The hymn Amazing Grace, which we have just sung, is well known. It shot to fame in the 1970s when the pipes and drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards released a recording of it and it held the number 1 spot for nine weeks. It was written by a former captain of a slave ship, John Newton. His life was dramatically changed by a conversion experience triggered by reading a spiritual classic, ‘The Imitation of Christ’ by 15thcentury writer Thomas à Kempis. He was on a long voyage across the Atlantic. A violent storm blew up and he found himself crying out to God for help – we’re not told of the cries from those in appalling conditions below decks, but perhaps that played on his mind too. John Newton later credited that storm for the first stirrings of his faith.
He gave up the slave trade and seafaring and, after becoming a friend of John Wesley, trained for Anglican ministry, being ordained in 1764. This hymn first appeared fifteen years later. It refers to his intense conversion experience and his profound sense that it was only the overwhelming grace of God which saved one as wretched as he saw his earlier life to have been. People can change in dramatic ways when something stirs deep within.
The slave trade is quite a topical subject at the moment, with concern rightly being expressed about what is politely referred to as contested history and monuments, with its legacy. The more I look at this, the harder I think it is to separate out that legacy. It is so shot through British history that there is no institution that has not been touched and benefited from its profits, the church included. The statue of slave owner Thomas Picton is in the process of being removed from Cardiff City Hall at the moment. The other day, I was talking to one of the architects involved.
At a recent conference, one of the speakers, a woman of colour, spoke about how for her the important response was to be open and tell the story. Admit where things have gone very wrong and evil has been perpetrated by people who have also used their wealth for good. The story is complicated and we kid ourselves if we think we can separate out the good people from the wholly bad people. There are shades in us all, though for some that shading is very dark. So, we can’t airbrush the past and shouldn’t. What we can do is own up to it, tell the whole story and explain how and why we aim to be different today.
The complexities of what lies behind how we go about things, the moral blind spots we can all have, is one of the reasons why I think the values in the Nolan Principles of Public Service are so important. These form the basis of the Act of Re-commitment we will say together later. All of us need something to call us back to what is actually to be our primary task in public life, especially when the complexities of ourselves let alone the issues are in front of us. Who do we serve, how do we ensure that the highest standards are advanced and upheld? They are questions for a city council as much as any other public body. We know that these principles came out of a very shady time of British political life – with cash for questions and various other sleaze stories. These prompted the then Prime Minister, John Major, to set up the Nolan enquiry that produced them.
Being selfless, having integrity, acting impartially, being accountable, open and transparent, honest and having respect for all people regardless of their background, these are core, foundational values for public service and it is the responsibility of leadership to ensure they are upheld. They are reflected in the principles of good governance for charities and are what we would include if we tried to define what it means to behave decently.
They put a method into the summary in our first reading (Micah 6:8) of what it means to be good: doing justice, loving mercy and walking with humility before God. In our second reading (Philippians 4:8), used at the Queen’s Jubilee Service just a few weeks ago in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, truth, honour and justice were centre stage. And then we have the phrase echoed in St David’s final words to his friends and fellow monks: ‘keep on doing the things you have learned and heard and seen in me’. As St David put it, ‘be joyful, keep your faith and do the little things you have seen and heard in me’.
Wales is a much more multicultural society than it once was. A school near here has 35 languages among its students, way beyond the bilingual focus on Welsh and English – and I was reading in the National of the plans for teaching Welsh to all students to expand it. But with cultural diversity, when we are rooted deeply in our own faith, tradition or cultural identity, we can find that there are far more points of convergence on basic moral principles for governance, public life and what it means to be decent. These points of convergence, of meeting, show that truth does have something eternal and foundational within it that is shared and crosses boundaries. It’s not just some slippery term to be scared of and airbrushed away in case we offend. If it is true, it will only offend those who want to ignore these principles. All people of good will find they can converge on them.
So today, as we come here to this ancient sacred place, the one on which the settlement that became Newport is founded, we are taken to the heart of what guides public service. Truthfulness, integrity, impartiality, accountability, openness, honesty and respect for all; in these we will find the building blocks of a healthy society. May God bless you all as you struggle with the difficult issues you face, wrestle with solutions and seek to work for the wellbeing of all the citizens of this city.
Sermon for Civic Service, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 26th June 2022