Christ yesterday and today, the Beginning and the End. All time belongs to him and all the ages: To him be glory and power through every age and for ever. Amen!
Last night, we used these words to begin our solemn Easter Vigil, marking this great Easter Candle as a visible sign of Christ among us. We have proclaimed that all time belongs to Christ, and so I ask you now to recall with me the recent history of our own nation.
There was a time when Britain was a Christian Kingdom. Most of you can remember it.
Divorce was not easy to come by.
The shops were closed on Sundays.
Human life was protected.
One by one, the values of Christ’s Kingdom, written into British law, have been overturned.
In 1967, abortion was made legal throughout Great Britain.
In 1969, the Divorce Reform Act was passed, with its implicit message that marriage need only be a temporary lifestyle choice.
In 1994, Sunday trading was permitted to large stores and supermarkets.
In 2004, people of the same sex were able to claim equivalent rights to married couples by forming a civil partnership.
Within a human lifetime, the fundamental assumptions of Britain’s lawmakers have changed. Our heritage was that Britain’s law should be based on God’s law. Now, our politicians see that in our nation there are people with many different faiths and beliefs, and so they say: let people be freed to do whatever they wish, as long as they don’t harm others.
Because of this new freedom, much has changed, and Britain hears a new message.
Abortion clinics are free to advertise in print, and at the end of this month will be able to do so on radio and television. More and more documentaries are made about seriously ill people who would choose to end their own lives if only they had a legal way of doing so. Britain hears the message: “Human life is only valuable if it is a wanted life.”
Alternative relationships are not only tolerated, but celebrated. Primetime television soaps and drama series now present same-sex relationships as positive and life-enriching. Britain hears the message: “Anyone who doesn’t think same-sex intimacy is a very good thing, is someone to be shunned as a bigot.”
We are gathered here this Easter morning because we are seeking the Risen Christ. We are God’s people. Our Kingdom is not of this world, and we march to the beat of a different drum. We dare to say: Human life is valuable because it is made in God’s image. We dare to say: alternative lifestyle choices may be tolerated, and must not be persecuted, but should not be celebrated, because God calls us to live by his standards, not ours. We dare to say: Our King is Risen, and Alleluia! is our song.
The Bishops of England and Wales have a gift for you this morning. As I speak, the servers will come among you with a small card which you might keep in your purse or wallet. This card is a reminder of six things that we are called to do as Catholic followers of Jesus. Earlier this week, at the Good Friday Liturgy, I spoke of the importance of forgiving others. On Thursday evening, we recalled the command to love our neighbour. We must keep close to Christ, through regular prayer and also through the sacraments. Finally, we are challenged to share our faith with other people, and to use the gifts we have been given. Whatever talents or abilities we have, they are gifts from God; they are granted to us for a reason. That reason is that we may serve others, inside and outside our church community, and the Prayer of Cardinal Newman, on the other side of the card, invites us to meditate on this calling.
There is one small glimmer of hope, shining on the beach as the tide of British Law ebbs from the safe shore of Christ to the ocean of personal freedom. It is this: In principle, our national law now celebrates the right of believers to practice and make visible their faith.
We are, in principle, free to do all the things which are printed on the faith card. But to make what is permitted into a reality requires courage, the courage to live out our faith in public and without shame. In past decades, it was not necessary for us to be vocal about our values, because the structure of our society already embedded them. Now, if we do not speak up as believers, our values will be lost in the clamour of those rightly proclaiming racial equality, demanding reasonable adjustments for disability, and those sincerely but misguidedly celebrating same-sex relationships as a simple extension of marriage.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we declare to God: “Yours is the Kingdom! Yours is the Power! Yours is the Glory!” How, then, are we to live on this earth as subjects of a heavenly King?
If a few Christians say: “I don’t want to work on Sunday,” British society will say: “Don’t be awkward.”
If a few hundred thousand Christians say: “I don’t want to work on Sunday,” British society will say: “Of course, we believe in accommodating all reasonable beliefs.”
If a few Christians wear a cross to work on their lapel or around their neck, British society will say: “You don’t need to do that.”
If a few hundred thousand Christians wear a cross to work on their lapel or around their neck, British society will say: “Of course, we must adjust our dress code to accommodate discrete signs of faith.”
British Law now says: “Your faith is only important if you make a claim for it”, and Pope Benedict recognised this with some alarm on his visit to Britain in 2010, stating his “concern at the … marginalisation of religion, particularly … Christianity, … taking place … even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance”. You may have heard on yesterday’s news, reports of Cardinal O’Brien of Scotland calling on each and every Christian to “wear proudly a symbol of the cross of Christ on their garments each and every day of their lives”.
My dear friends in Christ, we are blessed this morning to have a child among us who is to be baptised, and we will also pray for four more children who will baptised, at noon, as members of our community of faith. As Sebastian Biddulph grows up, will he find that Britain is a place where society, if not the law, welcomes his Catholic faith? Together with his parents and godparents, we share the responsibility of keeping our nation a place where he can be free to practice their new faith – free not only because the law allows freedom in principle, but because together, we create a climate where we exercise our freedom in practice. The more we assert our religious identity, the easier it will be for us, and for children growing into our community, to continue to occupy that space. But to claim that space, we must act now, before the tide flows out any further.
In a few moments, Sebastian’s parents and godparents, and each one of us here present, will make our baptismal committment, that “I believe in the Catholic Church.” How will you show by your future actions that you believe in the Catholic Church?
If you are invited to a workplace meal or buffet on a Friday, will you point out that Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays?
If you are asked to work weekend shifts, will you point out that attending Mass is something that needs to be accommodated?
If you do not already wear a cross, or another Christian symbol, will you consider the Cardinal’s call to do so?
It may seem very un-British to make a fuss about such things, but the old Britain is passing away. In the new Britain, Sebastian’s Britain, faith will either be claimed or be squeezed out. As individuals, asserting our faith is a lonely calling. But if we decide, as a community, that we will do these things, then we will, in time, create a space where Britain once again celebrates these values. And we do this based on an empty tomb, a whisper of hope, and our belief that we belong to a Kingdom which has not yet come in its fullness.
As we stand with the holy women at the tomb, saddened by what has been lost, and not yet witnessing the Return of the King, let us claim the territory for his return and so declare that this age also belongs to Christ. Let us do it for Sebastian. Let us do it for the children who will be baptised later today. And let us do it out of love for Jesus Christ! With him, let us pray to the Father, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ: For the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory are Yours, Now and Forever! AMEN!