Sunday Sermon – 24 November 2019

Freedom to Worship

There is an established tradition of having special days, weeks, or even years, devoted to a subject of concern. There is No-Smoking day, Sheffield and other cities have had bus-only days. Recently there was a “No Car Day”. I heard of a “Take your Dog to Work Day”. Annual weeks such as National Heart Week are promoted, A year or two ago there was the Year of the Disabled and one could find many, many more similar examples. The purpose of such occasions is to draw our attention to an issue, often social or environmental, about which we are urged to show concern, and address in more practical ways. In our denomination a Sunday is set apart, usually in February, to think of the International Association for Religious Freedom, the IARF.

As well as the multitude of such special occasions devoted to worthy causes affecting us in our own country, are those, like Christian Aid Week, or One World Week, which remind us, that though we live on an island, in what is often said to be a class-ridden society, we cannot be isolated from the needs of other citizens, or indeed from residents of the world as a whole. As the cliche expresses it, we are all part of one another, we are one family in God. A recognition of the needs of others, as well as our own desires, is an essential component of freedom.

One facet of freedom which has been emphasised in recent years, is that which surrounds environmental issues. The squandering of resources, the pollution of land, sea and air, disregard for the lands and of the life it supports, are not matters which rebound solely on the individual culprit. They affect the human family at large, and will burden human families yet unborn. Selfishness today denies freedom to others tomorrow.

After decades of indifference to, and ignorance of, the threat, at last “green issues” as they have been nick-named, have become matters which more and more of us are taking seriously. If the next generation of children, we are rapidly realising, are to sing

“All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small..”

as a peon of praise and not as a component of a remembrance service for days gone by, we have to all take the threat seriously, and start paring away our selfish instincts.

But, important as these considerations are, I would like to direct my few words this morning to another aspect of freedom implicit in the belief that we are all part of one large, human family.

We are all part of one body, which consists of several members, says Paul in one of those illuminating metaphors which encapsulate an eternal truth. The whole body is the sum of the parts. The parts are inter-dependant, each separate, each unique, but functioning incompletely without the complementary contribution from the other constituents.

Of course the analogy is imperfect, as are most analogies. People can and do live full, productive lives even though one sense be absent or failing, but the comparison is sufficiently accurate to illustrate the point more than adequately. People are not self-sufficient. A community, be it large or small, is dependent upon the contribution of all its members if it is to flourish, to flower, and not to disintegrate.

But Paul’s analogy was not merely about the component parts of the body, and the way one depends upon the other. It went further than that. The equal value of all the parts was stressed. The eye is not of greater value than the ear, nor is the tongue held in greater esteem than either of them. All the parts are vital; all are esteemed.

When I was a boy, as when many of you were boys and girls, we were directed to look with pride at the map of the world, large parts of which were coloured red. We had described to us the glory of a British Empire on which the sun never set. The peoples in those lands coloured crimson in our atlases, all owned allegiance to the King. The pictures in our geography books, the stories in our history books, underlined the philosophy of dependency within this Empire. Our spices came from India, our tea from Ceylon, lamb from New Zealand, sugar from the West Indies, and so on. In return, it was said, Britain defended their peoples and gave them good government.

But what was not apparent, for it could not be said with truthfulness, was that neither dependency nor inter-dependency was accompanied by an equality of value accorded to each citizen. To be described as being from the colonies was to be placed in category which Orwell’s pigs would have identified. “All are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Now the British Empire has gone, replaced in part by the Commonwealth. Some former colonies chose independence outside the Commonwealth. The residual dependencies are to be named more sympathetically as Overseas Territories. Other Empires have crumbled or are crumbling. For all nations, states, empires, commonwealths, communities or whatsoever, contain the seeds of their own destruction, unless inter-dependence is accompanied by equality of value for their citizens. Neither authoritarianism nor paternalism is a substitute for equity of treatment, of the dignity of being on equal terms with one’s fellows.

We are all of equal value in the eyes of God, glibly we proclaim. A religious faith, be it Christian, Moslem, Hindu, Jewish or whatever, that does not have that precept at its core is, to my mind, flawed. But men and women when proclaiming the equality of all in the sight of God must go beyond mouthing glib words; they must match behaviour to pronouncement. International Associations proclaiming Religious Freedom will remind us that equality of regard is the close companion of freedom of expression.

Religious freedom has its roots in this tenet of equality. One world presumes an acceptance that the rights of one are no more or no less than the rights of a neighbour. That is a massive stride to take. Think for example, of a Jew and Palestinian, a Boer and a black African, a Sikh and a Hindu, a North Korean and a South Korean, a Serb and a Croat, and many, many more examples of where the one despises and denigrates the other. A loathing that is generously reciprocated. Not infrequently oppression of one group by another is linked, incredibly and ludicrously, with religion.

But all these are examples from distant places. The problems in the world are enormous, and our influence is small. Aren’t there examples nearer home? Could we not make a start in a small way? Could we look around and see if making a modest step towards equally valuing is possible on our own doorstep?

The easy step is, say, valuing equally the peasant on the Indian sub-continent, the cocoa picker in West Africa, the Chilean harvesting grapes or the Malaysian worker in the rice-field. We never see them personally and they live a long way away. Of course it is no great effort to say, with sincerity even, that God values them equally along with us.

But on our doorstep, in our own country, in our own town, it is more difficult. Are valued as equally the accountant and his cleaner, even though the former is a white male, and the latter a black female? If we are serious about one world, why in our own country do the school-leavers whose parents were born in Somalia, Bangladesh, Jamaica or Nigeria find many employers value them less than contemporaries who have white skins? Why are children whose roots are Asian, African or Caribbean so frequently taunted on their way to and from school? And why do their parents suffer from thoughtless racist jokes? Why have families been hounded from homes in what are regarded as white only areas?

Perhaps overt racism is the work of a minority within our nation. But that it exists, overt or covert, is a blot upon what is still described as a christian society. Our advocacy of the ideals of One World will ring the truer when the canker is excised. Freedom will sound more credible when religious freedom means not only freedom to worship in one’s own way, but freedom to live without overt or covert oppression.

And the divisions which we see are not only those related to colour and race. There are divisions of class, divisions by sex, divisions by residence and so it goes on.

One Christian sect attacks another, one Moslem mosque will bitterly oppose a rival faction, Jewish cemeteries are desecrated. Sikh, Hindu or Buddhist may find justification for conflict in their religion.

Our predecessors suffered privation and even death to establish the right to worship as they saw fit. Non-conformists as they are tagged should above all people cherish religious freedom. And in cherishing it, should strive for the rights of all people to have the same freedom they enjoy.

Yes, all people. That inclusive term, is not confined to the various strands of Christianity. Where religious intolerance exists, in whatever religious context, it is reprehensible. Moslem must not discriminate against Christian, any more than Christian should denigrate Jew.

We do have a One World Week, where the theme is of great issues. It is about saving the environment from destruction. It is about sharing out the resources equitably, so starvation, preventable disease, inadequate or non-existent housing, degrading poverty, violent conflict, obscene warfare, all become things of the past. These laudable aims must always be part of our prayers. That these evils continue to exist in a world which boasts mind-blowing technical skill is a disgrace.

We stand accused of hypocrisy if we demand, rightly, that the Somalian is fed, and the Calcutta beggar housed, but look with indifference at the homeless beggar in our own towns. To laugh at the offensive saloon bar joke that seeks to denigrate fellow citizens in our midst, or express our superiority to the citizen who lacks our education or so valued social status, is to shame ourselves.

Perhaps some think that these issues are separate from religious freedom. But to disparage another is to curtail the freedom of another. Freedom to worship, freedom of thought and expression, equality of regard and opportunity, are not discrete and entities, but part of one whole.

There is an old joke about the husband who boasted that his wife and he shared all decisions between them. “Yes”, said the wife, “he makes the important decisions about where the government is going wrong, about whether we should join the common market or not, and our views on monetary union in Europe, and I just decide the unimportant things, like when to pay the gas bill, what we need from the supermarket, what colour to paint the bathroom, and where to find a plumber to mend the leaking pipe”.

We need to make the important decisions about supporting efforts to end poverty and disease in large areas of the world; about doing our part to stop the desecration or destruction of the world in which we live. But there are other decisions, equally important, that should not be overlooked; like loving the neighbour who literally lives within our neighbourhood; or speaking up for the persecuted within our own communities.

A Buddhist temple is bombed, a Jewish synagogue, is daubed with swastikas, a Mosque is burnt down, a shrine is looted, a Sikh temple is closed. How shocking that people are denied the freedom to worship as they chose in peace.

In recent times, in a part of the United Kingdom police had to escort Catholics through a Protestant mob into their church to celebrate Mass. That Christian should seek to deny the right of Christian to worship in peace, is a mark of how far we have to go in order to become a society that values freedom in deed as well as in protestation.

Our brothers’ eyes are chock-a-bloc with beams. Let us attend to our motes so we can see what we are doing as we seek to remove them. Or have I got it the wrong way round? Is our mote really a beam? Religious freedom is not an idle concept. It is essential for civilised living.

C.J. Rosling 7 February 1998

Fulwood 13 September 1992; 8 February 1998
Mexborough 13 September 1992; 19 November 1995
Hucklow 14 January 2001

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