SPCK 26 February 2017

SPCK 26 February 2017

On 26 February 2017 our preacher at the 1100 service of Holy Communion was Mrs Primavera Quantrill, Fundraising and Programmes Director at the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), who currently heads SPCK’s mission and outreach programmes.

SPCK, founded in 1698, is the oldest Anglican mission agency and the third oldest publisher in the UK. SPCK is also the country's largest independent Christian publisher and was recently awarded the Specialist Consumer Publisher of the Year award from the Independent Publishers' Guild (IPG - see here). SPCK remains true to its charitable roots and continues to do mission work in schools, prisons and even on public transport.

In her sermon, Mrs Quantrill drew on the day's readings - Chapter 13 of St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians and Luke 18:31-43 - and reflected on the concept of charity in today's world. She described in particular SPCK's charitable work in prisons, providing books specifically aimed at prisoners to improve their literacy and to prompt them to think about how they might live when back in society at the end of their sentences. She quoted three former prisoners who described how important SPCK's texts had been in helping them to change their lives on release. Many more prisoners could be helped in this way if SPCK received sufficient funding.

You can learn more about SPCK's work and how you can contribute to it - as well as accessing SPCK's online catalogue of publications - here.

Here is the text of the sermon:

And though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains and have not charity, I am nothing. (Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verse 2)

These are some of St Paul’s most famous lines and even people who aren’t religious would say this was obvious. You can just hear people moaning,  “You hypocrites who go to Church, singing your hymns and reading your Bible, but never doing anything for anyone else -  what sort of religion is that?”

But that’s not just what St Paul is saying, is it? Humans help each other out for their own survival – we are all aware that we need society to work for our lives to be bearable, but we also get a flush of endorphins, feel-good hormones, when we do something nice for someone else, so it doesn’t take a special kind of faith to do a good deed – many people do good without a particular faith.

But St Paul asks us to look further than the sort of kindness we associate with the word “charity” these days. He even says, Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor…and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

So, charity is more than just giving our goods to the poor. St Paul is talking about Agape, the true love that comes from God. Not romantic, sexual, hearts-and-flowers love, like Romeo and Juliet. Not love like the way I’d love a coffee right now, or Homer Simpson loves doughnuts or even the way my five year-old niece loves Disney’s Frozen. He’s not even talking about the way we love our friends and family, but something truly divine that almost transcends our understanding, where we give something of ourselves to the other, where we truly want the best for them, with no expectation of return, simply because we have been inspired to participate in the self-giving love of the Trinity.

So what does “charity” really mean here? Let’s go back to St Paul: Charity suffereth long and is kind.

But how much should we suffer? We each of us have different gifts and we are not all called to kneel in the dust of a bomb-ravaged street and give a drink to a dying orphan. If there weren’t people with what we might call “normal jobs”, where would the wealth to support the poor come from? But the Bible cannot be clearer; those of us who do have wealth should give it to those who don’t, and give until it hurts. I am deeply impressed by Bill Gates giving 90% of his fortune to development work and he is a wonderful example to all, but he is so rich that even though he has given away 90% of his money, he is still a billionaire. How uncomfortable is his philanthropy really? The other day I was talking to a senior public servant who was bemoaning the fact he had taken a salary cut of 90% to enter into public service. His new position was effectively costing him about £1.5million per year. But he still earns 7 times the national average. “Well, boo hoo,” I thought, until pulled up by St Paul again: charity envieth not. This man (who is a very nice Christian chap, by the way), has done a very generous thing in the service of the public and for him and his wife who have been used to so much more, the change of lifestyle is a considerable shock.

Whether they – or you, or I - have done enough is between them and God and can’t be measured by any known standard. Everyone has their own level and we need to be honest before God about what we can really do. Giving away so much that can’t afford school uniform for your children or you fall into arrears on the mortgage may not be entirely responsible, but do you really need that second or third holiday this year?

But let’s not get hung up on money; giving our goods to help the poor, as St Paul has already reminded us, without true charity, profiteth me nothing. He is clear that we have to give generously and really mean it, to people who may be hard to love. True charity means desiring and doing good for someone even though you didn’t like them, perhaps even someone who had harmed or injured you or your loved ones. Agape is not about liking something, like doughnuts, or coffee or a person you have a real affinity with – it goes much beyond mere liking. CS Lewis, who writes so well on charity in Mere Christianity as well as The Four Loves says, in his usual matter-of-fact style, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour – act as though you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as though you love someone, you will presently come to love him.”

And, guess what, this so-called secret, which is common to all world religions that I know of, is now even being scientifically proved by psychologists to be true – several studies have found that people who do nice things for other people are happier, even if the beneficiaries don’t even know about the kind act. Erm… thanks for catching up, guys.

So, giving money is just part of it. For some, giving time may be more of a sacrifice but actually being with the people, who need your help and whom you may not even like very much, is nearer the mark.

So what are we, SPCK, doing as a charity, really to show Agape to those we help?

Many of you know that SPCK, founded in 1698 is the oldest Anglican mission agency and you might also know that we’re the largest independent Christian publisher in the UK. You may not know that we have also been recognised in the general book trade as a force to be reckoned with. Our CEO, Sam Richardson, won “Young Publisher of the Year” in 2016 and last week SPCK was named “Specialist Consumer Publisher of the Year” by the Independent Publishers’ Guild. I’ve put a very small number of our excellent books at the back for you to look at. Please feel free to leave a donation and take one home.

But not everyone knows that, as well as equipping Christians like you with spirituality and theology books and other resources to enable your personal mission and your growth in the Christian faith, we at SPCK also aim to share that faith with everyone.

Lest I become as a tinkling cymbal…I will show you what that means with some stories from just one of SPCK’s programmes – our Prison Fiction project which provides easy-to-read fiction books for prisoners.

A few weeks ago I heard from a prisoner at HMP Lewes, let’s call him Rob. He had joined a reading group at the prison run by the librarian in order to help improve his reading skills. We can imagine the kind of childhood he had which meant that he hadn’t learned to read properly at school, had been unable to get a job and had ended up on a route that led him to prison. In the reading group they looked at Barcelona Away, one of SPCK’s series of books written specially for prisoners. These are his words:

[Barcelona Away] was very gripping. Once I started to read it I could not put it down. It made me think of others rather than myself all the time. This book is well written and has a great story to it. I look forward to others.

Another Prisoner, from Erlestoke, whom we call Tyler, said

I like the book [Forty-six Quid and a Bag of Dirty Washing] because it made me think about what I’ll do when I get out. I’ve decided that I’m not going to drink on the train taking me home.

And Ned from Channings Wood began to understand more about the consequences of our actions when he read Bare Freedom:

There’s a bit where Barry walks past a car and sees a handbag, and I thought to myself, “How easy to just nick it.” But I liked how Barry reflected on the consequences of doing that. And that’s something I can do in the future too. I really connected to the themes in the book.

When the blind man in today’s Gospel calls out to Jesus Have mercy on me, Jesus asks what he wants. Lord, that I may receive my sight, he replies. That’s what these prisoners want; they want to understand where they’ve gone wrong and learn how to make better choices. The SPCK Prison Fiction series really does deliver that and the need for groups in prisons around the country far outstrips the numbers of volunteers who come forward to run them and the funding we have to supply the books. So when a prisoner says Have mercy on me, please don’t be as sounding brass.