Magnificat II

Sunday 19th August 2018
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
1 Samuel 2
Luke 1.46-55

I never tire of telling the story of a Christian charity, dedicated to working with disabled people in developing countries, which built a braille printing press in Addis Ababa but, as luck would have it, as the equipment was being commissioned, the Imperial Government was overthrown to be replaced by a military, Communist Government such that the first book to come off the braille printing press was not a book of the Bible but the Communist Manifesto. Naturally, the donors were outraged but I wonder how outraged the Communists would have been if the first book to come off the press had been the Gospel of Saint Luke.

I have chosen the Magnificat as my favourite prayer because, for me, it encapsulates the good news for the poor which Jesus proclaimed in his first ever sermon (Luke 4.18). Whether out of deliberate self-interest or subconsciously, the Christian tradition has not taken the Magnificat seriously enough. The Christian community which held all its goods in common (Acts 4.32) soon gave way to the scandalous practice, reported by Saint Paul (1 Corinthians 11.18-21) of Eucharistic celebrations rent by class faction. During the period of severe governmental instability after the fall of the Roman Empire, a tradition of monastic hospitality grew up; but only the rich travelled. Then, in the Middle Ages, Christians established schools (which have all become either private schools or grammar schools) and hospitals which, unusually, exclusively served the poor because the rich would go nowhere near them.

Then, after the theological controversies of the 16th and 17th Centuries, the Church of England lapsed into the vacuous gentility so tartly described by Jane Austen, to be shaken by the Wesleyan and then the Oxford movements which led to a renewed interest in the poor thronged in industrial slums and, to a lesser extent, the rural poor. And today we are rightly proud of our part in promoting the Millennium Development Goals, making poverty history and contributing to Christian Aid; and, remember, we did publish Faith in The City in the teeth of the Thatcher revolution and we are enthusiastic contributors to the food bank.

So, if we are marking our cards, how well have we scored?

To come to some kind of estimate, let's look at the big five propositions in the Magnificat:

Well, regardless of our Christian impetus to assist the poor in one way or another to conform with proposition four, filling the hungry with good things, we have failed abjectly on all the rest: the proud are rampant, the mighty are in their seats, the humble and meek grow ever more powerless and the rich, far from being sent empty away, acquire an ever larger share of the economic cake.

And the root problem is that no amount of individual or community action is ever going to be enough; the only way that we can realise Mary's promise, set down by Luke, is if the Church, as an institution, gets behind these five propositions. There has, for some time, been a pallid form of this debate centred on whether the Church should be disestablished or not but that is a piece of procedural gymnastics; regardless of its official status, the Church of England, in spite of its good works, is rightly identified with the proud, the mighty and the rich. This is why I insisted on reading the whole of 1 Samuel 2, to remind us how easy it is for the rich and powerful, not least priests, to fall into bad habits.

Whether or not we can be institutionally radical on behalf of the humble, the meek and the poor, we have to face up to the fact that we are not even particularly good at establishing justice inside our Church such that the older Dioceses are much richer than the newer, largely Northern Dioceses; and, if you look at the table of Diocesan giving, you will see that the poorer the Diocese the higher the percentage of income its worshippers give. For many, the Church of England is a very comfortable club which somebody else pays for.

But there is an even deeper systemic challenge in the proposition that we should "keep religion and politics separate" which denies the simple truth that to want to keep things the same is quite as political as wanting change. I loved the recent Radio 4 trailer when a Labour candidate addressed a voter who said "We are apolitical" to which the Labour Candidate replied: "But don't I see a Conservative poster in your window?" "Yes," said the voter, "as I said, we're apolitical". With some honourable exceptions, like Archbishop William Temple (1942-44), the Church of England has been pretty representative of Western Christianity in its deep suspicion of socio economic change; not so paranoid as the Roman Catholics about Communism, but, then, we haven't been threatened by Communism in the manner of post War Italy and France.

Perhaps the best barometer of how we operate as a Church is an analysis of the Agendas of the General Synod. During my five years of Membership (2005-1) we hardly had a word to say about power and economic justice; and, since then, there has been some indirect acknowledgment through a recognition of the disproportionate effect of climate change on the poor; but we are still frightened to talk straight about the root causes of unequal power and economic well-being.

There's no point beating about the bush; for too long we have been content to infantilise "gentle Jesus, meek and mild", seeing him as a wispy, spiritualist figure rather than the last prophet in the line of Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah who all proclaimed Israel's obligation to, and failure to, establish God's economic and social justice. Fundamentally, Christianity is a religion not of doctrine but of action; we should be more prepared to accept that much of what we believe is a mystery but that much of what we are required to do is ignored.