Should the Church be Political?

by | Sep 22, 2018

Mark 8:27-38

Who do you say that I am?

As a child I used to sail and race small sailing boats. With small boats you have to become one with the boat. In low-wind, for example, even the smallest movement slowed you down. But if you get yourself in the right spot, you could get that extra bit of speed out of the boat. It was so sensitive to even the smallest shift of your body.  Dithering, or changing your mind could waste important speed on the boat.

 

The boat’s sensitivity to the smallest of movements is not unlike the impact that our words can have on one another. We all know the impact even the smallest thing said can have. Whether it’s the way we say something, or the words we use, something said without thinking, like a comment on the way we are wearing our clothes, or how tired we look, even that somebody is looking ‘better’ can offend so easily. And on a public level words can be used to devastating effect: to undermine, to discredit, to motivate, to encourage, to monger fear and to mis-lead. Those who have authority are often expected to live up to a different standard – but seldom do, whether by malice intent, or poor judgement, and that failure sadly isn’t a new thing. 

 

Think of the story of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170, who was causing such trouble to Henry II, Henry is said to have uttered the words “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” An apparent throw away statement of frustration, which his men took as an order and assassinated the Archbishop immediately.

 

The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, managed to set the cat amongst the pigeons this week. In qhat at least one person described as his recent ‘foray’ into politics he gave a speech at the TUC. His concerns, about some who manage to avoid paying into society and the structures which make it possible for them to succeed by avoiding taxes – referring specifically to Amazon. And his concern that those with the least economic or social capital can be exploited by zero-hour contracts which don’t provide the stability they need to get on. Both are understandable concerns and worthy of debate.

 

 

 

The Archbishop caused such a stir it made it to BBC’s Question Time on Thursday evening with David Dimbleby. But the question on Question time was not wether the panel agreed with him, or what could be done about the concerns he raised. The question was only whether as an archbishop he should be expressing an opinion. Whether or not he should get involved in politics. Thankfully the whole panel on Question Time agreed the archbishop was entitled to an opinion, though they disagreed to what extent it should be valued.

 

In today’s Gospel Jesus has led his disciples to Caesarea Philippi and asks them these two questions. Who do people say that I am? and Who do you say that I am? Caesarea Philippi was a grotto with many shrines cut into the cliff face, particularly of the Greek god Pan. So there is a context to the questions he is asking. For those that were following Jesus because he was just another prophet or teacher, this is the point where who Jesus is becomes important, and the direction of his ministry shifts, away from teaching and healing, and towards the passion of the cross, his death and his resurrection. Acts for which his identity as the Messiah, as the Son of God, are far more relevant, even essential. The importance of those events, of his great suffering, is such that they cannot simply be avoided. 

 

It is easy to fall into the same trap as Peter. Thinking, oh, but we don’t have to go through this suffering, I’m sure it will be ok, we can go into exile and sit around listening to you teaching us and telling us stories and never have to go through all that hard stuff. It’s not unlike the approach we can so easily take towards concerns about the environment. Where it is so easy to say, oh well, I don’t use that much energy, I don’t produce that much waste, so I don’t really need to change my patterns significantly. Or our approach to concerns over exploited labour. Where we can sit comfortably knowing that, for the most part, in the UK, employment is relatively well regulated. But not taking the risk of asking the question about who made our clothes or our phone.

 

But if even the words we use make a difference, how much more do our actions make a difference. And I’m not saying this because I feel we should beat ourselves up over our failings. They are inevitable, and the Gospel is one of forgiveness, of freeing us from our mistakes, our faults. In order that we can go on to be improved.

 

But this is perhaps the challenge. Jesus was by definition political. He was by definition a challenge to the status-quo, to the way of life as it was, he could not go off and live in exile without living out what he taught – that would make his words empty and worthless.

 

By the same token the Archbishop is political: not in the narrow understanding of politics as making laws, or negotiating between parties, but in the real understanding of politics as being how we live together as a community, a people, a nation. The church is all about politics because it is fundamentally about how we live in relationship with one another and with the God who created us. Christ’s teachings and his actions make the very political point that every part of creation is loved equally by God.

 

So the convictions of Christ’s teachings, the meaning of a faith in a God who sent his son so that all of creation might be saved, should not be something we keep locked up in this building. That faith should be something which shapes the way we live our lives individually and as a community. And it will not always be easy, but we will never be alone.

 

The Reverend Robin Sims-Williams

 

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