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Bishop Nicholas at the wreathlaying ceremony
Bishop Attends Tolpuddle Wreathlaying
Bishop Nicholas at the wreathlaying ceremony

Tolpuddle Sermon 2012

by Michael Ford last modified 23 Jul, 2012 04:28 PM

A Service of Thanksgiving at Tolpuddle Methodist Church as part of the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival 2012

Isaiah 55.1-56.1
Luke 4.14-21
“He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk 4.18)

The only place for an Anglican bishop to begin at the commemoration of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is by saying “Sorry”. The story of the Tolpuddle martyrs is one of the shocking stories in the history of Trade Unionism and the British Labour movement. The national Church of England let down the people by siding, as it is so easy to do, with the powerful. 

This terrible incident has become a cause for celebration. The popular uprising and eventual granting of a ‘pardon’ asserted a right and the Establishment gave way. This was an important step in a process that led Karl Marx to write in 1872 to John Malcolm Ludlow, the Parliamentary draftsman of legislation enabling the Co-operative movement, that if change continued in this country in the way it had through the mid-nineteenth century, there would be no need for a revolution in England as had been necessary in other European countries.

Tolpuddle also represented a low point in the relationship between Church and Chapel, between  Methodism and the Established Church of England. No-one now can doubt the Church was wrong. There is a debate about whether the Church is of, with or for the poor but if we are to be like Jesus Christ there has to be an evident commitment to the poor. A reduction of agricultural wages in 1833/4 from 9/- p.w. to 6/- was plain wrong.

Listen to the beginning of the reading from Isaiah 55 again:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
And you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price...

This weekend when we remember the unjust reduction in agricultural wages we are bound to  think about the Dairy farmers being told to take a cut of 2p per litre in the already artificially low price they are paid for milk which sells in supermarkets more cheaply than many a bottle of water. In this period of economic recession low pay is a problem. Youth unemployment has quadrupled over the last 4 years to 460,000. And according to The Office of National Statistics the gap between richest and poorest in our country has grown over the last 30 years, with the top 10% of the population 500 times richer than the bottom 10%. Societies with the greatest gap between richest and poorest are said to be the least happy. Globally this gap is even more shocking with 2 billion people living on less than $2 a day.

It is not ‘political’ to point out the facts. The failure of the Church to do that with the reduction of agricultural wages in the 1830’s is one of the lessons from today. I do not know the answers but am pointing to the problem and the Isaiah agenda fulfilled in Jesus Christ and his reading in the synagogue in Nazareth, points us in a direction. There is a proper debate about whether the Church is of, with or for the poor but that we have a concern for the poor cannot be disputed.

“He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk 4.18).

One of the things that has helped the Church to endure is the Church ‘s ability to change and develop. In the Gospels Jesus gathers a community of disciples they are in some ways an uncomprehending and unpromising lot. They repeatedly don’t see and hear what his is showing and telling them. James and John earn the nickname ‘the sons of thunder’ (and today had they behaved like that they would have been sent on an anger management course). Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied him and at the crucial moment the disciples ran away. In the resurrection Jesus gathers them again, remakes them and sends them out. The only person for whom his failure is terminal is Judas, perhaps because he despaired. Peter is asked three times “Do you love me” and he is the rock on which the Church is built. Forgiveness is at the hear t of the Christian Gospel. It is what the contemporary lay Roman Catholic and gay theologian James Alison calls ‘The Joy of Being Wrong’.

The Church  has a lot of experience of being wrong. Thank God we have eventually had the courage and humility to change our minds. In the early years the hot issues were circumcision and  food laws, the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. In the fourth century the shift was to accepting the restrained use of armed force. Post Reformation there was a major shift by the Protestant churches in the acceptance of usury. It allowed banking to develop, and we are discovering again that banking has to be a service and a public good. 250 years ago the majority view in the Church was that slavery was part of the God-given and Biblical ordering of creation. In our day the role of women has changed and is changing. The acceptance of gay people is a significant evolution. Yet still the Church seeks exemption from equalities legislation on religious grounds. In doing so we seem to the world around us to be less moral and more prejudiced than the society we have done so much to shape.

The Olympic flame has just been through Dorset. The values of the Olympic movement are fine:

  • respect
  • excellence
  • friendship
  • courage
  • determination
  • inspiration
  • equality

Like the values of the New Testament they are the best to which we commonly aspire.

They are the ideals to which people commonly aspire. We are not able to live by them everyday. That’s one reason why in ancient Greece there had to be a truce for 100 days before the Games could take place, so athletes could get ready, travel and compete. We are more sophisticated now. We can hold an Olympic Games whilst wars and conflicts continue.  

Jesus’ summary of the Law to ‘Love God and love your neighbour as yourself’ is what has  made Christianity one of the great moral religions of the world. Its failures are less to do with Christianity having been tried and found wanting but of being tried and found too difficult. The love God shows in Jesus is of sacrificial service, the Master washing his disciples feet and of giving his life for others. This sort of love is costly and it is what makes us human. Love is not a zero sum game. It’s as in the children’s song about a Magic Penny: “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.”

There was some graffiti on the door of a university loo:

To be is to do (Descartes)
To do is to be (Sartre)
Do be do be do (Sinatra)

I am for Sinatra. You can’t separate being and doing, they go together. But there are different accounts in our world of what it is to be human.

In Western Europe we have been very influenced by Descartes: “I think therefore I am”.

There is a consumerist view of the world especially associated with Capitalism. I consume therefore I am. Any of us who has gone for a bit of retail therapy knows this. I shop therefore I am.

In the US the focus is on taking action: “Let’s do it”.

In Africa, Desmond Tutu talks about ‘ubuntu’: a person is a person through a person. “I belong therefore I am”.

That might be quite close to David Cameron’s, “We’re in this together” but the Christian is guided by the love of God and the love of our neighbour as yourself; by the love of justice, mercy and walking humbly with God. This sets a direction to our being together. “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk 4.18)

To God be the glory now and forever.

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