When people discover that I am vicar of St John’s, I am frequently asked about whether we find that the cathedral overshadows us. The assumption is that with both occupying the same space, or at least being so close in the city centre, surely the cathedral will draw all the worshippers and St John’s will lose out. There is no doubt that we are in close proximity and of course my role is shared between the parish and the cathedral, so I have an interest in both, a bit like any vicar with multiple parishes or churches, and we also have St Luke’s as part of our parish. I answer this question in a number of ways, one talking about how they are different, and although coming from a similar church tradition – broadly liberal catholic in spiritual outlook – one is a cathedral which brings a particular identity and the other a parish church. At the heart of this difference is that they are communities and serve communities.
That word community is very easy to band around but if we take it seriously it challenges what I think is a virus in our western outlook. The House of Bishops' pastoral letter, which has been in the press and is well worth looking at, shines a spotlight on how being consumers is infecting our sense of community. The letter really needs to be read alongside the much longer book ‘On Rock or Sand’, a collection of essays edited by the Archbishop of York looking at the moral foundation for shaping our nation and therefore how we will approach the forthcoming election. I have written a summary of the House of Bishops’ letter together with some questions I think it raises. Consumers consume. They are not connected with the processes of production. Their scope and vision does not take into account how things get to the point they buy and consume them. This is a form of alienation, consumerism has become the opiate of the people, and it separates us from what it means to be human, because persons are persons in community. We do not stand on our own and selfish, individualistic approaches are fundamentally unsustainable; they destroy the fabric of society. A challenge the bishops have laid before the political parties is that they are targeting particular demographic groups and so are turning politics into a form a consuming. Its scope ceases to be about the common good and rather panders to a ‘what’s in it for me’ mentality.
Consumerism has infected every aspect of our lives. It has even got into churches. Some of the biggest churches are actually very consumerist in their approach. They are not rooted in their communities and their locations. People can turn up, consume religion and go away again. The premises could be in a city centre, on an industrial estate outside it, in a village or floating on the river. Location becomes just venue and there is very little connection with community and the wider impact on the people who live and work around it. You will know me well enough now to know that this is the complete opposite of how I approach the role of a church. If we are not about community, those who gather and those who live and work around us, we have missed the point of churches being churches. We could stay at home and put on a CD or find something to read and listen to on the internet.
Community is not always easy. It involves people being people and they fall out. They bump up against one another and annoy each other. We have to work things out, particularly where there is disagreement. We have to take account of one another. That involves people supporting each other in need, comforting the sorrowful and helping each other as we struggle with faith, with life, with whatever is happening to and around us. It is blessing and it is challenge. But it is real and it requires another word which is also foundational for me and that is participation. That requires us to give as much, if not more, than we receive, because we bring our lives and our selves as our offering to what makes this community flourish and function. That can be costly, very costly.
If we want to know just how costly this can be our gospel reading is unnerving (Mark 8:31-38). Jesus told his disciples that if they wanted to be counted in his number they had to take up their cross and follow him. Well, the cross was an instrument of violent, torturous death. It has become for us the supreme symbol of self-giving love, sacrificial love and that is about as far away from being consumers as you can get.
We are about to invite you to review and renew your giving to support the work of this community. We operate on a common purse model. Without donations this church does not function and there are holes in the finances that need plugging. More will come in the form of a personal letter to everyone, hopefully next week – and if you stay away we’ll post it! There are very different ways that this can be presented – we can talk about costs and that you won’t get if you or someone else doesn’t pay. That has a reality check about it and it is transparent – the costs have to be met. But there is a much more fundamental point behind our giving. We belong to a community in which we participate. That community is built on a God who gives himself to us and for us sacrificially. The cross is not just the way Jesus gets to Easter Day. It is who he is and how he is. He gives completely and utterly for us. He asks us to think in turn what we will give to God in thanks and response to that gift. Clearly we can never repay it, and are not asked to because it is gift, beyond our means. However, we are called to join in with the self-giving, participation that makes community function and vibrant. We are called to join in with the life and work of God’s Kingdom of which this church is an expression. We gather not to consume but to be a community worshipping God and serving those around us.
Not all of us are called to literally die for our faith, though we are becoming aware that in some parts of the world Christians are being killed by extremists. It is like stepping back into a medieval past. The outward looking, self-giving, participation which lies behind it, at it’s core, is called of all of us. And so the real preparation for any giving renewal is not money and budgets, but the heart. That heart starts with the cross of Christ, which we are all called to take up in order to follow him. The mindset of the consumer is a virus which has infected every aspect of our lives. It is destabilizing our society, our politics and it corrupts our religion too. It will take conscious effort to counter this, because it comes at us from all angles. The counter is today’s gospel reading and the gospel should be what shapes us. If you want to be a follower of Christ then living his self-giving love, which we see in the cross, is the only way for us.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 1st March 2015