This has been an historic week in this city. On Wednesday Fiona Onasanya had the dubious honour of becoming the first MP to be removed from office by a recall petition. This followed her conviction for perverting the course of justice and for an MP, whose job is to make law that made her position untenable. Truth matters and that such a large number of people signed the petition, 27% of the electorate, implies that people want MPs they can trust and respect. With all of the cynicism around about politics it is strangely encouraging that the expectations remain high, and by and large MPs are decent people. No doubt there was political opportunism going on too, but the conversations I’ve had showed just how disappointed people were in her actions.
We now face a by-election. And there is a great danger that we become a playground for national politicking and for others who are not really interested in this community and its challenges. Our politics is volatile and deeply divided. And our nation needs leadership which recognizes this. It is clear that Parliament does not have a consensus about how to go forward at the moment. And if anything shows the lie to the phrase ‘the people have decided’ it is this deadlock. When you have a vote that is so close – 48% to 52%, which ever way round it fell, as we did three years ago – we have to ask how we go forward when so many don’t share the commitment to the direction. It is not a good basis for a major constitutional change or indeed any change. But then again it also shows that the status quo is not stable either. The job of political leadership in this situation is not to tell half the population that they have to be quiet because that will not work and is not working. Ridiculous phrases like “Brexit means Brexit” are seriously misguided.
We actually have a very long history of handling division and disagreements in the Christian Church. From its foundations it has been set in a context of deep disagreement. Throughout its history there have been deep tensions over conflicting convictions and visions that have needed to be navigated, not least during the Reformation, and the best leaders have been those who have been able to find a course through these, to shine light rather than just create more heat. We face them today over sexuality, what form evangelism should take, how we read the Bible, and on Friday another erupted over pacifism, Just War theory and the place of nuclear weapons. There was a service in Westminster Abbey to mark the dedication of navy personnel in peacekeeping for the last 50 years, but the contentious part was it also marking the ‘continuous at sea deterrent’, which is code of Trident and nuclear capability. Placing these in the same sentence as peacekeeping pressed buttons in quite a number of people who just saw it as grotesque. There were others who took another view that these weapons exist and we have to learn to live with them, even if we don’t like them.
Our readings this morning contain a thread that places before us the call to build bridges and find ways through, to give people another chance. Saul breathes threats of murder against the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1-20). On his way, on the road to Damascus, he has a profound religious experience, one that changes him, quite dramatically. He has to find that there is another option. His is not exactly a live and let live conversion, he goes from persecutor to champion passionately advocating the position he had opposed, but it is one that aims to keep doors open. He goes into synagogues to persuade, to convince. He argues and tries to expand horizons. We see both his openness to finding a way to include rather than to write-off and the way he is embraced by Ananias who, though wary of a renowned passionate persecutor, is prepared to risk giving him a chance. Both find they are called out of their trenches and both are surprised.
In the Gospel reading we are presented with the risen Jesus meeting the disciples on the beach, with a barbecue breakfast prepared. Towards the end of this Peter is forgiven and restored (John 21:1-19). Having denied Jesus three times outside in the courtyard as he faced trial inside, on the night before Jesus was crucified, so three times Peter is asked if he loves Jesus and will therefore take up the task of shepherding the people. It is a moment of restitution, of being re-admitted as a disciple, as an apostle. Peter is commissioned with a clear message that is the key to life, so no mere optional extra. In being given this, it is the openness to restore, to embrace and bring on board which is pertinent to us right now. We can see in these passages an approach which can helps us as we struggle with deep divisions.
Whatever view we personally take on Brexit, there really has to be a decision to either stay inside the European Union or leave it. We can’t do both, even if there are halfway houses of whatever deal there may be, we are either voting members at the table or in some other kind of relationship where we are not at that decision making table. And what is also clear is we cannot just think that those we disagree with most here on the central point – in or out – can be brushed aside and shouted down. That is a recipe for deep conflict; it’s the kind of mindset that leads to civil wars because it has stopped seeing the other as being one of us, so they can be disposed of. We have to live together and we belong together, so we have to find a way through this. My disappointment is that there has been precious little attempt at the level of leadership over the last few years to recognize that these differences are real and need addressing. If they are not addressed, they will not go away not least because we have a generation coming through who by and large have a different vision of the future to the older generation. They are angry and they are seeing that they have real power if they chose to take it – they are seeing this on environmental matters and those are transferable skills.
So we need political leadership which will look to bring these deeply divided positions to hear one another and find a way forward together. I have no doubt that Brexit will be a major issue in the by-election here. We have a chance to say to the country we want an MP who will not just be partisan over this, but will recognize and honour those who profoundly disagree with them on the central issue. How will they aim to carry them with them, to build bridges rather than be divisive and potentially inflammatory?
To my mind the Brexit vote was reckless in 2016 – ill prepared, ill thought through, with no consideration of ‘what if’. It was more about party politics than a real decision being made. The time since has been squandered in shouting from trenches. As it stands this mess is irreconcilable and that is not a pleasant place to be, certainly not one we can be in any sense content with. The leadership we need is one which can be grown up and face this, to bring it together, not drive it apart. I’m not convinced this can be done without pressing pause on Brexit; an intentional pause to give time to find a consensus, not just aimless, floundering delay after delay, that serves to do nothing but wind everyone up. I am still waiting to hear a politician who has the statesmanship to hold this. This is a time that needs political giants to emerge. And the by-election is a chance to call for them.
So on this third Sunday of Easter, as we think of new life, of new hope where there was hatred, division, despair and deep guilt, the risen Christ opens up fresh possibilities. Hope is restored. In our political turmoil in this city, in the nation and the deadlock that is Brexit a new approach is needed, one which is concerned to find a common ground rather than the perpetuation of division and conflict. That will require space to be given for new life to be breathed into our political discourse. Then we may well find ourselves surprised by the new hope that emerges, as Saul was on the road to Damascus and Peter found in the forgiveness, restoration and new commissioning on the beach.
Sermon for Easter 3, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 5th May 2019