The Mighty and the Rich

Sunday 20th December 2015
Year C, The Forth Sunday of Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Luke 1.39-55

One of the subtleties of the English class system which totally eludes Americans is our unwritten rules about the relationship between class and income. In America - with the exception of the few families classified as possessing "old money" - class is determined by income, largely acquired rather than inherited. In England, on the other hand, until the past 50 years, the clergy of the Church of England, as opposed to nonconformist ministers of religion, were ranked higher than the richest industrialist or banker, again, with the exception of possessors of old money, like the Rothschilds.

Jane Austen, the acutest observer of 19th Century society, depicted her clergy as venal, if not foolish. Trollope, the most extensive novelist on the 19th Century established church depicted the downfall of the humble Septimus Harding and the invective against the nonconformist Crawley, contrasting these with comfortable clergy; and George Eliot, the most broadly intellectual author of the Century variously depicted her clergy as bookish, in the case of Casaubon or reckless, in the case of the gambling Fairbrother; Dickens, primarily writing about cities, uniformly depicted London churches as mouldy and irrelevant.

Whatever their varying economic status, ranging from rich rectors to poor parsons, the clergy were part of the establishment which explains my mixture of amusement and sadness when I consider them taking Evensong and having to pray Mary's Magnificat. It's not unlike a dictator reading solemnly from the written constitution about the rights of the people when they are being arbitrarily imprisoned in a cell under his feet.

Times have changed in the last 50 years, perhaps because of the weakening influence of the Church of England on the establishment, depicted earlier this month in the Butler-Schloss report on the status of religion within a secular society. And there was one point in the 1980s when Faith in The City actually angered a Conservative Government; but as the poor of the UK have faced a deepening crisis from the time of the economic crash in 2008, we have been obsessing about women bishops and gay clergy. And although there is some consciousness in the Anglican Communion about such matters as the effect of climate change, the rising number of economic migrants and those escaping oppression, the topics for the Anglican Communion Conference, summoned by Archbishop Justin Welby for next month are: the structures of the Anglican Communion; human sexuality; vulnerable children; religiously motivated violence; and the environment. There is still time for the agenda to be amended but as a default set of issues this is far from the ideal.

So what are we to make of Mary's Magnificat? Is this a purely aspirational prayer whose objectives are far beyond our individual and collective capacity, or ought we to be taking it seriously?

In the first instance, this prayer of Mary needs to be taken within the context of a Biblical tradition of social Justice, not least because it is a derivation of the Prayer of Hannah in the First Book of Samuel. But, secondly, and even more significantly, it needs to be taken in the context of Mary's obedience to the will of God by agreeing to bear Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary's obedience gives what she says special force. Thirdly, this is the most powerful ethical statement in the Gospels outside the pronouncements of Jesus himself and it accords with his later teaching, notably the Sermon on the Plain in Luke.

What we find when we read our Gospels slowly and carefully, instead of sliding over both the familiar and the difficult bits, is how demanding is the code of ethics prescribed by Jesus. But just because a demand is impossibly difficult, that does not mean that we should ignore it altogether in much the same way as we are told that if taxes are too high it gives people incentives not to pay them. The more demanding the ideal set by Jesus, the harder we need to work to realise it as nearly as we humanly can because we were created in the image of God and, through his Incarnation, we are the sisters and brothers of Jesus. We have, therefore, a family obligation, rather than a purely political obligation, to exalt the humble and meek and to fill the hungry with good things. There is no point in expecting God to do what he has given us the means to do. We might pray for the strength to do what we ought to do but, to put this in a slightly odd way, God is no substitute for us. We have to do the right thing because that is what Jesus demands.

At this time of year, as Christmas approaches, it is well known that we are all more receptive to appeals from charities but living the Magnificat is a daily obligation, just as it is prayed every day at Evensong. There is, perhaps inevitably, a preference for the dramatic, which often means that we donate willingly to disaster relief but, as the Paris talks on the environment show, it is better to prevent the disasters; in the case of the environment the intervention has been tardy but at least it is systematically preventive. As we grow older perhaps we grow wearier that the big problems in the world are intractable, but I become despondent because every time there is a crisis there is a major report and each major report on a subject says much the same thing as its predecessor. Being human, being imperfect, we can't hold out until there is a perfect solution. We, aspiring but flawed people, will inevitably develop flawed solutions and we should be humble enough to see that reality, to see that to wait for a perfect solution is simply to get us off a painful hook. God created the world and all that is in it; but it is our world, we are the stewards in charge; we are the responsible parties; compared with bankers and dictators we may be weak but compared with most people in the world we are strong and rich.

So who are we? In an ideal world, we might wish to bring down the mighty from their seats and send the rich empty away; but consider, how do we think about this if we are the mighty and the rich?