With the Covid-19 restrictions our 2020 Rededication Service has had to be postponed.
As we wait to get a revised date in the diary for this special event here’s a chance to look back and revisit our 2019 Redediction service.
In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It may be a mark of my basic lack of intelligence, but I have always been one of those people who need very clear written instructions for any given task – to the point where I find ambiguity in the written word profoundly disabling, particularly when it comes to road signs.
There is a road tunnel that goes through Birmingham city centre, which has an instruction at its entrance, which says: ‘Use dipped headlights.’ But for the twenty four years that I regularly drove through that tunnel, I could never work out whether it was telling me to switch on my headlights in the dipped position – or simply advising me that if my headlights happened to be on already, I should dip them. It was fine at night, but I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to be doing when it was daylight, so I always ended up just copying what the car behind me did.
A few summers ago, I was in a multi-storey car park in Bangor, north Wales, which had a ticket machine bearing a sign that said: ‘Change is possible!’ I have still not worked out whether that meant, ‘Change is possible, but not absolutely guaranteed, so if I were you I would insert the correct change’ - or if it was intended as an existential message of hope to all who found their way to that particular car park: ‘Change is possible!’ You can transform your life!’. Or perhaps it was simply a rather ineptly worded sign.
I have had this problem since childhood, when I can remember feeling quite anxious about the warning signs one would see when driving through motorway construction sites, such as: ‘Beware of the Ramp’ (A Ramp? What’s a Ramp?) - fearing that they had unleashed some kind of subterranean monster that ate small children. And having read John Wyndham’s book The Day of the Triffids at a precocious age, I need not explain my alarm at the sign that warned, ‘Giant plant crossing’.
But possibly my all-time favourite was a hand-made sign spotted outside a fruit farm in Sussex, where the owner didn’t have enough space to write the word ‘blackcurrants’ in full. The end result read rather more aggressively than he doubtless intended, as it declared to innocent motorists passing by, ‘Pick your own B. Currants!’
The essence of good and effective communication, as you Marketors will know better than most, has a lot to do with our choice of words and the way we use them. We need to strive for clarity – which requires us to select the appropriate words. We need to understand our audience – to be able to set aside our own preconceptions and think our way into their mindset, so that we can communicate in a way that will engage their interest, and elicit a response. And most importantly of all, we need to reflect the truth: to mean what we say.
And interestingly enough, these are themes that we find in scripture. One of the key reasons why people flocked to Jesus in their thousands was because he spoke to them in a way that was so powerful and engaging that it seized their attention and touched their hearts, to the point where they dropped whatever they were doing and followed him – it was that dramatic.
In our second reading this morning, St Paul describes how he becomes a Jew when speaking to the Jews, and a Gentile when speaking to the Gentiles – in other words, his basic rule of thumb was to put himself in the shoes of the person with whom he is communicating, and speak to them in ways they would be able to hear; in terms that were meaningful to them.
And in our first reading from St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to say what we mean, and to mean what we say: “Let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no”. Speak the truth; speak directly. Because if you do that, people will know that you are trustworthy. And if they know that you are trustworthy, you have no need to bolster what you say with oaths to make your assertions sound authentic. In other words, there is a profound connection between what we say, and who we are. If we speak in a way that is intended to mislead or to deceive, that in itself reveals much about the kind of person that we are. There is a profound connection between truthfulness and trust.
And truthfulness and trust have never been more precious commodities in human communication than they are today. I attended a fascinating day conference last week on the subject of Fake News – and one of the themes that kept recurring was the way in which trust in the major institutions, the traditional building blocks of our society (ranging from government to the Church), has been steadily eroding over recent years, largely unrecognised by those in positions of power – and we are starting to see the consequences of that in some of the more negative forms of populism, which reflect the disenchantment of those who feel overlooked and disenfranchised.
When one of the marks of an effective politician is deemed to be their ability to bat away inconvenient truths or statistics without engaging with them (and this is not a party political point, by the way, because they all do it), then trust is eroded and damage is done to the truth, and credibility is undermined. People cease to believe what politicians tell them, because of the gulf that they can see opening up between words and reality. Likewise, when the Church fails to take seriously allegations of abuse made against those within its ranks, or worse still takes steps to conceal them, then trust is eroded and damage is done to the truth, and the Church’s credibility is undermined.
And what is true of our institutions is, of course, true of us as individuals: what we say matters: when we mis-use of words, in order to mislead or deceive, trust is eroded; and the erosion of trust undermines relationship. And when that happens we are all losers.
I have always been fascinated by the opening words of St John’s Gospel – which are also the opening words of the New Testament: ‘In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ There is a whole lot of philosophy behind that statement, but at a more straightforward level it equates the Word with God: it equates the Word with ultimate truth. In Jesus, the Christ, we see one who was a manifestation of the truth; we see one in whom there was no separation between what he said, and who he was; and it is there that we glimpse the divine.
That profound connection between word, and truth, and being gives us a vision of human wholeness to which we can only ever aspire, and from which we shall always fall short. But regardless of our faith tradition, it is not a bad model for us to try to emulate. Because if we are to see a rebuilding of trust, and a reclaiming of truth, then the task stars with each one of us: in how we live; in how we work; and in who we strive to become. And when we commit ourselves to achieving that, we can know that we do not do so alone, but with the grace of God.