A Banbury Sermon
Text of sermon preached by Revd Jeffrey West at the Book of Common Prayer Evensong which Immanuel's Ground sang for, and after a workshop together with the church choir, in St Mary’s Church, Banbury, on Sunday 28 October 2007
Lessons: Job 42:1-9; Philippians 2:1-14 (AV)
My text comes from the second lesson: St Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, chapter two, verses 14 and 15: “Do all things without murmurings and disputings: that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world.”
Four years ago, Archbishop Rowan [Williams] gave a series of lectures in Salisbury Cathedral under the title “Why study the past?” One of the answers he gave was that if we try to engage imaginatively with the past, and become aware of the differences, the strangeness of the past, as well as its continuities and similarities, we shall be better equipped to deal with the differences, the strangeness, of other people today, and be less inclined to assume that we are self-evidently right, and those who disagree with us are self-evidently wrong. In other words, studying the past not only enlarges our experience, and gives us more evidence to work on, but encourages humility. For one thing that church history teaches us is that it is not always easy to hear God's word. Or, to put it another way, it often seems easier to hear our own voice, or the voice of the people around us, and mistake it for the voice of God.
This evening, we are in a building that is (largely) eighteenth-century in date, much (though by no means all) of our music dates from the eighteenth century, and we are worshipping God and hearing scripture in language which the eighteenth century would recognise. So what can we learn from the eighteenth century? What can the eighteenth century teach us?
Much of what we most admire about our present civilisation dates from the eighteenth century. People like living in Georgian houses. (Estate agents tell us that they command a significant premium in the market.) People love visiting the Georgian country houses that are open to the public. The English landscape garden – one of the greatest cultural gifts that this country has given the world – was created by Capability Brown and others in the eighteenth century. Arguably the two greatest composers that western civilisation has produced, Bach and Mozart, lived in the eighteenth century, as did some of the greatest writers and philosophers.
And it was in the eighteenth century that our modern industrial, urban, global society began to emerge. London grew into the largest city the world had ever known, driven by the industrial revolution in the Midlands and the North; by the development of factories, of steam power and coal mining; and also by the application of scientific principles to agriculture, which transformed the productivity of farming, and by the beginnings of empire. Not, in the eighteenth century, colonisation (except in the Americas), but global trade: trade with China (the import of manufactured goods from China being as important in the eighteenth century as it is again now); trade with India; and trade with Africa.
And, there, of course, is the rub. For trade with Africa was, to a large extent, trade in slaves. Much of the prosperity of eighteenth-century Europe, of cities like Bristol and Liverpool, was built on the slave trade. And slavery was not the only social evil condoned in the eighteenth century. Industrialisation itself, the growth of cities like London and Paris, and the introduction of the factory system were all widening the gap between rich and poor, forcing the new urban working class to live and work all hours in unsafe, insanitary, inhuman conditions.
(And, by the way: I think it's mildly shocking that the angel, the cathedral, the saint and the composer that used to grace our twenty-pound notes are being replaced by an image of the eighteenth-century Scots economist Adam Smith, and his praise for “the great increase in the quantity of work” that results from division of labour in a pin factory. But I suppose it's a case of “render unto Caesar”. We shouldn't really expect to find Christian imagery on a banknote.)
And it wasn't just factory workers who were exploited. Some of the greatest fortunes made in the eighteenth century came from the industrialisation of alcohol production: first gin, and then beer. As drug dealers today know only too well, if you want to make money, get into the business of making or supplying something that is clinically addictive. Rowlandson's cartoons depict only too graphically the gin-soaked low life of eighteenth-century London.
And where was the church in all this? The answer is, quietly doing all manner of good things. It was, as we are being reminded this evening, a great age for hymn writing: Addison, Watts, Doddridge, Cowper and Newton, Charles Wesley. It was an age of personal piety (typified by Dr Johnson) and private charity (characterised by Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital). At one end of the Anglican spectrum, William Law, excluded from office because his refusal to take the Oath of Allegiance to George I, lived a life of great simplicity and devotion, and wrote the spiritual classic A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. At the other, John Wesley was the greatest preacher and evangelist of his day, although he too found himself being driven further and further away from the Church of England, and had to begin ordaining his own ministers.
But where was the church's prophetic voice? It's true that at the very end of the century the evangelical William Wilberforce began to lead the campaign against the slave trade. But where was the church's denunciation of the widening gulf between rich and poor? Of the lack of mutual care and responsibility that had created the slums of the new industrial cities? It is a matter for shame that the most influential early voice raised against the injustices of industrialisation was not a Christian voice, but that of the atheist Robert Owen, the builder of New Lanark and founder of the co-operative movement.
I said at the beginning, paraphrasing Archbishop Rowan, that one thing that church history teaches us is that it's not always easy to hear God's word. That all too often we hear our own voice, or the voice of the society in which we live, and mistake it for the voice of God. So is our lack of humility, our confidence that we are right and others wrong, leading us into “murmurings and disputings” at the same time that we are being seduced into complacency by the comfortable assumptions of the society in which we live? Are we as a church, and as individuals, doing enough to witness to the inequalities in the world, to the obscenity (of which I am as guilty as anyone) of unsustainable over-consumption while others are starving?
Today's two readings were those set in the eighteenth-century for Evensong on this day, 28 October, the Feast of St Simon and St Jude. The end of the Book of Job saw Job rewarded for his humility and his unshakeable faith in God, while his false comforters were denounced for their folly in thinking that they had all the answers. (We can take comfort from the fact that God, who is all-merciful as well as just, forgave them for Job's sake.)
Paul, writing to the Philippians, focussed us on Christ. He began by quoting that marvellous Christ-hymn which we sometimes use as an affirmation of faith. And as we strive for union with Christ, we are called to unity with each other. “Do all things without murmuring and arguing.” In the eighteenth century, church politics led to the Church of England losing both its greatest spiritual writer, William Law, and its greatest preacher and evangelist, John Wesley. Let us pray that, as we study the past, we may become less inclined to assume that we are self-evidently right, and that those who disagree with us are self-evidently wrong. Let us not drive anyone out of the church.
Above all, Paul calls us to witness. “Be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world.” May we too be given the grace to stand outside the comfortable assumptions of the society in which we live. If we are to live as we are called to live, we have to stop mistaking our complacency and self-interest for the voice of God. And if studying the past helps us do that, it's the very best reason I can think of for spending an evening in the company of the eighteenth-century church, its architecture, its music, and its liturgy.