University Sermon

This weekend I was asked by the University Church Oxford to deliver a sermon, which was an interesting change to my day to day focus on politics!


The text is provided below for those interested.


Romans, chapter 13, verse 1: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.”

A scriptural passage to lift the spirits of any beleaguered President or Prime Minister and to make even a Chief Whip break into a wintery grin. 

It is an extraordinary passage, even more so when you consider that at the time that the epistle was written “the powers that be” meant not Barack Obama or Angel Merkel, but the Emperor Nero, then about to embark on his persecution of Rome’s Christian minority. 

To a modern ear the passage is shocking on two grounds.  First, and most obviously, because it exhorts Christians to subject themselves to secular authority of whatever kind.  I think it interesting that the words used both in the authorised version and in all later translations that I have seen are careful to talk in verse 1 about subjection or submission to power rather than obedience.   But it the second implication that I want to focus on in my reflections this morning: the suggestion that secular power is in some way part of Divine Providence. 

It was a principle that was recognised in this very church and under the most extreme circumstances in 1556 by Thomas Cranmer when he was brought here to make what his persecutors expected to be his final recantation before being hauled to the stake. 
While in general historians have harked back to his final words in which he renounced the Pope and declared again his commitment to the reformed faith, it is an earlier passage in that speech that this morning I want recall, Cranmer said this after all the persecution and terror which he had suffered: “Next to God, you obey your King and Queen [he meant Mary Tudor and Philip her husband, the very people responsible for his persecution], willingly and gladly, without murmur or grudging. And not for fear of them only, but much more for the fear of God: knowing that they be God’s ministers, appointed by God to rule and govern you. And therefore who so resist them, resisteth God’s ordnance.” 

What can we make of such a doctrine today? 

Before I attempt an answer let me try to clear the ground of disposing of what I consider to be a couple of myths. 

The first is that Christianity stands apart from and has nothing to do with politics.

This is an argument that I reject completely.  Yes it is true that to use the biblical phrase “here we have no abiding city”.   The bible is not likely to tell how you should vote upon a particular clause of the Neighbourhood Planning Bill due to come before the House of Commons very shortly.  Indeed I could take you to Westminster and introduce you tomorrow to honest, believing Christians in different political parties who will vote in opposite ways on this and other issues.  But while Christianity is not and should never be the property of any one political party or leader, it seems to me that the doctrines of creation and incarnation embody a truth about a God who loves and is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for this world. 

How this world is governed is something which is of importance to people of faith.

If you go back to the Old Testament, the Books of Kings and Chronicles (and I think in this context I would throw in the Book of Daniel as well) seem to me to be as much as anything else a narrative about kingship and the exercise of power for good or evil purpose.

The second myth is that there was ever some kind of golden age of politics.  There has never been a race of giants.  The philosopher kings of Plato’s imagination have always been a fiction.

Few political leaders of any generation linger long in the memory.  Prime Ministers and presidents perhaps – some of them at least – but who now recalls the achievements, the failures or the foibles of, to take a case at random, Transport Ministers of the last fifty years? 

Even the greatest were human.  Neither Lloyd George, with his colourful private life, nor Churchill, with his copious consumption of alcohol and habit of summoning his secretaries to take dictation while he was in bed or even in the bath, would survive Twitter storms or YouTube. 

My own constituency of Aylesbury has been represented by some of the truly great figures of English political history: John Wilkes, champion of press freedom – and also a renowned libertine and drunkard; Edmund Burke, whose thought and writing still resonates today, but whose election night party was celebrated with “rivers of wine, brooks of brandy” and who was a regular member of the Hellfire Club; or Benjamin Disraeli, a colossus of British and European politics in the late 19 century, but who was seen by many at home as both absurdly flamboyant and utterly without principle. 

You do not have to buy every last argument in Thomas Hobbes’s classic leviathan to accept the essential truth of his dictum “that the natural life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.  What we think of as a good society one that is governed by law rather than the whim of the ruler nonetheless requires the exercise of the political arts in order to find some way in which to take decisions and to reconcile the multifarious contending interests of individuals and groups within that society.  Even if the oppression of rulers of their people is so vicious and systemic that all the boxes are ticked on the form marked doctrine of just resistance then the cost of such a resistance maybe very high indeed.  We can look at Syria today, at Sierra Leone a few years ago or at much of Europe in the weeks and months immediately following VE day in 1945 to see that lack of government, lack of ordained power and authority brings with it savagery and destruction.  And the restoration of order, the creation of a new and better society needs political leadership and the exercise of political power.

Second, political decisions, most obviously in those extreme circumstances to which I have just alluded, but even what we think of in a comfortable country like the United Kingdom as “normal times” is difficult.  It requires skill, judgement and the calculation of risk.  In my experience, there are very few political decisions that are black and white.  Almost everything has both its pros and cons.

And that is before you get to the practical hurdles that are often found in the way.  I remember someone who had served in John Major’s Cabinet saying to me once that in government you often find that it’s your third or fourth preference that you end up having to plump for.  The first choice has been ruled out by the Treasury as too expensive, the second would leave you in breach of some international treaty and the third stands no chance of getting through the House of Lords.  Indeed, my responsibilities now include having to explain to my colleagues that sometimes their idealism and commitment must be tempered by the realities of whether we can assemble a majority in parliament to support the necessary legislation. 

Decisions including some of the most important ones often have to be taken at short notice and on the basis incomplete information.  I have sat in the room with David Cameron when he had to decide what action to take in response to reports that terrorists might be planning an attack.  Does the Prime Minister issue a public warning of some kind?   What, if any, orders does he give for the deployment of military forces?  Should he seek to have a high profile public event cancelled?  All those decisions have to be taken on the basis of information and intelligence which by its very nature is fragmentary and incomplete.

The same applies sometimes when Ministers are faced with the question of what to do to try to free a British hostage being held overseas.  If you are Prime Minister, your advisors may say that they think they have perhaps 60% certainty that he is being held in a particular location by such and such a group.  They may say that military action to affect a rescue would have a 70% chance of success.  Do you order that rescue mission?  Or do you hope that the negotiations that are ongoing to try to secure the release of the hostage will result in success without you having to put at risk the lives of both the hostage and of soldiers sent to carry out the rescue operation.  There are no certainties.  You have to ask the questions, challenge your intelligence and military chiefs about the grounds for their advice to you.  Then you and you alone have to take the decision and then leave the room, live with that decision, turn your mind to the next pressing item that faces you, go to sleep at night and, if it should all go wrong, stand up at the despatch box in the House of Commons the decision that you took. 

It is a quite awesome responsibility.  It is not a surprise to me that leaders often seem to age while they are in office.   We are accountable at elections, in this country certainly, or to threat of rebellion, to the judgement of history or even to conscience.

Shakespeare as so often got it spot on.  In Henry V, not just a first rate drama, but a fascinating study of kingship.  On the night before Agincourt, Shakespeare depicts Henry going in disguise to eavesdrop on the conversations amongst his soldiers and he puts these words into the mouth of a common soldier, Williams: “If the cause be not good, the King himself have a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the later day and cry all, “We died at such a place”, some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left………Now if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it…….”   I think that it has always been a part of Christian teaching about politics that those who exercise power must be held to account for what they do.  If we look back at the Old Testament again, Saul was anointed King by Samuel and deposed by the prophet when he failed to measure up to the quality of kingship required of God’s chosen one.  Elijah denounced Ahab and Jezebel to their faces and prophesied their eventual grisly fate.  Belshazzar was weighed in the balance and found wanting. 

Today in Britain the judgement comes in the form of elections, referenda and, increasingly, from social media.  Because we are fallible human beings and not philosopher kings, it is essential that politicians are held to account for what we do and say.  And because we are fallible human beings, the burden of that responsibility is sometimes tough and wearing.

The powers that be are ordained of God, but ordination surely implies not just the conferral of authority, but the responsibility to exercise that power and authority with wisdom and, as has been recited in the coronation oath by every English sovereign at least back to King Edgar in the year 973, to act with justice and with mercy.

I finish with the prayer that is said by the Speaker’s chaplain that is said before the start of proceedings in the House of Commons on every day that we sit “Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and Her Government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of Your Spirit.  May they never leave the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please or unworthy ideals, but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may Your kingdom come and Your name be hallowed.  Amen.”