Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon for the new parliament

Last Tuesday, the Archbishop of Canterbury preached the sermon at the Service for the New Parliament at St Margaret's Church. So I hurried over to read it, to see what he had to say.

As I read, my eyes got bigger and bigger. It all sounded very grand, but I wasn’t always exactly sure what he was trying to say, and I did wish that he could have spoken in ordinary, plain English.

General observations

He took as his text: “Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give God what belongs to God, ” and you will get a good idea of what he was saying (and how he was saying it) from his concluding words: “For a social model more clearly focused on the flourishing of committed and creative citizens, we need a strong ground for the affirmation of fixed and non-negotiable dignity in all human beings. You may or may not as an individual share the perspective of faith; but in the difficult years ahead it will be worth remembering that giving God what belongs to God is something that is not a matter of dry and unwelcome duty but a release of human possibilities that we all need to witness and in some degree share. May this Parliament mark a new level of enthusiasm and imagination around the call to honour God-given dignities by creating strong citizens of our nation and of the world; may the work of our elected leaders be for the sake of gathering and not scattering; and may the divine image in men and women, recognised or unrecognised, be the vision that directs us towards a fresh political energy and moral vision.”

His general theme is clear enough. He was speaking about the importance of dignity. (I know this, because he used the word 19 times in the course of the sermon.) More specifically, he was advocating ‘shared dignity’. (He used this unusual phrase three times.) I think that what he meant was that it was most important that we all valued other people and treated everybody with respect. I don’t imagine that anyone is going to argue with that, because it’s all very vague.

In terms of specific application, what we got was: “a political renewal that looks for a vital, decisive commitment to human dignity and social trust will not get far without a capacity to tune in to the themes of religious practice, the narratives and rhythms of embodied faith, not least, though not exclusively, in the life of the established Church.” In other words “Politicians ought to listen more to what religious people are saying, and in particular, the religious establishment.” To which the obvious response is “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” But the reason is obvious. The Archbishop thinks that religion is being marginalised these days. He spoke about the way our society has been “regarding religious communities with the mixture of patronage and nervousness that has become uncomfortably common of late.”

Political reflections.

Some bits of what he was saying sounded politically interesting. He said “If you are profiting from Caesar's government, don't grumble about paying Caesar's taxes.” And I wanted to say “But what if Caesar is burning your money?”

He said “But never forget that the ultimate point of any human political order is giving God what belongs to God – setting human agents free, acknowledging and reinforcing the dignity in which God has clothed them.” And I wondered if he really meant that the ultimate point of government was to set people free - because I would certainly like to see a government that was dedicated to doing just that.

He said “And of course it is trust that has in the last couple of years been one of the most signal casualties of our national and international politics. It isn't only that people have felt they have not been told the whole truth about some matters; much more importantly, they have felt that those who hold both financial and political power have exercised it for self-interest not for the common interest.”

OK. But those who hold financial and political power always will tend to exercise it for self-interest, rather than for the common interest. That is simply human nature. The solution is that the size and scope of the state power should be strictly limited so that the amount of power that politicians have will be limited. And, for that matter, when the scope of the state grows to the point where government spending accounts for a major proportion of the nation’s economy, the result is that those who have political power also have huge financial power, which is a very worrying concentration of power in a small number of people. The solution, again, is that the scope of the state needs to be curtailed so that government does not control a high proportion of national spending.

And in a most interesting paragraph, the archbishop said “We react against certain kinds of strong government or 'big' government on the grounds that we don't want to be patronised or bullied or stripped of the fruits of our own work.”[And rightly so, Your Grace!] And the mistake is then to hand over all responsibility to non-state agents – which in practice often means non-accountable interests. [Absolutely, Your Grace! The Government shouldn’t hand over its responsibilities to private companies or Quangos or charities. It should hand responsibility back to the people!] Or, on the other hand, we try to make sure that government controls all outcomes and averts all risks by law and regulation. And this produces a culture of obsessional legislation, paralysis of initiative and pervasive anxiety.” [Well said, Your Grace! Libertarians will all say a hearty ‘Amen’ to that.]

Biblical and theological assessment.

The Archbishop, of course, was not giving a political talk, but preaching a sermon. And the way that he got from his text (“Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give God what belongs to God”) to his conclusion struck me as very curious. He began with the words: “Give Caesar what belongs to him, says Jesus. And how do we know what belongs to him? It has his image on it. Then: give God what belongs to God. The implication isn't spelled out, but it's clear enough. What belongs to God can be identified in the same way; it has his image on it.”

Note the words “it’s clear enough”. The Archbishop is, in fact, completely wrong here. It isn’t clear at all. Most Christians, reading about the incident in which Jesus said these words (see Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, and Luke 20:20-26) would not jump to that conclusion. Readers might well ask “What does belong to God?”, but Jesus assumes that his listeners will know the answer to that question - and it has nothing to do with the coin or the image.

And it isn’t just ordinary Christians and other readers who will not think that it is at all clear. Biblical scholars have been reflecting on these words of Jesus for 2,000 years - and very view have taken the view that the implication of Jesus’ words is that what belongs to God is that which bears God’s image. I suspect that none have thought that this implication is “clear enough”.

Craig Evans, in his commentary on Mark (2001) says “The precise meaning of Jesus’ statement is not obvious.” He goes on to say that Justin Martyr (a leader in the Christian Church about 100 years after the time of Christ) “understood Jesus’ pronouncement to mean that tax was to be paid to Caesar, but worship was to be given to God alone, and not Caesar,” and Dr. Evans thinks that Justin is probably correct. Howard Marshall, in his commentary on Luke (1978), writes “There may [note that word!] be the thought that men as bearers of God’s image, should recognise his authority over them,” and tells us that this view is put forward by Günther Bornkamm, in his book Jesus of Nazareth. And R.T. France, commenting on Mark (2002) writes that the pronouncement ‘...and to God what belongs to God’ “is entirely open-ended, and must be filled out by the reader’s understanding of God’s claim on his people,” and in a footnote adds “The thought that as the coin bears Caesar’s image so a person bears God’s image, and that therefore what is owed to God is ourselves, attractive as it may be, is certainly not explicit in the text and is not required to make sense of Jesus’ pronouncement.”

So the Archbishop is wrong in saying that it is clear that what belongs to God is that which has his image on it. In fact, most New Testament scholars would suspect that he is probably wrong in thinking that this is what Jesus had in mind.

From this shaky start, the Archbishop’s methodology does not get better. He goes on to speak of how, according to the Bible, human beings bear the image of God - which is fair enough. The obvious implication, you would think, is that when Jesus says “give God what belongs to God”, he means we should give ourselves to God. But no, that is not where the Archbishop goes. He discourses on the image of God, and tells us that it basically refers to “a particular kind of liberty and dignity,” but he doesn’t tell us where he gets this.

From here, we get another massive logical jump: “So perhaps to give God what belongs to God is to set human beings free to relate to God and to fulfil their calling to be creative in the world.” Perhaps. But it seems very unlikely - to put it mildly. However, it allows the Archbishop to arrive at his desired starting point for his political thoughts: “the ultimate point of any human political order is giving God what belongs to God – setting human agents free, acknowledging and reinforcing the dignity in which God has clothed them.” Even this, however, involves another logical jump: where did he get the idea that “the ultimate point of any human political order is giving God what belongs to God”? He didn’t explain that one either.

And my conclusion? The sermon is an interesting example of how the ecclesiastical establishment in modern Britain attempts to speak to the nation about the issues of the day. I'm not much the wiser about whether the Archbishop has a good grasp of politics, but I think that his grasp of the Bible and of preaching is definitely rather shaky.


Jonathan Hunt said...

He should have preached the gospel, but that would be a stretch because he doesn't believe in it.

Stuart said...


Young Mr. Brown said...

Hello, Jonathan.

I take it that you mean that he should, basically, have done what the apostle Paul did when he came before the Areopagus.

But then the Archbishop is not Paul.

And his situation is not that of Paul. Paul was asked to speak about Christian faith at the Areopagus. And he did what he was asked to do. The Archbishop finds himself in a difficult situation on occasions like this. The occasion is a New Parliament, and he really has to say something about that.

Of course, there are ways and means of getting in what you really want to say. It's an interesting exercise to try to imagine what some of the great preachers of our own day (& the recent past) would have said if they'd been asked to preach the sermon last week!

Young Mr. Brown said...


Thanks very much. I'm honoured.