Sermon preached at the United Guilds Service (16 March 2018) by the Rt Revd Martin Seeley Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich
At the annual United Guilds Service, Bishop Martin Seeley reflects on charity and the way in which it enables neighbours to become friends.
St Edmundsbury and Ipswich is Church of England-speak for Suffolk, the home county of the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress. The name of the diocese means I have the longest episcopal signature in the land, which given the gallons of ink it means I use, will please the Stationers.
I’m quite new to Suffolk, but a dozen years ago I finished an extraordinary ten-year stint as vicar of the Isle of Dogs. It was a time of immense challenge and immense joy. The community when I arrived had just experienced the IRA bomb that destroyed parts of South Quay and a couple of years earlier the community had elected the first BNP local councillor in the country.
It was a community whose recent history since the Second World War meant it felt it had been “done to” and certainly not listened to, a sense compounded as incomers moved in working in the City and, as the then new Canary Wharf became established, working there.
The church on the Isle of Dogs, as you would expect, was and had been deeply immersed in the life of the community, with a particular long-standing focus on working with young people in the community through a brilliant open youth club and then a youth employment project, helping hundreds of youngsters build confidence and skills to go for jobs in the rapidly changing local job market. And we built strong relationships with the local Bangladeshi community, and the church hall became their worship space for Friday prayers and Ramadan.
Every now and then I would wonder what we were about. Whether we call it this or not, we all operate with an idea of heaven in our minds. What does good look like, what would a good world be like? And then, how are we working for that? So in the church on the Isle of Dogs, I would wonder, what is the key to all we are doing that expresses our idea of heaven? A few years in, I learned that what we were about was enabling unlikely friendships to happen. Helping turn strangers, estranged by social grouping, economics, history, circumstance, education, turning strangers into neighbours, and then neighbours into friends. The church was one of the few places where locals and incomers met for a shared purpose, and out of that came deep friendships, which were not about one group helping the other, but about mutual valuing, care and support.
Neighbours became friends. A glimpse of heaven.
This dynamic within the church was lived out by church members in the wider community, helping neighbours become friends, building a new community of locals and incomers, helping build trust through learning to listen to each other.
Just over two years ago through the mysterious ways of God this city lad was moved to Suffolk, a rural picture post card county about which I knew very little, despite having lived next door in Cambridgeshire for a decade. Suffolk likes to keep a low profile, but it is not just its profile that remains hidden. What I didn’t know about were the hidden needs of the people of the county, the rising levels of deprivation, of hidden poverty, of low educational attainment – hidden behind the pretty village scenes.
One of the greatest challenges, as in other rural settings, is loneliness and isolation, people living alone with no regular direct human contact. So there are a host of local projects across the county to help bring people together. Projects like the remarkable Rural Coffee Caravan – literally a caravan that is located in a different village for an afternoon, for people to come for tea, a chat and a range of practical help and advice – are making a big difference. People living alone, living in isolation, meet together with neighbours in their village.
Neighbours become friends. A glimpse of heaven.
And when we turn to the county town of Ipswich, where I live, we find Ipswich ranked in the bottom ten of all local authority districts nationally on a scale to measure educational performance for young people and the capacity to improve, a measure of social mobility.
The government has given a significant amount of money for a programme to improve social mobility and the programme is led by Richard Lister, the dynamic and focussed vice-chancellor of the new University of Suffolk based in Ipswich. Richard knows full well that success will not be about the money or the programme – or not about the money and the programme on their own. What will make a difference, a real difference, is how he and his colleagues go about their task. At the heart of the “how” will be listening and actively engaging young people in this project. Relationships of trust and value are the key to its success, so that the distinction between those who are leading and those who are benefiting becomes blurred and a new community emerges where all are changed.
Neighbours become friends. A glimpse of heaven.
We heard in that great passage from deep within the usually skated-over book Leviticus instructions on being responsive to the needs of the poor and the alien, and your neighbour. We heard about being just towards your neighbour. And then right at the end, we heard familiar words, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
These words buried deep in Leviticus Jesus reached in and lifted out for all to see when he summed up what we should be about in the two great commandments – love God, and love your neighbour as yourself. And of course, when we think about it, when we love our neighbour as ourselves they are no longer just our neighbour, they become our friend.
Jesus underlines this further in the reading from John that the Lord Mayor read – those who had been receiving so much from him, his disciples who had been travelling with him day after day, whom he calls servants, he turns to and, remarkably, declares, “You are my friends.” This is God’s direction of travel for us – that our relationships of care, help, and charity turn into friendship and a glimpse of heaven.
The Livery Companies of this great City of London are committed through their immense charitable works to the care of our neighbours. We prayed earlier for our neighbours, the poor and dispossessed, the lonely and unloved, those whose lives are blighted by illness, fear or oppression, and those with outward success but inner emptiness. Human need in many guises.
We know that the true transformation towards our idea of heaven, that we are praying for and as Livery Companies are working for, is not simple, there is no easy fix, and money and programmes are part, but only part of the complex solution. Relationships are a vital part, relationships of listening, and building trust. When that happens, in our works of charity, neighbours don’t remain distant neighbours – we know that does not work. The change we all long for in our world requires neighbours to become friends. So the distance between donor and recipient, between giver and beneficiary, between agency and need is shortened, shortened to the point that hearts meet and friendships are forged.
We all know from our charitable work how important this is, and what a difference the quality of relationship makes – we are not engaged in a remote, arms-length process but a deeply intimate, deeply listening one between human beings, where the distinction between giver and recipient becomes very blurred, and all are changed because of that.
We all know that experience, of spending time with someone we thought we were helping and coming away feeling we have received far more than we have given. We get back more than we put in, and it catches us unawares, and we are changed. The distinction between donor and recipient blurs, and friendships grow, because we are all in need and we all have something to give. That is charity, which means love, after all, where neighbours become friends, a glimpse of heaven.
The great charitable work of the Livery Companies is great because you attend to the “how” and the “why”, and not just the “what” of charity. The “how” by not working at arm’s length with those you are engaged with, but closely and involved, listening and being listened to, in relationships between friends, not strangers.
The “why” because somewhere in our hearts and minds we have an idea of heaven, of the good, of a good world, where there is no “them” and “us”, but “we” together, working together for the good, and finding that in our working together we are working with God, who turns to us and says, “You are my friends.”