Canon Chancellor - The Reverend Canon Mandy Ford
I had my hot buttons well and truly pressed this week when I began reading a review, in the Church Times, of a recently published book, The Church and the Future of Welfare by Sam Wells, the Vicar of St Martin in the Fields
In it, he suggests that the church ought to stop “handwringing and despairing about the fraying of the welfare state”.
As the Robes project gets underway for the tenth year, in a year in which as many as 197 people have died on the streets of London a year in which over 8,000 people are sleeping rough in our city, and 1.2 million food parcels were distributed by food banks, across the country it is impossible to ignore the reality that local and national government policy has contributed to this suffering.
It would not be unnatural to get angry, and perhaps that might involve a bit of handwringing! We might rightly argue that our government should seek to address hunger and homelessness in the ninth largest economy in the world. That is what the welfare state is for. But perhaps, and this is why I confess I’m glad I kept reading,that is not the whole story.
So, I want to turn at this point to the feast that we are celebrating today. Today is the Feast of Christ the King. The feast was inserted into the liturgical calendar in 1925, by Pope Pious the eleventh.
The Pope was responding to increasingly secularization, and trying to help Christians recover a sense that Christ rules over all of life, not simply the spiritual part neatly compartmentalized into Sundays. And, at a time when the rise of fascism and communism were already undermining the Christian origins of European governments, he wanted to remind the world that its rulers are not the ultimate authority over people’s lives.
The feast of Christ the King is the most political of celebrations. It is political because it speaks about authority and citizenship. About whose rules come first and to whom we are responsible and accountable. Long before Pope Pious, the early anglo-catholics in the Church of England were drawing on the doctrine of the Kingship of Christ to argue that we are all equal under Christ’s rule on earth.
These were the clergy who inspired my priestly vocation - the radical priests of the 1870’s and 1920’s, the “slum ritualists” like Stuart Headlam, and Lewis Donaldson, who worked in the poorest parts of our industrial cities alleviating the needs of the poor, and offering worship full of colour, music and life.
They were socialists, who argued for a redistribution of wealth, for rights for workers and for women, for changes in land tax and inheritance tax. Long before the establishment of the welfare state, they were arguing that Christians should have a greater sense of collective responsibility for one another’s wellbeing. Perhaps, in the years after the Second World War, their goals were achieved - with the establishment of the national health service, universal education and welfare benefits.
And there are those in the Labour party today who would suggest that the task is not yet finished and that more nationalization and greater state intervention is needed to solve our current woes.
But, it can be argued that in doing these good things, by providing welfare benefits,Schools, housing and so on,we have outsourced our responsibility to one another to the state, and that the state cannot provide the mutuality of fellowship which is the outstanding feature of the Kingdom of God.
As our cities, particularly, become more and more compartmentalized, we don’t live in mixed communities, in South London, as older housing estates have been cleared, the residents have been moved out of the locality, for example. It is hard to have a sense of mutuality or fellowship in these circumstances.
I wonder if we have stopped looking at one another in the eye with a sense of responsibility or compassion. Do you remember Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that no-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he only had good intentions, he had to have money as well? She was advocating the building up of philanthropic capital. But the point of Jesus’ parable is not that the travelling stranger paid for the care of the wounded traveller, but first that he stopped, spoke to the victim, bound up his wounds and showed him compassion.
It was the human face of love that counted before anything else. The audience listening to the parable of the sheep and the goats contained plenty of people who paid their taxes. There was a well established system in the temple for providing welfare for the poorest in the community. But, on this occasion, Jesus did not separate the rich from the poor, the welfare providers from the welfare users, he separated those who acted from those who did not.
And there is something personal in the specific acts of mercy which open the door to the Kingdom of Heaven: feeding the hungry, refreshing the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the imprisoned.
Sending someone else to do it,
Paying someone else to do it,
That is not quite the same thing. There is something more needed in the Kingdom of God. Neither the best-run charity, nor the nation state, is a substitute. The Feast of Christ the King offers a critique of the nation state, because the state cannot have a human face. The Kingdom of God has a human face, the face of Christ the King.
The King on the throne
judging the sheep and the goats
is the King who rolled up his sleeves
and washed the feet of his friends,
the King who broke bread
to feed the hungry,
the King who embraced the leper.
This is our King.
His face can be seen on earth today. His face is the face of every volunteer for the Robes project, the face of each person who stops to talk to the homeless person on the street, the face of anyone who says “welcome” to the stranger.
The challenge of the gospel today is to ask whether the face of Christ the King is also the face of the church? Are we building up the mutuality of fellowship rooted in our common identity in Christ? Advent offers the opportunity for us to test ourselves against this gospel challenge, to ask about who rules in our minds and hearts, and to respond in our Monday to Saturday lives, to be the church of Christ the King.