Working for a Better World

Justin, Archbishop of Canterbury: Creating the Common Good

Jeremiah 29:4-7, Luke 4:17-21

Between 2007 and 2011 I was Dean of Liverpool. In Church of England terms that means I was responsible for the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool, with the cathedral one of the biggest in the world, and was a senior member of the Diocese of Liverpool.

Those four years, far too short in any job, were some of the happiest of my ministry. I relished the extraordinary privilege of living in one of the world’s greatest cities. Liverpool is a place of sharp wit and quick humour, built on the proceeds of the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, and for many years, the second or third largest port on earth. In the post-Second World War period it  fell into decline, and by the 1980s had become a sad place in many ways. But with the innate life and optimism of the scousers (as they are called, the people of Liverpool) is bouncing back.  

It is still, however, one of the poorer cities in north-west Europe and the poorest in the UK. The Cathedral sits on a hill on the edge of one of the poorest parts of the city. Around it are many beautiful 18th and 19th century buildings, but also street after street where the windows are covered in corrugated iron and the roads are bereft of people. One of its great bishops in the 1970s, 80s and 90s was Bishop David Sheppard. He was bishop for over 20 years, and died a couple of years after his retirement. While I was there we commissioned and installed a memorial to him, a beautiful piece of carving inscribing the words of Jeremiah 29:7 “Seek the welfare of the city …”. Those words that we’ve just heard, and words that are part of the theme of these days together.  

David Sheppard, in his years in Liverpool, worked hand-in-glove with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock (a third of all Catholics in England are in the province of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool) , and between them they transformed the attitude of the city. When they both arrived, within a few months of each other, they found a city that was still sectarian: it had both the largest Orange Lodge, the Protestant community, outside Ireland, and also the largest branch of Sinn Fein, the nationalist political wing of the then IRA outside of IReland. It was a place of riots. John Lennon sung Imagine - “Imagine there is no heaven” - was written after watching the inter-sectarian fighting in Liverpool. Yet Sheppard and Worlock lived together  in harmony, met and prayed together, and set an example which transformed the life of that city and transformed the attitudes of Britain to sectarian difference. In the 1980s there were great riots, the worst riots that Britain has seen until 2011. They tackled with prophetic and powerful words the appalling poverty into which the city had sunk, and they never let up in their work for the common good.

That, as we know, is the theme of this conference, and I want to to explore very briefly some of its more awkward theological angles, to set some context for the next few days.

First of all, to use the old phrase of liberation theology, is God’s bias to the poor.   It is very clear in the New Testament reading that we’ve just heard read. We often hear it in our culture as a rather agreeable and heart-warming little ditty about good news for the poor. In the exceptionally hierarchical and deeply unequal society of the time of Jesus it was provocative in the extreme. He had taken the passage, and claimed that in him alone was it fulfilled. It is no wonder that there was outrage. Jesus comes into the exile of the city of man (as Augustine described it) in which human beings find themselves and he challenges every assumption we make as to what is a good outcome for our society. He does not permit us to accept a society in which the weak are excluded (whether because of race, wealth, gender, ability, or sexuality). Nor did He permit us and does He permit us to turn religion into morality. The old sermons that we have heard so often in England, which I grew up with, which if you boiled them down all they effectively said was: “Wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if we were all a bit nicer?” That is the kind of moral claptrap that Jesus does not permit us to accept.

We are, by contrast, as Christians to be caught up in a revolution of expectation and of implementation. Were it not for the fact that He is in title Prince of Peace, and lived out his mission in service and foot-washing, ending it in crucifixion and resurrection, this would be a call to violent revolution; but even that option is removed from our hands by the way in which He lived his life and calling. And that itself tells us that in interpreting what the church is saying today, the context of its life as a community is the means of interpretation. Truth is interpreted in the action of God’s people.

We therefore come to this conference with our eyes and ears and spiritual hearts open to being deeply discomforted and left looking with wonder on a scene that we could not have imagined. If this does what it should, if we are as open as we should be to the word of God, we will be, like those that Keats refers to in his poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”: 

“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

A genuine openness to the common good, and to God’s interpretation of that in our hearts, will cause us to look at each other with wild surmise, and I would add bursting and boundless hope for our future as a society.  

Secondly, we are called to action. “Seek the welfare of the city…” The Jews of the time of Jeremiah in exile in Babylon, had written asking what they should do? Clearly, they thought, God was going to rescue them for the sake of God’s name! Therefore, as in the earliest days of the people of Israel, when still caught up in Egypt, they should be ready to go at a moment’s notice. They were in a place that was temporary; they should not allow themselves to get embedded in it. 

But no, says Jeremiah, unpredictable as always, do not turn away from the world, but turn towards it; do not moralise, but bless; do not hate, but include.  Marry and be given in marriage; plant gardens and fields; pray and prosper.

As Christians we often, in our history as the church, have fallen either into the mistake of identification with the world as all there is, a mistake we often make today in the way we speak and live; or of hatred of the world and turning away into its own exclusive little tribe. To put it another way, too often we have circled the wagons in order to keep the enemy out.

David Sheppard, with whom I began, did neither and nor did Archbishop Derek Worlock. They engaged deeply with the society. The Dean of Liverpool at the time, a distinguished predecessor of mine, possibly in some ways as expert in property development as in leading cathedrals, became trusted by the Government at a time when their relations with the city of Liverpool had broken down. The church built the bridges. Through the Dean’s hands, in the 1980s, with the full knowledge and understanding of Worlock and Sheppard, with very nearly 250 million pounds, and that 250 million pounds was used to build houses across the city, to build new developments, to turn round the decline and the sense of despair. A friend of mine became the Chief Executive of the City Council shortly afterwards, and as he was showing round the city every time he turned around the corner, someone said: “The Catholics built that, that’s an Anglican estate, and this and that and the other.” First of all he thought it was sectarian, and then he felt he’d fallen back into medieval times when the church basically ran the city. 

And yet for all that practical, applied implementation of bringing hope to a place of despair, Sheppard and Worlock kept faith with the eternal call to serve and love Christ, to make Christ known, and to do so in proclamation and in loving one another and demonstrating Christ’s love as a light to the world in which they lived. They were neither apart nor were they captured by their culture.

We are to get involved. We are to get our hands dirty, to speak of policy and of implementation; not merely to deal with the macro but also with the micro, not merely to deal with the micro but also with the macro. The common good, truly interpreted in the light of the scripture, its horizons opened up by the radicality of the gospel, demands from us our own radicality that can only come from the overflowing of the Spirit of God within us. Within Jeremiah there is that prophecy of hope of a future. Jesus, speaking in Luke, takes the words we’ve heard, but also especially in Luke, has, in his words, the promise of the gift of the Spirit of God who will make possible the impossible revolution, the impossible revolution to be achieved without violence, to be achieved without hatred, to be achieved in blessing and loving and serving and transforming the society in which we live.


© Justin, Archbishop of Canterbury

Archbishop Justin Welby preached this homily during Evensong at Trinity Wall Street in New York City on 23 January 2015. It was first published on The Archbishop was visiting New York to speak at the 'Creating the Common Good' conference organised by the Trinity Institute. His speech - on the question 'Is inequality sinful?' - can be read here.

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