Sermon preached by The Most Revd Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the service of rededication to the Church Urban Fund (18 June 2012)
This may possibly be the shortest text for a sermon that you will hear for some time. It is the word ‘see’ -
the first word of our first lesson.
I believe that what the Church Urban Fund has done in the quarter century of its existence is to encourage us to see what otherwise we might not have seen. And in the years that lie ahead, in the new phase of its work, our prayer today must be that it will continue to open our eyes.
It has helped us to see in a number of very different senses. Perhaps the first and the most obvious is that it has helped us to see what most of our society would prefer not to see – that is, the reality of powerlessness or deprivation. It has helped us to see what so many things in our society encourage us to ignore, and one of the sharpest and most necessary questions that can ever be asked in any society is: what are we being encouraged to ignore? Whose are the bodies we are being encouraged to step over, pretending not to notice? For the last 25 years we have not been allowed to get away with ignoring the realities of challenge and powerlessness and deprivation. And part of the vocation of the Church Urban Fund is constantly and deliberately to be on the lookout for what it is that, today and tomorrow, we are being subtly or not so subtly encouraged to ignore. What are the invisible varieties of privation that are now before us? We prayed a few moments ago that we might be helped to watch out for those who feel invisible. That is what we pray for the Church Urban Fund in its new work, in its new partnerships – that they will indeed watch for those who feel invisible, and remind the rest of us of how very easily we are encouraged and manipulated to look elsewhere when need and pain and humiliation are in front of us.
But there is another and a more positive side to that ‘seeing’. There is, after all, plenty in our culture, and often quite a bit in our church, that encourages us not to see what the church itself is doing. I believe we also owe a great debt of gratitude to the Church Urban Fund for helping us in the church and society at large see what is in fact happening. It is sometimes said that, as a church, we sell ourselves short. We certainly have an almost supernatural gift, as the Church of England, for presenting ourselves in the worst possible light in the public eye. The Church Urban Fund is a reminder that we don’t have to do that, and that sometimes, against all probability, we are capable of witnessing to the Kingdom of God, to His justice and His peace. We are capable as a church, and we need as a church to see who we are and what we can do. It is just as significant a part of the gift of the Church Urban Fund to the whole of our life as a church that we are reminded of who we really are, and what in God’s strength and God’s love we can, and do, actually achieve.
One of the great challenges of the last nine months or so has been to try and get hold of what the church was actually doing last summer at the time of the riots, and hold it up before a public which is largely ignorant of this. But that is only one of many, many examples. We need to know, and our society needs to know, that there is good news about what the love of believers can achieve – that generous love which is not afraid of partnership with those who don’t always share our belief, but which always knows that nothing would be possible without the overwhelming generosity which has brought us where we are and gifted us with what we have been given: the love of our maker and redeemer.
See – see where the need is, see what is being done. But, also, see what it is we are complicit in, see some of the ways in which our habitual ignorance or laziness or selfishness feeds into a world system in which the vulnerable get more vulnerable and the poor get poorer. That kind of seeing is what leads us to true self‑knowledge – the self‑knowledge of repentance. That, too, is a crucial element in the calling of the Church Urban Fund within our fellowship. The Church Urban Fund is there to call us all to judgment, not in a glib, finger‑wagging sort of way, but steadily, patiently and relentlessly showing us how we are bound into systems of injustice, how we are forgetful of the needs that God has laid before us, how readily, as I said earlier, we let ourselves be encouraged not to see.
‘See yourself,’ says the gospel to us always. See how you have lost vision, how you have lost love, and how it has grown cold. See with honesty, and then allow the grace, the overwhelming revolutionary love of God, to turn you around and make new beginnings – and then, perhaps, you will see also what it is that you are really capable of. Because, by God’s mercy, when we are enabled to see ourselves truthfully, we see not only our sins and our failures, we see the image of God in ourselves – the capacity to let love come alive in us. We begin to imagine the unimaginable, to think the unthinkable, to change the world, to bring justice where there was none.
And how very striking it is that in our both our readings today we heard about peace as the fruit of justice, the effect of righteousness. ‘Justice will be peace,’ says Isaiah. ‘A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace,’ says James. And our failure to see, which leads to our failures in justice, is always going to leave us with conflict and bitterness. Because only when justice happens – that is, when everyone is seen clearly and lovingly, and knows that they are seen clearly and lovingly – only then can true peace prevail.
But that leads us on to the last dimension of the ‘seeing’ that we are encouraged to think about. We prayed just a few minutes ago ‘Help us, Lord, to be like your son Jesus: to see as he sees’. Yes, we may see the problems and challenges before us. We may see our capacity and our incapacity. But most fundamentally of all, we need to see with the eyes of Christ – that is, to see the heartbreakingly infinite value of all those God has given us around us, to see why deprivation, humiliation and suffering matter. Because if we see the image of God in ourselves, we are given the freedom to see it in one another – and when we see it in one another, we see why such suffering is an outrage. To see as he sees, to see with passion and compassion, to see with hope, to see with an eye to a future that is currently being denied, to see what might be when love and grace are set free. All those kinds of seeing are what, in these years, the Church Urban Fund has helped us with.
And when we think about a future of sustainable long term partnership with congregations up and down the country, we are looking towards a discipline of seeing, hoping that those most deeply involved in the management of the Church Urban Fund and its implementation will hold us all to account, will give us exercises to keep our eyes open, will rub our noses in the realities we’d rather not see or have got used not to seeing.
A church that is alive and healthy is a church with its eyes open, open to all those things that we've been thinking about – open to the depth and seriousness of pain around; open to the capacity within; open to the glory that Christ sees; open to the sad failure of our efforts to respond adequately to that glory.
Together, we have said, we can do all sorts of things – but above all, together we can see. In the name of Christ who opened the eyes of those who could not see, the Christ who pressed his clay-smeared thumbs into the eyes of the blind man and sent him to the Pool of Siloam, in the name of Christ who gives the Holy Spirit to open our eyes – yes, together we can and please God we shall see.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.