Search form

You are here

Unity - to be understood, we have also to seek to understand

Salisbury Cathedral - 17 Feb 2015 photo by Ash Mills
Posted By : Edward Probert Sunday 22nd January 2017

A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 22nd January 2017 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor

(I Corinthians 1.10-18; Matthew 4.12-23)

 

Thirty odd years ago, as a young curate, I was having a cup of tea with an elderly parishioner when she leaned across to me and asked: 'Do you remember the Great War?' As gently as I could, I pointed out to her that I was born exactly forty years after it had finished. But for her it was a vivid memory.

 

Last week, a week which saw much remarkable political discourse, our Foreign Secretary gave a rather curious piece of advice to France: that they shouldn't 'administer punishment beatings to Britain' for choosing to leave the European Union, 'in the manner' (he said) 'of some World War 2 movie'.

 

Well, the Second World War finished 72 years ago, with the complete crushing and dismemberment of Germany. But that war started only 21 years after the end of that lady's Great War, which had also ended with the humiliation and impoverishment of Germany. And 1914 was only 44 years after France had been conquered and dismembered by Germany in 1870. And 1870 was only 55 years after Europe's powers came together to crush France at Waterloo, following a couple of decades during which France had in turn crushed and overrun most of Europe's kingdoms. And 1793, when all that began, was little more than a decade after Britain lost our prized American colonies, largely because the French joined in that war on their side. I could go on back, but by now you have either got the picture or tuned out.

 

I've taken us back past 1780, 237 years, and by some distance the longest period without a major war in Western Europe is the time between 1945 and today. Yet still that war is a vivid enough phenomenon in our collective consciousness for a Cabinet minister to make a passing reference to it. In that he's far from alone. Direct references or indirect allusions to that Second World War can be spotted all over our popular culture - not just politicians, but newspapers, comedians, football fans and commentators whenever there's an international against, say, Germany. It wouldn't be unfair to say that we seem to be a nation scarred by that war.

 

Yet Britain, along with Spain and Switzerland, is one of the rare nations in Europe which weren't occupied by enemies at some point during that war, and so our experience of it is bound to have been less scarring than almost everyone else's on our continent. So, whether you love or hate the European Union and all its works, it's not hard to see that, for many in its other nations, the certainty of mutual peace and goodwill, the absence of bloodshed, invasion, and occupation - these things may rather outclass the marginal economic benefits or losses that may also come through it.

 

In case you're worried, this isn't a pro- or anti-Brexit sermon. I've run through the thumbnail history of European wars and their effects because, hearing Boris Johnson's apparently light-hearted simile, I was struck by how very differently it may have been heard and understood in France.

 

On the one hand is the general point that there isn't much that's light-hearted about European warfare for most of its countries. But there also seem to be quite profound differences between the public cultures of Great Britain and those of most European countries. In this country, we are wholly familiar with public processes which put two opposing sides against one another, for each of whom the job is to trash the position of the other. This is how we conduct cases in law; how Parliament works; how school debating competitions work. It's basically how all those sports we formalised work: cricket, rugby, boxing, football. Long ago Benjamin Disraeli said 'England does not love coalitions', and since then the 20th and 21st centuries haven't proved him wrong. We are comfortable with opposing sides, and for centuries we've enjoyed traditions of remarkable rudeness about both our rulers and our political enemies, without any particular fear of the consequences.

 

For whatever reason, most of our neighbouring states don't have this kind of culture. From the French Revolution onwards, most of them have legislatures which don't sit two sides facing each other, but rather arrange themselves in an arc, which runs from 'left' to 'right', and within which it's natural enough to create workable compromises among the members; and meanwhile not to frame their mutual discourse as though they were enemies; they share the space, rather than confronting each other.

 

In other words, not everyone does, or perceives things, in ways that seem wholly natural to us. To be understood, we have also to seek to understand. And the gift of communication - that supreme human skill - is powerful, and also mysterious and dangerous. It has been fascinating in recent months to hear countless journalists, who are paid to listen to and interpret for us what politicians say and do, being completely flummoxed by Donald Trump and his Tweets: what does he mean? Why is he saying it?

 

I don't know what was going through the minds of Simon, Andrew, James and John, when someone passing by told them to follow him; we can't know how they understood him. But it was clear enough for them to drop what they were doing and to put their rather faltering faith in him; ultimately to stake their lives on him, as he himself would stake his life.

 

In the community which grew up around these first few people, there has been no shortage of divisions and factions. They were bad enough in Corinth for people to write to their founder Paul to try to sort it out. And this year we celebrate 500 years since the Reformation led to enduring formal divisions in Western Christianity. And this week we are keeping the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity - and it's a rather obvious point that there would be no need to have one if the Christian body didn't have instincts for disunity!

 

And whatever the passing phenomena of politics and trade and diplomacy - the national and European institutions, the Presidents and other office holders - whatever their purpose and culture may be, there can be no missing what the point of the Christian body is. It is to be the body of the one who told us to love our neighbours as ourselves, to serve others as he served us, who gave his life as a ransom for many. No wonder Paul was shocked by what he heard from Corinth.

 

So it may be worth remembering how it is that the contentious culture of Britain’s Parliament arose. It met in a royal chapel, whose layout was just the same as the layout of the Quire in this cathedral: two sides, facing each other as our choir does this morning, chanting the psalms antiphonally, side to side. The purpose of that layout isn’t the division, but the common endeavour of worship. We Christians must not be divided in heart or mind, even when we are separated: as our opposing choir stalls are embraced by the walls of this building, so everything we are and do is embraced within the love and service of God.