Choices and promises


Choices and promises

Published: 9th May, 2023

The Fifth Sunday of Easter / The Sunday after the Coronation of His Majesty King Charles III

Acts 7.55-end
Psalm 31.1-5
John 14.1-14

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

I was thinking the other day about wine. And particularly, about the kinds of wine I drink. I remembered for some reason that there was a time a few years ago when I drank a lot of German wine. There was a particular red that I liked, made from the grape the French call Pinot Noir, but the Germans call something I can’t pronounce. But I haven’t bought a bottle of German wine for years now. I guess I just got tired of it and moved on to something else. This winter I’ve been in that kind of mood where I wanted to drink nothing but good Bordeaux, insofar as I could afford to. But now that the spring has arrived I’m turning again to lighter, softer reds. And of course we are so fortunate to live in an age and in a place where our supermarket shelves are laden with a variety of wines from around the world that would have be inconceivable even fifty years ago.

Consumerism has had an enormous impact on every aspect of life, and I think we underestimate the extent to which it acts in much the same way as a religion, providing meaning and motivation, and shaping the way we think. And so we have come to value choice above almost anything else. And it is a particular sort of choice; the freedom to choose anything and everything on the basis of how we feel in any given moment. Traditional religion, with its emphasis on commitment, is replaced by forms of consumer spirituality – today I feel like crystals, tomorrow I feel like dabbling in a bit of Tarot, the day after it may be a superficial interest in one or other of the Eastern religions, next week I may even do an Alpha Course. But our religion is really consumerism: the central value is choice, and the thing that determines our choices is our ephemeral and transient feelings; if crystals or Tarot or Alpha stop making us feel good, we just move on to something else, just like I’ve moved on from that German wine.

When it comes to our national life, choice is also very important, and the British people rightly cherish the right to turn out politicians when they feel that they have let them down. Democracy is far older than consumerism, going all the way back to ancient Greece. But consumerism has probably changed the way we think about Democracy too. It’s too big a subject to go into now; suffice to say that declining membership of political parties, and related organisations such as trades unions, and the rise of the celebrity politician, show us that democratic politics today is much less about commitment, and much more about making choices based on instincts and feelings.

But whatever we may learn from our consumerist culture, choice is not the only value that matters.

Watching the Coronation ceremony at a time when preparing couples to be married is very much on my mind, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between the marriage service and the Coronation, and in particular the shared emphasis on promise, commitment, and loyalty. Marriage, unlike the Coronation, does usually begin with a choice; but it is a profoundly different choice to me standing in the supermarket aisle trying to work out whether I fancy a Beaujolais, a Burgundy, or a Bordeaux.

Of course consumerism has impacted on our relationships just as much as it has impacted on our politics. We are I think more inclined than previous generations simply to cast off friends, spouses and even family members when they cease to make us feel good about ourselves. The deep connections formed by previous generations, often over several generations, are rare today.

Promises and commitments are countercultural. We feel that we have a right to be able to respond to situations based on our instincts and feelings in any given moment. We are reluctant to commit ourselves to behave in this or that way when we do not know how we will be feeling about it tomorrow or next year. It is remarkable that so many people are prepared to make such a profound commitment as marriage. Even if it is easier than ever to unpick that commitment through divorce, it is still a huge thing to commit to; it is really something to say to someone: “I could theoretically have any of the billions of people alive on this planet, but I’m going to commit myself entirely and only to you”. There are very few contexts in which such a commitment is offered in our culture.

But the Coronation puts promise, commitment and loyalty at the heart of our public life. And I am very glad that it does. Yes, we have choices about the practical governance of this country through our largely democratic political system, and I am glad of that too. But choice is not the only value that matters. Promise, commitment and loyalty remain central to our constitution, through the promises made before God by the King, and through the reciprocal loyalty to the King as sovereign that is asked of the people. There is an area of our public life which is determined by the free choice of the people; but there is also something that lies beyond it. Whatever our differences of opinion about any number of questions of practical politics, an expectation of commitment and loyalty to the nation and its people remains. The Coronation ceremony is amongst other things a kind of ritual enactment of these ideals.

Promise, commitment and loyalty are everywhere in the bible. We frequently find the word “covenant” in this context, to describe the commitment of God to God’s people, and the people’s reciprocal, and so often imperfect, commitment to God. In today’s gospel we find Jesus’ promise to the disciples: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  There will be times when Jesus’ disciples do not make Jesus feel good about Himself, but His commitment to them stands nevertheless.

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles we encounter another side of commitment and loyalty. Trusting in Jesus’ promises, Stephen like Jesus’ Himself is prepared to commit himself even to the point of death.

The promises and commitments made at yesterday’s Coronation ceremony are embedded within the Christian framework of God’s commitment to God’s people, in much the same way as in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. The promises and commitments that we make are too big for us to bear alone, and yet we make them in confidence that God loves us, and that God will help us. And we make them before God as ultimate arbiter of truth and the ultimate exemplar of loyalty and commitment.

It’s no wonder really that Christian faith appears to be in decline, and it’s no wonder also that support for the monarchy seems to be eroding, especially amongst the young. We have been raised with the values of consumerism, in which the only truth is my own transient feelings, and the ultimate value is my freedom to choose based on those feelings; it’s no wonder that so many of us are profoundly hostile to ways of being based on the values of promise, commitment and loyalty.

The aftermath of the celebrations of this Coronation weekend will be an excellent time to reflect on the promises and commitments we have made in different areas of our lives, and to ask ourselves hard questions about the breadth and length and depth of our loyalties.

But this weekend, let’s focus on rejoicing in our King’s willingness to commit Himself to the service of this nation, and on rejoicing in the very deepest gratitude in the promises made to him and to us by Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory, now and unto ages of ages. Amen.