Isaiah 61.1–2 with 58.6; Matthew 5.3–10
a sermon at the Civic Service of Thanksgiving and Dedication
at the launch of the new Unitary County Council
Durham Cathedral, 2 pm May 30 2009
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
If you’ve been on holiday to the Italian coast near Naples or Amalfi, chances are you’ve been to the wonderful ancient city of Pompeii, which was destroyed by its own local volcano, Vesuvius, nearly two thousand years ago and has only been dug out of the ash within the last century. It’s a spectacular place, and I recommend it strongly if you’re in the area. One image out of many sticks out in my memory. When you stand in the streets of the ruined city you can see, not far outside the town, the volcano itself, a great mountain with a jagged top at around 4,000 feet. You can walk up and look down into the vast crater, which still sometimes smoulders and rumbles. But in one of the ancient houses in Pompeii, there is a picture on the wall, a mosaic which depicts the scene as it was before the volcano quite literally blew its top. There is the mountain as it used to be, going all the way up to a sharp peak. A few hundred feet of rock and rubble were blown away on that day, August 24th AD 79. And you can compare the two views: the complete pyramid as it used to be, and the jagged and dangerous new summit with its giant and smouldering crater.
Hold that picture in your mind as we consider how things have gone in our public life, not just over the last few turbulent weeks but over the last couple of hundred years. Many years ago we believed in a social structure that worked like a pyramid, with our own rulers near the top and with God himself at the very top. Governance came down from above and accountability worked up from below. The rulers, in that system, were responsible both to their subjects, below them on the pyramid, and also to God, above them. Now if you don’t like the sound of that pyramid, with its sense of hierarchy, nor do I – but that’s because we all know in our bones what could and did go wrong with it. The rulers imagined that they had privileged access to God and that God was automatically on their side whatever they did. And so the volcano blew its top, around two hundred years ago: revolutions happened in Europe and America, and even in this country where we didn’t have a revolution at that moment we had major shifts in power and government with fairly similar effect. God himself was blown off the top of the mountain, leaving a jagged top with a large and smouldering crater. And if you want to know why we’re finding it so difficult at the moment in our public life to sort out what’s gone wrong and what we should do about it, that’s perhaps because the crater is still rumbling and shaking, and some are even predicting more eruptions.
What a moment to make a major change in the way we run our beloved County. What a time to come into new office and new responsibilities. You see, we all still know that we need rulers and authorities. We don’t want to live in chaos and anarchy, where powerful bullies can push the rest of us around. We know in our bones that order matters, that structures of society are necessary for the health and flourishing of the whole. Governments at every level are there to provide the appropriate balance between freedom and order, between human flourishing and the necessary structures of public life. Flourishing without structure makes you a jellyfish; structure without flourishing makes you a block of concrete. That proper balance is the goal towards which all human authorities must work. But because the mountain doesn’t have a top any more, at least in most people’s imagination, we push our rulers up and up to what is now the dangerous cliff-edge of the summit, and place on them the burden of producing the Utopia we all want – and then, when they don’t produce it, as they won’t because it isn’t ours to produce, we get cross with them and try to push them over into the smouldering lava beneath. Half the work of the press in this country is devoted to pushing people up to the top of the hill and then throwing them down again – the nightmare version of the Grand Old Duke of York. And, frankly, you’d be in this bind whether we had a Unitary Authority or not; but since we do, and since it happens to coincide with major public concern about the very structures of our public life, this is a great time to think about how it all works and what we can do about it.
And you have chosen as your biblical readings for today’s remarkable service two passages which show very clearly where the answer should lie. Jesus of Nazareth soaked himself in the ancient prophecies such as the one we heard from Isaiah, and when he announced his own blueprint of how the world should be it had all that energy and spiritual vision behind it but poured into a new mould of his own making. Jesus’ life, and indeed his death, was devoted to the task of answering the question, What would it look like if God was running this show? and he went about doing things which said, more powerfully than words though his words were powerful too, This is what it looks like. Blessed are the poor in spirit; theirs is the heavenly kingdom – which doesn’t mean the kingdom you go to in a place called ‘heaven’, but, as he made clear, the kingdom which comes from heaven and brings true freedom and order to this earth. Blessed are the mourners, the meek, those who long for justice, the merciful, the peacemakers, the persecuted. They will be comforted, will inherit the earth, will be satisfied, will be filled, will be God’s own children, will inherit his kingdom when heaven and earth are one at last.
‘Blessing,’ you see, doesn’t just mean ‘happiness’, though it does mean that too. It means that people who are acting in these ways will be creating around them a world in which things will be working in the way God wants; and God himself will be mysteriously with them, operating through them, turning the world upside down – or rather, turning it the right way up at last. The cone at the top of the mountain will have been replaced, but it won’t any longer be a hierarchical system, because the key players will be the poor, the mourners, the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. And the task of the rulers will not be to legislate for those things, because you can’t legislate for them, but to sustain by wise administration a society in which those become the priorities. You see, at the heart of the Christian message is the hidden truth which makes sense of it all: that when we talk of God being King, as Jesus did all the time, we are not talking about a top-down God, a celestial despot, a tyrant in the sky. That’s how a lot of people thought about God two hundred years ago, and that’s why they blew the top off the mountain of our social and political structures and why the truncated mountain we’re left with still doesn’t produce the perfect world we thought it should. Jesus was talking about a different God; in fact, Jesus was embodying a different God, the different God, the true and living God who anointed Jesus to bring good news to the poor and through him calls all rulers everywhere to adjust not only their priorities but also their modes of working so that they reflect and make space for that good news.
This will mean three things that stand at the heart of the revolutionary vision of society which Jesus insisted upon. And as we in the churches pray day by day for those of you who bear heavy responsibility in the ordering of our common life, these are among the things we shall be praying for, that they may be at the centre of your concern and work.
First, we must put the needs of the poor before the desires of the rich. That’s the most obvious point which Isaiah and Jesus himself thrust under our noses. Getting this right is hugely difficult, because anyone in government, locally or nationally, is bombarded by demands and inducements and threats and warnings and it’s hard to keep your head clear. It’s like going in to bat on a bumpy wicket with the ball bouncing this way and that. You have to keep your head down and watch the ball like a hawk, and for you the ball in question is the priority to look after the weak and the vulnerable, not those with the loudest voices but those who are too weak and powerless to raise their voices at all. Someone told me a couple of days ago that stretcher-bearers on the field of battle are taught to ignore those who are screaming for help, because if they’re screaming they’re not as badly injured as those who can’t scream any more. The same is true in our social systems. Some people make a lot of noise and attract attention because they’ve got loud voices and access to the means of communication. But there are, sadly, many in our beloved county who have neither, and have reached the point of despair. They are the ones we must seek out and help, and we in the churches are here to assist you as you seek to do that. When I ask myself what it might look like for Britain to be a genuinely Christian country I don’t think first of everyone going to church, though naturally I’d like that too. I don’t even think of everyone saying their prayers, though that would bemarvellous. I think of a society where the weak and the vulnerable, the very old and the very young, the strangers in our midst, the long-term unemployed, the victims of crime and the criminals who’ve forgotten that there’s another way to live, all know that we are looking out for them and taking thought for how to order our common life for the common good, especially theirs. I think of a world where generous love overflows in voluntary work and contribution which doesn’t ask What can I get out of this person but rather How can I help. Governments and local authorities can’t legislate for this but they can create structures which encourage and foster it.
And actually, the second thing which we shall be praying for in your work is that you will realise, what our national government desperately needs to learn, that legislation and regulation isn’t the answer. If the first thing is putting the needs of the poor before the desires of the rich, the second thing is developing a community of character rather than a rat’s nest of regulations. Here the work of education comes to the fore, of course, but this principle needs to run through County Hall itself, through our police and health and emergency services, through every area of our common life. Of course we need appropriate rules and regulations. But regulations are like the crash barriers on the motorway, to stop real disasters happening. Saying you were acting within the rules simply means you weren’t bouncing off the crash barriers, but it doesn’t mean you were acting as wise, responsible, thoughtful, just, courageous, prudent human beings. Those are the things we must teach and model, and you can’t do that through passing more regulations, but only through developing and fostering character. You learn character in communities, in real flesh-and-blood face-to-face communities, not by visiting online chat-rooms or filling in forms or ticking boxes. We urgently need to rebuild trust at every level of community, and the more regulations we have and boxes we tick the less we trust each other, because a rule-based society encourages you to think that if there isn’t a rule about something you can do whatever you like and don’t have to think, to act wisely, to take responsibility. These, obviously, are issues of urgent national and international importance just now, but they are also massively relevant to a newly formed local Authority as it begins to feel and find its way forward. And again we in the churches are here to help, to work with you and struggle with the hard issues as we rebuild, from the ground up, communities of character rather than regulation.
And the most important part of character is the third and last thing I want to offer you this afternoon. We must put the needs of the poor before the desires of the rich; the development of character before the passing of more rules; and, third, the leadership of servants rather than the busyness of bureaucrats. Nobody, I think, actually wants to be a bureaucrat. Public servants are usually public servants because they genuinely want to help, to make a difference, to follow a vision of a better world which is shimmering out there like a mirage. But so often the system takes over and the best of intentions get trapped somewhere between the filing cabinet and the waste paper basket. If it’s any comfort, we find this just as much a challenge in the church as well, but we are committed to working at it together. ‘Servant leadership’ is a bit of a tired cliché, of course (like some of the songs which try to express it), but there’s a reality underneath which we must recapture, and which must replace, right across our society, the dangerous oscillation between bumbling and bullying which has so often got in the way of healthy and creative structures.
Because, you see, it now appears that thinking of society as a mountain in the first place was itself part of the problem. If these three things – the needs of the poor, the development of character, and the leadership of servants – are central to God’s plan for human societies, and if God himself in Jesus Christ is assuring us of his help in working at them as well as of his scrutiny to hold us to account for them, then we aren’t talking about a heavy-handed hierarchy like a steep-sided pyramid or mountain. We are talking about a rich, variegated landscape of society, where God is both over us and alongside us, both calling us to account and encouraging us in fresh and creative tasks, both inspiring powerful leadership and squatting down quietly beside those who have no voice, no power and no hope. In proposing that we put back together what never should have been separated, God and public life, I am not at all therefore suggesting that we return to a pre-modern image of theocracy. I’m suggesting that we move forward towards Jesus’ very different vision, the vision for which he lived and died, the vision which, when he rose again, became a reality on earth as in heaven, creating a new world with new possibilities and new energy which we call the Holy Spirit.
My friends, it would be all too easy at this turbulent time in our national and local life to throw up our hands and say, It’s all terrible, it’s going to be far too difficult, we seem to be making so many mistakes, how are we going to cope? Today’s readings, and this splendid service as a whole, encourage us to say, rather, Yes, these are challenging times, but with God’s help we will meet those challenges. Yes, there are difficult questions, but we will work together and find the answers. Yes, there are temptations to collapse back into old and unfruitful ways of working, but we are going to see those coming and find the better way. We have a chance, working together, to set a new standard both in what we do and how we do it, as we give thanks to God for all that is past and dedicate ourselves to his service for all that is to come. We in Durham pride ourselves on having ancient historic roots but also of having our feet on the ground in today’s and tomorrow’s realities. We in the church are here to work with you and with the whole community, so that what we do together for the common good may not be in vain.