Sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 3 January 2021 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(Jeremiah 31.7-14; John 1.1-18)
A great old friend of mine used to pay a lot of attention to sermons, and he always lamented the fact that I very rarely begin mine with a quotation from Scripture. He thought there should always be a text. Well I’m afraid he hasn’t really changed my practice, but he did leave me with half an eye out for the occasional unlikely text to use. And in this quiet patch after a week or two of socially distanced feasting the following phrase in Jeremiah particularly resonated with me: ‘I will give the priests their fill of fatness’.
But, mischievously attracted as I am by that, a more appropriate text for this sermon is the following – not from the Bible, but from the Sturm und Drang of British politics: ‘There is no such thing as society’. This is one of the most quoted utterances of Margaret Thatcher, who bestrode our politics for over a decade until a palace coup deposed her some 30 years ago. Looking back over that now long time, and past the last few years of fractious and embittered politics, it may help to be reminded that other periods have also been fractious and embittered, if in different ways. I was not, and still am not, one of her many devotees. Which is irrelevant, of course, and not least because I want here to comment rather positively about something which has caused her to be much pilloried.
What Margaret Thatcher apparently said was a more substantial than that much-used bald quotation: ‘There is no such thing as society; there is a living tapestry of men and women and the beauty of that tapestry, and the quality of our lives, will depend on how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and to turn round and help, by our own efforts, those who are unfortunate. There’s no such thing as entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation.’ In other words, the means to offer help which meet social needs have to come from somewhere, and so no such needs can be met unless actual people have generated that money.
She had a particular outlook on this, which didn’t seem to notice that by no means all wealth is the result of the wealthy person’s personal effort; or that many who could easily pay taxes are very keen not to. And in our day, as a majority Conservative government pours out public money on an unprecedented scale, this all seems rather a historical backwater.
But what interests me about Mrs Thatcher’s remark, is that, while the short phrase that there is ‘no such thing as society’ is generally heard to mean that she thought wholly individualistically, and didn’t think that anyone had any obligation to others, in fact in that statement she went on to talk of ‘society’, but using other terms – that fascinating word ‘tapestry’, which describes a beautiful and complicated entity made by binding many different elements inextricably together. So in fact, champion of the individual as she no doubt was, she did not conceive of an atomised and purely self-interested world of ambitious thrusters who, with no conscience, could walk all over those beneath.
There is, in fact, such a thing as ‘society’, whatever term we use for it – because we cannot avoid mutual dependence. Today’s passage from the prophet Jeremiah only uses individual pronouns in relation to God and his whole people: the names Ephraim, Jacob, Israel describe them all, not persons alone. This word of God is not being delivered to the hearers as individuals, but as a people together. This is not about the hearer’s own salvation, but about what God promises to them as a whole, though they are broken apart, dispersed.
That passage is replete with resounding and promising words of a bad past transformed – ransomed, redeemed, consoled, brought back – and of a wholly different future – rejoice, sing, dance, be merry.
We’ve become too easily prey to hearing and interpreting God’s promises, the meaning of Christ and the hope of salvation, as being some kind of arrangement between our maker and each of us as individuals: ‘I once was lost, but now am found’. But if that is as far as our vision allows, I’m afraid we have reduced the maker of all things, seen and unseen, into a mere self-serving provider of personal benefits to ourselves. The resonant phrases with which John’s gospel sets the scene for the writer’s narrative about Jesus are not merely about promises to me or you personally – they are about the stunning contrast between existence and nothingness, light and dark, glory and ingrowing ignorance, the pouring out of grace and the back-turning of unacceptance.
2021: We begin this new year having experienced – and still experiencing – extraordinary levels of separation and time alone. Most people now crave more human society than they have lately known, and have a better sense than ever of the practical and emotional ways in which we depend on others. The atomised notion of human existence, which Mrs Thatcher did not in fact preach (!) may be less appealing than it was.
So as the year unfurls, and hopes peep through with symbolic moments such as tomorrow’s start of the national Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccination programme, our readings remind us that our hopes – both practical and spiritual – are mutual.
That first text: “I will give the priests their fill of fatness” says Jeremiah as he speaks for God. Perhaps - but I need to hear equally that second part of the sentence: “and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty”. These things are entwined. Under God, we all stand together.