United Guilds Service

A special service to mark the work of the Livery Companies in the City of London has been held at St Paul’s Cathedral. The 75th Service of the United Guilds of the City of London, at which the Bishop preached, saw representatives of London’s 110 Livery Companies pack into the Cathedral for a service of great ceremony and beautiful music.

Photographs by Graham Lacdao.

The Bishop’s sermon can be read below.

St Paul’s Cathedral – United Guilds Service 2016

You look magnificent. Lounge suits and the female equivalent are the most tedious form of dress ever invented since Adam and Eve made themselves aprons. The fashion is 19th century and has lasted too long. In City Celebrations we should all look like birds of paradise and take a leaf out of the Nigerian book. Colour and pageantry is part of the spice of life and not least in the city of London on a day when we should never knowingly be under-dressed .

But of course it is not the whole of life and the gospel directs us to questions of conduct. Many of you, like me, will have a copy of the Rules for the Conduct of Life which is given to those made free of our City. It is an eighteenth century document which teems with good sense and which has recently been reprised most helpfully in a series of booklets from St Lawrence Jewry.

Many people have essayed to do something similar. The American Ralph Waldo Emerson’s attempt The Conduct of Life was advertised as the “matured philosophy of the transatlantic sage”. It is still worth reading but all these compendious surveys are too bulky to carry into everyday life. I have been looking for some rules of conduct so simple, comprehensive and memorable that they can reverberate in our inner spaces and be available for use in everyday life. I offer you therefore not the mature philosophy of the transatlantic sage but the “simple thoughts of a jobbing bishop” with the intention that you should take up the challenge of devising your own pithy rules for the conduct of life, informed by your own experience.

I have four points to make and it might help to organise them in the mind in the shape of a cross. I respect the truth that we are a very diverse community. I celebrate the fact that it was the City of London which was the very first constituency to elect a Jew to a seat in parliament and that our lives are enriched today with representatives of every one of the wisdom traditions in the modern world. But one of the things which irritate so many of our interfaith friends is how pusillanimous Christians are in owning up to their own faith. Our reticence does not help the development of a moral culture nor does it help the growth of a real tolerance which is based not on indifference but on a respect for freedom. Christians must be tolerant not because we believe so little about God but because we believe so much.

So think for a moment about the shape of a cross. In the first place we should aim high and aim for excellence, for the highest conceivable way of life and doing what we are doing. If you call yourself a Christian that means looking to Christ as God’s plan for mature living, for life in all its fullness.

St John says in his gospel that no one has seen God at any time but that Jesus Christ is the human face of God. He is how we understand what God is like.

God so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Love for God is not so much an emotion which ebbs and flows but his love is self-giving without prior conditions.

So aim for excellence and if you are a Christian, look to Christ and having taken aim at the highest point three other things follow.

God as we see him in Jesus is generous – God so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us. Heaven is built every time we are generous. The livery movement channels the generosity of countrywide networks. I hope that you will resist the siren calls of those who from time to time suggest that it all ought to be rationalised in the interests of efficiency. Livery companies in my experience can and do embrace a great range of causes. You can act with speed and you can back unpopular but important causes given the nature of your decision making processes.

Generosity to the young in education has always been one of your hallmarks and I have seen the transformation of lives in any number of City supported schools notably Christ’s Hospital and King Edward’s Witley.

Education does not exhaust the range of City charities and it is a story which deserves celebration and development. But a generous spirit in business can also yield dividends. I remember a wise banker – they do exist – say “when you do a deal leave something in it for the next man”.

Aim for excellence; look to Christ, be generous and then be humble. The Psalmist says – Man that is in honour and understandeth not is like the beasts that perish. [Psalm XLIX] Jesus Christ taught that the first step in becoming a human being is to refuse to be a little tin god. He came in the form of a servant and was baptised at the hands of John the Baptist in the waters of the river Jordan. I went to the very spot last year. I should have known but did not that it is the lowest place on earth 1300 feet below sea level. Look to Christ; be generous; be humble. Some people develop a sense that they are special and “entitled”. It is a very dangerous idea that the rules just do not apply to us. It is the seedbed of corruption and a yawning trap for the successful.  

But attention, there are many mistakes which people make when they think of humility. It is not beating ourselves up and saying with Uriah Heap “I am so humble” – that is often a bid for power and attention. Every one assembled in this Cathedral today has been given gifts to share. Being humble is being close to the humus, down to earth, recognising that every one of us is wonderfully made and beloved of God. We are not of course Mr and Mrs Perfect and humility can save us from the burnout which sometimes follows an inflated sense of our own importance. Being humble is accepting that we are beloved of God just as we are, when we would prefer to be accepted on our own terms and achievements.

London is full of high achievers, which is marvellous but it can be a very stressful way to live for ourselves and for others. The truth is, as the London prophet William Blake said, “we are put upon this earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love.”    

If you still have the cross pattern in your minds then Aim for excellence; Look to Christ at the very top. Be generous is the right hand arm. Keep rooted; keep humble and lastly make friends.

If we are generous and humble then we shall make friends. We shall sometimes be hurt and disappointed but our personal life is developed and enriched by relationships. I suppose that much of the business of the City could now be conducted via the internet from remote sites but the City and not least its ancient guilds are places where we can learn in company with others how to live the good life because that life is essentially relational and is enriched by going beyond ourselves to embrace the other. A successful city opens up possibilities of living together and a vision of human community capable of promoting mutually enriching relations between strangers.

The fundamental heresy of our time is the assertion that “I do not need you or anyone else to be myself”. Rather the truth is as St Anthony the Great said “I am saved in my neighbour”. This truth is learnt and inhabited by interaction with other people in a mixed community which is what the city and its ancient institutions provide. If we live locked up in ourselves, we shrink. If we love and give of ourselves we grow.

At the end of life when I have stood at the bedside of someone as they lay dying I have never once heard the words – “I do wish that I had spent more time in the office”. Most often the regrets and thanksgivings are about faithfulness in love.

So my rules for the conduct of life come down to four – Aim for excellence, look to Christ. Be generous. Keep humble and make friends. On this day of celebration of our life together in a Cathedral full of urban sages, I would ask you what are your rules?