I’ve recently returned from the Lambeth Conference and I found it a powerful experience in many ways, not least the impact of being with clergy from around the globe. I don’t think I’d ever really appreciated what being part of a world Church meant before.
And there were many rich conversations. One evening I was talking with a bishop from the Philippines; he asked me how the five marks of mission for the Anglican Communion were being experienced in the Church of England. I spoke for a few minutes about some of the ways we are proclaiming the Gospel, our nurturing of new believers and the growing environmental awareness in our parishes and so on.
When I’d finished, I asked him the same question. How do the five marks of mission play out in the Filipino Church? He looked at me and answered in just seven words ‘We speak for those who are suffering’, he said.
We speak for those who are suffering. That simple sentence goes to the heart of God’s mission for his Church far more powerfully and truly than any contrived statement, policy document or, indeed, pontification from me.
But if speaking for those who are suffering is our focus, we have much work to do.
The escalating cost of living, the fuel crisis, the climate emergency, forced displacement, trafficking, slavery, racism, inequality in the workplace, domestic violence, abuse, the pain of those unable to marry before God in his Church…so much of suffering, so much we are called to speak into and act upon.
And the Magnificat – Luke chapter 1 46-55 – is Mary’s Song of Hope for all those who suffer. It is the prayer of salvation of the oppressed and the stadium anthem of liberation theology, proclaiming release for the poor and praying for the rich, since it is they who are to be sent empty away.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Magnificat ‘the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung’. It has been seen as having such dangerous potential that it has a history of being banned from liturgy and public worship in several countries.
One commentator on the Magnificat (i) gives us the following
”…in the Gospel of Luke, the story of Jesus begins…two women walk in from the margins of power and announce the toppling of every power; and they proclaim the freedom of all. Good news for the poor, good news for the hungry, good news for everyone who has been held down low.
And this is the song Mary sings…
What God is doing in the world, God is doing in me.
My soul, my whole being, magnifies him.
Look! In choosing me, God is lifting up the humble
Look! God is bringing down the powerful
Look! God is sending the rich away empty
Look! God is filling the hungry with good things
Look here…my life…my very life…embodies God’s work of liberation in the world”
In this piece from Luke, God is again about his work of healing and restoration; but this time it isn’t focused on those who are physically unwell, but rather those who are rendered sick and are dis-abled by their oppression, their marginalisation, their lack of status, agency, money or voice.
This is the stuff of transformation, of subverting the status quo and of the establishment of a just and kingdom-based world order.
And in this song Mary sees that promise of fulfilment embodied in her. She speaks of being lifted up, filled, honoured when, at the time Mary sings, women were regarded as belongings, they were objects of men and elite men in particular, there were even those who questioned whether women had a soul. And here is this nobody in the world’s terms, chosen to birth the kingdom of God on earth.
And, as with Mary, so we are each called to bring into the world the gifts of the kingdom of God which lie within us. In Galatians 3 we are told that we have been redeemed by Christ and are the very children of God, we are no longer slaves to any worldly power; that sense given by Jesus in John 17 that we are in the world but not of the world and that, as such, we are to live as those who embody and bring forth justice and mercy, those who seek the subversion of systems that oppress, who hear the cry of the suffering and who do not pass by. For God himself has clothed us with the garments of salvation, and covered us with the robe of righteousness, Isaiah 61 tells us. It is our calling to be a conduit of God’s transforming power in the world.
It is a calling to justice without compromise, love without limits and mercy for the repentant; it is to draw the ears of the world to the voice of the voiceless, and to offer lament and solace to those who suffer and grieve. It is to be a people of divine disruption.
And in this song of Mary’s, we find hope for our time and a wake-up call for the Church.
For we are called in this season to sing our own song of liberation and of hope. As we feed the hungry, support the vulnerable and provide warmth and shelter to those facing a hostile winter, so we must also speak with boldness into the issues of social injustice and growing inequality that sees ourselves and our neighbours needing those things in ever growing numbers and with increasing frequency.
In Mary’s Song, God’s vision is for the hungry to be filled with good things and the rich to be sent empty away. But our current system of taxation, coupled with increasing constraints on benefits, has precisely the opposite effect. Since 2010, millions of people in this country have been systematically managed down into destitution. The role of the local church in supporting and advocating for those people and their communities has never been more key, and the threat to the economic survival of such churches has never been more real.
As people of the Magnificat, we are called to speak into all those issues of inequality that cause crises, like the one we now face, to be so much more acutely felt by those on low incomes and by the vulnerable.
We need the national church to act swiftly to resource churches on estates and in low-income communities to ensure their viability over the coming months.
We need the government to fund local support and provision to enable individuals and communities to organise for survival this winter.
And we need to speak out for change: to refuse to accept that in the world’s sixth largest economy millions using foodbanks is necessary, to refuse to support policies which offer a few more pounds in our pockets through tax cuts that destroy our public services, to refuse to condone the sinful erosion of our well-being as individuals, communities and as a planet, in the name of shareholder profit.
We need to speak out for all those who are suffering and sing a Song of Hope for this time – a song of freedom that will liberate rather than placate, that sees poverty transformed and not simply maintained. Let’s sing of the freedom Christ won for us and of the right to dignity of each of God’s children.
Now is the time to sing this song; so let’s sing, Church, sing!
Scott Clark 2019, with added inspiration from Rev Lisa Larges