One of the things we do really well in this country is our ceremony. We know and are well practiced at putting on a good show. We can rummage in the dressing up box and come up with robes and gold chains to add to the spectacle and drama of a civic occasion. We even had a guard of honour from the Heritage Festival re-enactors as we made our way into this incredible gem of a building this afternoon, which is a fabulous stage for such an occasion as this. And music, rehearsed and honed over so many hours, lifts the heart in praise and adds to the sense of dignity. Breathe in deeply and it is quite a heady mix. Breathe in too deeply and it can become toxic. It is good then, to have had five passages from the Bible to add a counter balance to save our souls – a Psalm sung to the Anglican chant, Old Testament and New Testament readings and two canticles taken from St Luke’s Gospel.
These passages all have some sharp things to say to us, words of challenge for compassion, conviction and courage. And it is under those three words – compassion, conviction and courage – that I want offer some reflections for civic leaders on this moment of dedication at the beginning of a new mayoral year, and by extension for the whole Council, for whom we pray here and in St John’s, the city Parish Church, regularly. You and your work are in our prayers because you need prayers and we know how great the responsibility is that has been given to you. And we also know how seriously you and your officers take that. What is more we know just how great the challenge is that you face with tight budgets that don’t really balance to meet the needs which are growing in inverse proportion to the money given to you. The first tranche draft budget for next year, released this week, reminds us that your funding from the central government has been cut by 80% over the last 7 years and each year I am amazed that you manage to keep going. It is important to ‘Stand up for Peterborough’ and that means that national party spin needs challenging too. Again I know that message is being taken to central government. It is important to stand up to your national parties too.
That may be leaping straight to ‘courage’, but let’s start with ‘compassion’. I know that you care deeply for the people of this city, for the life and well being of this city. I know this because I speak with you and you tell me this in all sorts of ways. A major issue is homelessness and it is a difficult one to crack. The causes are as complex as people are, and they are as varied as people are. Each homeless person has a story, which doesn’t fit neat boxes, though there are common themes of poverty, being unable to cope, mental illness, substance dependencies, loss of hope, desperation. The list goes on. From the outside it is easy to judge. Sitting alongside we become aware that there is so much more to it, to each person. Which is why I am delighted that our new Mayor has chosen the Light Project as one of his charities, of which I am a trustee – a project working on the street, running the Winter Night Shelter in partnership with local churches and working to provide the longer term mentoring and support that the recent report from the charity ‘Crisis’ highlighted as being so desperately needed. That work needs to find the funds to make a longer term provision a reality. And it is our compassion that will give us the drive to make this happen.
Second comes ‘conviction’. We need to be inspired by a higher ethic than just political survival or naked ambition. I know so many of you have sought office to make a difference. Our readings gave us a clear manifesto that puts justice and mercy at the centre of the stage (Micah 6:8). Justice means that all are honoured, given the dignity that they are due because they are beloved children of God, just like we are. The Psalm told us that it is a vain shadow to just try to heap up riches, that our hope needs to be in God, in that bigger ethic than passing glory, which neither lasts nor is of much value (Psalm 39:7-8). In case we hadn’t caught on yet, the New Testament reading rammed home the message with Jesus’ Nazareth manifesto. What’s he there for: to bring good news to those who don’t hear it much – the poor; to proclaim release to those who are locked up in all sorts of ways that oppress and imprison; to give sight to those who have lost it and set people free (Luke 4:18-19). And to keep this drilling into our brains, the choir sang the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, which turns the world’s priorities upside down from those of the rich and powerful to the poor and weak, those most easily overlooked (Luke 1:46-55). The reason for this again, came in the Nunc Dimittis – to bring light to lighten all peoples (Luke 2:29-32). Evensong seems a cute, gentle service, but it packs a punch.
When we want to know what the first purpose of government is, the Bible is quite clear – it is to ensure justice for everyone. Any talk of defence being the first duty is actually talking about means to achieve an end. The end is justice; the means are multiple. It is all the ways that people feel and see that they are honoured, that access is enabled, that the priorities of the integration agenda being championed are taken forward. Again another example of how I see your compassion being expressed in convictions and policy.
This leads to my third ‘c’, ‘courage’. Not everyone agrees with us all the time. We know that here. We get stick when we show hospitality to people others think we should keep at a distance. We get stick if we speak out on an issue. Anyone who raises their head above the parapet is likely to be on the receiving end of critical comment, sometimes direct abuse. It takes courage to not just say what is popular or do what plays to the gallery. But if what we do is driven by the compassion of justice and mercy, honouring and that bigger perspective, which this beautiful place represents, then it stands on some firm convictions and we need the courage of those.
There is a valid place for lively, questioning debate and alternative policies are rightly put forward. People do and need to have the courage to speak as they see it. That is democracy and it is a treasure to be protected and enlivened. And we all need that humility that will be open to someone else spotting the flaws in our reasoning when they come. After all, the Psalm also reminded us that our days are numbered, we are not permanent, and need the humility that this should bring. Our first reading advised that we walk humbly with God – the God of justice and mercy.
As we begin a new mayoral year, may God bless you all with a spirit of compassion, conviction and courage for the serious and weighty responsibilities we the electorate have given to you on our behalf, on behalf and for the good of all the people of this wonderful and diverse city.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Cathedral for Mayor’s Installation, Sunday 17th June 2018