Yesterday our church calendar remembered Alfred the Great, King of the West Saxons in the ninth century. There is so much more to Alfred and his dynasty than burning cakes and raids on Danish occupying forces from the marshes. Alfred was a scholar, deeply rooted and grounded in the Christian faith and the scriptures. He was devout and believed in education. The foundation of this schooling was the liberal arts: grammar, logic and rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy. These formed the fundamentals of what someone needed to know for moral thinking and growing in wisdom. They are concerned with training in robust thinking, forming an argument and persuasion, understanding the workings of the world, our place in the universe and the arts to lift the spirit in praise. This is a high culture, one to build a nation and train leaders. Alfred was much more than a warrior leader set on the liberation of the Saxon lands. He had vision and had worked out what a settled, harmonious people needed to flourish and secure that kingdom.
Alfred also set about making sure that his reconquest of the land from the Danes settled. He set about an ambitious plan to establish a series of fortified Burghs and Boroughs as a defensive system and focus for the civic life. Many of our great towns, including our own, were established or re-established at this time. It was as part of this programme that Peterborough, or Medehampstead, was re-established by monks sent by the Bishop of Winchester, then the capital of Wessex. A century earlier this place was completely wiped out by the Danish invaders and lay fallow and empty for the next 90 years. It is located on the edge of the higher ground and the gateway to the fens, so a key place to become a strategic settlement.
What is notable is that it is not just fortresses that Alfred established, but he set at their heart religious houses, founded on Christian faith with schools to teach the liberal arts. He set his nation-building on the Christian faith, on the scriptures, and so rooted it in a vision of life, of hope, of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ. This was the foundation of his own life and was to be the foundation of the national life. There was moral and spiritual purpose at the core of his nation-building.
We find ourselves today at a crossroads in our national life. Whatever the decision finally becomes over exiting the European Union – be it the deal on the table, with all its questions and uncertainties, or the decision being passed back to the people to make, or abandoning this process through revoking Article 50, which may be one of the options – whatever that becomes we are re-shaping our nation for the future. The deeper question, the more important question I would argue, is what is going to inspire that. The implications are far reaching and we need to be clear who we are to assess how those decisions are affected by treaties with other nations and global economic factors.
Depending on how you view what is happening, the Welfare State is being either dismantled or reshaped. The result of years of austerity is that there isn’t the funding for what we have become used to. Whether there should be is the fundamental question and the big political debate – how big or how little the state should be, and how much should be provided by central taxation and how much left to local generosity. The budget consultation, launched by our City Council on Friday, gives a rebranding of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ – remember that. It is now being called ‘Think Communities’ and the aim is for provision to rest much more on local resources and philanthropy. Foodbanks are well and truly established as part of this provision. Garden House, the go-to place for the homeless, while it receives some funding from the Council and has five housing officers and outreach workers embedded in it, is largely funded by private donations and other sponsorship. Without the churches it would not be. There are big questions here about what shape the Welfare State should take going forward and how that can be sustained. We have come a long way since William Temple and the other architects of it in the 1940s.
Today’s readings are those set for Bible Sunday. The Epistle (Romans 15:1-6) places the scriptures as being ‘written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and encouragement, we might have hope and grace to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus’ (vv4-6). Then in the Gospel reading (Luke 4:16-24), Jesus gives his Nazareth manifesto where good news is announced to the poor, release for captives, the oppressed go free, and he proclaims a year of the Lord’s favour. This is the liberating challenge of justice and righteousness, of mutual responsibility for one another and to ensure that society is governed and shaped for the good of all. It is a social challenge and provides the ‘instruction and encouragement to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus’. It is the kind of foundation that Alfred sought to build his nation on and, by example, so should we.
Looking around the city centre, I think we are seeing the signs of social disintegration with the homelessness crisis and antisocial behaviour. They are linked and we will not tackle the symptoms we see on the streets until we tackle what kind of nation we want to be and how we are at the moment might be contributing to this. The benefits system is in a mess and there are people who have fallen so far through the gaps that they have landed in a very deep place. The light of hope can reach them, but it takes long hard work to do so. There are many stories of how this is happening coming out of Garden House, how lives are transformed, but they also tell just the slow and difficult journey involved when the fall has been so far and deep.
Private philanthropy and encouraging communities to take up responsibility for their neighbours calls on us all to not just be consumers but participants of a caring and more cohesive society. But it can also be a smokescreen for governments failing to take care of their people, to insist that a just level of taxation is collected and to leave selfishness unchallenged, even colluded with. The exposure which came through the Panama papers of tax havens providing shelter to hide wealth and avoid shouldering a fair contribution to the common purse shows just how real that danger is. So when I hear that ‘Big Society’ has been rebranded as ‘Think Communities’ I am somewhat cautious of it, even sceptical that it is just another way to hide taxes being lower than they need to be so that rich voters and backers can keep their money for themselves. I make no apology for believing in taxation – it is our contribution to civil society and each of us should pay according to our means.
Chances are we will have an election in the coming months. This will be a moment to decide what kind of country, indeed united kingdom of countries, we want to be. What are the principles and values, the goals and aspirations we want to live by? Will we be a place that announces good news to the poor, sets the oppressed free and proclaims the Lord’s favour? We know that some challenges are international in their scope and so how we relate with other nations will be critical. The death of 39 migrants in a lorry in Essex this week is uncovering a very dark network of trafficking. Families in debt-bondage sending one of their number to find new opportunities to be able to send money back to pay off loans to unscrupulous people, finding that those young people are exploited in the most dehumanizing ways, reveals organized crime on an international scale. This is way beyond closing borders. It shows that some of the problems we face are not limited by international borders and require serious cooperation across continents.
Alfred the Great’s genius was not just in military prowess, though that enabled the peace and security for everything else to be established. It lay in his rooting of his vision in his faith, in his outlook and his learning. It meant that he established a culture and network where his vision based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be advanced and sustained. Today’s readings call for nation-building that is just, that is compassionate, that ensures the wellbeing of all people.
Sermon for Bible Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 27th October 2019