Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sermon - Mansfield College 19th February 2014

So, I've been asked to publish the below on-line... Apologies if it's a little long for a 'blog, or a little rhetorical, but here goes...


‘He does not for man what man can do for himself’

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; Amen

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

It’s a pleasure to be here, back at Mansfield, and an honour for you to indulge me with the opportunity to preach at the Wednesday evening service, that was such an institution of my student life. In fact, my entire knowledge of nonconformism can be traced to my experiences here; the religion I encountered and the characters (and spirits) I met continue to influence my moral and spiritual life. And by spirits, I don’t mean the drinks afterwards.

That said I have taken the opportunity this evening to give our readings, prayers and my take on the term’s theme of ‘A Thirst for Justice’ a distinctly Catholic twist. I cannot pretend that I am a great academic, or a theologian, or by any means a saintly visionary, and so what I offer here is a personal, rather than scholarly reflection. It is a reflection on what has been the most powerful revelation of my work since Mansfield, and strikes at the very heart of what we Christians consider justice to be.

For just over four years I’ve worked as a full time trades union official, firstly for the steelworkers’ union in Yorkshire and the Humberside, and now for Equity in London. I should say that it was not exactly where I thought I would end up when I finished at Mansfield almost five years ago, but there is a curious inevitability to this journey, and a context that frames my revelation about a truly Christian nature of justice.

I was the first person in my family to attend university, and this was in no small part due to my father’s socialism and trades unionism. The socialist community that gathered in the canteen of GKN Nettlefolds axle works in Birmingham provided him with an infectious thirst for justice through the material gains of pay deals, improvements in working hours, speaking up against bullying and poor safety standards and building a strong pension scheme to protect workers in the old age. But socialism is not just another way of organising an economy, it is a human, not mathematical system, to provide dignity, not just efficiency. The material gains of trades unionism failed my father, he ended his working life as an agency worker on the national minimum wage in a concrete factory, working more hours at the age of 60 than he had at the age of 21. But the much more profound gifts of that socialist community stayed with him; respect for workers of all backgrounds, ages and experiences, the value of education and its importance for his family, a knowledge of the worth of his opinions, an insatiable appetite to better understand the world and to make it a better place. My father read to me as a child because of what trades unionism taught him, and I ended up at Oxford as a result.

With this behind me, it is an honour to be a full time trades union official, and only right that the skills and opportunities this place gave me are put to use (often not as well as they could be!) within the labour movement.

The job is often hard, and often it can feel like a losing battle. Almost 1,000 redundancies at Scunthorpe steelworks in 12 months, reading letters to illiterate workers, with few employment rights, explaining that they were sacked because they couldn’t read health and safety instructions, sitting with dancers too terrified to hold management to account after a serious injury – more concerned about working again than walking again.

But at the heart of these battles, won or lost, I have become more and more acutely aware that the material settlement as the end result is only a small part of the importance of our work as a movement. Much more important is working with my comrades to give working people, individually and collectively, dignity at work. This dignity comes through having a voice, refining that voice, and raising the volume of that voice. We are fighting a war on inherent economic injustice through building respect for working people, not just pay deals and terms and conditions.

As a Christian this can almost feel an alien concept. We know that, in the words of my favourite prayer-card:

‘There is one God to love and serve,
One eternity to expect
And then Heaven – Or Hell – Forever’

The end result matters. And the rules to get to that result are not relative.

However, to see economic justice at work as an aim analogous to the end result of our own salvation is to misunderstand the question at hand. We know that our own salvation is a result of our own choices, our decisions to follow God, His Church, His commandments. When talking about how best to organise our society as to provide, if you will, the best economy for our material salvation, the right thing to do is look at how God orders the economy of our salvation.

The economy of salvation in Catholic teaching is fundamentally linked to God’s gift of free will to us all; doing not for man what man can do for himself. God sets a framework in which it is not only possible to do good, but to do it of our own accord and win our own salvation through our own choices and actions. He does not for man what man himself can accomplish. Consider Noah and the flood (a terrifyingly topical reading!); often the most crucial part of the story is the covenant at the end of the 40 days and nights, and its part in the economy of salvation. This covenant groups men into nations and begins the path to God’s most powerful act in our salvation, the sacrifice of Himself in the Christ – rather than the sacrifice of us sinners as he did in the flood. However, as potent as these elements, is the start of the story that we heard this evening. God could have chosen to save Noah of his own accord, to build him an Ark, to make his death by water impossible – but he does not.

Instead, God gives the instructions to Noah. Noah, as he built protection for his soul against the wrath of the Lord through his good life, protects his life through building his own ark. Like the path to salvation, the framework is given by God, like the path to salvation, the choice is Noah’s. Noah is free to choose to comply or ignore, to swap gopher wood for mahogany, to simply not trust in the Lord. But he does trust Him, even though it isn’t easy.

And so here are set the mechanisms for our salvation. Paramount to this is mankind’s free will, his ability to think and choose and believe – or not. When we as Christians look at the fundaments of building a better economy of social and material justice, this thought should be paramount in our minds: how do we build a system that gives both sides, capital and labour, an equal ability to choose and influence the material settlement. Both sides need to be free to choose a fair settlement through the exercising of their individual, and collective freewill.

Take this as a case study, based on an experience I had with a management. They’re friendly and liberal, the rates of pay are good, and often above the union’s minimum pay rates. They support a largely friendly workplace environment, and rarely are there complaints. However, on this occasion, they decided to work outside the terms of the union agreement, by choosing to employ fewer people and breach our minimum staffing levels. Their defence was that the workers were not needed – and that the rates of pay were higher for those in employment as a result.

But this is not the agreement. Our agreement is the result of workers bargaining together, and a stronger group of workers demanding minimum staffing levels for a weaker group, forgoing via negotiation higher rates of pay for themselves, and accepting, via negotiation, limitations on the work that the employer can offer them.

These workers have not made these difficult decisions lightly, and they have made sacrifices in solidarity with others. This was their material salvation, achieved via an economy of dialogue and respect. Why should a management, simply because they fancy it, be able to craft a new settlement in opposition to this economy? No matter how much higher the rate of pay, no matter how reasonable the terms, why should the management – one side of the bargain- be the sole and total arbiter of the material outcome? Surely simply the possession of capital does not make the management the final arbiter of fairness.

But what would be the solution to this outrage? More money or fewer hours cannot heal the wounds, and it’s not to say that the proposed solution was not a reasonable one as a final settlement. The solution is collective bargaining – returning to the workforce and negotiating a settlement that, outside the normal terms of the collective agreement, is endorsed and supported by the working people it affects.

This is not a question about outcomes, nor is it a question purely about this natural world. This is a question about dignity, about the soul, and about justice – not fairness.

Let us consider the most important example of God’s endorsement of such a settlement in history – the annunciation.

Here again the Lord provides a perfect framework for the salvation of all of humanity. He provides the tools for the job: He sends an angel with a clear message and clear instruction. Our Lady has been chosen before all ages for this task – she has not only lived a life free from sin, but was conceived immaculately. But she is still free, she still has a choice, she is still human.

She could have chosen a sinful life, to tarnish the perfection God gave her. She could, perhaps even without reproach, have rejected the Angel. Once again, she must operate freely within the economy of salvation, given the dignity in life to have her decision have equal weight with the will of God Himself. Mary could have said ‘no’.

It is Mary’s labour, both in the sense of giving birth to the Christ, and in the sense of home-making for the holy family, that affects and influences the person of Jesus. She is the mother who stands at the foot of the Cross and weeps for the whole of humanity. As a result of her labours, she is rewarded with a seat next to her son, assumed into Heaven, she becomes not only the mother of God, but the mother of us all. The outcome for Our Lady is the most perfect result of her agreement with the Lord, and the outcome is made possible through her choice to be obedient to the will of God. Because of the perfect nature of the economy of our salvation, the outcome if we stay the course and live a Godly life is perfect too.

The final piece of the bargain in the economy of our salvation is the death and resurrection of Christ, only made possible because of Mary’s freedom to say ‘yes’. The economy of our salvation is complete and obvious for us because of the bold, but free, choice of Our Lady.

If the completeness of the economy of our salvation hangs on the decision of a mere mortal, the choice of a mere child in years, then how can imperfect humans with material capital justify making decisions without consultation with the working people who produce it? Our Lord humbled himself through his trust in Mary, as well as his incarnation as a human being, knowing that a dialogue would produce the most perfect possible outcome. Trusting that working people have an interest in the success and stability of the material economy, trusting that work on the shop-floor is as important as that in the boardroom, and that empathy and solidarity build a more just and bountiful economic settlement is what God urges us to do, through the framework he builds to administer his perfect justice. Indeed, it is easy for us in the material economy, as opposed to God in the divine – we are not burdened with infallibility, with omnipotence, we cannot be assured of our right-ness on our own account. Compared with God’s incarnation and the annunciation, the humility needed by powerful capitalists to accept that working people, by virtue of their connexion with their labour and the products of it, deserve to have a say over the course of their working lives is infinitesimally small.

In a very real way, Christians are trying to build a better material economy, protecting and enhancing the dignity of the most vulnerable in our society. The Holy Father Francis has made quite a splash by re-stating in charismatic fashion the Catholic doctrine that pure capitalism does not create a context for good or a fair outcome for all. Anglican bishops are the most articulate defenders in the public square of a benefits system that provides a framework for justice – standing in staunch opposition to the idea that the charity of ‘pennies for the poor’ should be the safety net for our society. Non-conformist churches have long been hosts and defenders of workers’ movements, and their defence of the rights of often migrant agricultural workers, has kept the plight of vulnerable, voiceless people in the public eye. At the heart of these compelling and radical interventions is not a statement about the most effective economic outcome, but a moral statement about the manner in which economic redistribution should occur.

But we’ve got it wrong too. The communities built by Cadbury and Rowntree were focussed on providing a ‘fair’ economic settlement on a plate, enforcing a class system and order designed in the belief that workers who were economically comfortable were productive workers. This Big Brother attitude – prescribing how leisure-time could be spent, removing alcohol from shops, educating the children of workers, does not trust working people to use their God given free will as well as their social betters. As well-intended as many of these efforts were, they set owners of capital as all-seeing gods over and above the economy of salvation, as they set to limit and frame free-will, and the inherent hostility towards workers’ associations in these industries betray a patronising contempt for the ability of working people to act for the common good and have the dignity of a say in their working lives.

This attitude is not one confined to the past, either. Last year, the government began the process of compelling employers to automatically enrol workers into company pension schemes, with minimum burdens of contribution from both parties. This action has overridden collective bargaining, and been used as an opportunity to shut non-contributory pensions, whose terms do not fit with the rigid statutory criteria, leaving workers with a pension scheme that they did not, and would not, choose.

More worryingly, there is the Living Wage Foundation, and their campaigns. These are campaigns in which many churches have involved themselves, seeking to improve the terms and conditions for workers in their communities. Again, these efforts are well intentioned, but stories grow of employers who reduce holidays, maternity leave or other terms and conditions in order to get their shiny certificate accrediting themselves as a ‘living wage employer’. Living wage employers can use zero hours contracts, offer statutory minima on all other terms, actively break union organisations, but stand in the glorious company of responsible employers who do not, and appear as equals.

The Living Wage Foundation views work as a simple economic exchange – work is about your rate of pay, and nothing else. It’s certainly not about workers having the dignity of being part of setting their terms and conditions through bargaining. Indeed, the rate of pay is set by academics who determine, in a slightly sinister way, what a ‘living wage’ is; how much a worker should be spending on accommodation, travel and leisure. Working people don’t get a look in.

It is of course scandalous that employers do not pay a wage that’s good enough to live on, and those who can’t or won’t, shouldn’t be in business. But a living wage is very different from equitable terms and conditions, a wholesome working life and a fair wage. A fair wage is very different from a living wage – why should a massive corporation be considered in the same breath as a small charity when both are paying their most vulnerable staff the same rate of pay? Surely a multinational can afford a bit more than just a wage to live on? Every workplace is different, so needs its own settlement. The only way these economies can be brought into order is via negotiation, and the accordant respect between the parties who make it up – the parties of capital and labour.

For these reasons and more I believe that we, as Christians, should not be thirsting for justice in the outcomes at work, but justice in the economy of these places. Of course, the word ‘economy’ derives from the Greek for ‘household’, and God’s household of salvation treats us with the dignity, respect and love that any good parent provides. Viewing workplaces like families, where all have their place, but an equal stake, and an equal dignity is perhaps the simplest way to understand why God’s paternal love gives us the freedom to be good and the freedom to make mistakes. Perhaps I shouldn’t have bothered talking for the past twenty minutes and instead simply said that workplaces should be like households, and industrial relations like familial relations.

I’ll put one caveat on it all, however. God’s economy of salvation is only a step on the way to sharing in the feast of heaven, alongside all the angels and saints. It is the path toward a share of his heavenly kingdom, apportioned according to our goodness and our obedience to Him, His Church and His laws. In the same way, the material economy I outlined above is only a step along the way to the fair sharing of the fruits of labour, only following the inevitable revolution where all material things are held in common will this be a reality…

To give thanks for our free will, and the choices of all the saints, as well as to fan the flames of our desire for social justice, I invite you all to join me in the responses of the Angelus, printed on your service-sheets.