Posted in Church of England

Thankfulness, generosity and vulnerability

This is part of the sermon preached in Southwark Cathedral, in my last service as Bishop of Croydon.

We live in a time of emotional uncertainty and exhaustion, and also one in which society is beginning to move away from the illusion that people are the “rational economic actors” that neo-liberal economists fantasise about. At a time like this people of faith, and those whose lives are steered by ethical and moral values, have a huge opportunity. One of the greatest gifts we can bring to our world is to speak the language of the heart, at least as much as the language of the head, and to shape our lives and even the policies of our organisations around what we know in our hearts to be right – even, or especially if it’s difficult to demonstrate on a spreadsheet that it’s the best economic option. Times of financial and institutional pressure are precisely the time when values need to be restated, not to lose ground to a bottom line of institutional survival. In this time when so many other things are changing, values don’t change – but they may be emphasized in new ways in response to the time we are now in. So in that spirit I would like to suggest three ways of living which embody enduring values, which respond to the particular pressures of our time, and which offer hope, both to ourselves and to our society. They are ways of living founded in thanksgiving, in generosity and in vulnerability.

We are living in a time of anxiety – well founded anxiety about many things. Anxiety about peace and war in Europe, anxiety about the effects of climate change, and how much worse there is to come, anxiety about our own lives as prices increase and inflation accelerates. Each of them, and there are more, has the potential to consume us. So in response to a time of anxiety, we need to practice thankfulness. Not as you might think, hope: hope is too close a cousin to anxiety to blot it from our consciousness, though it fights against it. But it is impossible to be thankful and anxious at the same time. Thankfulness rejoices in the good that is now, in all that we treasure today.

Thankfulness is not a zero sum game. In giving thanks, to God, to one another, we generate new possibilities for others to be thankful in their turn. Thankfulness sets us free – in particular, it sets us free from the tyranny of the future. One natural, and completely useless response to anxious times is to try to make a plan. Precisely because we live in the midst of uncertainty, the bigger and grander they are, the more our plans are projections of what we either hope or fear. The only really valuable plan is the one that prepares us to respond to the unexpected: not what we will do, but how we will do it.

Secondly, we are living in a time of relative poverty – so we need to practice generosity. In passing, we must recognize the hollow laughter of the world’s poor when we talk of ourselves here as poor. Those of us who have encountered the poverty of developing countries know what the difference is. And the poverty experienced in the UK is a political choice, not an inevitability. The UK by most rankings is in the top 10 of world economies. We choose that people be poor because we also choose that the rich should not be disturbed in the possession of their riches. The challenge of generosity, then, is all the more pressing because of a context which values individual accumulation and personal gain.

Generosity is doubly challenging, when we live in a culture which privileges accumulation over giving, and at a time when resources are under stress. To be generous with less is an act of protest against a culture of scarcity. As with thankfulness, it can generate an alternative cycle, one in which people and even organisations look to enrich each other rather than to compete. And it requires the ground of thankfulness in which to grow. It’s almost impossible to be generous while being consumed by anxiety. On the other hand, if you heart is full of thanks for all you have received, how can you be anything else?

Thirdly, we are in a position of relative weakness – while still being in possession of influence and power that cannot be ignored. As with poverty, it’s all relative. But it is also true. We are weaker – so we need to practice vulnerability. The Church of England’s vision talks about being humbler. I can’t think of any sign I’ve seen yet of that in practice, but this might be what it would look like.

Vulnerability, though, is exactly the challenge in the face of which values can most easily disappear. Weakness is failure, after all. You can’t possibly just come out and say ‘we’re in big trouble and we’re not sure what to do next’. You have to make a plan (and you already know what I think about that as a solution). Then you have to give it an ambitious, forward looking, positive sounding title. The Church of England has identified ‘six bold outcomes’ for its vision and strategy – none of them noticeably carry forward the aspiration to be humbler.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has taken a lead in talking about his own struggles with depression. That example of personal vulnerability is a vital step along the way, and I hope it will enable others to do the same – I’ve shied away from that sort of exposure of myself, so I know what a challenge that is. But the even greater challenge is to admit vulnerability in our corporate life, not when we’re forced to do so by our failures, but freely and openly. It would feel almost unbearably risky. But it would also I believe open the door to a way of being in the world which would offer healing and renewal, in a way that others could receive. To use the phrase usually attributed to DT Niles, we would be “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread”.

Just as thankfulness opens the way for generosity, so do both of them make vulnerability possible. Thankfulness gives a place on which to stand which is not dependent on your own strength and achievements, but on the good things we have been given. Generosity begins the cycle of openness to others, desiring their good about our own. It is in that virtuous spiral that vulnerability can take its place, as the readiness to receive, making space to be helped, to receive the generosity of others.

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