This is the basic text of my sermon at the Commonwealth Service (with civic and multi faith attendance) at Leeds Minster this afternoon:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)

This text from the New Testament begs a question. The Apostle Paul writes to the young and fragile Christian community in Philippi and urges them: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

But, what have they learned and received and head and seen in Paul?

Go back in his letter and he urges these Christians to live and behave in a supremely counter-cultural way. In chapter 2 he eyeballs those Christians who uncritically assume that their Roman citizenship gives them security, privileges and rights that other young Christians do not have. And he says to them that there must not be rankings within the Christian community: they need each other, and they need to recognise Christ in each other – which means the privileged and secure looking out for the interests of their deprived brothers and sisters, even if it means that they have to give up their own rights. First he says this:

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Then he goes on to quote a hymn which begins:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” 

I quote this because our reading makes no sense without it. And I believe it enjoins an attitude and behaviour that other faiths will also want to encourage – rooted in selflessness, humility, self-sacrifice and generosity. It means looking after poor and vulnerable people, and it means challenging dominant cultural, social and economic assumptions that place privilege, selfishness and greedy self-fulfilment above all goods.

It doesn’t stop there. Paul’s encouragement recognises the tendency of human beings to lean in the wrong direction; but it also recognises the basic human need for interdependence, mutuality and selfless generosity.

In this context we must recognise the particular challenge of looking to the interests of our Jewish brothers and sisters in the face of the rise in anti-semitism. Half a century ago no one would have believed that we would today be seeing this rise in hatred. We need one another, and we need to look to the best interests of one another.

Unsurprisingly, these are the values and virtues (interdependence, mutuality and selfless generosity) that characterise what we call the Commonwealth of Nations. Unsurprising because, led by Her Majesty the Queen and shaped by a very fallible and complicated Christian history, the Commonwealth was born out of hard-won liberation from colonialism, freedom to choose a new way for nations to belong together, and a generosity of spirit in creating an association of equals in a world of enormous inequalities.

And the purpose of this unique body. The clue is in the title: a commitment to the COMMON good; pursuit of improvement and wealth for all; nations that are independent in polity, but know the need to interdepend with other nations on a small and fragile planet.

The Commonwealth of Nations is a rare and unusual beast. And the Heads of Government who met in London and Windsor this past week consciously belong to an intergovernmental organisation that is probably unique.

Established originally in 1931, it is a voluntary association of 53 sovereign states, most of them former British colonies or dependencies of those colonies. Its developed aim is to promote democracy, human rights, good governance, rule of law, individual liberty, free trade, peace, etc. It has a combined population of 2.4 billion people – one third of the world’s population – with 60% of this huge population under the age of 30.

This makes the Commonwealth a future-oriented body: the challenges of tomorrow concern the majority of the population – the young – whose future is at stake. And the decisions made by the Heads of Government this last week address real concerns and opportunities for the future, eschewing complacencies about the present or romanticism about the past.

So, peace, fairness, continuity, stability, mutual respect? Motherhood and apple pie? A gravy train on which politicians can see exotic places around the world and say bland things about the obvious? A club which affords benefits or kudos to small countries who need bigger brothers on whom to lean? Or a unique body of equals who come together to articulate and advocate for a better world – one in which, characterised by realism and mutual respect, nations of different sizes, ethnicities and histories dare to try to look through each others’ eyes and identify common causes and concerns … leading to the formulation of a common vision?

The Commonwealth of Nations is a body that should be proud of its history and constitution: growing out of colonial dominion into independent republics or nation states that recognise the balance between independence and interdependence on a small planet. Bound together by common historical phenomena and relationships, this unique association confers and commits in a way that goes beyond the usual political alliances and stakes a bolder moral claim because of a unique moral interdependence.

Now, some might say this is an idealised representation of a motley group of nations striving with mixed motives to strengthen their own futures. But, I beg to differ. Consider the communique issued yesterday following the meeting of the Heads of Government this last week. It addresses some serious issues under the following headings: a fairer future, a more prosperous future, a more sustainable future, a more secure future.

Fairness, prosperity, sustainability, security.

And what holds these together? There can be no security for me if my neighbour is not also secure. There can be no sustainability if security is compromised by greed, violence or unfairness. Fairness is meaningless without mutual prosperity and mutual security. You get the idea. These virtues – if that is what they are – depend upon mutuality and commonality. They assume that we need each other, and need to look to and to protect the interests of each other.

Look at the communique and we see that the following issues were discussed by the Heads of Government:

A fairer future

Gender equality and inclusion (youth, disability and ICT)

Strengthening democratic institutions and promoting peace

Migration

 

A more prosperous future

Multilateral trading system

Intra-Commonwealth trade and investment

Inclusive and sustainable economic growth

Small and vulnerable states

 

A more sustainable future

Vulnerability and climate change

Natural disasters

Oceans, energy, health, education, sport

 

A more secure future

Cyber

Chemical weapons

Preventing and countering violent extremism

Human trafficking and child exploitation

Serious and transnational organised crime

Urban crime/violence and gun crime

Youth

Commonwealth renewal

 

You see the range of these mutual concerns? And the recognition, both implicit and explicit here, that the big and affluent nations of the world cannot ignore the unique and particular challenges of the small ones: for example, that the industrialised nations, if they ignore their contribution to climate change, are partly responsible for smaller islands disappearing under raised sea levels.

When Her Majesty the Queen ascended the throne and succeeded to the role of Head of the Commonwealth she could not possibly have imagined either the opportunities or challenges of 2018. Cybercrime, for example, belongs to a world inconceivable to the founders of the Commonwealth. The communications revolution has brought the benefits of interconnectivity across the globe and, indeed, the universe; but, it has also led to massive identity issues for children and young people, in too many cases subjecting their self-esteem to the number of likes on Facebook. It could be argued that technological development – our ability to do things – has outpaced our moral capacity to comprehend or cope with new ethical challenges: in other words, just because we can do something does not mean that we should or must do it.

And this demonstrates both the success and importance of the Commonwealth: a community of interconnected and mutually accountable nations that opt into relationships that will stand as the world itself changes. The next meeting of the Heads of Government is scheduled to take place in 2020 in Rwanda – a country that saw the most appalling tribal violence erupt in 1994,  but that has  since then worked its way back into a more civilised world, emerging from a shocking form of hatred into a new relationship that does not ignore the past (or the roots of the genocidal violence), but refuses to be imprisoned by that past and seeks a different future. Of course, the story is not complete, and we should never be complacent in the present about the dangers of some future descent into horror. (Not a challenge simply for Rwanda, but but for any nation that stigmatises certain groups of people, driven by language that dehumanises or simply categorises.)

And the symbol of this continuity, consistency and constancy is the Queen herself. Her own commitment to duty has established a model of leadership that will stand any test of time. And she has used her moral authority, rooted in Christian commitment, to focus attention not on herself or her own virtues, but on what she calls in her letter (at the front of the order of service) the ‘common good’.

The Commonwealth should not be taken for granted. For many nations and peoples it offers hope that there can, indeed, be a future – a future that is not derived simply from the selfishnesses of the past or present, but one that allows for radical newness rooted in mutual dependence.

We celebrate the Commonwealth and the remarkable – probably unique leadership – of the Queen. But, we need today to renew our commitment – as a society, but also as individuals, to a collective ethic of belonging that is planted firmly in a selfless and generous looking to the interests of the other. May God bless us as we face this challenge and invitation today and as we together shape our common future.

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