The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, preached at the Service for the New Parliament, St Margaret's Church, Westminster Abbey, London, 9 June 2015.
To read what he said in its entirety, please go here. An extract is published below.
There are many different emotions here today. That is why the readings today have deliberately been chosen to pick up two moments in the Bible that have much emotion attached.
The reading from Jeremiah speaks of the consequences of God’s judgement – and the reading from John’s Gospel of what it means in practice to be a community of values with a moral vision.
Jeremiah was a prophet of the sixth century BC in the kingdom of Judah. Judah had survived for half a millennium, more or less. But in the end, a combination of political miscalculation and other factors meant that the kingdom was overrun, and after a long and horrific siege (if you want to see what it feels like read Jeremiah’s Lamentations) the city fell. In two great waves the leaders of the nation – those who had survived – were taken on a death march to Babylon.
Jeremiah had prophesied the defeat because the nation had fallen away from God’s standards. Once the exiles were in Babylon they wrote to Jeremiah, asking what they should do now. One of the key parts of his answer is in that first reading.
The essence of those verses, and those around them, is writing to the exiles at this moment of the deepest possible blackest despair that we can imagine. His answer was this: you’re going to be there a very long time (that’s bad news), settle down and bless the community in which you live. (‘But these are the people who massacred us,’ you can hear them think.) The circumstances in which you find yourselves are not a cause for despair, but for reflection on the past and a renewal of confidence in the God who is greater than all of history.
And in fact, in due course, virtually uniquely among the people of that area they were brought back from exile.
The people of Judah suffered the consequences of their turning away from God to other gods, of seeking to find alternative values not based in truth – the absolute truth of the revealed God – but in what was convenient and easy.
Their society had been corrupted by materialism as the ultimate aim of existence, and by injustice and neglect for the poor.
Let me be absolutely clear. I am not hinting or suggesting in any way at all that anyone here is guilty of such things. One of the privileges of my role is getting to know so many people in politics, and the more I do the clearer it is that almost everyone I meet seeks to do what is right, to make just decisions, and to serve their country with integrity. Views to the contrary are mere descents into cynicism.
Yet the best intentions can lead to the wrong conclusions. First, Jeremiah says, we reap the consequences of our actions – and thus those actions must be based in a moral vision and in an ideal that is founded on eternal values that do not change.
Throughout the Old Testament, time after time after time, from Genesis to Malachi, these values include justice for the poor, reaching out to the stranger, integrity without partiality in government, and a dedication to the flourishing of the whole community.
Secondly, God is also saying through Jeremiah that even when things go wrong, which in all societies they will from time to time because we are all human (and let me say the Church of England is not one to lecture others on how to be perfect), God is greater than our greatest failures.
We have to seek to do right, but we can trust in the providence and salvation of God for the future. That is the promise made to the people of Judah, and thus they were to settle down amongst their enemies; to make the best of their situation, to bless the communities in which they lived, and look to the moment of their redemption.
There is no coded political message in this, but there is a very un-coded theological one: God can be trusted, but we must do our part. And I know that is the belief and desire of the vast majority here today.
So pragmatism does not really work. Yet all politics is in the end about delivery, not merely policy. Stating policies is the easy bit; making them happen is the deepest of skills.
Pragmatism in the sense of short cuts to avoid difficulty is not a good solution. It had taken Judah to defeat and exile. But pragmatism in the sense of being practical and down to earth – of making sure that delivery happens – is essential.
In the reading from John 13 we see the greatest moment of holy pragmatism in history. The Son of God Himself, Jesus – knowing confidently who He is, what He is intended for, and that God can be trusted – sets aside His pride and washes the feet of His disciples.
The truest leadership is about service. And note that He even washes the feet of Judas Iscariot, knowing as He does that this is the man who will betray Him to torture and agony within twenty-four hours.
This truly is holy pragmatism. It is the pragmatism of love without limit, of unconditional love that reaches with generous, almost absurd grace to every person.
Such pragmatism costs more than we can imagine and gains more than we can believe. And yet it is the pragmatism to which we are all called, as human beings, but especially those of you here, as national leaders.
So we have two moments: in the first of them a nation in despair is told that God can be counted on despite all their failures. The failures matter. Actions have consequences. But they are never the end of the story: God is.