Civic Service 2000

Compton and Otterbourne Civic Service

Sunday 1 October 2000, 10.30 am
St Matthew’s Church, Otterbourne

Sermon by the Right Reverend Leslie Lloyd Rees, Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Winchester

2 Corinthians 5, verse 19 – “God has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation”
It was on a Saturday morning last March while I was standing in the queue at the check-out point of one of our Supermarkets – and I won’t say which of the two it was – that I heard a remark which at first startled me and then intrigued me, and then worried me. In one of those confidential conversations that could be overheard by most of us in the queue, she said to her companion : “I don’t like them at all, all they’re interested in is singing hymns, drinking beer and watching rugby and when they start talking to one another in their own language you never know what nasty things they’re going to say about us”.

I was alarmed because her dislike of Them was so violent and I was intrigued because I couldn’t help wondering who these people were that she disliked so much, who were the Them that she saw as such a threat – was it the Irish or the Asians or perhaps the French? Then of course I remembered that this was the Saturday when a certain rugby international match was being played out at Twickenham between the English and the Welsh. For the woman in the queue, the Them that she disliked so much were Welsh people – and for me, of course, made it all the more difficult to understand.

And yet this is the kind of remark I hear all around me about all kinds of different people in all kinds of different circumstances, “I don’t like Them and I don’t want anything to do with them”. And Them can be a whole range of other people – Jehovah’s Witnesses, dog owners, ramblers, New Age people, people who hunt, people who don’t hunt, Portsmouth supporters – take your pick. If you’re young, Them can be anyone over the age of 35 – fuddy-duddy, boring repressive and out of touch.

I recall Mark Twain’s comment that when he was 16 he thought his father was an ignoramus, and when he reached the age of 21, he was surprised to find just how much his father had learned! If you’re over 60, or even over 50, Them can be all those under 25 – pampered, rebellious, disrespectful, permissive, undisciplined, and the worst sin of all, noisy. If you live here in the south of England, Them can be all those who live above the Watford Gap – feckless, self indulgent, unwilling to get on their bikes, unintelligible when they speak. For those who live above the Watford Gap, we are the Them – well off, superior, powerful, privileged.

To many in our society, Them are those in any kind of authority – police, headmasters, parents, politicians (particularly those of the other parties). At this moment, we’re in the middle of political party conferences and we’ve already heard a lot about Them and Us and no doubt we’ll be hearing a lot more this week. Not that there’s anything wrong in strong views being held and expressed, nothing wrong in reminding us that there are hard moral and political choices to be made, nothing wrong in parties putting forward the policies which they think will best serve the common good – as long as we don’t absolutise our own position and refuse to see any good in the motives and programmes of the others and attack their integrity.

We’re all taking up positions in our own way – it was the man who was having mother-in-law trouble who after a long diatribe said: “I’m really quite fond of the human race – after all, my own family belong to it and some of my wife’s family as well”. A West African said to me: “The trouble is that all missionaries seem to think that God is white, English speaking and Church of England and we know he’s black, Swahili speaking and Methodist”.

And even in local government we can sometimes see the same things happening. Within the Council chamber people who refuse to listen to Them and what They are saying, let alone being able and willing to listen to what the other people are saying when they are saying what they are saying – and there’s a difference very often. During my time when I was Bishop of Shrewsbury, it was the custom for Shropshire City Council to begin their meetings with prayers. One year the Leader of the Council, who was an Agnostic, but who wished to continue the practice of commencing with prayers, asked me if I would do this in his place. I agreed on the understanding that all the other Churches would take their turn. At the commencement of the meeting, I offered prayers for unity and harmony and prayed that all present would listen to each other’s views. All said Amen. The first item of the meeting was the business of electing Chairmen of Committees. All hell let loose and I began to wonder if anyone present had listened to what had been said during the prayers!

In Otterbourne Church, I wouldn’t dare to even ask who Otterbourne people see as Them, in the same way as if I was in Compton church I wouldn’t ask who Compton people see as Them – just in case! We need to ask ourselves who are these other people in our own community that we see as Them and treat as Them – and how do they see us?

Of course, referring to others as Them, or as That lot, or These people – we all do it – allows us to do several things – it allows us to lump other people together in a way that’s beyond sense or argument, to distance ourselves from them, it allows us to reinforce our own prejudices and to justify our unwillingness to become involved with other people or to try and understand them.

And it’s corrosive and it’s stupid and it’s dangerous. The truth is that we all belong to one another, we’re all dependent on one another, we all owe respect to one another, we all have differing gifts to share with one another, we all need one another – the phrase `no man is an island’ is hackneyed but true. We are responsible for one another, we cannot live in isolation unless that isolation is self-imposed, there must be tolerance within commitment to each other, tolerance of the young by the old, tolerance of the old by the young, tolerance of the newcomer, tolerance of the difficult, the problem person and the nonconformist and a willingness by all to serve one another.

The Christian Gospel challenges and judges any attempt to divide people up into Them and Us; it is a Gospel of reconciliation and harmony and justice, reconciliation not only between man and God but between every person and the other person within a community of love where all barriers are broken down and we can know that all of Them are really part of Us, and that the truth of the matter is that there are no Them, only Us.

Jesus came that we might become one in Him. He broke down barriers which are not God made, but man made, barriers between Jew and Gentile – deepest of all religious divisions, between Greek and Barbarian – cultural divisions, between Bond and Free – economic divisions. He calls all to be one in Him. All of us, the Leaders in our community – Councillors, Priest, Teachers, Doctors…. are called to this work of breaking down barriers. But not only them – all of us are called to this work and into this privilege.

We meet together in this church to hear this Gospel of reconciliation proclaimed, to affirm it and to celebrate it and to pledge ourselves to work together to fulfil it. May God bless you in all you think and do together so that in Compton and Otterbourne your life in community may reveal and share in the characteristics of His Kingdom and be to His honour and glory. Amen
© copyright Rt Rev Leslie Lloyd Rees 2000 – reproduced by permission