This morning I preached at the Civic Service in Bradford Cathedral to mark the end on the Lord Mayor’s year in office. This enabled the Lord Mayor, Naveeda Ikram – the first Muslim woman Lord Mayor in the country – to reflect publicly on her year. It was a long service…
I wanted to take the opportunity to thank those who take up public office in any way and recognise the human cost of doing so (for some, at least). Here are the main bits, based on Matthew 5 and minus the jibes at Chelsea and questions arising from David Beckham’s haircut…):
The so-called Sermon on the Mount is often misheard and misinterpreted. It looks and sounds so simple, but is fraught with challenge and demand. In Matthew’s Gospel – which was not written in a moment of boredom as a twee way of telling stories about nice Jesus – this ‘sermon’ comes at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry and serves as a summary of his teaching. In one sense, the rest of the Gospel puts flesh and blood onto what he says here. And it is gripping stuff that allows the comfort-seeker only one recourse: that is, to ignore it and walk away.
In this passage Jesus is not offering lots of self-help advice for people who want to live a fulfilled life. He is not suggesting ways of improving your happiness quota. He is saying very clearly that if you want to take God seriously – which means taking other people, wider society and the world seriously… and taking responsibility in and for them – there will be a cost. A cost to your prejudices (the meek will inherit the earth, not the powermongers after all), to your values (the hungry will be filled) and your expectations of comfort or satisfaction (people may revile and persecute you).
But, this passage does give us windows on the nature of public service which lies at the heart of this service and today’s celebrations. Let’s look at a few of them before we return to the point.
‘When Jesus saw the crowds’ he went away from them. He didn’t run after popularity or populism. There are dangers in seeking approval all the time. Yet, those who wish – for whatever reason – to serve on local councils must seek a popular mandate and canvas the votes of those who have the power to entrust it to you. In reality, whatever the benefits of public engagement, you get a pile of public exposure in which your personality, motives, dress sense, values, priorities and appearance will all be subject to popular critique – which is a nice way of saying that you open yourself up to being taken apart by people who carry no responsibility other than to pillory people who do. So, you can understand why Jesus didn’t run towards the crowds, but went up a mountain to do some serious thinking about what really matters when you come down again and can’t avoid the crowds or their demands.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…’: yet many people can go though life avoiding contact with the poor, the humble and the publicly insignificant. One of the things that mayors – Lords or otherwise – often remark on is that until they began their demanding schedule of visits, they had no idea just how much amazing and self-sacrificial work and service was going on in their area. Naveeda has been to places she probably never knew existed and met people who, without any hope of reward, serve those in a variety of places of need. That is to be ‘poor in spirit’ – often unnoticed and unrewarded – serving those who are poor in spirit and just about every other way, too. Public service exposes you to things you might otherwise not see or encounter. (Which is why Anglican clergy live on the job – part of the community they serve and never being able to worship God without that worship being rooted in the realities of the community life around them.)
‘Blessed are those who hunger and search for righteousness’: Righteousness is not a pious notion… something to do with being a goody-goody. Righteousness has to do with being passionate about social justice, about recognising the inherent dignity and humanity of every person (made in the image of God, as Genesis puts it), and about committing oneself in body, mind and spirit to furthering the goals of that passion. At whatever personal cost.
And the personal cost can be great. Ask the family of those who serve voluntarily or in public service as councillors. ‘Blessed are the merciful’, says Jesus, but mercy is not something you will always find at the hands of a media seeking the sensational or the conflictual. Mercy is for the feeble and the sentimental in a society that speaks all the time of ‘fighting’ for causes. But, as Jesus says and we find so hard to believe or work out, ‘it is the merciful who will find mercy.
Can you imagine what it might look like to give our public servants the space to be merciful and to receive mercy for those they seek to serve?
(As an aside, I was listening to the Archbishop of York preaching at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Service here in this cathedral last Sunday afternoon and thinking about how we take for granted the culture and polity we enjoy in this country. For sixty years – whatever your particular views on monarchy itself as a feature of the polity – the Queen has presided over remarkable stability… and, as she reminded us in a speech last month, over a country whose democracy developed over a thousand years, rooted in a Christian theology and world view that is all-too-frequently disregarded or derided today. Our judicial system was not invented from thin air. The freedoms we take for granted did not just happen. These and other features of our assumed common life arose from an understanding of who we are as human beings, what matters in human living, why morality matters and where moral values derive from, how society should be shaped and on what moral and spiritual foundations it should be built. We take it all for granted as if ‘common goodness’ were a given in any human society. And we are in danger of giving some of this away without a moment’s thought about why we think what we think matters in human living and dying.)
Yet, as Her Majesty pointed out, we need to recall that our society has been shaped by a theology that enjoins self-giving, service, humility, justice exercised with mercy, a passion for ‘righteousness’. These things are written into the fabric of English life and law and into our assumptions about public service.
For this reason, then, I want, on your behalf, to thank those who serve our Metropolitan District of Bradford: those who stand for election and are rejected by the voters; those who, once elected, have to do the hard work of shaping the common good with the limited resources available to them – setting priorities that will always be deemed to be wrong by someone -, and giving their time to serve our wider community; those who are paid to make the whole thing work – the Chief Executive and all those who work at City Hall, carrying public responsibility and often seeing themselves kicked around in the public discourse.
In this context I think it right to note the service of the former Leader of Bradford Council, Ian Greenwood, who served this place for seventeen years and lost his seat at the last election. Many may disagree with his politics, but we would do well to recognise his service along with that of others who have been rejected by the electorate.
As we thank Naveeda and look to pray for the incoming Lord Mayor, Councillor Dale Smith, we conclude by remembering those demanding words of Jesus to his friends on the mountain when he went away from the crowds. Here he pulls us back to check the integrity of our own motivations and the focus of our own priorities and behaviours. Who, we might ask ourselves and each other, will be blessed by our particular form of public service? Who will find earth to inherit, who will be comforted, who will receive mercy, who will be filled, who will discover the freedom of the kingdom of God, who will ‘see God’ in and through us? And, the hardest question of all: when judgement is reached by future generations on our stewardship of our community, will we be seen to have been a blessing or a curse?
May God bless all those who serve in public office, in building civic society, and for the common good.
This service was followed two hours later by a Service of Thanksgiving for the Church Urban Fund. in the last 25 years the CUF has invested about £2 million through 159 grants to projects in the Diocese of Bradford. From January 2007 to December 2011 CUF provided 51 grants totalling £305,554.11 ( and that 11p matters!). The CUF-sponsored Near Neighbours scheme has provided 50 grants totalling £166,887.95 to the Bradford district – £243,390.85 in 71 grants across West Yorkshire. Churches in the metropolitan district run more than 125 community projects, supported by around 3,000 volunteers. According to the figures, the churches now support more youth workers than the statutory services do. Projects include work with some of the most vulnerable people and communities: asylum seekers, refugees, street workers, people who are homeless, single parents, elderly, disabled, unemployed, youth and children, parents and toddlers, parenting classes, education, sport and community relations, environmental and English language (ESOL) learning.
Impressive or what?