Sunday, 28 June 2015

Head in the Chapel, Feet Outside

A few weeks ago I went to Canterbury for a conference marking the 800th anniversary of the issuing of Magna Carta in 1215.  I never studied Magna Carta at school, so I have had to read up on it and it has caught my imagination.  While I was there I took the opportunity to see the grave of Archbishop Stephen Langton, who was influential in it coming to fruition.  His grave is not easy to find, hidden in a chapel in the south transept.  Langton was a scholar, who was part of a school of thought in Paris that was involved in disseminating ideas about what it means to be a good king, what just rule should look like.  He drew on his biblical study of the prophets calling kings to account.  He was also familiar with charters of earlier kings which set out rights and responsibilities for good government.  Langton was instrumental in mediating between King John and the barons in bringing the king to see that the charter had to be issued.  His thinking is reflected in it.

Stephen Langton’s tomb is interesting because of a twist of history.  Originally occupying the central position in the Chapel of St Michael in Canterbury Cathedral it got moved because a wealthy woman wanted the spot for her tomb, so Langton was moved under the altar.  The East Wall was rebuilt and the chapel shortened bizarrely leaving his head in the chapel and his feet poking through the wall outside.  You can see this in the two pictures on the back of the service sheet.  Having your head in the chapel and your feet outside is a good model of this church’s ministry in the heart of this city centre.  It is a good model for a church named after John the Baptist and also in this anniversary year for Magna Carta and we think about the church’s influence on it.

A lot has been said about Magna Carta over the last few weeks, not all of it accurate.  It is important because it is a marker on the long journey to democracy, but it is not a very democratic document, not exactly the charter of liberties people credit it with.  What it did establish was that the king was subject to the law and that taxes should only be levied with the agreement of what became parliament.  Justice is bigger than the individual monarch or ruler, bigger than whoever happens to be in power at a given time.  As a charter, the 1215 Magna Carta was abandoned within months, but it came back and became an important bargaining chip for the young King Henry III and his advisors when wanting to persuade the barons to fall in with him rather than the French prince who was after the throne.  It was revised to remove the difficult bits and the fourth edition, issued in 1225, is the one that really sets the tone for the future.  As a principle it proved inspirational around the world, not least for the American Bill of Rights.

In negotiating Magna Carta, Archbishop Langton knew how to keep his powder dry until the moment was right.  He kept his distance formally from earlier charters, though he may well have provided much of the thinking and encouragement for it.  He struck decisively just before Runnymede, getting protection for the church set out clearly.  Although this had already been agreed in a charter the previous year, he was skillful in how he brought it in.  He is a good example of how to do politics.  He knew what he wanted, he had a vision of what good government should look like, and he knew to keep his cool until the time was right.  He had his head in the chapel and his feet outside.  The Church of England can learn a lot when engaging in politics.

Having our head in the chapel means that we put prayer and reflection on life and faith as our number one priority.  It takes precedence over everything else, and it shapes how we approach everything else.  It sets our agenda.  But it does not exist in a fantasy world.  Our feet are to be outside, where life is real and where it makes a difference.  Anyone who thinks the church shouldn’t be involved in politics hasn’t read the bible.  They don’t understand what it means to be named after John the Baptist, who was hardly silent on calling rulers to account for their actions and abuses of power.  John the Baptist proclaimed the Kingdom of God and was not afraid to say uncomfortable things to miscreant rulers.  Those who want churches to be quiet usually don’t like what they are saying, which it has to be said is not a view that David Cameron has taken.  He is happy if he disagrees to say so and then the onus is on those who challenge him to come up with the arguments to back up whatever campaign they are launching.

Many of the issues that we face today are actually very difficult circles to square.  For some things there are no easy answers.  How Europe should respond to boatloads of migrants crossing stretches of water is not straightforward.  We can begin though by remembering that they are people who are desperate and have made incredible journeys in the pursuit of a new life away from horrors unbearable.  We have been reminded again what comes of what some of those horrors are with the events in Tunisia and France.  Many have been trafficked, some even phoning for help from inside a lorry outside our city.  The root cause of their migrating lies in the countries they leave.  Many of the ethical issues that we face today don’t lend themselves to easy soundbites, which makes communicating difficult in a media dominated age.  We saw this with the mitochondrial DNA debates earlier in the year.  Anyone who aims to speak on behalf of the church needs to work on how they are going to present their case, what the person who led my media training a number of years ago termed as ‘the Sun-reader’s headline’.  Having our feet outside means we have to do a great deal of research before commenting and the communicating needs to be clear what we see  the central issue as being, finding an accessible way in.  It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t comment but making sure we have something valid to say and that it is said clearly matters enormously.  And we won’t have anything distinctive to say unless it stems from a faith that is rooted on prayerful reflection; head in the chapel and feet outside.

These last few days have seen some atrocious acts and it is natural to feel nervous.  One danger is to blame all religious people for violence and want a ‘neutral’ world.  That is a delusion.  There is no such thing as neutral, nothing comes values free.  When we proclaim justice we base this on what we see as being true, right, how things should be.  That is always based on an underlying belief about who we are, who you are and how we should live.  If our faith doesn’t give us that it is in the words of the Epistle to James useless.  Faith without works is dead. But works without a faith, without a guiding philosophy, is routeless and directionless.  It floats free.  Faith that is true will be just, will be honouring and will be life-giving; it will bless.

Sitting, as this church does, in the middle of the city square we have a special vocation to proclaim faith as the inspiration for life; that blesses and proclaims justice.  We are called to follow John the Baptist in prophetical witness that calls to follow God, prepares for his Kingdom.  We are called to have our head in the chapel and our feet outside.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 28th June 2015

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