‘With what shall I come before the Lord,Micah 6: 6-8
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?
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.