There is a simple dignity about the words on the wee plaque which sits inside our new noticeboard. It reads, “In memory of Jack McIver,” then it gives his dates, before adding, “An elder in this church since 1951.” I didn’t write these words, and I’m glad about that, because I don’t think I would come up with something so beautiful. The thing I find moving about that phrase is its sense of continuity, a sense that, though we see Jack no longer, he is still an elder of this church. And that is right. He serves in the church universal, in the church eternal.
These words about Jack seem to me to be an example of something the Church does well, but which few others do well, if at all. It is about a kind of remembering. The Church is a community of remembrance. That’s a word we normally associate with the war and with particular events in November, but it is equally applicable to other occasions. To my mind, what marks out remembrance, as practised by the Church, from remembering, is that remembrance has a sense of looking back, a sense of the present, and a sense of the future too. It sees what we are now, and what we hope and aspire to be, as being bound up with, formed by and related to where we have come from.
Today, I have decided that we will take a wee break from the Apostles’ Creed because of something that is weighing very heavily on my mind. That is the referendum on Thursday on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. Some months ago, I was asked by the Midlothian Advertiser to contribute to their occasional ‘Views from the pews’ column. It will be published on Thursday this week. Knowing it would appear on the 23rd, I felt I had no option but to write about the referendum. And as you will see you, if you buy the paper, I approach the subject through the remembrance of war. I was pleased to see, a few days after I had sent my article in, that the Archbishop of Canterbury, writing in the Sunday Mail, approached the subject in the same way. My belief is that remembrance is a particular gift and skill of the churches. We live constantly and consciously in remembrance of things past, with care for things present, and with hope for things to come. It is part of our calling not to forget but also to remember in particular, positive, ways.
To hear campaigners on both sides talk, all that would seem to matter is money and immigrants. There is no perspective. As avid readers of the Advertiser will be reminded, I hope before they go to vote, what has become the European Union was forged in the experience of war. By binding together the means whereby weapons are produced, making the nations of Europe and dependent on one another for the production of coal and steel, the vision was to make war in Europe not only on thinkable, but materially impossible. The bringing together of national economies in other ways, including through the single currency, had the same basic ideal. Countries which depend on one another do not fight one another. Countries which build one another up in prosperity and trade and cooperation do not develop the rivalries that lead to war. In the 65 years since France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy formed the European Coal and Steel Community, the organisation which led eventually to the European Union, no member state has gone to war with another. Never, in the history of this continent, has there been such a sustained period of peace. For that, God be praised.
As a church person, with a voice here and, later this week, in the local paper, I believe that my contribution to the debate is this – a call to remembrance; remembrance of wars past which all of us, even those with no personal memory, hold in the collective memory as people of faith, whose trust is in God. We call our fellow voters to remembrance, not of some heroic time when Britain stood alone, which anyway owes more to myth than to history, but to a remembering which leads to care for peace in the present and commitment to continuing peace in the future.
But that’s not all that churches can and should contribute at this present time. We are a community of other attributes too, attributes which can feed into and inform public discourse.
We are a community of sacrifice and generosity. We bear witness to God who sacrificed himself that all might live. The Christian life is a life of sacrifice, sacrifice of self for the good of all. We are called to understand that what we have is not ours, but held in trust, to be shared generously so that’s none go without. We are called to sacrifice what we think is our own interest that all may prosper, for we know through, both though faith and experience, that justice is not served, nor peace assured, when some are wealthy while others are in desperate need.
We are too, a community of welcome and inclusion. In many places in the Old Testament, and we read one a little earlier, God’s people were reminded that they were not to think of themselves as better than or distinct from others. Strangers were to be welcomed and accorded equal rights. In the life of Christ, we constantly see him reaching out across the borders that sin erects to love and value and care for those which various communities had rejected. Nothing in the Gospels mandates Christ’s followers to do anything other than what he did.
The Church is also called upon to be a community of truth. I have been dismayed by both sides in the current referendum campaign. Neither side has been, at least in my view, entirely truthful. Both sides have made preposterous claims. The truth is that many of the questions about what may happen if the UK votes to leave, or if it votes to remain, cannot be answered. The truthful answer to many is simply – we don’t know. Now, I can understand why so few politicians are brave enough to say this. Many believe they are elected to know the answers. But the good of society and the cause of democracy are not well served when a situation is created in which people will end up voting for the side whose lies are most convincing, or indeed whose predictions of doom are most frightening. Truth is something noble, something costly, but something empowering. The Church is witness to the ultimate truth, the truth of God, from which all truth is derived. As a community of truth, we must call on others, especially those entrusted by the people with great responsibility to live by and speak the truth.
Furthermore, the Church is a community of prophecy. Not a community which tries to describe predict the future, but a community which seeks to speak the Word of God for today. In every situation, in every decision, we must ask – what do we know of God? What do we know of God’s wishes for and priorities for the world? I am in no doubt that God will work his purpose out regardless of how the UK votes on Thursday. I am certainly not going to be so crass as to say that a vote one way is the Christian way to vote and that a vote the other is unchristian. But God gives us, his beloved creatures, a huge measure of responsibility to order this world in which he has placed us. It is responsibility which is best exercised with regard to what we learn of God through Jesus Christ and through the holy Scriptures. And our call, as members of God’s church, is to communicate what we know of God, that others too may know of his ways.
Underlying and giving validity to all of these dimensions of our life as the church is the fact that we are a community of love. St Paul told the Church in Corinth that they could do anything, but if they did not have love, it would be worthless. We serve and bear witness to and put our trust in the God who is love. It is love which enables us, not only to speak the word of God today, but to say it in the right way. It is love which enables us to discern the truth, and live by it. It is love which gives meaning to all thru welcome and inclusion, for, under God’s guidance, and with Christ at our side, we are called to love unconditionally. It is love that makes sacrifice possible. Sacrifice is a giving up in love; if there is no love, the giving up becomes extortion, something imposed and done unwillingly. And it is in love that we remember, calling to mind the people of the past in loving remembrance, caring for the present in love and building in love for the future. Love, above all, is what our faith is about, and it is in love that we need to address all matters, all decisions, asking the question and answering it for ourselves – what is the loving thing to do?
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” God sprinkles us into the world to speak truth, to practice generosity, to embody inclusion, to offer welcome, to witness through sacrifice and also to remember in a way that honours the past, cares for the present, and builds for the future.
May God bless us all as we decide how to vote, and as we cast our ballots, and may God bless, protect and guide us all, our country and our continent, whatever the outcome.