14 May 23

Acts 17.22-31; 1 Peter 3.13-22; Jn 14.15-21

To be known as ‘Defender of Faith’ was an intention that was always likely to stir a discussion.  Shortly after expressing this aim in 1994 the then Prince Charles amplified his aspiration this to mean Defender of the Faith but protector of faiths in general, an intention that he has fulfilled throughout his public service.  In his first public address following his Accession he reinforced this message. Highlighting first the Sovereign’s ‘particular relationship and responsibility towards the Church of England…the Church (he added) in which my own faith is so deeply rooted, he added that whatever people’s backgrounds or beliefs he would endeavour to serve them with ‘loyalty, respect and love.’  There was naturally much talk around the Coronation of the involvement of different faith groups within a deeply Christian service.  Some asked whether it should have been a solely Christian ceremony, given the results of the 2021 Census, where only 46.2% of the population of England and Wales identified as Christian (a drop of 13% in ten years).  There had been small increases in the proportion of Muslim and Hindu adherents in this period, yet some commentators went further, saying that it should not have been a religious service at all, given that 37% claimed ‘no religion’ as their status.  Of course, one must be wary, as Mark Twain emphasised, of ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ which require considerable interpretation. One should also draw a healthy distinction between organised religion and spirituality – in my time as an AF chaplain I regularly noticed that at time of great need, those with little religious literacy looked very much to the chaplain to offer vicarious prayers on their behalf.  Nonetheless the trend is discernible: our society is less Christian, at least in its understanding and practice of faith; it is increasingly multi-cultural with greater adherence to a plurality of beliefs but it is also a lot less religious.  Recent research across different dioceses of the C of E has also revealed that the take up for church attendance following the pandemic has been most challenging amongst children and young people.  So one could deduce that this trend will continue. 

How should we respond as Christians and, for many of us, as Anglicans?  Is a climate of pluralism and of growing secularism a threat - or perhaps an opportunity because among people of faiths there exists much common ground - indeed together we have arguably greater depth and reach in service of our communities than any other voluntary or public agency - and for those without faith there is at least less religious baggage to hold them back?  There are significant and complex questions here which relate to the DNA of our national heritage; the contribution of a distinctively religious voice in the public square to inform moral decision-making, and with that the status and purpose of the Lords Spiritual. Just in the last few weeks +Steven has been instrumental in advocating greater regulation through the online safety bill. Without such a voice in guiding national policy, how would we promote Christian education and pastoral care locally in the schools and colleges of this diocese (300 of which are Church based)?  And then there is simply the question of how to be a good neighbour: from embracing an Iftar with Muslim partners to sharing a service with our Jewish friends, as we did last year in recalling the 800th Anniversary of the Synod of Oxford.  

Our readings today offer some foundational principles for Christians in a diverse social and religious environment.  St Peter is writing to the Christian diaspora, young churches spreading rapidly but under threat of persecution – his key message: In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord’.  This is our response to God’s love for us, a love that, as our Gospel reading highlights, gives us an intimate relationship with him – “I am in my Father”, says Jesus, “and you are in me and I in you”.  Our response is echoed by St Paul’s call to the church in Rome: ‘In view of God’s mercy offer your bodies as a living sacrifice’.  If we get this right then our understanding, our relationships and our witness to Christ will naturally come through.  And of course, we should recognise that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, is already at work, within us and before us.  As we seek to witness it is reassuring to remember that we are joining with God’s ongoing work of revelation

How should we then conduct ourselves amongst our pluralist and secular friends?  Consider St Paul’s missional encounter in Athens.  First, notice that he was greatly distressed to see so many idols within this great centre of moral and religious philosophy.  A man whose life was transformed by the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, he was disturbed to see others ambivalent to the truth, a community that allowed competing ideologies to flourish as of equal worth.  Paul was pained to see our Lord’s eternal sacrifice, his all-inclusive offer spurned.  It is painful today to observe our Redeemer, Friend and Brother being reduced to one of a multitude of personal spiritual options; it is deeply sad to witness leadership in society, whether political or in wider public life, that pays scant regard for the ways of the Kingdom of God, and to see a generation of young people potentially struggle to address existential questions for lack of a spiritual compass.

Despite the plethora of religious choices in Athens, notice that Paul remained respectful.  He mirrored Peter’s injunction: ‘Always be ready…to give an account of the hope that is in you…with gentleness and reverence…and keep your conscience clear’.  So Paul first built a relationship; he then looked for a connection: “I even saw an altar with an inscription: To an Unknown God”.  Talk about hedging your bets!  From this base and a further link through quoting the Greek poets, Paul built his case for the supremacy of Jesus.  He concluded, as Peter did on the day of Pentecost, by calling people to turn to Jesus as Saviour and Lord. 

It has been my privilege to work across faith communities in this country and abroad and to minister in settings where few may have espoused any faith at all. Much of this has involved building relationships, making connections, explaining the faith. Sometimes there comes an opportunity to state things plainly, to call people to conversion, but you need to establish relationship, connection and credibility firstWhat might that look like for you?  As Woodbine Willie, much loved 1WW Chaplain, advised a priest new to the front-line: ‘Live with the men; go everywhere they go…The line is the key to the whole business...If you stay behind, you are wasting your time.  Men will forgive you anything but lack of courage and devotion…take a box of fags in your haversack and a great deal of love in your heart and go up to them: laugh with them, joke with them.  You can pray with them sometimes; but pray for them always’.

It has always been deeply important for Christians to share faith with grace, respect and integrity. This has added significance at a time when the inherited interweaving of church and national life is under question and truth is widely seen as relative. I encourage you to find ways of developing your own understanding of the scriptures, to cultivate a reasonable Christian mind on the major issues of the day, to pray for every aspect of our wider community life.  There is much more here to explore and discuss – but there is no better starting point than to heed the call of St Peter: ‘In your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord’.