Compton and Otterbourne Civic Service
Sunday 29 October 2006, 10.30 am
St Matthew’s Church, Otterbourne
Address by the Venerable John Guile, the Archdeacon of Winchester
2 Chronicles cpt 34 vs 29-end.
Acts cpt 17 vs 22-31.
My wife and I count it a very great privilege to be with you for this service today. This Annual Service takes seriously the link between Church and Community and importantly underlines the Christian community’s commitment to support those bearing the heavy responsibility of leadership and the co-ordination of policy for these local communities. On behalf of all of us, I thank you, members of the Council and the staff who support you, for all that you do together to maintain the fabric of our common life. You too create a sense of belonging and of community. You enhance the life of the people in these communities. I’m only too aware that the people you serve can be quick to criticise and often slow to understand the personal costly commitment that councillors make to the life of the community, and the heavy workload officers carry. Perhaps because many forget to say it, I say on behalf of all of us -Thank you.
In preparation for today I entered the words “Civic Service” into Google. I searched the net through the search engine Google just to see what others have preached on such occasions in the past. You will perhaps be surprised and may be delighted to know that the search engine in 0.20 secs and with 31,400 references highlighted at the top of its list a sermon preached at St Matthew’s Church Otterbourne in the year 2000. The sermon given by Bishop Lloyd Rees was both interesting and inspiring. I guess that several of you here present today were here on that occasion. He took the theme of “them and us”.
Nothing much else caught my eye on World Wide Web except a reference to the present Bishop of Gloucester who preached at a service such as this last month in Tewkesbury Abbey. It caught my eye I think because several years ago the bishop served as a priest in this diocese and many of us know him quite well. However, Bishop Michael Perham had selected the account in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles which we have read as our second reading this morning. I thought I would make that our beginning today as well.
You will recall that Paul was in Athens and he was fascinated as he wandered around that place by a particular shrine. We might say it was a wonderful example of keeping one’s options open. He commented that there were altars dedicated to every conceivable deity, but one particular altar caught his eye. It had the inscription “To an Unknown God”. Paul who never missed an opportunity then preached a powerful sermon in the Areopagus, stating that what was unknown could now be known. The Unknown God was no other than the Christian God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Winchester Cathedral, like Athens in this respect has many altars. In preparing for this morning I made a mental count and I think there are 15. Each chapel has its own dedication, as indeed do the many beautiful parish churches of this Diocese and County. Of one thing I am almost certain however, is that none of these altars has an inscription, “To an Unknown God”. In practice the sad truth is that of the many thousands who visit our Cathedral Church and indeed our parish churches as well, many very often know almost nothing of the God who is worshipped at its altars. They are uplifted by ancient architecture, amazing artefacts, touched by the beauty around them and may even be entranced by the tranquillity and spirituality but, but they know nothing or very little about the God for whom these buildings have been built and dedicated.
Much of the blame for this ignorance must lie with the Church. We desperately need to communicate our beliefs with greater clarity and greater conviction. The Church needs to market the faith and individual Christians need to gossip the Gospel. The Church needs to grasp every opportunity to tell the Christian story and to relate it to the lives of people in the 21st century.
May I also suggest however that the church need not take all of the blame. That God is unknown also reflects the trends in our society. We have lived now through two generations of increasing secularism. This in turn has involved a disregard for our history, and our heritage. It implies that any place in our educational system for the exploration of faith is seen as indoctrination. Such thinking has come up with wacky suggestions such as re-naming Christmas as Winterval.
There are of course as well a growing number of other faiths represented in our nation. In many ways this is to be welcomed. The people of different faiths have much more in common with us than they have with those of no faith. However, I do think that as a nation we have come to a point where we can celebrate almost anything unless it is Christian. Good Friday, the day that Jesus died, is now almost an ordinary working day. Whitsunday used to be a holiday weekend. School terms are being adjusted and in many cases will no longer fit around Christian festivals. Only last Friday the Archbishop of Canterbury warned against becoming a society which banned all religious symbolism. Such actions can have severe consequences. We must not let extremists in any faith dictate to the rest. He has just returned from two weeks in China and he said this, ” The political and intellectual world that is emerging in the new China is having to cope with a vacuum where cohesive social morality ought to be, a vacuum shaped by the last fifty years of Chinese history.” He continued, ” there is a sense that every civil society needs religion. China historically has a top-down flow of social policy and action; but without a coherent morality, without a clear vision of what human dignity entails, short term, corner cutting strategies will always be tempting (forced abortions, forced evictions….local legal processes that are effectively beyond review or appeal.)”
The Archbishop went on to reflect that for us in the UK we “do not have anything like this history of top-down rule by regulation. Yet when people talk about whether we should become a “secular society”, I wonder if they realise that, that they are in effect echoing the idea that the basic and natural form of political organisation is a central authority that “franchises” associations, and grants or withholds their right to exist publicly and legally within the state. Up to now we have in practice taken for granted that the state is not the source of morality and legitimacy but a system that brokers, mediates and attempts to co-ordinate the moral resources of those specific communities, the merely local and the credal or issue-focused, which actually make up the national unit.”
Perhaps, just maybe, in our own nation we are beginning to see signs of hope, signs that we are coming to our senses. For example, the renewed interest in our heritage, with more and more people visiting the places of significance in our history, many of which are the holy places of the Christian Church. It is a sign that we are perhaps recovering our corporate memory, recognising from where we have come in terms of our religious and cultural history. It is good therefore for example in Winchester that both County and City have and are currently working closely with the cathedral authorities and with the diocese to encourage tourism and this in turn offers us real opportunities.
In our multi-cultural society people are asking questions as perhaps never before. They want to engage with issues of religion, morality, lifestyle and values. There is a search for spirituality in many of us. I do believe that more and more people are looking for a deeper meaning in life, one that is not driven by materialism and consumerism and a way of life which is at least willing to engage with a sense of the divine and to explore the rumour of God.
So what of ourselves? Perhaps you agree with me that our common life and our common set of values has been disintegrating for too long. We need to recover what we have abandoned. The future of our society is one in which there is diversity but surely it must not be a society in which religion is marginalized. It should not be a society in which one religion makes exclusive claims. But it must not be a society where our Christian faith and heritage is neglected.
For our part and that of the Church, let us seek to be more effective in telling our story, sharing our faith, speaking of the God who is not unknown to us. To you, in local government, I encourage you to be ever aware of the invisible presence of God. The presence of God which we in the Church call the Holy Spirit whom we believe can lead us into all truth. Please continue to look to the Church as a partner and together let us work for the good of all. Amen
© copyright John Guile 2006 – reproduced by permission