The Archbishop of Canterbury has been coming under fire recently for things he is thought to have said but actually didn’t. His fellow bishops have also collectively been attacked for their pastoral letter in advance of the General Election issued yesterday. Again the critics have by and large not read it very carefully. I read their letter last night and was left thinking that it was both too long to communicate its points – it needed to be snappier and clearer about the points it wanted to make – and also that it wasn’t long enough to move beyond generalities to say something specific of use for policy makers. David Jenkins, the Bishop of Durham during the 1980s, used to say that ‘generally speaking the trouble with the church is that too often it is generally speaking’! I may have been tired as I read it, but I came away with a feeling of ‘and what next’? What do we do with this?
However you took their letter, if you’ve read it or just heard some reports about it, our first reading shoots down in flames those who say the church should stay out of politics. The spiritual has to be lived and when it is lived it becomes political because it affects the lives of others. In terms of Isaiah, breaking the yoke of oppression, sharing bread with the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless (Isaiah 58:6-7). If these aren’t political questions then I don’t know what is. It isn’t, of course, a programme for public spending, benefits reform, NHS and care provision, housing policy or aid for developing countries. It sets a tone and then specific policies need to be formulated to achieve the desired ends. Michael Heseltine made this point on BBC2 Newsnight last night, when he said that bishops made good contributions in general terms, but you need politicians to formulate policies. Well, I get his point – general tone is not itself a political system, but moral vision matters and passages like this from Isaiah remind us what we are to ground it on. I think that is what the bishops were aiming at.
The usual attack dogs have their own agendas to pursue and so have dismissed their letter in the light of these. Each of their criticisms is actually dealt with in the letter itself. It’s not a programmatic wish list, they are not criticizing any party, and actually do say there is much to be hopeful about. Let the debate commence. I just wish they’d been a bit more accessible and clearer.
The Archbishop was criticized for appearing to say at the weekend that we should apologise for the bombing of Dresden seventy years ago. What he said was that events in Dresden seventy years ago “left a deep wound and diminished all our humanity. So as a follower of Jesus I stand here among you with a profound feeling of regret and deep sorrow.” I would find it astounding if he said anything different. War is always terrible and the consequences bring death and destruction on an enormous scale. Regret and deep sorrow is the only way to approach any marking of anniversaries.
About ten years ago I went to see a man who had flown bombers during the Second World War. As we sat in his garden on a late summer’s afternoon, he spoke of how much he was now being haunted by what he had done. He knew innocent people had died in his raids and this was now playing on his mind. It had played on his mind in the years since and his conscience was troubled. He understood how evil the Hitler regime was and that combatting this mattered. So he was by no means belittling the struggle involved. But he still had many regrets and deep sorrow.
Today we begin Lent. We begin it with ash and repentance. We are deeply sorry for the sins we have individually committed and also the sins we are caught up in through our corporate living which goes wrong at times. It goes wrong in that we end up in deep conflict, even violent, and there will be many regrets in this. It goes wrong in that whatever our deepest motive for political policy, we don’t always manage to work this out in ways that benefit everyone. Politics doesn’t always get it right and some ideologies are not healthy and some just get it wrong. Some don’t end up achieving what we want to achieve. Plans, schemes, hopes and dreams can come to ash.
We are dust, we came from dust and to dust we shall return. It is special dust, created from the fabric of the universe and the spark of life is an amazing mystery. But it is fragile, vulnerable, and fraught with limitations and incomplete wisdom. For all our incredible abilities we will all return to dust. So let us commit to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
The social and spiritual, the political and the pastoral belong together. They are about how we care, how we live the faith that inspires us; how we make the vision of living in the light and life of Christ tangible and a source of flourishing for all God’s children. But we also remember that we are dust, created and not the Creator, we are limited and not masters of our own destiny however noble our intentions or grand our schemes. But in and through this our hope lies with and in God who brings this dust to life and will bring new life out of the ashes.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Ash Wednesday, 18th February 2015