A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 16th February 2020
Second Sunday before Lent
During this service a child called Archie was baptized.
Jesus said, “Strive first for the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I confess that, unusually for me, I’m not going to start with that text this morning, but I promise I will return to it.
This morning I want to speak about a particular matter concerning the life of our church. It’s something we’ve not really talked about in my time at St Mary’s and, to my shame, that is something of an oversight. I think it’s something you may have talked about in the past – longer-standing members of St Mary’s will be able to tell me later – but it is a timely moment to raise it, and I’m glad to have the chance to address it as we plan our mission and ministry for the coming five years. If this at one level seems like an internal matter, forgive me guests of Archie’s parents, but I hope by the end you will see that it will, directly or indirectly, have a bearing on how this young life will live his.
Let me explain.
It’s now two generations on since the Empire Windrush brought the first passengers from Jamaica to the Britain, marking the beginning of period of significant immigration from Britain’s former colonies to the UK. Immigrants came from the Caribbean, from the Indian Subcontinent and from parts of West and East Africa, wherever Britain had once held colonial influence. Today, thanks almost entirely to this wave of workers coming to Britain to help our postwar recovery, Britain is a multicultural society, including many Black and Minority Ethnic Britons who know vastly more of this country than they do of their parents’ and grandparents’s countries of origin.
Many of those who came were Christians, born and bred as part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, steeped in the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer just as those of a similar generation were here. But when they arrived in their local Anglican Churches, many were turned away, or made to feel so unwelcome. Carmel Jones from Jamaica is a good example. He said this, “Biggest shock was, one, the cold, and two, having gone to church for the very first time – so elated, so delighted that I’m coming from an Anglican church back home, I went to join in worship, and so I did – but after the service I was greeted by the vicar, who politely and nicely told me: “Thank you for coming, but I would be delighted if you didn’t come back.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “My congregation is uncomfortable in the company of black people.” You could just imagine what that meant to me. And I went home, I didn’t say anything to anyone for months…It was a common experience…most of all with the Anglican. A sense of isolation. Nobody really cared.
It was from experiences like these that Afro-Caribbean, and later African, Anglicans found their home not in the Church of England, but in the mutual support and fellowship gained by associating around other traditions, most of all Pentecostal traditions. Carmel Jones became a Pentecostal Minister and later a senior national leader in Pentecostalism.
Well, we might think that this was all in the past and that things have changed and, maybe, in some ways they have. But how do we know?
Last Tuesday, at General Synod, we participated in a powerful debate about the Windrush Generation and their Legacy. It was a chance to reflect upon the contribution made by all who came here as immigrants, especially those who came to our churches, and to recall the way in which many of them were excluded from our life. We heard such stories as that of Carmel Williams, we heard of the awful stories of the Windrush Generation and the scandal of their treatment in recent years in the so-called “hostile environment.” Despite their long years of service to our country, many have faced uncertainty and the threat of deportation. One of our own congregation has had to battle to retain his pension, following dismissal from employment because of this failure of government. Last week, children of those of the Windrush Generation convicted of crimes were flown back to Jamaica, a country many of them had not seen for decades including much time before their crimes were committed.
We cannot be sure. The Archbishop of Canterbury during the debate said this, entirely unscripted, “I am almost beyond words. Personally, I am sorry and ashamed. I’m ashamed of our history and I’m ashamed of our failure. I’m ashamed of our lack of witness to Christ. I’m ashamed of my lack of urgent voice to the Church, to use Andrew’s phrase. It’s shaming as well as shocking. It is shocking, but it’s profoundly shaming…Most of us here are white. I have I have white advantage. Educational advantage. Straight advantage. Male advantage. None of these… all the things that enable us to go through life without the kind of experiences that these folk went through. I’m not ashamed of those advantages; I’m ashamed of not knowing I had them.”
What I want to say to you this morning is this. First to our black and minority ethnic members, some of whom have been here much longer than I have, I want to say that we, the white majority of St Mary’s members, need to stop and listen to your experiences. I know, mainly because I have heard second hand, that there are times when you don’t think you are being heard, because you maybe think that there is some form of tokenistic attitude towards your inclusion at this church, or maybe you think that you have got nothing from your experience to share. I think that has to stop and it has to stop by the white majority stopping to listen to your experience. This Lent that’s my Lenten vow, to spend time listening to how you find this church and how your voice, experience, story and culture can be part of this church’s future, just as many of you have been part of its past and are part of its presence. Most of all we need to hear your stories, not just of what your life is like now at St Mary’s, but how you experience your life beyond this church. Because we share a common baptism, something we shall mark with Archie’s baptism in a minute, we share a common identity that transcends the barriers that race put between us. I’m proud we have our first black churchwarden and that three PCC members are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. But that is only the beginning. What do we need to hear from you? First, we need to listen.
And that leads, secondly, to the whole church: let’s check our privilege. In some ways all of us are part of minorities, but history and culture has a habit of privileging certain groups. That leads to all sorts of assumptions and the risks of unconscious, or even conscious, bias. We need to be challenged and to challenge ourselves about these assumptions, to allow the deep truth of what it means to be ‘in Christ’, to break down the barriers and the superiority that comes with those so-easy-to-make assumptions.
This morning we baptise Archie. We welcome him into a family that is both global and local, a universal church where – to quote scripture – every tribe, every nation and every language – are caught up in the love of God in Christ. He joins a people who learn not just from the people who are like him, but from those who are profoundly different, whose background, culture, nationality, race, ability and so much more are brought to the feet of the Lord who calls us – together – to follow him. Sometimes our colonial and cultural history blind us to the truths we can learn from those others. For those times, as Archbishop Justin did on Tuesday, we must repent, apologise and seek to do better. Archie begins a life long journey of such a company of learning people.
Which brings us back to this wonderful saying of Jesus, “Strive first for the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be given to you as well.” We all have so many cares in life: family, mortgage, work, health and, maybe for him more than for us, the profound challenge of living in a world of climate change and all that implies for how we live together. None of us, including Archie and his family will ever escape these realities. But, to live as a Christian person in the face of all these things, is to strive – a very active word implying effort, will and determination – to strive first for the Kingdom of God. And what does that mean? It means, in the midst of the realities of living, to prioritise a way of living that demonstrates a world that is God’s and a world which God longs to reign in. What does the Kingdom of God look like? It looks like what the parables tell of – outsiders made insiders, the poor given their rights, the downtrodden given justice, those in conflict reconciled to God and one another. These are the things that we strive for, not just in the church but pre-eminently in the world we find ourselves in.
I hope, among many other things, that one of our priorities as a church is to be the sort of place where such things are known to be important to us, more important than what we sing, what we wear and the way we do church Sunday by Sunday. And among those important things, is our openness to learn from our minorities, from those whose experience is different from our own, and whose precious insights into what it means to be loved by God and to serve him in the world have an honoured place, because our black and minority ethnic members have an honoured place in this church. We see Christ in you. And I pray you see Christ in us too.