The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby preached earlier this week at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, at a service to pray God’s blessing upon the new Parliament. It was attended by MPs, peers and parliamentary staff, but it was aimed principally at those who lead and legislate. You can read the sermon courtesy of Lambeth Palace, or listen to it courtesy of Westminster Abbey.
The Archbishop took as his texts the prophet Jeremiah 29: 10-14, and the Gospel of John 13:1-14. His essential theme was moral vision and God’s judgment, and he walked a judicious political via media, making sure that his arms were stretched both to the left and to the right:
There are the Members of the House of Commons. I felt especially for them for the emotional impact of the hard work that is required for an election campaign, and I have family who have fought campaigns – almost invariably losing them, to be honest – on both sides; I need to stress that.
..We have to seek to do right, but we can trust in the providence and salvation of God for the future. That is the promise made to the people of Judah, and thus they were to settle down amongst their enemies; to make the best of their situation, to bless the communities in which they lived, and look to the moment of their redemption.
There is no coded political message in this, but there is a very un-coded theological one: God can be trusted, but we must do our part. And I know that is the belief and desire of the vast majority here today.
No coded political message indeed, but perhaps a slight injection of wry humour: Justin Welby has well-developed political antennae which are more than attuned to the motives of meddlesome journalists who lift a word or a phrase from its context and broadcast to the world a warped meaning or a message that was never there. This sermon is neither critical of the political right nor pitiful of the left: it is an exhortation for words to be observed, promises kept and assurances honoured:
..So pragmatism does not really work. Yet all politics is in the end about delivery, not merely policy. Stating policies is the easy bit; making them happen is the deepest of skills.
Pragmatism in the sense of short cuts to avoid difficulty is not a good solution. It had taken Judah to defeat and exile. But pragmatism in the sense of being practical and down to earth – of making sure that delivery happens – is essential.
And for those who berate the Archbishop for never mentioning Jesus:
In the reading from John 13 we see the greatest moment of holy pragmatism in history. The Son of God Himself, Jesus – knowing confidently who He is, what He is intended for, and that God can be trusted – sets aside His pride and washes the feet of His disciples.
The truest leadership is about service. And note that He even washes the feet of Judas Iscariot, knowing as He does that this is the man who will betray Him to torture and agony within twenty-four hours.
This truly is holy pragmatism. It is the pragmatism of love without limit, of unconditional love that reaches with generous, almost absurd grace to every person.
No coded message there, either. But an exhortation for politicians to serve with humility; to heal; to love; to fulfil a divine moral vision; to pursue righteousness government.
The nation in which we live, which we love and serve, has within it at all levels a moral vision and hope. Its potential in a world of darkness to be a force for light and hope is limitless. We recognise often its own past mistakes, trust in God for the future, and serve with humility, knowing that it is God who glorifies.
Justin Welby is not politically meddlesome: he hooks political consciences with a clasp of love and pricks them with needles of light. Like Israel in the sixth century BC, our society had been corrupted by materialism: it is plagued by injustice and the poor are still with us. It is the fault of no politician: the problem is the human heart and social condition. Of politicians the Archbishop says: “..almost everyone I meet seeks to do what is right, to make just decisions, and to serve their country with integrity. Views to the contrary are mere descents into cynicism.”
And they are, for those who govern seek to do what is right, even if that right may be profoundly wrong to others.
Yet the best intentions can lead to the wrong conclusions. First, Jeremiah says, we reap the consequences of our actions – and thus those actions must be based in a moral vision and in an ideal that is founded on eternal values that do not change.
But neither does human nature, which is sinful, selfish, materialistic, lustful and myopic. And that leads us to the single flaw in this righteous exhortation. By calling for “integrity without partiality in government” Justin Welby moves us to the New Jerusalem of political perfection; to the time when Christ will reign and the government will be upon His shoulder. Partiality is the essence of democracy: debate is its lifeblood and philosophical sparring its soul. The flourishing of the whole community is not achieved by the absence of bias or the abolition of partisanship: what government on earth liberates the poor or administers justice where conceptions of poverty may not be considered or notions of justice fiercely debated?
Party politics is intrinsically partial, and the moral inclination of Parliament is toward expressing that partiality openly, honestly and with conviction. The greatest problem with democracy is caused by cross-party conformity to immutable progressive truths which are seen to be possessing of integrity but which transgress the mores and traditions of the governed. The concurrence of natural authority with the established order of society demands the means by which cynicism may be mitigated, and that includes partiality, for we are, by nature, inclined toward the defense of our family, tribe and nation. If there is to be no partiality in government, how may government function? How may its action be effective?
It is axiomatic that it is not possible to please all of the people all of the time. Resentment of injured right lays hold at an instinctual level. But one man’s right is another man’s wrong. There is no coded political message in this, but there is a very un-coded theological one: God can be trusted, but we must do our part. And that part will be partial, for now we see through a glass, darkly. And we are free.