Spirituality and the Transformation of Society by Canon Fraser Watts

Spirituality and the Transformation of Society
Sermon preached at St Edward’s Church, Cambridge
by Canon Fraser Watts on 15th Janury 2012

I want to begin this morning with a simple question. What did Jesus set out to achieve in his work and ministry? If you read the gospels, it is hard to conclude that he set out to establish a set of religious beliefs, or to found a church, or even to get people to believe in himself. What he focuses on is building what he calls his ‘kingdom’. He doesn’t just talk the kingdom; he lives it too, and invites us to join him in living it.
What is the kingdom? It is a new way of living and being that affects our life at all levels, a new way of being ourselves, a new way of relating to others, a new way of ordering society, a new way of being religious, a new way of connecting with God. If we are faithful to Jesus, we will want to continue his project of building the kingdom, in our different time and circumstances.
That comes hard to the church. We fall in love with the church. We want other people to fall in love with it too; we want the church to grow and flourish. All that is understandable. But if we are faithful to Jesus, we have to recognize that the church is here to build the kingdom. It is not an end in itself; it has work to do, continuing Jesus’ kingdom project.
So, the church can’t settle for doing its own thing, and leaving secular society to get on with its own affairs. Neither should it try to take secular society over, and control it. Whenever any religion does that, the results are disastrous. But the church can be a catalyst for a new kind of society, giving a lead and a steer, finding people in society who will collaborate with it in building the kingdom, working at every possible level, top-down and bottom-up, to bring the kingdom into being.
We live in a very individualistic culture, and it is easy to settle for the idea that if we change enough individuals, then society will change. I don’t think we can rely on that. Society sometimes brings out the worst in people. As well as changing individuals, we need to build the kind of society that will bring out the best in them. Nazi Germany brought out the worst in people, and I think it justified extreme action to change the direction German society was taking under Hitler. Equally, when we have a financial system that encourages people to make short-term profits in ways that destroy wider prosperity we need to change the system, not just individuals.
Our society is very different from that of Jesus, but there are ways in which we can rebuild society now that are in clear continuity with Jesus’ project of building his ‘kingdom’. I want to mention three, which build step-wise on each other.
First, let me take you back to the 19th century, to the time when many people had moved from rural England into the new industrial conurbations, often to grinding poverty and urban slums. Far-sighted Christian leaders, like our own F D Maurice, responded by wanting to build a more just society that distributed wealth more fairly. Jesus was always on the side of the poor and marginalized, and people like Maurice wanted a society that would do that too. In the 1870s, Maurice and his curate Edward Carpenter preached Christian Socialism in this church, and preached it powerfully.
That task took on a new urgency in the depression between the wars, and Archbishop William Temple, Archbishop first of York and then of Canterbury, through the thirties and WWII, took up the challenge. His book, Christianity and the Social Order, sold 140,000 copies, and made a huge impact. After the war, Britain built one of the best welfare systems in the world, and that is partly Temple’s legacy. It is an example of a Christian leader working to build Jesus’ kingdom in modern times.
Another important kingdom project has been to build reconciliation wherever there are divisions in society. In Christ there are no divisions, between back and white, between rich and poor, between nations, or anything else. In the kingdom, all find unity in Christ. God was at work, in Christ, overcoming the division between God and creation; and that task of overcoming divisions is our task too.
One fine example is Desmond Tutu’s work, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to build reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. Another is the work of Bill Williams, from his base in the rebuilt Cathedral in Coventry to build reconciliation between Britain and Germany in post-war Europe. There are still many divisions, both in Britain and in global society, and much reconciliation work left to be done by Christians.
What now? I think there is a third wave in this project of continuing to build the kingdom in modern times that is coming into focus, one that needs to be added to the other two. You hardly need me to remind you of our current problems:
·         threats to our global ecology that could make the planet almost uninhabitable. We need a new set of values that will enable us to live more simply, and to be better stewards of the planet and its resources,
·         threats to global security, many of which arise from suspicions of the prosperous, secular West, and hostility to it. We need to build a moral framework in our fractured global community
·         threats to our prosperity and wellbeing by an unregulated financial system in which short-term acquisitiveness sweeps all other considerations aside. We need to rebuild a moral consensus that gives higher priority to trustworthiness, and puts economic activity back into human context.
All these problems, and other like them, can only be solved by a change of heart, a change of attitudes. We badly need a return to moral values and spiritual principles. We have been trying to run society on secular lines, and it doesn’t work. God didn’t create us to be secular, and it doesn’t work to try to buck the realities of how he created us. We need to rebuild a moral compass, build new spiritual values.
What is really encouraging is that there is an upsurge of spirituality in our society, just when we so badly need this spiritual turn in our public affairs. We now need to find ways to connect this instinctive return to spirituality (which is largely a private, individual matter) with the need for a new moral and spiritual foundation in our public life, which is so essential if we are to solve our urgent problems.
The fact that we so evidently need these new moral spiritual foundations is encouraging. Necessity is the mother of invention. The fact that we have no choice but to take this spiritual turn, as many people can see, means that we are more likely to get round to it. Responding to this challenge is what building the kingdom means now. I believe that people want the church to respond to this challenge, as the public interest in the ‘Occupy’ camp at St Paul’s showed.
It won’t be simply a matter of going backwards, ‘back to basics’. We will need to do morality in a new way. I believe that the new moral framework in our society will be more spiritually aware than anything we have known previously; it will be the work of the Spirit. It will arise from people realizing the need for a new outlook, and embracing it more freely and willingly than in the past.
What can we do here at St Edward’s? It is partly just a matter of giving this aspect of Christian work higher priority, making it a more central part of our identity as a Christian community. We need to see our church as the servant of Jesus’ project of building a new kingdom on spiritual foundations and principles. Not everyone will be involved in a practical way; that is fine. But I hope everyone will be able to give this project their blessing, and support it in their prayers.
Part of the work is grass-roots work, and much of that we are doing already, reaching out in Jesus’ name to people on the margins of society. Different people in our church are working with different groups. I would like us all to get to know more about what we are already doing, so we can identify with it, bless it, pray for it. On The Edge is helping us to connect with a wider range of people, unemployed, recovering addicts etc, many of whom turn out to be looking for a spiritual life.
Another part of the work is top-down, contributing to the spiritual leadership that churches ought to be giving society at this time. That involves some background research, careful thinking, and effective dissemination. I am hopeful that over the next year or two some of us can really develop that aspect of our work at St Edward’s, so it connects up with the grass-roots work that we are also doing here, and connects up with the spiritual leadership other Christians are trying to give.
Rebuilding society on spiritual principles is a huge task, but let us not be daunted. Let us take heart. There are several things that can encourage us. When in the past Christians have stepped up to the task of rebuilding society, they have often had a far-reaching impact. Also, we are not acting alone. As Christians we are part of a huge global network. We can find partners in this work, and find resources to help us do it. We are a small church, but set in the middle of Cambridge, and with many assets. So, I think we can punch above our weight in contributing to this big task.
The main thing that should encourage us is that this is God’s work, work that He is already doing. He needs more foot-soldiers to carry it forward. Sadly, the church that is supposed to be serving him is so far giving him precious little help. We need to wake up, see what God is doing outside Church walls, and pitch in to help. We need to really be his body on earth.
But because we are working for God, we will find that what we do has an impact that a merely human project would not have. It is like a few small loaves feeding thousands. As St Paul told his fellow Christians, under God we have immense resources. So let us take courage, and play as big a part as we can in continuing to build Jesus’ kingdom, a kingdom built on moral values and spiritual principles.
Father we pray, as Jesus taught us, that your kingdom will come on earth, as in heaven. Amen.


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