St Philip and St James’s church, Grafton Road, Cheltenham, GL50 2DD

Salt, Light & a City Built on a Hill…

You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.

A city built on a hill cannot be hidden…

Sermon preached by Revd. Nick Davies, Team Rector, 9th February 2020

These last few weeks the reputation of the Church of England has been dragged through the mud on two occasions.  Firstly, through the BBC documentary dramatising the offences and subsequent investigation into Peter Ball, past Bishop of Gloucester.

The programs dramatised the findings of the inquiry into Bishop Peter Ball which concluded that he was able to abuse scores of vulnerable teenagers for decades. The report went on to accuse the Church of England of putting its own reputation above the needs of victims and of offering security and protection to abusers, who were able to ‘hide in plain sight’.

Watching these programs was sickening and disturbing; I was struck by the delusion and menace of Peter Ball  and by the grace and bravery of his survivors who are able to speak reflectively about their traumatic experiences. I was also struck by the tragedy of Niell Todd, who was abused when he was 16 years old and reported the matter to the police only for the prosecution to be dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service. When a second investigation was launched, years later, Neil could not face the trauma of reliving those experiences and took his own life, aged 38. All of this information was already in the public domain and had been part of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse but this thoughtful documentary brought it again to public attention.

The second recent occasion that I was referring to, was the publication a couple of weeks ago of the so-called a Pastoral Guidance from the House of Bishops. This statement baldly underlined the traditional teaching of the church that heterosexual marriage is the only appropriate context for sexual relationships. It clarified that civil partnerships are not equal to marriage and ought not to be blessed by the church.

The statement was considered by many to lack any pastoral or caring language and to undermine the ongoing process of listening and discussion known as ‘Living in Love and Faith’. The statement was also perceived by the wider media as confirmation that the church is hopelessly out of touch or, as the Independent newspaper put it, “sex obsessed Church of England digging its own grave”. The publication of this document was criticised by Bishop Rachel and last week the Archbishops of Canterbury and York both apologised for the release of the statement and reaffirmed their commitment to the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ process. But for many the damage was done.

I have to say that I’m not too bothered about the corporate reputation of the Church of England. What bothers me, is that these development, sinful, institutional and tragic in the first instance and clumsy, uncaring and irrelevant in the second – these things make our beliefs seem delusional, our moral claims seem hypocritical and our role in the life of our nation to be obsolete at best- damaging at worst. So it is, that I come to our Gospel with a sense of shame and remorse.

Our reading today follows the Beatitudes and continues Jesus central teaching on the life of the church. Jesus says ‘You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world and a city built on a mountain top.’ A bright and distinctive exemplar of the love of God and the God of love. A high calling indeed.

But whilst the metaphors used here are vivid and challenging, the real word that packs a punch in this reading is the word “you” in Greek Ὑμεῖς.  Because this word means ‘you’ plural and therein lies the challenge. Jesus is not here inviting us on a personal journey of self-improvement but rather to form a community shaped by the Gospel.

So, it is we who are called to be the salt of the earth, we who are to be the light of the world, we together who are to constitute that city on the hill. Together, we are to become that bright and distinctive exemplar of the love of God and the God of love.  And in the situations I’ve outlined earlier, we have been very, very far from that.

So how might we approach such a city, how might we climb such a mountain how might we begin to kindle such a flame? Allow me to suggest three next steps out of the abyss in which we find ourselves…

We get some clues in a reading from Isaiah this morning, who reminds us that the truth of our faith is not to be found in our religious practices but rather in the integrity of our lives. In many ways twas ever thus but most especially in our 21st-century postmodern context.  For the world is not interested in the claims which we make but rather in the life which we lead.  And we need, as a church, to be better at living as if the truth was true.  For if we are not prepared radically to reshape our lives around what we believe, then why should anyone else?

The second thing that the church needs to do is to continue and deepen our commitment to safeguarding. The Church of England and our diocese have made huge progress in these matters over recent years. But a recent independent review of our own diocese which was debated at Diocesan Synod last week concluded that there is still work to be done. So if you have recently received an email as a volunteer at the Pip and Jims asking you to undertake further safeguarding training, please do not ignore it. This is God’s work.

The third thing that we need to do is to have honest conversations around relationships, sexuality and marriage. The ‘Living in Love and Faith’ process which I outlined earlier will be producing resources for group discussion this summer and I feel it would be good for us as a South Cheltenham team to spend some time this autumn reflecting together on those resources, as part of our contribution to the debate in the wider church.

Interestingly the group that have been working on this has already produced some principles for better conversations and they are these; we should acknowledge prejudice, we should speak into silence, we should address ignorance, we should cast out fear, we should admit hypocrisy and pay attention to power.  These seem to be good starting points.

I would like to finish with one last thought. For nigh on 500 years the Church of England has attempted to serve this land not in the Latin of a distant magisterium, or doctrinal machine,  but rather in pastoral conversation with our nation, in the vernacular, the language of the day and that is a skill we need to learn afresh in each generation, if we are to have any chance of avoiding the dialogue of the deaf which has characterised these last few weeks and instead have a chance of pointing our nation towards the love of God and a God of love.


Some weblinks…

Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse:

Gloucester Diocesan Safeguarding Team:

Living in Love and Faith:

Pastoral Principles for Conversation:









Date Posted Title Listen Download
Feb 9, 2020 Salt, Light & a City Built on a Hill… Listen Download