Civic Service Sermon – October 1997

The Rector’s Sermon at the Civic Service on 12th October 1997

Ps.119 v.1: ‘Happy are those whose way of life is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord’.

The news this last week that Winchester will soon be having a by-election will inevitably focus much attention on this city and area during the next few weeks. Because by-elections tend to reflect local as well as national issues, the work of those who represent us on the parish and city councils, as well as the county council, will also come under the spotlight. Our service here this morning gives us an opportunity both to pray for all those involved in the various levels of government, from national to local, and also to reflect upon those qualities which they need to fulfil their work.

Over the last year and more there has been much criticism of many individuals in public life – some of it fair, some of it unfair. Those whom we elect to represent us as councillors and Members of Parliament are not necessarily any better than the rest of us, but much is expected of them. Four words sum up most of the contemporary demands that are made on those who are elected. Those four words are: integrity, image, wisdom and courtesy.

First, integrity: ‘Happy are those whose way of life is blameless’, said the psalmist. And he said it, of course, many centuries before the ruthless activity of the tabloid press. In the last few years, faults of character and behaviour, both personal and financial, have been all too commonly, even relentlessly, pursued. Of course we expect, and are right to expect, high standards from those in public life. Why? Because we elect them to take decisions on important matters which affect us all. If they are seen to put private advantage, or their personal desire for money, or fame, or power, before their responsibilities towards those whom they represent, we feel cheated. At the same time we need to recover more strongly the ideal of public service. If some of the ablest people are deterred from offering themselves from political office because of the fear that their integrity may somehow be compromised, then we are all losers. Without utter integrity, the fabric of our national life is in danger, and that applies to the press and the media as well as politicians. And ultimately that integrity comes not by effort, or willpower, but by the grace of God.

Next, image. We live in a world of images, of sound-bites and cleverly-contrived photo-opportunities. These are the words and pictures that are remembered. The way that people and policies are presented has almost become more important than the people and the policies themselves.

Presentational skills have become almost a profession in themselves. Many people care desperately about what people will think of them. Popularity is often prized above principle. All too frequently a view is spread and becomes commonly-held through cunning manipulation of the media – and sometimes – the media. But neither government nor democracy is best expressed by clichés. Complex problems need careful thought and often intricate unravelling if the right solution is to be found. The public perception of parties, of people, of policies, may often be wide of the mark if it is based on ruthless and unscrupulous exaggeration of half-truths. Beware false images -that’s a warning we all need to heed. We need to be true to our image and our image needs to be true to ourselves.

Thirdly, wisdom. In our first reading we heard about Solomon, about Solomon’s dream. Solomon was King David’s son and he recognised that this father was a hard act to follow. There was much to admire in David, perhaps the greatest of the Hebrew kings. Solomon freely admitted that his father was loyal and upright and possessed ‘integrity of heart’. Beside him he seemed ‘a mere child, unskilled in leadership’. How could he possibly be up to the job of governing his people in the place of his father? So he asked God for ‘a heart with skill to listen’, ‘discernment in administering justice’ – in a word, for wisdom – and he soon showed that ‘he possessed wisdom from God’ in the way he ruled his people.

That same gift of wisdom is what we should pray for among those who represent us. Again it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. In the special prayer for Whitsunday we pray for this gift, for ‘a right judgement in all things’ .We may not always agree with decisions that politicians make; they may not always coincide with our own wishes or desires; but we can respect them if they are seen to be wise rather than foolish.

Fourthly, courtesy. For centuries, men and women have found that truth and the right course of action can best be discerned by discussion, by argument and counter-argument, by thesis and antithesis. This was true of mediæval universities; this is true of courts of law today; this is true of countless parliaments and councils and committees throughout the world. But the search for truth and the right course of action is often hampered when passion is allowed to cloud careful thought. St. Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians, told them very directly how they should behave towards each other, how they should speak to each other. He was not specifically addressing politicians, but all of us, in whatever walk of life we find ourselves, need to heed his words, with their emphasis on truthfulness, on generosity and forgiveness -in a word, on courtesy. Of course there are times when stern or even sharp words are necessary, but courtesy always brings more respect than expressions of ill-temper, however exasperated with each other we may be from time to time.

Have you ever wondered why the parliament of this realm is established at Westminster rather than the city of London, or even here in Winchester, England’s former capital? The reason may be found not in the Houses of Parliament but across the road in Westminster Abbey. For there, behind the high altar, lie the bones of one of England’s greatest kings, Edward the Confessor. Tomorrow, 13th October, is his feast-day, the day on which he is specially remembered in the Church’s calendar. Edward the Confessor founded Westminster Abbey as part of his royal palace of Westminster, and so, two centuries later, when parliament came into being, it was natural for it to be assembled there at the very heart of government, both temporal and spiritual. Edward was said to be ‘the father of his country’ with ‘a mind that subdued anger, despised avarice and was entirely free from pride’. He was known as ‘the Confessor’ because of his manner of life. Those who knew him saw in him clear evidence of holiness. But all of us are called to be saints, in every walk of life. This church is dedicated to All Saints – many of them pretty ordinary people who simply did their Christian best, remained constant in their faith, and tried to lead their lives in accordance with God’s will, often in trying circumstances.

For Edward the Confessor, as for all of us today, whether or not we are elected or simply electors, the same standards were and are expected. We need integrity of thought, mind and heart; we need to be less mindful of our own image, and more mindful of the way we reflect God’s love and God’s priorities; we need the gift of wisdom and the grace of courtesy in our dealings one with another.

Let neither the cult of modernisation and the worship of all that is new, nor excessive toleration in all directions, blind us to these age-old values which have proved their worth over many centuries. Winchester, like Compton and Otterbourne, and many of surrounding the towns and villages, has deep roots in the past. As we move into the spotlight of national life for a few weeks, let us pray for all who are involved in the public life of this area, that they and we may seek to shape our lives, and the lives of those among whom we live and work, in accordance with those values and those principles, under the guidance and inspiration of Almighty God.

© copyright Rev P L S Barrett 1997 – reproduced by permission