Thursday, 10 December 2015

Christmas Refugees: Micah, Bethlehem, and the Flight to Egypt

Sermon preached at the Northumbria University Carol Service,
Newcastle Cathedral, 10.12.15

O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Bethlehem, the iconic sleepy little town of carol and christmas cards, the dusty backwater that was the long-prophesied birthplace of the Prince of Peace. How ironic that sounds to us today.

Now, Bethlehem is a living symbol of human division at the moment, nearly surrounded and cut off  by the Israeli separation wall.

In fact, Bethlehem, dusty backwater as it was, doesn’t seem ever to have been particularly peaceful. The earliest recorded mention of the town, back in the 14th century BC, comes in a letter asking for a neighbouring king to send some archers to help take it back from insurgents who had overrun it. More recently, in the mid twentieth century it became home to three large refuggee camps as a result of the 1947-8 conflict, and ever since then has had a large population in semi-permanent refugee settlements.

In the prophecy from the book of Micah that we heard at the start of our service, Bethlehem is referred to as the quintessentially small, insignificant place. Its only claim to fame is a distant historical royal connection, as the original birthplace of the legendary King David.
This historic royal connection throws into strong relief the contrast that Micah is drawing, between a small, insignificant backwater and all the powers that be in the world. King David was famously plucked from obscurity as a humble shepherd boy to become King of Israel and establish the dynasty that included such great names as King Solomon. In a similar way, the little town of  Bethlehem - and all that it symbolises of the tattered remnants of Israel's faded greatness now it is surrounded by burgeoning foreign economies and new emergent superpowers - is promised as the source of a new kind of royal power that will change the world for good, and finally, hopefully, establish a lasting peace.

Fast forward 800 years, and in Matthew’s account of the nativity, we seem to see that promise beginning to be fulfilled. And yet the peace of a baby sleeping in a manger is a very transitory thing in Matthew’s account. It is swiftly followed by a bemusing visit from foreign academics, bringing strange and worrying gifts, and then by the terror of a flight from persecution and potential massacre.

Matthew is the only gospel that tells us of the Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt. And just as for those fleeing and displaced around the world today, the focus of their flight is on terror being escaped, not the reaching of some sort of 'promised land'. And it is worth pausing here and noting just how ironic it is that they escape to Egypt in this telling of the story.

Egypt features quite heavily in the Bible, but not as somewhere that the people of God want to reach, not as some sort of safe haven. On the contrary, Egypt is the paradigmatic place that they want to escape from in the history and mythology of the Old Testament. The Exodus from Egypt, from slavery under Pharaoh, crossing the Red Sea, and then spending 40 years in the wilderness rather than go back there, was foundational to the Jewish identity that Jesus and his family were born into.

Egypt was the place the people of God escaped from, not the place they escaped to. It was a place where slavery and luxury lived side by side, a rich powerful neighbor, a place of labour exploitation and consumerism.

Egypt was the place where Joseph – he of the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat – was trafficked to. A place where he narrowly escaped sexual exploitation only to be thrown into prison.

Egypt was the place where Joseph’s family later came to as economic migrants, driven there by years of famine in their homeland.

And now Egypt was the place where the Holy Family fled to as refugees from a local tyrant who wanted to kill them to neutralize any threat to his political power.

Like so many millions of displaced people around the world today, they fled to the nearest place where they would be safe – not the nearest place they could have gone, but the nearest where they knew that international politics meant they’d be safe from extradition or a friendly chat between leaders leading to their assassination. Somewhere where they almost certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable or at home, but where they could at least be secure from the credible threats against them. And like so many hope and pray to be able to do, we are told that they returned home some years later, as soon as they heard the news that Herod had died and so thought they could do so in safety.

In Matthew’s version of events, the birth of Jesus is almost skipped over, and the focus on the terror to come as Herod massacres infants. It is a clear foreshadowing of the clash that will come later, when the grown up Jesus proclaims the coming of Gods kingdom, and this clashes with the interests of the powerful ruling elite. The passages we have heard this evening function as a prologue or overture, setting up the themes to come. Themes of powerful elites and vulnerable masses; themes of innocence and violence; themes of fear and hope.

Wherever you look, the books of the Bible are searingly honest about the propensity of humankind to do evil. Nowadays, we often speak of things like Isis, or a school shooting, or the vicious murder of an innocent passer by, as Biblical or Medieval. We use these words as distancing mechanisms: it is comforting to think that such actions are aberrations, done by people who aren’t really people at all but ‘monsters’. It’s the same human and rhetorical impulse that leads people who wish to deny the humanity of refugees and migrants to refer to them as insects or swarms. Language matters.

And the carefully chosen language of the Biblical writers refuses to let us of the hook. It doesn’t allow us to distance ourselves from evil and brutality, but forces us to confront the fact that these impulses are in all humanity, and in every generation. For thousands of years, human beings have yearned for peace, for a secure world order that will be able to guarantee that people can go about their business in safety. And every generation discovers again that the impulse to maintain what power and security and lifestyle we have at the expense of others is not just an impulse felt by those people out there, and those people long ago.

Herod, we are told, was ‘frightened’. And in his fear, he planned to do away with the one he perceived as a threat. The story goes on to relate how he massacred all the infant boys under 2 years old in Bethelehem, in the hope of killing the right one and also, I imagine, of killing any risk of a rumoured challenge to his authority.

The biblical stories invite us to reflect on ourselves. That fear that Herod felt is not far from the fear of a dilution of our lifestyle, and a challenge to our privilege, that lies behind so much of the rhetoric against allowing refugees and migrants into this country. Think of debates in our own parliament over the last few weeks and months, about bombing Syria, about how many refugees and of what kind and quality to allow in. How much of that rhetoric was actually about our government’s fear of losing its own authority and power in this country, if it didn’t pander to the fears and self-interest of the voters and of our allies? How much of our own inner conflict about how much it is sensible to help refugees is caused by fear of what we might be risking? Do we give a tenner? A hundred pounds? Something that would actually cause us to sacrifice our own standard of living?

It is easy to feel paralysed by the sheer volume of the difficulties and complexities of the situation. It is easy to feel that our small actions, however generous or self-sacrificing, will make little difference in a world where millions of people are displaced, or to feel overwhelmed by the problem of how to help 5,000 new refugees entering Greece alone every night. But as Aidan and Ridley’s experience shows, when you break that problem down into individual people, helping them is as simple as giving out a bottle of water, a blanket, a pizza; or texting a donation to allow others on the ground to buy another bottle of water, blanket, or pizza. [this was a reference to the story, read earlier in the service, of the experience of two Northumbria graduates who ended up helping refugees in Budapest on their travels]

Bethlehem was famously a small, insignificant town, a dusty backwater, its only claim to fame a distant historic royal connection. Yet to that small insignificant town, came a small, apparently insignificant family, and they had a small, apparently insignificant child. They had to flee for their lives, to a place where they were even smaller and even more insignificant; but we still gather here, 2000 years later, to give thanks to God for the birth of that child, and to pray for peace.

So don’t despise the small and apparently insignificant. Don’t be put off helping by the smallness and apparent insignificance of what you can do. It is from the small, the lowly, the forgotten and insignificant that a tiny flame of hope and love and peace is lit. And that light is still spreading its message of hope and love and peace in a dark world.

Martin Luther King said, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’

As we remember the light of Christ coming into the world this Christmas, let us resolve to be ourselves agents of light, committing ourselves to meeting hate with love.


Thursday, 17 September 2015

A Parish Share Approach to Funding the Refugee Crisis?

Just thinking aloud...

Obviously, one of the major problems in practical terms with large numbers of refugees is paying for them to live. Fear of how much this will cost is a major issue in the discussions over open borders and resettlement. Even if they are settled in refugee camps, as they are in large numbers in Jordan and elsewhere, someone has to pay for the tents, the infrastructure, the schools, the medical care, the toilets, etc.

But particularly in Europe, there is the additional factor that the southern countries of Europe bear the greatest costs, as they are nearest. Greece, Italy, Spain - not the wealthiest of European countries - are on the front line. Understandably, they resent more northerly countries like the UK standing back with our arms crossed and saying it is nothing to do with us as the refugees reached them first so are their responsibility.

I wonder if the financial model of the Church of England could have something to offer?

I don't mean so much the 'charity economy', but the Parish Share system. This works in various different ways in different dioceses, but basically the idea is that costs are shared across all the parishes. The total bill for a diocese (mainly clergy stipends and pensions, with a few additional central costs, training and so on) is reckoned up, and then parishes each contribute as they are able. In some places this is shared out on a 'taxation' system, but in the dioceses that I know best, Durham and Newcastle, a voluntary offer system has worked best.

When I was in Newcastle diocese, the system was that the amount was divided between clusters of parishes who then got together, looked at each others finances, and decided between themselves what was the fairest way to divide the amount asked for. In Durham a couple of years ago, Bishop Welby startled everyone by proposing an even more radical solution: parishes would simply offer what they felt was right! The total has gone down - meaning some things have had to be cut - but not by as much as some people feared, and morale in the parishes in relation to their giving has shot up.

Parish Share is a system that means that rich parishes subsidise parishes in poorer areas. Some rich parishes don't like this, of course, and try to wriggle out of their obligations. But overall, the system is a wonderful expression of the commitment of the Church of England to being one body, providing ministry and worship to all who live in this country, without reference to the wealth or resources of the particular area in which they live.

So maybe something similar could work across the European Union, to fund the refugee crisis? After all, this is clearly not a one-nation issue, and it seems very unfair for a disproportionate burden of costs to be allocated purely according to geography.

Maybe the Church of England's Parish Share system is the answer? Could the UN or EU add up all the estimated costs of caring for the refugees, and invite bids towards it? The money given could then be allocated back to the countries in proportion to the number of refugees there.

Ideologically, I guess that if you don't want to express the view that Europe is united, you won't like this idea. But without any coercion or 'centralisation' (after all, the Parish Share system is essentially voluntary - bishops have far less power than people often imagine!), this could be a way of expressing the essential unity of humanity that the people of all European countries have been very clear about in recent weeks.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A brief history of the Anglican Communion

The Archbishop of Canterbury is calling a meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion (ie, the archbishops of the various provinces - so a smaller meeting than the Lambeth Conference, which is all the bishops). The aim, among other things, is apparently to discuss the future organisation of the Communion.

Since its a pretty core belief of mine that we should understand where things came from as a background to discussing them, here's the potted history of the way the Anglican Communion, and the Lambeth Conference, developed. This comes from my book The Essential History of Christianity (SPCK, 2012) - more specifically, from Chapter 10, 'Globalising Christianity: c.1500-1900'.

"The British Empire expanded across much of the globe in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, superseding the earlier dominance of Spain, Portugal and the Dutch Republic. The work of the missionary societies ensured that the Christianity of the Church of England spread worldwide with it. At first, all colonial churches were under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London, but this rapidly became unsustainable and colonial bishops began to be appointed in the late eighteenth century. The first Church of England bishop outside of England was the Bishop of Nova Scotia, appointed in 1787. In 1814, there was an Anglican Bishop of Calcutta; in 1824, a Bishop of the West Indies; and in 1836, a Bishop of Australia. The pace of establishment of colonial dioceses quickly increased, and in 1841 a Colonial Bishoprics Council was established.

In some colonies initially the Church of England was the established church, but this was never universal. In 1861 it was ruled that (except where it was specifically established) the Church of England had the same legal position as all other denominations in the colonies. Thereafter, Anglican churches abroad were in a very different position to the Church of England, and evolved differently and independently. Generally speaking both the mission agencies and the Church of England bishops believed that local leadership was a good thing and was to be encouraged as soon as possible, and in time local bishops began to be appointed. As dioceses spread they became naturally grouped into provinces, under archbishops, and national synods began to legislate independently. The examples of America, Canada and Nigeria illustrate the very different histories of some of this family of churches. 

In America, after the War of Independence (1775-83) the Church naturally had to become independent of crown control. The Episcopal Church was therefore established to replace the Church of England, headed by the British monarch, with an alternative ecclesiastical structure. The first Anglican bishop in North America was Samuel Seabury, who secured his consecration from the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1784. Anglicanism was never, except in a few areas of New England, the established church; and even where it was the official religion, it was in practice only the religion of the elite. The proliferation of denominations in the Great Awakening meant that the American religious landscape was from very early on characterised by variety,diversity and choice.

After the War of Independence many of the defeated loyalists fled to Canada, and Anglicans were numerous among these. As a result, the Church of England became synonymous with the Church in Canada, despite the fact that Canada was not strictly speaking British territory. The first Church of England bishop outside England was one of these refugees, Charles Inglis, who was consecrated as Bishop of Nova Scotia in 1787. The anomalous position of the Church of England in Canada caused considerable unrest from members of other denominations, particularly over land privileges given to Anglican clergy. As a result, the Church in Canada was disestablished in the 1850s, giving all denominations equal civil rights. Until 1955, however, the Anglican Church of Canada was officially titled ‘The Church of England in the Dominion of Canada’.

In Nigeria, the first Church of England mission arrived in 1842, and a local church was quickly established. Henry Venn, Secretary of the Church Mission Society, was convinced of value of indigenous leadership, and championed the ministry of Samuel Crowther, a Yoruba freed slave who was already studying for ordination in London at the time. In 1864 hewas consecrated Bishop of the Niger. Crowther’s ministry was by all accounts a great success, but problems began when a different group of missionaries arrived in 1887 and began to evangelise in competition with the existing diocesan structures. These new missionaries were convinced that Crowther’s patient and gentle missionary work and dialogue with Islam were a disgrace, and after his death they campaigned hard (and successfully) for him not to be replaced by another African. When a European bishop was appointed, some Yoruba Christians were so incensed by CMS’s backtracking on its earlier commitment to local leadership that they formed independent churches; only in the 1950s was another African bishop appointed. Perhaps as a result of this in-fighting and loss of nerve, the church grew only slowly: in 1900, it is estimated that there were around 35,000 Christians in Nigeria, perhaps 0.2% of the population. In the last decades of the twentieth century, however, the church in Nigeria has become the fastest growing church in the Anglican communion, accounting for around 18% of the population in 2000. 

As new dioceses and provinces began to be established, and to develop increasingly independently from the middle of the nineteenth century, the question of what held the churches together began to be asked.

The only parameters of Anglican identity were the use of the Book of Common Prayer, and the 39 Articles, whilst the Archbishop of Canterbury was looked to for leadership effectively by default. 

The first Lambeth conference was held, in 1867, in the context of a widespread desire to condemn Bishop Colenso of Natal for his unorthodoxy. Colenso had been appointed bishop of the new diocese of Natal in 1852, a diocese that had been financed by fundraising by Bishop Gray, the first Bishop of Cape Town, and SPG. Bishop Gray was therefore horrified to discover that he had appointed someone he came to view as a heretic. Colenso threw himself into mission to the Zulu people, and was innovative in working to inculturate Christianity. He was assisted by a number of native speakers, especially William Ngidi, and was criticised for allowing Ngidi’s questions to shape his thinking. But most controversial was his commentary on Romans, which went beyond the bounds of accepted orthodoxy on sin and justification. In 1863 the Church in South Africa declared him a heretic, but Colenso appealed to the British courts arguing that his was a crown appointment not Bishop Gray’s. He won his case and remained in post, to the chagrin of Bishop Gray. 

The case of Colenso raised questions not only of orthodoxy, but of provincial autonomy. The Church of Canada, which had taken a lead in condemning Colenso, led calls for a meeting which would give definitive leadership. However, some bishops were reluctant to attend, fearing that it would become a legislative body and compromise their local autonomy. A commitment was made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, therefore, that the conference would be only consultative, and that any resolutions would be simply advisory. The Lambeth conference met again in 1888, and at that meeting made its most enduring statement, the Lambeth Quadrilateral. This set out the four bases of Anglican identity (the Bible, the creeds, the two sacraments of baptism and communion, and the historic episcopate, and was originally intended to provide a basis for discussions with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Incidentally, it established the most widely accepted parameters of Anglican identity."

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Project Padding1 and my daughter's tears

I'm almost tempted to call this post 'I suggested my children gave a teddy to a refugee. What happened next astounded me'...

A child with teddy and note to a refugee child, from the group facebook page
If you haven't heard of Project Padding1 yet, don't worry - it only started 3 days ago. But it has already attracted a lot of attention, has nearly 3,000 followers on its facebook page, and is establishing regional hubs as I write.

The idea is to get children to send a teddy, with a handwritten note, to a refugee child in Syria. The notes are heartwarming and tearjerking.

But that's not why I'm writing this.

This tea time, I told my children about the project and suggested that some of their vast horde of bears might be usefully shipped off in this way. My ten year old son nodded thoughtfully. My six year old daughter burst into tears.

Tears of real desolation and pain. She wasn't sniffing delicately, she was howling great, loud, snot-laden gulping tears.

'I - don't - want - to give - my teddies - AWAY!' she howled.

My husband and I patted her calmingly and soothingly said we understood, she hadn't got to, nobody was going to make her give one of them away, it was up to her.

That just made the crying worse.

'But I - don't want - them - not - to - have - a teddy - EITHER!' she bawled. 'I don't want - NOT - to give - one away. But I don't want them to go!' Cue a fresh explosion of tears.

And it seemed to me that in her childish honesty she had perfectly encapsulated the mixed feelings most people have about the migrant crisis. We don't want them to be suffering - it is almost unbearable. But we don't want to give up our valued stuff, our valued standard of living, either.

I suggested a compromise. How about we go and buy a new teddy?


Maybe just her brother would like to send a teddy?


We will send teddies. To be honest, she has so many she probably wouldn't actually notice a giant teddy cull if I didn't tell her about it - and we can easily afford to buy new teddies if sending hers is too much of a jump. (As her brother pointed out solemnly, he thinks of his teddies as almost like family, so it is a big ask to send one away overseas not knowing if it will arrive safely).

But that voice of her uncontrollable sobbing will stay with me, voicing the thoughts of our inner child - the young, toddler Brittania deep inside our country's psyche - who is struggling to hold together the two contradictory impulses, to help and to hold tight to what is ours.

So lets be kind to our inner child in these debates. Let's name and recognise the fact that it is hard to prise that toddler fist open. We know we want to be generous, but it is difficult. We have grown up being trained to hold onto what is ours, to be careful with it, to know the value of money, to know that things don't grow on trees, to know that we should share, yes, but that they should give us our stuff back at the end of playtime.

Shouting 'don't be selfish!' into the debate is unlikely to work. (My eldest tried it at the tea table. It didn't work). Acknowledging the inner struggle, and that it IS a genuine struggle, is much more likely to be succesful.