St Albans Civic Service - Em's sermon

Environment and Community - the sermon given by the Rev Em Coley at the Civic Service in St Albans Abbey, October 16th 2016​

Em is the Chaplain to the Mayor of St Albans, Councillor Frances Leonard (below), who invited her to speak at the service. More than 300 people attended the service including HM Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, The Countess of Verulam. 

The Mayor of St Albans







The Sermon:

The choir have sung a lovely rendition of Psalm 8. A psalm which reminds us that the beauty of creation is a testament to God. Our environment is precious, majestic, awesome – and we have a duty to ensure it stays that way.

But today I want to talk in more depth about not our physical environment, but the environment of people in which we live.  Our community.

Challenge Anneka

When I was a child there was a programme on TV called Challenge Anneka. Anneka Rice was given a task to accomplish within a certain period of time, usually two or three days. The task was normally in aid of a charitable cause and she would have to persuade companies and people to contribute their time and resources for free in order to get it done.  One memorable episode, Annie was given the task of refitting a Romanian Orphanage. Anneka was reduced to tears by the sight of the orphaned babies in their cots.  I was reminded of this programme last week as I read a book on loneliness:

I once visited a psychiatric hospital where hundreds of children with severe disabilities were lying, neglected on their cots. There was a deadly silence.  Not one of the was crying. When they realise that nobody cares, that nobody will answer them, children no longer cry.

It stuck me that loneliness is the opposite of community.  Community is about living alongside other people, sharing with them, being involved in their lives. Loneliness is about isolation. An absence of people.  Perhaps an absence of understanding.

Biblical Community

We have heard two readings from the Bible which create pictures of what community can look like. From Isaiah, a passage where creatures who should be a threat, live in peace with those they could threaten; those they are different from:

6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,

    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

    and a little child shall lead them.

7 The cow and the bear shall graze,

    their young shall lie down together;

    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The second is from Luke’s gospel where Jesus asserts that the good news of God’s love is for those who have been overlooked in society:

 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because he has anointed me

        to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

        to let the oppressed go free

I think we are very good at creating or being a part of community where we’re not threatened by those also in it. We 'do community' with people like us. But what about people who are different? People who have a different outlook on life, political beliefs, different skin colour, different background, different prospects…

And what about people who have been overlooked – the unimportant, the outcast, the unloved.

Can you support the food bank? St Albans for refugees? That person with no friends at school, at work…

Society Values

I have been on sabbatical for the last three months researching a book about those with chromosomal abnormalities.  So I was really interested to watch the documentary by Sally Philips on the new screening for Downs Syndrome. If you haven’t seen it do watch it – still on iPlayer.

At the heart of this programme is the question – what do we value. Or rather, who do we value?

And this seems to me to be an important question as we think about community – what values are we embodying in the communities we are a part of?


Being a part of a community does not mean that we are never lonely.  I think we can all identify times when we have felt lonely. Perhaps we have been overlooked, of left out. Perhaps we have felt unwanted. Perhaps we have not been chosen.

The good news for all of us today, is that however 'unacceptable' we may feel – the love of God reaches to us. It reaches to the ends of the earth, to the edges of society. And so it touches us. And God whispers I love you.

And so we are challenged to go out and live this love by creating and being a part of communities that are inclusive, accepting, welcoming; that make sure no one has to experience a devastating sense of loneliness again.


And as I started with one TV programme I shall finish with one. It seems to me that the current equivalent of Challenge Anneka is DIY SOS.  Another programme where the skills and resources of mainly tradesmen and women are freely given in order to transform the homes of people who have been significantly disadvantaged often by illness or tragedy.

At the end, the people who have been helped thank the trades people and big, burly looking men are in tears!

As am I!

Then Nick Knowles, the presenter of DIY SOS finishes each episode with a short reflection on the community that has come together to make this transformation.

On one recent episode he said:

They say helping someone doesn’t change the world but it makes a world of difference to that person. These trades and suppliers have proved that. You can’t help everybody, but everybody can help somebody.

May we be inspired to come alongside others, to be in community with people, however different they may be, and by showing them that they are loved, help them to be the people they were made to be.