Last year we gathered together in this church on Civic Sunday just after the results of the EU Referendum. That significant result has changed the course of British history. On the anniversary of that major, seemingly once in a generation event, there have been a series of tragic events which have been incredibly bruising and distressing for the whole country. The terrorist attacks and the appalling Grenfell Tower fire have shaken our country to the core. Not once but three times in so many weeks I found myself gathering on the forecourt with others to mark a minute’s silence for the victims of terror and of course of the fire. We are in a period of history that is proving itself to be particularly fluid, surprising and almost impossible to predict. We are all being tested, none more so than our elected representatives and public servants.
For public figures and leaders in our communities, the need for humility, wisdom, and courage has never been greater. Our country needs leaders who are able to unite us. The words of Jo Cox MP, cruelly murdered by an extremist just over a year ago, sound even more prophetic and powerful one year on: ‘We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us’. But, they also challenge us to live that reality.
The reading that we’ve heard today from the New Testament comes from a letter written by one of the earliest teachers of Christianity. St Paul went around the gentile, i.e. non-Jew, Greek speaking world, spreading the good news about Jesus Christ. He had a very strong sense of call that his role was to teach the nascent non-Jewish Christian communities. The extract from the letter we have heard was from a letter written to a Christian community in Corinth, Greece (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).
There seems to have been particular problems in Corinth and these problems were to do with rivalry and disunity in the community. St Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to show how a human community is similarly constructed. He describes the way in which each part of the body needs the other parts: ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet ‘I have no need of you’.
St Paul’s metaphor asks us to consider how we enable all the different parts of the body to flourish in the communities that we serve. It may be we think that we can ignore certain parts, or that at least such parts are irrelevant. The terrible fire at Grenfell reminds us that we can’t. Neglect of the poorer or more vulnerable members of our body – as St Paul calls them – the inferior members – will lead to each part of the body suffering. We cannot ignore each other and think that our neighbours are irrelevant to our well-being. If we do, over a period of time we will start to experience that neglect: ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together with it, if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it’.
Human communities are difficult to manage and control; we live today more than ever in complex ways and so the task is getting harder. Globalisation and technology are bringing with them ever new ways for humans to connect and interact, but they also reveal underlying currents of division, hatred and anger. Leaders today need to be extremely robust – but they also need to become much more adept at linking people together, at facilitating reconciliation within communities and at upholding our common goals and aspirations. What we need now from our public leaders is a new vision of how we can build consensus, develop connections, link people together, and bring reconciliation.
This town of Rugby has an eminent tradition of being a place where people work together, of where community is valued highly, and where we are able to be compassionate with one another. The Mayor this year has chosen the theme of ‘working together’ as her theme and it seems to me that there could not be a more fitting team in this period of our history. Team-work, common goals and shared aspirations are essential for the mutual flourishing of our town of Rugby.
I am a great believer in the need for communities to have representative people who symbolise our unity – through their symbolic roles we have a locus for our unity. The Mayor is such a civic representative figure. The presence of her Majesty the Queen and other members of the Royal Family in Manchester and London after the terror attacks and the fire were hugely comforting. I’m trusting that our new Mayor will not be needed in such tragic circumstances, but nonetheless Madam Mayor you will play an incredibly significant role in representing the unity of our common life as residents in the borough of Rugby. Your role will be to remind us all that we are deeply connected and mutually dependent on each other. You will have the great privilege of getting an insight into the lives and work of so many different people in Rugby and I know that like past Mayors before you, you will be changed by the experience. But, more importantly we pray that this community will be changed by your presence. May you steadfastly seek to bring unity and through it team-work - your honourable theme for this year – into and through our communities. May you work to enable different sections of our society to understand each other better and encourage different parts of our communities to work together for our mutual benefit, so that we may truly know the truth of living so that our grief and our joy are one.