terms of the national debate on key issues affecting our society. I do not accept the arguments of those who try to confine the church to purely private matters; who say that Christian convictions should have no place in questions of public morality.
For example, Dame Mary Warnock, a philosopher who has made a prominent contribution to the public debates about ethical issues, in her recent book, Dishonest to God, is concerned with “what part Christianity should continue to play in legislation and politics and what influence it has and should continue to have in Parliament, whose responsibility is to Christian and non-Christian alike.”
From where she stands, religion and morality must be prised apart, however close they may both have been in the past.
I am a considerable admirer of the contribution Lady Warnock has made to public life but, on this, I cannot accept her argument. This is false prophecy, and potentially fatal to our social fabric. It is false because morality is or should be increasingly a matter of public concern and not just a private matter. It is false because societies in which religious belief is weakened are weaker societies. It is false because, unless informed by a conception of the Divine, moral principles are always in danger of fading away into moral relativism.
Then there are those who claim that we are unqualified to participate in the great debates of our day. Of course we cannot assume a right to be heard and must establish that right not only by our demonstrable commitment to the common good but by the competence of the contributions we make.
If we are to do that, we have to begin by ensuring that we properly understand the nature of the issues confronting our society.
One of my own relevant initiatives in the past year has been to bring together economists, social thinkers, contemporary historians and theologians at Bishopthorpe to reflect on some of the implications of the credit crunch and its aftermath.
I am today publishing, on a new website, (www.archbishopofyorksymposium.org), linked to the Bishopthorpe website, (www.archbishopofyork.org), some papers presented at two symposia convened by me, so that the contributions made there may be available to a wider audience.
The material I am making available is too rich and diverse for me to be able easily to summarise it. But a number of themes stand out.
The first is the need for a more honest, informed and measured style of public debate on the great issues of the day. It is understandable that politicians on all sides will want to present their case as persuasively as they can. The media appears to believe that stories written in stark terms are more likely to attract attention and therefore readers. But if public debate is constantly conducted in sound-bite terms, the public can end up frustrated, confused and alienated. The Church needs to stand among those who represent the “still, small voice of calm” as the debate swirls around us.
The second is the urgent case for focussing on and repeatedly affirming certain essentials of the Gospel which should underpin our contemporary social understanding:
- That all men and women are of equal worth in the sight of God.
- That the purpose of human society is to enable all men and women to flourish in relationship to God and to each other.
- That society should be structured in a way which both encourages enterprise and creativity, and meets individuals’ basic needs.
- That work is not simply a means to an end – the end of making money – but a means through which individuals gain dignity and a sense of self-worth and through which social bonds are strengthened.
I commend the powerful reflection by Professor Oliver O’Donovan on the nature and significance of work – whether paid or unpaid – in the papers I am publishing today as essential bedtime reading for you all – far more enlightening than most Synod papers!
In his reflection, Professor O’Donovan expounds three theological propositions:
- First, that work is material, a fulfilment of the vocation given by the Creator to Adam to tend nature. Work, whether paid or unpaid, satisfies our intelligent nature as human beings, our destiny to be in a responsible and formative relation to the material world.
- Second, that work is social, a communication with other human beings and, as such, formative for our relations with our fellows, satisfying our social nature as human beings.
- Third, that work is liturgical, a condition of rest and worship, and rest and worship are a condition of work. Work satisfies our destiny as human beings called to fellowship with God.
Work is: material, social and liturgical.
I realise that these three points are hardly an immediate guide to Government Ministers or to economists contemplating what to do about rising levels of unemployment. But if we as a society are to understand and respond appropriately to those who lack opportunities to express their full humanity in work, we need to find means which take fully into account all three of these dimensions.
The third theme to emerge from the papers is the need to nurture and sustain the many Christians who day-by-day seek to live out their faith in the context of work or of their contribution to civil society.
The report by the House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council reminds us of the observation by Archbishop William Temple in Christianity and Social Order, that, “Nine-tenths of the work of the Church in the world is done by Christian people fulfilling responsibilities and performing tasks which in themselves are not part of the official system of the Church at all”. How can we do more to nourish and sustain that vital contribution to the building of the Kingdom of God?
The final theme I wish to identify is the crucial part played by the Church of England, through Archbishop William Temple in particular – in collaboration with his Balliol College, Oxford contemporaries: William Beveridge and Richard Tawney – in forming the shared moral as well as political understanding that led to the development of the Welfare State after 1945. For me, and I’m sure for many others, a major concern is the extent to which the social compact which the Welfare State represented is now under threat. There is an urgent need for the Church once more to rise to the challenge and to lead reflection on how the social compact can be re-fashioned in ways that make sense in the light of today’s serious social and economic realities.
What is the vision of the Kingdom of God which should inform us as we approach that task? Our mission statement was set out by Jesus of Nazareth in the Beatitudes.
They describe God’s summons to us to respond to His invitation and to become agents of His movement of transforming love and outreach by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Beatitudes describe what human society looks like under the rule of God. They give us the qualities looked for by Jesus in His agents of change – people and communities called to extend God’s invitation and to promote His movement of transforming love. And each one carries within itself the promise of great transformation in ourselves and in society, if only we can behave as God wants us to.
1. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – people who are not satisfied with the status quo but are full of longing for God’s transforming love – for they will be members of the Kingdom of God.
2. “Blessed are those who mourn” – the broken-hearted – for through being part of God’s family, they will receive comfort for their sorrows and share in the joy of the Kingdom.
3. “Blessed are the meek” – the gentle, the unassuming, the little people – for they (not the great or the celebrities of the moment) are the ones who will inherit the earth. The church is not only concerned with the big headline grabbing issues but with small things. Indeed, the important thing in the church is the local congregation, the unassuming local cell on whose soundness the welfare of the whole community depends.
4. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” – those who are passionate to love God and to love others as we ought – for God will fill our longing.
5. “Blessed are the merciful” – the compassionate, those who can see the likeness of Christ in the face of all their neighbours – for they will obtain mercy.
6. “Blessed are the pure in heart” – not the naïve but those who, while aware of the sinful nature of the world, are focussed entirely on Christ – for they shall see God. The big priority for each of us is an unceasing renewal of commitment to Christ.
7. “Blessed are the peace-makers” – those who break down barriers of hatred and mistrust and who build up the wellsprings of solidarity in society – for they are joining in the work of the Father, as His children.
Of course this vision is entirely counter-cultural. In a world focussed on power, it speaks of and to the powerless.
In a world obsessed with the confident and successful, it speaks to those who are broken-hearted. In a world focussed on celebrity, it talks to the little people. In a secular world, it addresses those whose eyes are set, not on the fleeting and transient but on the eternal. In a world which is often harsh and unforgiving, it speaks of mercy. In a world of many distractions, it demands a single-minded focus on God. In a world of strife, it speaks of peace.
Those who adopt this vision as their own are not promised a life of ease but of criticism, even persecution. For the final blessing is to stand in union with Christ in His suffering as well as in His glory.
So as we, in this part of the One, Holy, Apostolic and Universal Church known as the Church of England, seek to live out our duty to minister to everyone in England as the national church; as we seek to build up the wellsprings of solidarity in our society; as we try to be that still small voice speaking calm, reason and Gospel truth into the public debate. As we try to re-articulate, in today’s circumstances, how the moral order should be reflected in the compact underlying our society, we cannot expect to be universally welcomed or applauded. But to do these things is, quite simply, our God-given duty and our particular calling. For we must reconnect and refresh the wellsprings of solidarity in England.
“I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose”.
Beloved in Christ; let us do it, and let us do it now.
(From Presidential Address to General Synod, 8th February 2011.)
 Hugh Montefiore, “An Installation Sermon”, in Taking Our Past Into Our Future, Fountain Paperbacks, London 1978, p.13
 A M Ramsey Introducing the Christian Faith, SCM Press Ltd, London 1961, p.72
 Blond on Britain, BBC Radio 4, 22 December 2010
 Mary Warnock, Dishonest to God, Continuum, London 2010, p.1
 William Temple, Christianity and Social Order, Shepheard-Walwyn (SPCK) 1942, P39
 St Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 4 verses 1-12
 Luke 4:43