There is something remarkable taking place today, which has almost escaped notice. Not this civic service; that happens every year. Not even that this year our Mayor is a Muslim and taking his seat in a Christian cathedral; we have welcomed and installed Muslim mayors before in this cathedral, though there was a time when this would have been remarkable and so we should use this as an opportunity to note how far we have come. No the remarkable bit is that, as a Christian priest, I have been invited by our Mayor, who is a Muslim, to be his Chaplain for the year. It is worth pausing for a moment to take that in because it is a sign of just how good relationships in this city are across differences and cultures and creeds. We almost take it for granted but given certain elements of the media emphasising division and conflict; this is something to celebrate about this city. It is also a reminder of the role of a national church in holding the common sacred ground, as I do so often at commemorations in the city centre. This is a special vocation and an honour to fulfill.
We have an added layer today, because today is Trinity Sunday. This is no ordinary day in the Christian calendar. It is the day we mark our particular understanding of the nature of God, revealed in the Bible as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is not a doctrine, a belief, shared by any other faith. It is what marks out a distinction between us and brings into the centre of the stage a reminder that there are differences and some of them are profound. Noting and holding these is a sign of maturity in cross-cultural, cross-faith working.
We are no strangers in this cathedral to extending a welcome to people who take a very different view to us about some fundamental issues. A few weeks ago we provided a space for an Iftar breaking of the Muslim fast during their holy month. The food was provided by Muslim friends and they invited people of all faiths and no faith to the party. Hands of friendship and common civility were extended across boundaries and barriers. Friends can share in one another’s company and hospitality, and be able to recognize differences, while also realizing that there is a deep bond that unites and holds them.
Our first reading reminded us that we are not just friends, but siblings. Both of our great faiths trace our spiritual family trees back to Abraham and that Old Testament story expresses the fundamental brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity (Genesis 15:1-6). Anthropologically, go back far enough, and we all come out of the same African ancestors, probably somewhere around modern day Ethiopia (Alice Roberts, Chapter 1). Adam and Eve have more truth in their story than the writers would have any comprehension of when they wrote it so many thousand years ago, though the geography may be a bit awry. All human beings share an ancestry that makes us siblings and cousins.
Go back even further and we find our origins in the same hypothermal vents where the chemical exchanges in the waters brought the spark of life that led to the building blocks of amino acids and the basic elements which in turn led hearts to start to beat. When we say there is more in common than divides us, little do we appreciate sometimes just how deep and foundational that is. We share ancestry in the planes of Africa, chemistry in the deep waters of birth; we are creatures of the same heavenly Father.
It is as we have made sense of life and revelation, experience and spiritual yearnings that our stories have varied. Qur’anic and Biblical meet at points, but there are differences, not least around how we regard Jesus Christ and our doctrine of God. But at the heart of the Trinity is a deep awareness that mystery meets humanity, that the divine beyond comes close to make himself known and call us to live in harmony with how he intends. When we want to know what that looks like our second reading gave us timeless values and virtues (Philippians 4:4-9). Thanksgiving turns to prayer. What is honourable, just, pure, commendable, these are the things to fill our hearts and let them be the gateway to the peace of God being with us.
In this service and in the invitation extended by our Mayor to welcome a Christian Chaplain, and those who will stand in for me while I take a Sabbatical over the summer, in this is a prophetic sign of what our nation needs. There are differences and yet the hands of family ties – spiritual, human and elemental – are extended. Bridges are built and strengthened. This builds on long working and commitment from all sides in this city. This has been recognized by others including national government. We have a wonderful story to tell in this city; a commitment to each other to be proud of.
We have just had a by-election, which followed on the heels of the European Parliamentary election. Living in the city centre and talking with those who have been campaigning from all sides I have seen and heard first hand that there are strongly and passionately held differences about our place in the European Union. For some the failure to leave is a betrayal of monumental proportions. For some others the whole thing is a disaster and a fantasy. Unicorns meet deniers of democracy. The more I have spoken with people the more I have heard that those easy stereotypes are actually more complex. And all of us have to hold on to that fundamental belief that we belong to one another and have to live together. Hands need to extend across divides and we have to find a way forward together, especially if we don’t like the route charted for us. Democracy means there will come a point when we have to accept when informed decisions have been made and also that we listen when there is a significant proportion who disagree with it. That has to be reconciled and just firing insults or attempting to steamroller ahead is a recipe for disaster, whatever side it comes from. We are in the realms of reconciliation in our national life. That will come from listening, from hearing, from honouring and respecting.
Today differences meet, hands have been extended across them and there is a clear willingness to build bridges. At our core we are all brothers and sisters of the same heavenly Father. We belong together and have to work out our future together.
Sermon for Mayor’s Installation, Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 16th June 2019