Pray for all in authority…

1 Timothy 2:1-7 – Pray for all in authority. Christ Church Highbury, September 18th 2016

A couple of months ago, I received an email from my Dad entitled: “Pray for Jeremy”. Before opening it, I pondered who Jeremy might be. Was it a family friend who had been taken ill? Was it a long-forgotten cousin? As it turned out, it was our constituency MP, Jeremy Corbyn. My Dad had known that earlier that day I’d been at a “Love Islington” rally on Highbury Fields, at which both Islington MPs had spoken, alongside religious leaders, council members and other key people who were speaking out against hate crime. He was also referring back to a service he and the rest of my family had attended at Christ Church – my first Eucharist – in which I had prayed for our MP during the intercessions. It had prompted an interesting chat amongst the family later on. Did I ever pray for the Prime Minister? Were there any objections to praying for an MP who is open about not having a faith? What are the boundaries we need to have between church and politics?

Love Islington

That might sound like a rather heavy conversation, but I come from a family that’s always been interested in politics. In fact, had you met me when I was an idealistic 17-year-old, studying politics A-level, I would have told you that my ambition was to become Britain’s second female prime minister! That ship has most definitely sailed…

On the one hand, for me personally, the Christian call to social action is inseparable from political action and awareness. But that doesn’t mean that I would ever dare to tell people how they should be voting from the pulpit. I’m a member of a political party, but I’ve decided that I can’t campaign because that would be a conflict of interest. I try to get along to the Christian network attached to that party when I can, and find that the most helpful way of engaging with politics and knowing what’s going on.

This congregation has a wide range of political views, and I’m not going to assume that I know what any of them are! That’s not the point of this sermon, or of Paul’s words to Timothy. But, what is important, is that we recognise the important role that we as Christians have to play in supporting those in political authority over us.   

Paul’s words to Timothy:

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (Verses 1-2)

These words, written two millennia ago, to Timothy as he led the fledgling church in Ephesus, should resonate strongly with us, in the Britain of 2016. What Paul is trying to emphasise to Timothy and the Ephesians is the role that prayer for the state should have within their Christian discipleship.

The call to pray for those in authority was not a new one. The Jews had been instructed to pray for those in authority over them, and Jesus taught to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). It’s also a theme that Paul repeats in his writing – like the famous passage in his letter to the Romans. 

Romans chapter 13 begins: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Verse 4 continues: “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good…”

Paul is clear that God establishes the political authorities under which they are living. It is part of God’s will for that nation and its society. In encouraging the church to submit, Paul is also helping the church to gain credibility – for example, in paying taxes and being something akin to model citizens.

So in part, Paul’s words to Timothy are to do with ensuring the protection of the church. But the call to prayer goes much deeper than that. What Paul is actually looking for are the best possible conditions in which the Kingdom of God can grow and thrive. That’s what the prayer is about.

Look again at verse 2. “That we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” It’s actually the latter part that is most important. It’s not about peace and quiet, it’s about godliness and holiness.

How we pray:

Thinking about our current political climate, it’s easy to forget the role that God has in it all – especially in Britain. How many times have you yelled at the TV or radio when you’ve heard a politician say something with which you’ve strongly disagreed? How many times have you criticised a party’s policies over drinks with friends? How many times have you bemoaned the state of British politics in the last three months alone?? When was the last time you prayed before you voted?

Every week, our prayers of intercession feature specific prayers for those in political authority. We pray for the Queen; often we pray for Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry; usually the government gets a mention. In the liturgy we use for prayers at the 9am service, this section of the intercessions ends with these words:

“Bless and guide Elizabeth our Queen; give wisdom to all in authority;
and direct this and every nation in the ways of justice and of peace;
that we may honour one another, and seek the common good.”

Usually, and I can’t speak for every single one of you, there is a murmured “Hear our Prayer” or “Amen” from the congregation at the end of this prayer. But how often do any of us really think about what we’re praying for? Are we really only keen on praying for those politicians we support? Do we actually want to pray for a politician that we wouldn’t put a vote in the ballot box for?

We pray for those in authority over us regardless of their own faith or beliefs. We know that Jeremy Corbyn describes himself as an atheist; that Sadiq Khan is Muslim; and that our Prime Minister is the daughter of a priest – but we pray for them all the same, because we believe that it is important. And, most importantly, because God calls us to do so.

What Paul – and I – would encourage, based upon his words to Timothy, is that we cover all in authority with prayer. In doing so, we are asking God to equip them to the best job possible, which is important, given just how challenging governing a country is!

Look at it another way: isn’t it bad enough that the party you support lost, without leaving the government without the support of prayer?

Not always clear where God is politics:

Of course, this is sometimes easier said than done. When political situations are difficult, it can be hard to see exactly where God is at work, or whether our prayers are having any impact at all.

Sometimes it can be hard because more than one political side may be invoking the name of God in support of their policies and ideas. Historically, this was the case in WW1 – not only did both sides believe theirs was a divinely ordained cause, but Christian imagery was a significant component of the mourning of the lives lost during the conflict. In modern politics, this is something that comes across particularly in nations like the US, where capturing the votes of religious communities is particularly important. How does prayer for the authorities work when both sides use the name of God to achieve power?

There are also times when Paul’s words regarding authority in Romans have to be weighed up against the need for the church to be a prophetic voice in society, speaking out against injustice and abuses of power. In the 1930’s, as the Nazis took control of the German government, and turned the national church into a pro-Nazi ‘German Christian’ movement, a group of Christians came together to work out how best to write a response to these developments. In what became known as the Barmen Declaration, written in 1934, theologians and church leaders rejected the false doctrine that they felt had infiltrated the church through the Nazis’ influence. It also underlined: “the inalienable lordship of Jesus Christ by the Spirit and to the external character of church unity which “can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit. Thus alone is the Church renewed”

This document emerged from prayer and conversation. Covering our political leaders doesn’t mean we have to accept their actions unquestioningly. Part of our role as Christians is to pray, listen for God’s response, and determine how best to act. Incidents where the church has stood up against governments acting unjustly – like Nazi Germany, or during the apartheid era in South Africa – are testament to the way in which God moves through the church’s prayers.

Conclusion:

Hopefully the take-home from this sermon is obvious: pray.

But this could be easier said than done! A great piece of advice on how to do this comes from one of the authors of the Barmen Declaration: the theologian Karl Barth.

He once wrote that Christians should: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” We can’t possibly pray adequately for our leaders if we don’t take the time to find out what’s going on.

Keep up to date with the news. Find out who has positions of responsibility in local and national government, so that you can pray for them by name. You could join a political and/or Christian mailing list that keeps you informed of specific issues that might need your prayers – Ekklesia is one organisation that does regular emails highlighting issues relating to faith and politics. Or, you could sign up to one of the politically affiliated groups like Christians on the Left or the Conservative Christian Fellowship.

Before I conclude with a time of prayer, I want to leave you with the words of Paul to Timothy again:

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

A Political Post Mortem

I blame 1997. For those of us whose first experience of political engagement was the biggest landslide victory of post-war Britain, every election following was going to be an anti-climax. It was the last election in which I could not vote, but the first election in which I stuck a Labour poster in my bedroom window. It was the election I was forbidden from staying up for, thanks to pesky GCSE exams. And, it was the election that resulted in a hastily opened bottle of bubbly staining our kitchen ceiling, in the frenzy of celebrating the demise of Michael Portillo in Enfield South. 1997 is legend and few elections will ever live up to it. Far from things can only get better, it was more a case of things can only get worse…

…and worse…

…and worser.

Like many, this election’s unexpected result has depressed me. Expletives were uttered into my pillows as I watched good, committed and hard working politicians fall, one after another. The morning after’s non-alcohol induced hangover featured realisation after realisation of what the world was going to be like FOR ANOTHER FIVE YEARS. The NHS. Welfare. Education. Oh, education! At the end of the next five years, how many of my teaching friends will still be in their jobs? Does Britain really not care about these things??

But, within a couple of hours, I’d decided to take hold of the situation in the only way I know how: getting involved. A week on, and I’m convinced that this is the only way to approach the next five years (and beyond). Don’t sit at home whining on Facebook, do something!!

Rejoining Labour

By lunch time I’d rejoined the Labour Party – something I’m pretty sure I’d meant to do five years ago, but had never quite got around to it. This election was the first in which friends of mine (actual friends, not just random acquaintances) ran for office. Several friends stood for selection; a few made it to parliamentary candidate; and one was elected as a local councillor. These friends are activists, they’ve joined parties, made a commitment and that’s one of the ways in which they engage with the system. It’s a far more positive way to engage than party-bashing on social media! [Other political parties are available, obviously.]

Ed Miliband at Citizens AssemblyEd speaking to the Citizens Assembly.

If you’re not particularly partisan and simply want to act justly, get involved in Citizens UK. My first introduction to their work was at a college seminar last year, but recently I’ve been offered the option of doing their training in ‘organising’ and getting involved in the local network in London. It’s not yet present in every part of the country, but if you don’t have a network near you, perhaps you could help start one? On the Monday before the election, I found myself at their national assembly (thanks to a last minute ticket) and was stunned by the diversity of the 2,000+ gathering. Vicars sat alongside Imams and Rabbis; the rich impact of immigration upon our society was demonstrated; and people seeking to make a real impact upon society. (My friend Alexandra was one of the vicars present and she wrote a brilliant reflection on the event.) The three main party leaders had been invited to speak (although Cameron dropped out at the last minute) and it was a brilliant example of parties engaging with genuine activism.

No Foodbank TodayMy local Foodbank was my polling station – and the election forced the postponement of that week’s session.

Or, if you just want to help on a really basic, local level, find your nearest Foodbank and support them – provide food, volunteer or both! Unfortunately, it looks like they may be even more necessary in future years. A friend of mine was so stirred up that Friday morning that she and some Twitter friends created #FoodbankFriday. Not only are they going to support their local Foodbank every week, they’re going to make a noise about it – so that they can protest about why these services are needed in the first place. A brilliant idea that takes little effort (she’s also committed to using her supermarket loyalty vouchers to buy food too), and can make a big difference in people’s lives. In amongst all the stories of woe I’ve heard and read about in the last five years, it’s the stories of those using Foodbanks that have touched me most. We’re a modern country, people should not be going hungry – end of story.

Finally, if you’re of a churchy persuasion, it could also be worth looking up The Centre for Theology and Community. Their most recent resource is the ‘Seeing Change’ course, which we’ve been using at church over the last few Sundays. [I’ve actually only made one of the sessions, but it was jolly good and this recommendation also acts as a note to self to use it in the future.] A series of four videos and group discussions, it puts some of the big issues of today into a theological context and then encourages people to get involved.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, if you’re upset at the way the election turned out, please don’t just moan about it – do something. Unless you do, there’s no chance of anything changing in the future. Politics isn’t something that happens in a fancy building in Westminster, it’s interactions between human beings on the most basic of levels.

Let me count the ways…

Scotland, I don’t want you to go! I realise that I may not have expressed my love adequately in recent years (you have been unvisited since 2010 and for that I am sorry), but please, could we have a second chance?

How about if I listed all the reasons why I love you? Why I think, in the words of a political slogan writer, that we really are better together? Here goes…

  • We’ve officially been together for over three centuries, but go back even further than that. Three hundred years takes work! Are you really ready to throw that all away??
  • Without you, we’d never have reclaimed the Wimbledon men’s singles crown – and that day was one of the happiest in my entire life.
  • You make life so much more tasty! Where would we be without Tunnocks? [Incidentally, are there any plans to make teacakes as large as the ones featured in the Commonwealth Games? I may be interested…] Without potato cakes and oat biscuits; or porridge; or Dundee cake; or whisky; or, quite frankly, anything baked by the lovely Scottish James Morton.
  • You’re beautiful. Perhaps this isn’t mentioned enough. Ok, I was two when I made my only visit to the Highlands, but I totally intend to return one day and I’m proud to be a citizen of the same country as them. And the islands! And the lochs! And the mountains!
  • You produce great people! Not just the aforementioned wielder of a tennis racquet, but also people who have changed the world. For goodness sake, Scots enabled us to both recover from infection quickly and watch TV and chat to friends far away while doing so!
  • Where would Harry Potter be without you? Harry Potter who???
  • You make the rest of us better. Not just thanks to penicillin, but thanks to all those who have shaped what society and its infrastructure looks like today. What would Britain look like if all the Scots were removed from its history? What does our future hold if you’re absent?
  • You throw cracking New Years Eve parties – and that’s saying something, given my loathing for that particular festival!

There are plenty of other things I haven’t mentioned. Like tartan, because I know how you hate being stereotyped. And deep-fried Mars bars, because everyone makes mistakes at least once in their lives. We’ve had our issues in the past, but could we possibly agree to forgive and move on together?

Please Scotland, give us a second chance!

Highlands 1983Surveying the beauty of the Scottish Highlands, 1983

The quirks of regional programming

[Another brilliant example of my ability to completely forget to publish something, even though it’s finished. Pretend this was published a week ago, it’ll work much better…]

The UK comprises many parts – as we are increasingly aware as September 17th and the Scottish referendum approaches – but it can be the most mundane things that highlight that it is not simply one, monochrome whole. Travel into Wales and immediately road signs are twice the size and only half as comprehensible. Go north of the border or over the Irish Sea and the currency stays the same, but the notes change colour. Even within the entity that is ‘England’, things are different – try buying the humble bread roll in 5 different counties and you’ll probably need 5 different words in order to manage it. [Bap, barm, cobb, bun, muffin…]

As a child, one of the most obvious differences whenever away from home was on the TV. Regional news bulletins involved unfamiliar accents and places I’d never heard of. Holidays in Llandudno provided The Smurfs and Superted in Welsh, which was rather disconcerting to a 6 year old. When we moved to Gloucester, we discovered that our house (thanks to an aerial on a building over the road) was alone amongst our friends in that it picked up BBC South West and HTV as opposed to Midlands Today and Central. [It might not seem like much of difference, but it did mean that we got classic NZ hospital soap Shortland Street, which wasn’t shown on Central – it’s the little things!]

Fast forward to 2004 and my parents’ move to Belfast. Move to another province within the UK and things change considerably. Many Brits of my generation will remember with fondness the Broom Cupboard of CBBC which was the lynch-pin of weekday evening TV. A daily feature, before that day’s Neighbours was shown (an essential part of 1980’s/90’s TV viewing), was the presenter bidding Northern Irish viewers goodbye several minutes before Neighbours started. I didn’t give it much thought at the time (I was more concerned with what Brad had been up to in Erinsbrough), but once subjected to TV in Northern Ireland on a regular basis, I wondered what they were watching when we were indulging in Ozzie high jinks…

[I’ve just Googled it. According to this interview with Andi Peters, they had Neighbours an hour later than us. At 5.30pm they had local news instead. Who knows why!]

BBC1-2012-XMAS-ID-TREE-2-NI-1

There are a lot of differences in the scheduling of TV in Northern Ireland. It becomes a bit of an issue at Christmas, when the rest of the country is watching something significant – one year it was the Gavin & Stacey Christmas Special – and instead, viewers in NI are treated to a local comedy like The Folks on the Hill. (That’s not to say that this satirical cartoon isn’t quality entertainment – it is – it’s just that I’d rather have been watching a keenly awaited show that everyone else was enjoying!) Regularly, Mock the Week is shown over an hour later in the province, a fact that led my mother to inadvertently tweet a celebrity for the first time. [Chris Addison had tweeted something witty about the time of that night’s episode, which I had retweeted. My mother (thinking that the ‘Chris’ in question was my friend Christopher, not an award-winning actor/comedian) tweeted back: “…except in Northern Ireland, when it’s on at 10.40pm – it takes longer for the boat with the tape to get here”.] 

I’ve been over in Belfast for most of the last week and spotted a trailer for some interesting looking drama on BBC1 (it’s got Olivia Colman in it, so it’s got to be good) but noticed that they were being shown at 10.40pm. Lauded new dramas are not broadcast at that time of night – they’re on at 9pm. What was Northern Ireland getting instead? On Monday night, I experienced the schedule shift for myself. While the rest of the country was (potentially) enjoying New Tricks (can’t see the point myself), we settled down to a BBC documentary commemorating the 20th anniversary of the IRA ceasefire.

I was rather surprised that such a programme wasn’t on the national schedule. [You can catch up with it on iPlayer – there’s a dedicated Northern Ireland section there.] When I was growing up, and for decades before that, the Troubles were usually the top item on the news. Living in London, I experienced at first hand some of the effects of the IRA’s actions – feeling the tremors of a controlled explosion of a bomb in John Lewis Oxford St during my first term at secondary school; being prevented from taking my usual route to school because of overnight bombs; the secret service protection of a neighbour who worked in the NI Office; not to mention the shock and horror everyone felt at the atrocities carried out by both sides over the years. Without the ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement and everything else that has paved the road to peace, I wouldn’t now be travelling to Belfast on a semi-regular basis.

The Troubles were not solely a Northern Ireland issue, they were a national issue – an international one in fact. This documentary was an important reminder of how far things have progressed in a comparatively short space of time and thoroughly deserved a national airing. But as I watched, I realised that it was far more detailed than most of the programmes I’ve ever previously seen on the conflict. It was made with those who had lived in and with it year after year after year in mind. For a population where everyone knows someone who has been directly affected by it. Maybe it wouldn’t have made much sense to the typical 9pm BBC1 audience?

As a result, I’ve been somewhat reconciled to the peculiarities of regional scheduling. Clearly, Northern Ireland deserves programmes that cater to their knowledge and experiences, that would probably go over the heads of many people in England, Scotland and Wales. They deserve to watch them at a sensible hour and on a ‘normal’ channel. But, we need to be careful not to exclude the rest of the nation. What happens in one province doesn’t leave the others unaffected. We are – for now – a United Kingdom.

Mandela

Last night, via a Guardian news alert on my locked iPhone screen, I heard the news I knew was coming, but rather hoped might never appear. Nelson Mandela had died aged 95. [Actually, there were two Guardian alerts. The first got his age wrong by a year – classic Grauniad.]

I’d looked at my phone just as I entered my building after an evening out. I let out an audible groan and made my way up the 6 flights of stairs with more speed than usual in order to get the TV on and settle down for some rolling news coverage. I’m not going to lie, there were tears in the offing, which might have fallen, had my flatmate not appeared. Mandela has entered the ultimate freedom and the world mourns its loss.

Later this afternoon, I’ll take a walk to South Africa House to view the tributes. As I stand there, I’ll remember Theo – a South African woman at our church in the 90’s, who voted for the first time in that building in 1994. Previously, she’d watched as her passport was destroyed in front of her in the very same building, at the height of apartheid. I might go as far as Parliament Square to look at the statue of Mandela that stands at the corner nearest Westminster Abbey.

Mandela, Parliament Square

I could write a whole post about what Mandela meant to me, my family, our friends, the world, but I won’t. In fact, I wrote a post about my regret at never seeing him in the flesh over four years ago, so in a rare move, I’ll repeat it here. It deserves it.

*****

Reading an excellent article in the Guardian today, a sobering thought struck me:

It is pretty inevitable that I will now never get to see Nelson Mandela in the flesh.

The article outlined how South Africa have recently done a poll similar to the BBC’s ‘Great Britons’ poll of a few years back. Thing is, with the top 10 announced, the winner is so clear that there will simply be a contest as to what order the other 9 will be in. As the article states: “Mandela is that rare thing: a man turned into statues in his own lifetime”.

Mandela is most definitely the living person I most admire. I can’t actually remember a time when his name was not in my brain. I grew up against a backdrop of parents passionately involved in the anti-apartheid struggle (even if the first I understood of this was why we didn’t buy Shell petrol or Cape apples). Watching Cry Freedom, probably aged no more than 10 (I blame the babysitters) had a profound affect on me. Aged 9, with a bad dose of the flu, I lay on a chaise lounge at a friend’s house, watching Mandela being driven into freedom.

He’s my mother’s ‘memorable figure in history’ for her bank security questions. (She should worry about how much info I have on her banking – pin number, special date, maiden name…) The sharing of this fact at a social function resulted in an awkward conversation. Someone present insisted that Mandela was a no good terrorist – I believe the phrase “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” was used. It went down like a lead balloon.

The thing that bugs me is that I’ve had missed opportunities to see this man in person. Whilst at university, he gave a lecture at my campus – but in the holidays when no students were around (or even informed). When he launched the Make Poverty History campaign from Trafalgar Square I was stuck at my desk in the first week of a brand new job. My last opportunity – his birthday concert this time last year – was a missed one.

In four days time he will turn 91. His health is failing and he rarely travels, let alone leaves South Africa.

There are plenty of people I’d like to meet one day, from George Clooney (on a shallow level) to Judi Dench or even Obama (I have met Clinton – of the Bill variety – that was exciting), but Mandelas come along once in a blue moon. In fact, less than that. His life brought hope to so many and changed a country some though unchangeable (no matter what has happened since).

I just hope that when the sad day comes and he is no longer with us, he doesn’t do a Mother Theresa and become overshadowed by the death of someone much less worthy.

*****

I am thankful that that last line wasn’t a piece of terrible foreboding. In April, I genuinely feared that Mandela’s death might be overshadowed by Thatcher’s. I was perpetually concerned that a royal death might do it. But now that it has happened, there is suitable space for mourning, reflection and memories. I’m hoping that this will be an excellent opportunity for the generation born since his release from prison to understand more of just how important he was. How many in the 1980’s believed apartheid might never end, yet by 1994 a former prisoner was president.

Last night, someone observed that December 5th in the Church of England calendar has no saints day and perhaps Mandela would be a suitable addition. I’d be on board with that.

May the memory of Mandela never be allowed to die.