Time to Cultivate Your Garden?

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor of Canterbury


Autumn is not the most rewarding time for gardening, especially if (like me), it’s the last thing you want to do at the best of times. Fortunately, my parents have recently downsized and my father passed on a wonderful gadget which blows and sucks up leaves, making the most mundane of seasonal gardening tasks an awful lot easier.

Gardening is Britain’s most popular pastime, the recreational response of many to the stresses of daily life. Making things grow, cultivating a little patch of ground, what better way of taking control of something, in a world that feels uncontrollable?

Such was Voltaire’s advice. At the end of his satire Candide, the eponymous hero, having found that the ultra-optimism of Dr Pangloss is rather wanting, responds in disillusion with one of the most famous lines in all literature, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” We must cultivate our garden. In the face of a world that is not as good or as hopeful as Candide had been led to believe, the retreat into the domestic (expressed in the gathering of Candide’s ‘family’ into a simple farming lifestyle) is the best he can hope for and marks a reasonable, pragmatic response.

This year has seen some very good reasons to persuade me to retreat into some philosophical, political or theological gardening:

  • The Brexit vote has thrown much into confusion, especially in my parish which is one of the most prosperous, international, pro-EU communities in the country.
  • The election of Donald Trump last week has thrown much into uncertainty, especially to those of us with an evolutionary, progressive, “things are always going to get better”, dare I say it, Panglossian worldview. Some of our most passionate commitments to equality matters which seemed to me settled in Western public life, appear suddenly more at risk than they have done for a generation. I was struck and slightly chilled by the Government minister present at our Remembrance Sunday Service, who said that this was a time for liberal internationalists, like her and me, to work as hard as possible to prevent that political vision from being lost. How long is it since that has been thought a necessary battle to fight?
  • At a much more personal level, the ongoing agonies of our church over sexuality, cause many of us to ponder whether the church will ever find a way of living with difference, and whether the church really can be good news for sexual minorities. Only this week, as the ultra-conservative GAFCON movement, published my name among many others claiming, effectively, I am a threat to the Gospel in our nation. It is salutary to remember that, if such a list had appeared in a more intolerant Christian culture, it would undoubtedly have been an act of incitement.

Time to cultivate my garden, then? Time to retreat into the personal and the narrowly-parochial? By no means, as the Apostle Paul might have said. Preaching on Remembrance Sunday, I concluded my sermon with these words:

“Because we can turn nowhere else, Christians bring all our fear to the foot of the cross, where the crucified Lord reigns in ultimate victory. In the light of what we see there, we know there is hope. And, in hope, we pray and try to learn the lessons of history and redouble our commitment to a better sort of world. President Barack Obama talked eight years ago of the “audacity of hope.” It may be audacious to hope, and hope can easily give way to cynicism, but hope has always been the energy through which a better world is built.”

Maybe I am being too pessimistic but, like many right now I think, we worry for what the future brings. But my faith is a hopeful faith, built as it is on the cross and empty tomb, on death defeated and Christ triumphant. That means, for me at least, this is not a time to be spending in the tool-shed or the garden, but a time to be preparing myself spiritually for, if not the ushering in of “the best of all possible worlds”, then at least building the vision of the Kingdom the Gospel assures us is God’s purpose for the world.

Gardening tools aside then. Time to put on the whole armour of God.

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