Posted in Uncategorized

Old Year’s Resolution

Old Father Time

I began this blog at the New Year of 2011, and as any of you who have followed it will know, it has waxed and waned in frequency over that time. I’ll leave you to be the judge about the quality. Having now left full-time ministry the time has come to wrap up this aspect of my ministry as well. So this is my final post, and the blog will be closing down in a few days’ time.

Thank you to all of you who have followed and read my reflections over the years. I hope I have been able to help you in your pilgrimage through life. It has been a privilege to walk alongside you, whoever you are, known to me or not. Occasionally I find myself wondering who it is in the Philippines or Taiwan who has stumbled across this, and hoping that I might be saying something useful.

For all things there is a time, as the Preacher said, including in that list ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak’ (Ecclesiastes 3:7). It has been a privilege to have the calling to speak. Increasingly, I am being drawn now into greater silence.

How to end? Not with my own words, but from the conclusion of two books of the Bible to which I often return – Ecclesiastes, and 2 Corinthians.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Posted in politics, Poverty and Justice

Who will save the UK from its government?

“The Chancellor announced the biggest package of tax cuts in 50 years without even a semblance of an effort to make the public finance numbers add up.” (IFS)

“The tax cuts confirmed in the fiscal statement are strongly focused on higher-income households … Next year they will see someone earning £200,000 gain £5,220 a year, rising to £55,220 for a £1 million earner. Those on £20,000 will gain just £157.” (Resolution Foundation)

“I joined Treasury in 1979 and have never seen a fiscal stimulus this large. With Bank of England raising interest rates, economy is being driven with brake and accelerator hard down. Not ideal.” (Lord Gus O’Donnell, Twitter)

Thanks to the votes of Tory MPs, and then the 160,000 or so members of the Conservative Party, we now have a government who want to be the UK version of the Republican Party in the USA. Cut taxes for the rich; cut benefits for the poor; tear up regulations which stop companies doing whatever they want – and all will be well in the best of all possible worlds. Even most Conservatives don’t believe that.

There is a useful set of ‘translations’ of common English phrases, for the benefit of those who might make the mistake of believing that people in the UK actually mean what they’re saying. One of the phrases is “that is a very brave proposal” – which as all British people know, actually means “you are insane”. I have heard more than one commentator and economist describe last week’s ‘non-Budget’ in pretty much those terms.

One must suppose that the government sincerely believe that giving money to the rich will make society as a whole richer. But the evidence is against them; one of the things rich people are very good at indeed, is keeping hold of their money. Once upon a time, when you generated new money by investing in factories and businesses, there might have been some justification for the belief they still hold. But we’re not in the nineteenth century any more, nor even the twentieth. Money seems to be quite good at procreating without needing any other partner. You don’t have to be an expert in economics to wonder how on earth this gamble will pay off.

I do consider myself a bit of an expert on ethics, and from my perspective the government’s proposals are clearly unjust, whatever their strictly economic merits might be. The poor who are already suffering the most will suffer even more. Restricting gas bills to double what they were is only helpful if it makes them affordable. For most people who are struggling, being unable to pay the bills feels just the same regardless of how much it is you can’t pay. Yes more threats to remove benefits from people who aren’t working enough, regardless of their family or personal circumstances, are just cruel.

And have a look at the graph in this article – follow the red line. No-one much has mentioned the freezing of tax allowances for four years. But as this graph shows, over time that more than wipes out the tax cuts – except for those earning over £155,000. Is that you? No, nor me. So, except for the really rich, this right-wing, small government, low tax government is putting up taxes on most of us. Do I remember someone talking about ‘stealth taxes’, once upon a time?

Posted in Queen Elizabeth

Remembering the future

Tuesday, 20th September 2022. The period of national mourning for Queen Elizabeth has come to an end. The present resumes. An uncertain future, which has been largely ignored, comes back into view.

These last ten days have a been a time of memory. Not that many of us can remembers the whole of the reign of the late Queen; not many of us ever met her, let alone knew her personally. But together, in this country and across the world, we have collectively been remembering. Remembering what, exactly? There has been a collective ‘story’ which has been told in liturgy and ceremonial, and in the media. But there are also millions of individual stories, much more diverse.

What affected me most of all was the sudden absence of a figure who had always just “been there”: one of those unquestioned realities that you absorb as a child. Now, at the age of 61, I was strangely disconcerted by that absence; I’ve been trying to tease out why, and what it might mean for the future as well as the past. It was more than mere longevity; there was also something about the way Queen Elizabeth inhabited her role which was individual and personal, the absence of which has left a gap.

I see in Queen Elizabeth someone who embodied in her own life a deep commitment to the truth. She was true to the promises she made at the beginning of her reign. She embodied consistency and constancy, through changing circumstances, good times and bad, in times of great celebration, through the ‘terrible year’ of 1992, and more recent upheavals in our society and the Royal Family. She was not always just ‘there’: in everything, she exhibited the same dedication to her vocation: and as time went on she became more and more explicit about the Christian faith which sustained her. She lived the truth she believed.

As I turn back to the future, I will try to take from this period of remembering a renewed commitment to truthful living, despite the many temptations and diversions which make it a challenging path to follow. There is the temptation of just clinging to one source of information and ignoring voices I don’t like; or the temptation just to switch off and stop trying to participate in anything beyond my private life; or the danger of sinking beneath the confusion of different voices. Worst of all is the cynical option, of assuming that everyone is lying to some extent. None of these are good – for any of us as individuals, and still less for a functioning society. In order to live well with ourselves, and still more to live together, we need to have a level of trust, an acceptance of the basic trustworthiness of others, which come from a sense that there is a shared truth about who we are and how we relate to one another. The alternative is the hellish world described by Thomas Hobbes, ‘the war of all against all’.

Truthful living I believe starts in trust, which means in relationship. Truth is now most often defined in the terms of mathematical or scientific knowledge, even in fields of knowledge in which scientific method cannot apply, and anything not “scientific” is downgraded to personal opinion, superstition, or just untruth. But we are social beings, not individualised rational machines, and it is in community that our selves are formed. Truth is relational before it is anything else. If there is no trust in the truthfulness of the other, anything they say can be doubted or denied, however logical it may be.

So who can we trust? All of us have our personal histories of trust, or the lack of it, and that makes a huge difference to how we engage with the world around us. We were brought up in families which had their own narratives of truth, with a sense from our earliest childhood of how much we could or could not trust others. For Queen Elizabeth, it was faith which was her foundation.

For those of us who share that faith, the good news of Jesus Christ is that in him God shows us one in whom we can place our trust without reserve. God has opened Godself up to us, coming in weakness to this world, never coercing but always inviting, and in a relationship with God in Christ we can find a foundation of trust and truth from which we can build. And because we are social animals, that can never be just about an individual relationship with God. We are more than that; God is more than that. The creator of heaven and earth cares for the whole of creation, and entrusts us with the task of rebuilding it as his kingdom.

One of the many challenges that faces society in many parts of the world is to find foundations of truth and trust which can function beyond the boundaries of interpersonal relationship. We need to build standards of public truth by which avoidance or denial can be challenged and held to account. Having found foundations of truth in our own lives – whether in Christian faith or in another creed or philosophy – the challenge is to take that out into the world and to exhibit, and demand, those same qualities in a public square which has become cynical and jaded about the possibility of truthful discourse. It is a societal task, not one that can be left to someone else. Trust is rebuilt step by step as people demonstrate that they are trustworthy; truth becomes valuable when falsehood is challenged, when lying is greeted with horror rather than a shrug of the shoulders.

In the late Queen, we saw someone who trusted in God, and was trustworthy. The work of remembering her into the future is not eternal television replays; it is to incorporate into ourselves, and to make our own, what we valued in her example. We can all do that, whatever our place in society. To live truthfully is hard work, but it’s also essential to living a fully human life. The truth may sometimes be scary, and dangerous, and we won’t always agree about what is true. But when we seek to know and live the truth, whatever our obligations and responsibilities may be, whatever the future holds, at the deepest level of our being we are free.

Posted in Anglican Communion, Church of England, Lambeth Conference

Being orthodox at the Lambeth Conference

No-one has ever agreed on what it means to be orthodox, and that’s a good thing. Ever since the resurrection of Jesus, his disciples have been trying to work out what it means to follow him faithfully. As the world changes, the church has to try to discern how it should live and believe in a new context.

I firmly believe that every bishop attending the Lambeth Conference is orthodox. Every single one is trying to discern what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus, and to enable the church to do the same thing.

So what do orthodox bishops do, who are being told by others that they are not? As one who isn’t present (and might not dare to say this if I were), could I make two suggestions?

Firstly, don’t accept the terminology, if you know yourself to be an orthodox Christian believer, say so. Courteously and clearly, don’t let yourself be defined by others. If enough people claim it as an identity it will no longer function as a badge for one part against another.

And secondly, even more difficult, there’s the question of how to respond to those who are declining to receive communion. For a gathering of the Anglican Communion’s bishops not to gather around the Lord’s table makes a mockery of the word ‘Communion’. Just to keep on as if nothing is happening fails to recognise the pain of the division within the Anglican family. So with trepidation, could I suggest that all orthodox bishops – that is, all bishops – refrain from receiving communion? That would be a powerful sign of the pain of our dividedness, one in which we all share, whether we are at Lambeth or not.

Posted in Anglican Communion, Lambeth Conference, power

The mind of the Anglican Communion?

It is one of the most reliable techniques in the lexicon of power. If you want to silence your opponent, don’t engage with their position: just pretend it doesn’t exist. State the rules of the game, the terms of the debate, in such a way that the position you oppose has nowhere to stand. It’s a move experienced often enough by women, by people of colour, by almost every group that someone wants to silence.

Churches have not been immune from this kind of behaviour, so it’s good to see the papers for the Lambeth Conference of bishops acknowledging that the “legacies of colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and other abuses of power continue to impact our communities” and “the existence and ongoing impact of an imperialist Anglicanism involved in dehumanizing practices predicated upon cultural and racial supremacy”. On the contrary, they affirm that “[a]ny Christian commitment to human dignity must celebrate the rich diversities of contextual theologies”.

Which makes it all the more shocking that only two paragraphs later the same game is played. “It is the mind of the Anglican Communion as a whole that same gender marriage is not permissible.” That statement is made on the basis of the infamous Resolution 1:10 passed at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. The problem is that it isn’t true, either in principle or in practice.

The principle is that resolutions of the Lambeth Conference (or Calls, for that matter) express only the majority view of that particular Conference. It is up to each Province to decide what authority they may have: “Member churches have distinct processes for receiving decisions from Lambeth Conferences and deciding/discerning to what extent they will have authority in their context.” Lambeth 1998 1:10 cannot of itself express ‘the mind of the Communion’.

And in practice, it clearly doesn’t. Eight provinces of the Communion have in whole or part begun to make provision for the blessing of same gender relationships. The Church of England is part way through a process which was explicitly designed on the basis of exploring the whole range of views and experiences, openly and without prejudice. Those voices, those people are pre-emptively silenced in this document.

As I’m no longer serving full-time in the church, I won’t be at the Lambeth Conference. I hope that those who are there – whatever their own position on human sexuality – will find a way to reject a document which seeks to silence some by creating an alternative reality in which they do not exist (even though voting ‘no’ doesn’t seem to be an option). That is not the way to seek the truth, or to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Posted in politics, power

What are governments for?

I’ve been trying to avoid the contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party as much as I can. But even on a remote island it creeps through. So as a second line of defence against the posturing and point scoring, I’ve tried asking a different question, which I think underlies quite a lot of what I haven’t been able to avoid seeing and hearing. From a Christian point of view, what are governments for? Why do we have them at all?

Despite having been in government for twelve years, quite a few of the candidates are trying to present themselves as new – promising a different government, a fresh start. It’s quite a stretch after all this time, though it did seem to work for the present Prime Minister in 2019. I doubt if (consciously at least) the candidates are adopting that approach because they think the last twelve years have been a failure. What they are doing is recognising the deep-seated, and I think entirely reasonable, distrust in which all governments should be held by those whom they notionally serve.

This is of course a thoroughly biblical position – or at least, so I would like to argue. When the people of Israel demand a king, the prophet Samuel lists the consequences, each sentence beginning “he will take … your sons, your daughters, your fields, your produce, your resources …”, and ending “and you will be his slaves” (1 Samuel 8). But the people don’t listen: they want to be like the other nations. They want a king: what we might now think of as a government. But national government as a concept doesn’t seem to be getting much divine approval.

In contrast, some might point to the various injunctions to pray for and respect “authorities” in the New Testament. Paul in Romans 13 says “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” but I don’t think that disproves the point. If Paul was talking about the Roman empire, the stories of his experiences recorded in the book of Acts directly contradict his statement that “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad”. Given the context of the passage in that part of the letter to the Romans, it’s far more likely that he’s trying to work through the contested relationship of Christian believers to the synagogue authorities – with an added working out in practice of Jesus’ command to pray for those who persecute you.

There’s far, far more to say, but for now I’m inviting you to go along with the idea that a certain suspicion of the notion of government might be a reasonable position to start from. The biblical deal was that God should occupy the space other peoples gave to their king. Any human government then is usurping what should properly be God’s space.

So what are governments for, then? Despite their origin in human disobedience, God’s response to the people’s demand for a king in 1 Samuel is that he gives them one (Saul), and then another (David). Within the context of the world as it is, governments of some sort seem inevitable. But how can they be better than ‘take,take,take’?

The story would suggest that if you’re going to have a government, it should be as small as possible, as lightweight as it can be, interfering as little as possible with people’s lives. If governments are in principle an improper usurpation of God’s desired relationship with God’s people, then at least they should occupy as little of the space as possible. But – and it is a huge but – that doesn’t necessarily mean what the modern day proponents of “small government” have in mind.

To caricature, arguments for small government tend to argue that government’s role is to keep the playing field fair and open so that people can get on with their lives. And as virtually all of them come from the political right, that tends to be interpreted in a particular way. Defence of the nation, defence of property rights, underwriting of contractual and legal obligations: those are the sort of things that governments have to do. You could argue that (in its 21st century version) that’s the sort of thing that the people of Israel were asking for – “we are determined to have a king … [to] go out before us and fight our battles”.

I would argue though that we’re still stuck here, still part of the unhealthy dynamic which led to the appointment of a king. The fighting of battles is the price the king pays for being able to take, take, take from the people. It’s a theory of governance rooted in a Hobbesian vision of a world in which all are at war with all. The reality of that world is tempered by a government which itself is tempted to use its power not to keep the peace but to dominate others. No-one can be trusted.

There is a better biblical vision of society than this, a vision of mutuality which recognises human weakness but isn’t imprisoned by fear of the other. It’s there in the laws for the ordering of society set out earlier in the Old Testament. The cycle of taking that Samuel promises will be the fruits of kingship are replacing a deeper pattern which is based on a cycle of giving, especially to the poorest and most marginalised. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not gather to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien” (Leviticus 23:22) – in a rural economy, this is a form of redistributive taxation, without the intervention of a state mechanism. The rules of jubilee (whether or not they were ever observed) set out a vision for maintaining mutuality within society, and a fundamental equality between all its members.

And this I think opens up a possible answer to the question. What are governments for? In a fallen and unjust world, of which they appear to be an inevitable consequence, governments are there to try to remedy the injustices that made them necessary. The ideal government would be one that worked itself out of existence. And yes, governments should be setting themselves to keep the playing field fair and open so that people can get on with their lives. But the vision of society we see in Leviticus requires a lot more than today’s ‘small government’ enthusiasts would want.

Government needs to be only as big as is needed in order to provide conditions of equity for all, and especially to ensure that those on the margins of society are not left at the mercy of the powerful. But in a global society in which the powerful are multi-national and massively rich, embodied in mega corporations and personally adept at hiding their wealth from any attempt to tax it – to stand up for the poor means being pretty big. For a government in the 21st century to espouse biblical principles of community life demands that it is involved in education, in health care, in protection of those who lack the necessities of life; and also that it is strong enough to demand of the rich that they make a proportionate contribution to the good of the whole.

There remains though always Samuel’s warning. Governments are always tempted to see themselves as entitled to take. Their only ethical purpose is to give.

Posted in power, spirituality

A Parable of Power

He was born afraid. Afraid that the world into which he had been ejected would consume him, eat him up until nothing was left. So before he was able to know it, he made his decision: he would eat up the world instead. He would consume everything that threatened him, bring it into himself, control it so that it wouldn’t threaten him any more. Then the fear would be gone.

He cloaked his fear with hunger; hunger for safety and security. And because he thought the world was full of enemies, that hunger became a hunger for power. Only having power over others would make him safe; he had to control others, so that they couldn’t control him. He had to eat them up or they would eat him.

The strange thing was, that the more he ate, the more powerful he became, the more hungry he was. There were always new dangers, new enemies. He gained more and more power, and became more and more afraid, more and more hungry.

Then one night, he had a nightmare – or was it a dream? As the dream began he was in his usual waking state – full of power, but even more full of fear and hunger. But even more powerful was the figure that confronted him. He couldn’t see them clearly, but they appeared to be no more than a small child. Even so, he was completely in the power of this other; all his deepest fears were coming true. And in the grip of that overwhelming power, he found himself doing something he could not imagine, something beyond his waking fears. He found himself giving power away. A crowd had appeared around him of the poor, the wounded, the homeless, and he was giving power to them. He was giving them the ability to feed, and heal and house themselves – at the cost of his own power over them. But there was one even stranger thing in the dream. As he gave away his power, his hunger was becoming less. And he awoke.

A dream? No, it was a nightmare, he decided. And in the morning he redoubled his effort to make sure that in waking life no-one would ever control him in that way. And his hunger grew and grew.

Posted in Easter, spirituality

Helplessness and hope – a personal Easter

Yesterday, on Holy Saturday, I wasn’t sure I was ready for Easter. Holy Saturday is the church’s day off – the day when the Eucharist is not celebrated, the quiet day, the Sabbath after the great work of the crucifixion.

After a traumatic and tumultuous few weeks, that was where I wanted to be too. The abbreviated prayers of Holy Saturday were as much as I could take. The ongoing agony of Ukraine, and the equal agonies of Yemen and other conflicts across the world; the evil of the UK Government’s attempt to win votes by demonising asylum seekers; the arrogance demonstrated by the fines for parties in 10 Downing St, and the refusal of the Prime Minister to take responsibility; all of these in different ways had left me feeling that I wanted nothing more to do with the world. I needed some time out from caring.

It was personal, too. Having moved to our home in Orkney, and full of anticipation of a new life there, our beloved cat became ill and died. The sadness of that loss drained some of the colour from the world, and made everything else that much harder to bear. Between the personal and the political, it felt as if my heart was too dry, too barren for the new life of the resurrection to take root.

Then came two gifts. One was to sit in a garden full of birdsong and spring flowers, just absorbing the new life bursting out of every corner, allowing myself to be part of the creation, not analysing or changing anything, just being. The second was to be asked to confirm two candidates at the Easter Vigil. I came to the service ready to simulate the energy and joy of Easter, and found myself receiving it, abundantly and exuberantly, from those two people. Neither of them have had easy lives, but they were open to the promise and love of God.

I didn’t need to make myself ready for Easter. Hope is gift, not achievement. The world is not suddenly a better place, I am not suddenly full of energy and raring to go. But I have been given hope that despite all that, Gerard Manley Hopkins was right –

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

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.

Posted in Croydon, Poverty and Justice, racial justice, refugees

Still seeking. A farewell sermon

‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
   and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
   with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
   with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6: 6-8

It’s all quite simple, really. What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? This evening I want to begin by celebrating some of the many encouragements of my time in Croydon – and particularly some of the ways in which I have seen the words of the propet Micah worked out in practice, in our communities.

There are so many that I will inevitably miss some out, so apologies in advance. But to call some to mind, recent and longer ago: it was a privilege to be with many of the community in Sutton as new arrivals from Hong Kong were made welcome; to be at the Mayor of Croydon’s dinner, bringing together people from all the diverse communities of this borough; to be speaking at the Reigate Social Justice Focus, learning together how to protect victiims of trafficking and identify those at risk of county lines involvement; to serve as a vice-president of the Reedham Children’s Trust and of Surrey Community Action, in their different ways resourcing the voluntary sector in helping those most in need; to be invited to the amazing Friday meeting of community, police and borough at Croydon Voluntary Action; and so many more.

From these, and so many others, I’d like to celebrate three qualities which – as it happens – I talked about at my welcome service in 2012. On that occasion I said this – ‘the church can live in hope because, and insofar as it is durable, it is rooted, it is hospitable. If we can be those things, we need have no fear.’ And I would add, ten years on, that these are qualities of healthy community, whether or not God is named as the source.

Healthy communities are places of hospitality. I have heard so many who offer their help to those in need repeating the words of St Francis, whether they knew it or not – it is in giving that we receive. Taking the risk of hospitality, especially to those who are different from us, especially to those who receive little or no welcome in society as a whole, rewards us as individuals, and enriches the communities of which we are part. I’ve been honoured to witness the extraordinary work done by the Croydon Refugee Day Centre and by the Refugee and Migrant Network in Sutton. Equally, to see foodbanks at work in Redhill, in Purley, and across the episcopal area. That is hospitality in action. I’d like to share one example of a time when I received hospitality. After the murder of George Floyd, I went with many other to Croydon Town Hall to mourn, and to state publicly our opposition to racism in all its forms. It was deeply moving, as a while privileged man, to be invited to share in the leadership of that gathering as we knelt together.

Healthy communities are deeply rooted. Some people think this is the opposite of what I’ve just said, that hospitality and openness must diminish identity. I think it’s the opposite: that a really rooted sense of self and community identity is only strengthened by welcoming others, by enabling them to put down roots, to feel at home. I realized quite soon after I arrived that comparatively few people, in their minds, live in Croydon, or Sutton, or Surrey. Yes, that might be on their postal address, but most people attach to something much more local – South Norwood, or Coulsdon, or Cheam, or Horley, or Oxted. And there’s actually no contradiction between caring passionately about the place you identify with, caring about your own culture, faith and background, and caring equally passionately for others.

Healthy communities are strong, and resilient. Communities which are both properly proud of who they are, and generously open to others, are communities which can flourish and grow. Both are needed: a place with no sense of root or identity will probably become a place which no-one claims, a place for which no-one feels responsibility; at best a dormitory for people whose lives are elsewhere, at worst a place from which everyone is trying to escape. A place which does not welcome new people, new ideas, new cultures will become rigid, and brittle – and when the pressure becomes great enough it will splinter into a thousand fragments. It is by welcoming the new into the old that resilience is built, the capacity to look forward, to adapt, to face the future with hope.

I have seen a lot of those qualities – and if only that was how the whole world was, all the time. But there is another reality, too.  When I came to Croydon in 2012, the town was still coming to terms with the damage inflicted during the previous year’s riots. That rift in community was the most extreme, but it is not an isolated event. It is not exactly new news that we live in a time and place in which the bonds of community are continually eroded by many of the ways in which we live. Some of that erosion is through things which are also good – like the freedom many of us have to move to different places, different countries. I’m not sure how we would have kept going without digital meeting – and digital shopping – over the last couple of years. The downside though is that all these conveniences also diminish the long term relationships and the daily local interactions which build community. In many places you don’t really know your neighbours, because your lives and theirs are in completely different networks. That is the way I see the tide flowing everywhere, one of the relatively few things in common between Thornton Heath and Blindley Heath. Community needs continually and consciously to be built up, to counter the erosion that contemporary society is continually inflicting on it.

So to the three qualities I’ve mentioned I’d like to add a fourth, and to leave it with you as my encouragement and challenge for the future. The one feature which I think is common to all the amazing projects and networks I’ve encountered is that they were sustained by people who believed that they could make a difference. I could come in as a bishop and praise, and encourage. Sometimes I could make connections or open doors. Sometimes I could help organisations see a wider vision, look further into the future. But all of that was to help, sustain and resource people who didn’t think of themselves as “powerful” – but who were making amazing things happen. And if that isn’t power I don’t know what is.

So to those of you who know you have power here today – whether it’s in the church, or in statutory or voluntary sector – I want to remind you that power is given to you in order to give it away. The only good use of power is to empower others, in a virtuous circle of giving. It’s certainly not given to enable you to dominate or humiliate; it’s not given to build up your institution against the other lot; it’s not given either in order to do things to others, however well-intentioned. It’s given to be shared, to create the conditions and to encourage the situations in which people can make their own choices in freedom and equity – to enable everyone to own their own power for good.

And to any of you here who believe yourselves to be powerless – know that you are not. In your life, in your community, in your networks, you have power. Communities are built, rebuilt and sustained from the ground up, by people who decide to use the power they have. No amount of well-intentioned top-down activity can make a difference, unless it meets with the desire to build community at the place where community happens – in ordinary lives, in everyday life. To return to Micah’s prophecy – that is what the Lord God requires of us all: in our own lives, and in our communities, to do justice and to love kindness. What it looks like to put that into practice is what I’ve wanted to highlight and celebrate tonight.

People will have will have their chance to speak in a moment. To get my retaliation in first: whatever I have been able to give, I have myself received; whatever you have received from me, I have received so much more from you. I can ask no greater memorial than this: that in your own way, in your own place, you commit yourself to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God. That is what the Lord God requires of us all. Let it be so. Amen.