A Little Remembrance Sunday Controversy

Well, this morning’s sermon greatly upset two women in the congregation of the parish church for our united service. It was my reference to the mailshot from Boots, about which I previously blogged. A number of things offended them, and they told me after a post-service ceremony at the war graves that I had ruined the service for them.

Firstly they accused me of putting in this example without thinking. (How they knew my thought processes was beyond me.) I replied that it was my Christian duty as a minister to name wrong when I witnessed it. I stand by that, and all the more so, having quoted Martin Luther King at length in the sermon.

Secondly, they said, I should not have picked on Boots, when all the other major stores did the same. I replied that I had previously spoken out against other companies (for example, see this 2003 newspaper piece about Marks and Spencer; when I preached about that at an ecumenical church, an M & S pensioner flew into a rage at the rector about me – she never spoke to me). Boots were just this year’s example.

Thirdly, they were furious because their Boots store did a lot for charity. Currently they have a lot of merchandise for the BBC Children In Need appeal. Maybe so, but I still reserve the right to speak out against sin. My children are wonderful most of the time, but that hardly means I should overlook their misdeeds. It reminded me of a time many years ago when I condemned Freemasonry in a sermon, not knowing that a church member was a mason. He too was furious with me, especially because the masons did substantial charitable work, including in the majority world. But that didn’t mean I stopped regarding Freemasonry as spiritual poison. This objection seems to be based on the heresy that if our good works outweigh our bad ones, we’ll be OK with God. This above all suggested to me that there was little acquaintance here with the need for divine grace.

Fourthly, they said that if I felt this way I should return my ‘Advantage Card’ (Boots’ loyalty card). This criticism had the most weight, I felt. I said I would certainly consider that. Reflecting further I realise it’s not so easy to disentangle myself from the corporate globalised culture, much as I would like to. When I read a year or two ago Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmat’s incredible book Colossians Remixed I was struck by an early statement in the book about how they managed to get all their groceries from a small co-operative shop. Unfortunately we find it less easy to obtain all our needs that way. Nevertheless I did resolve later not to do more Christmas shopping than absolutely necessary at Boots as my own small protest.

I would further observe that the company loyalty of these two women was both touching and frightening. I am sure Boots are pleased to have such loyal employees. But it seemed hugely ironic that at a Remembrance Sunday service where we thankfully had not sung the blasphemous hymn ‘I vow to thee my country’ (‘The love that asks no questions’, etc.) what I had heard outside in the church cemetery was ‘My company right or wrong’. Just as true patriotism reserves the right to criticise one’s nation out of love for it, so we need to be discerning about alll the employers and institutions that claim us.

For a few minutes after this verbal assault I wondered whether I needed to learn a lesson and be corrected. But having shared it with one or two and also given it some further reflection I have concluded that I had basically earned the women’s rebuke as a consequence of preaching something that was faithful to Christ and his Gospel. Of course I could be wrong …

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3 comments

  1. I really don’t understand why they got upset; I have to think that actually your illustration might have been a “symbol” or “focal point” for something else? Perhaps they don’t actually know how to be kind to themselves and thought you were suggesting that it’s “bad” to do so? Perhaps they were angry at someone of whom you reminded them? Who knows?

    I’m reminded of a colleague of mine who told a story about a similar sort of dressing down and when she decided to go have an extended conversation with the people, one of the questions they asked her was “You mean you would have been meeting for worship even if it hadn’t been Remembrance Sunday?” Maybe they expected some sort of national event on the order of Albert Hall last night rather than Christians worship? Again, who knows?

    I have to say that the point you brought out in your sermon is exactly my reaction when I see all these “Buy this product – you’re worth it” adverts. I do think you were being faithful to Christ. Although I understand that the incident would be upsetting.

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  2. They also asked whether it was wrong to make yourself look gorgeous for Christmas. I said my point was about self-indulgence.

    I guess I was a little upset at first, but I told my vicar colleague who just said, “Well done!” and the more I reflected the more I thought I was right. I’ve laughed about it since!

    Hope your probation is going well and that you survived your first Remembrance Sunday in the ministry.

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  3. Yes, I survived. It was nerve-wracking since I consider myself a pacifist. And the nerves came on the Sunday after my first funeral the previous Friday; I felt a lot of the emotions on the Saturday so I’m feeling quite drained at the moment between the two events.

    Thanks for asking. 🙂

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