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Cardinal's sermon at United Guilds Service, 31 March 2006
posted on 03 April 2006
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor

How delighted I am to be with you today, both as Archbishop of Westminster and as a freeman of the City; and how grateful I am for the opportunity to preach here, in this marvellous place.

I was invited to take the freedom by the Corporation, which I think is what passes in the world of guilds and liveries for a back door, or at least an easy passage -- I havent had first to earn the freedom of a Company by dint of hard work and exemplary behaviour. But Im not complaining. A back door into freedom is certainly better than no door at all.

Ive got privileges, you see. I am sorry to hear that the Mayor of London does not believe that freemen are exempt from the congestion charge; but I can still wander through the City with my sword drawn at any time I like; and have the right, when drunk and disorderly, to be escorted back to Westminster Cathedral by the watches; and it is very reassuring to know that I have the right to be hung by a silk chord, and not any old rope. But best of all, given my experience sometimes of the media, I very much like the idea of being exempt from the attentions of the press gang.

Many of the bishops who have addressed you in previous years from this pulpit have come through the livery companies: Lord Carey, I believe, was associated with the Scriveners; the current Archbishop of Canterbury took his freedom via the Wax Chandlers, and the Bishop of London is a Vintner. These are both very appropriate guilds for leading churchmen. Of course, almost all of your companies have served the Church over the centuries: one thinks rather obviously of the Parish Clerks, but especially of the Drapers and the Goldsmiths, the Stationers and the Glaziers, not to mention the Cordwainers and Glovers. The Church in medieval England must have depended greatly on the Bakers and the Vintners; and where would Catholics have been on Fridays without the Fishmongers, who have so skilfully organised this service?

I think you wouldnt be surprised, however, if I needed to choose one of you and opted for the Woolmen, the natural home for pastors. The Woolmen still have the privilege, I understand, of moving large numbers of sheep across LondonBridge without paying heavy tolls -- although the Police these days are not anxious for them to assert their rights.  Nor, I imagine, would my neighbour, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark ,be too pleased if I drove too many of my  unruly flock into his patch.

Until I came here today, I thought that a gathering of cardinals was, sartorially speaking, the worlds most colourful event; but 107 liveries gathered together St Pauls is, Ill admit, serious competition. It was just under a year ago that I gathered with 114 other cardinals from throughout the world to choose, in the sight of God, the successor of St Peter.  Its not an everyday experience, you know. I will never forget standing with my vote in hand, looking up at Michelangelos fresco of the Last Judgement, to declare: I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.

People find the process of electing a Pope rather hard to understand: the Holy Spirit is deemed to make the choice, but it is obviously also a very human process. In fact, the gift of the Holy Spirit does not reduce human responsibility, but heightens it: we were very aware, in making our very rational, very human decision, that we had to discern, to remove unworthy motivations for voting this way or that. Above all we needed to pray, so that our choice would, in some mysterious way, conform to Gods will.  For Christians, there is no contradiction between the two: bringing God into the process does not leave the human part out.

Like conclaves, the guilds have a history which meshes the human and the divine, the practical and the spiritual, the everyday and the eternal. They are, in this sense, very incarnational organisations, and therefore widely misunderstood. When they were at their most prominent, they were a way of seeking both prosperity in this life and glory in the next. Righteous living according to the Christian catechism, was vital, because the fates of members were linked together; this was especially true in the era after the Black Death, when Guilds became extended families, assisting people through times of crisis: solidarity went along with discipline, righteousness and piety.

Guilds were fraternities which combined the regulation of work with religious observances, an idea expressed in the title of worshipful company you still use today. Peter Ackroyd in his book on London captures the inseparability of the religious and the mundane in our medieval city. The bells of the church, he writes, tolled the end of each trading day, and the traders weights were tested and measured at the market cross. Could we say that the administrators of the Church in London were thoroughly secularised? Or that the citizens, avid for trade and capable of great savagery, were thoroughly spiritualised?  

Guilds have stood, and continue to stand, for things in combination which the modern world has been eager to separate: industry and godliness in the one hand; solidarity and equality on the other. These are false choices. The Guild principle is really the principle of interdependence. That is the rock on which guilds were founded, and it is the reason they have endured. We all need rocks. A priest-uncle of mine had the rather endearing habit when he made short speeches at our family gatherings by beginning always with the words from Isaiah, Remember the rock out of which you were hewn.  The rock was faith and family. But he had other sources of solidity too. That uncle was stationed in the Channel Islands when the Second World War broke out and had a very hard time during the Occupation.  Having a wireless was strictly prohibited under the pain of concentration camp. My uncle took his wireless and hid it under a slab beside a pillar in the church.  Every night he would lock the church, take out the wireless and listen to the 9 oclock news on the BBC, to hear a voice that was true and gave indications of hope for the future. But his true rock was his own personal faith and hope, which never failed.

Jesus parable in todays Gospel is about two kinds of house: one built on solid foundations, the other on unstable foundations. The stable foundations are Gods word: Gods will, Gods reality, Gods power. And Jesus is specific: it is not just a question of hearing the Word, but acting on it: action rooted in

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