Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Manchester: 'defiant acts of kindness'.

My first feeling this morning on hearing the news was one of deep deep sadness for those young and teenage girls with their mums and friends enjoying a night out at a concert. For those who have been so cruelly and killed and injured; for those whose daughters, wives and girlfriends have been torn from them..

I have a family connection with Manchester: my father was born and brought up there, and our daughter was at the University and the Royal Northern College of Music.  It's a proud city built on the wealth of the cotton industry and liberal values - there is a statue of William Gladstone in the Town Hall.  It withstood the bombs of the Second World War, the IRA (in 1996), and, no doubt, will bounce back defiantly after this latest terrorist outrage.

On Radio 4's  Thought for the Day  (at 1:48:00) Andrew Graystone talked about 'defiant acts of kindness' that stand in stark contrast to the evil horror of the attack. There is something very British about horrific events bringing out the best in people; but it's not just British - it's human. At its best, the human response to evil is one of good - kindness, bravery, help, hospitality.  Whatever provoked the killer to do this terrible act - perhaps some extreme interpretation of Islam - it was not human; it can only be described as evil and dark.   

Events like this force us to confront evil in all its horror. And this form of evil seems to glory in death, which is described in the bible as 'the final enemy'. 

Way back in history as the Israelites were preparing to cross into the promised land, Moses spoke these words from God to them: "This day I call on heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live..." (Deuteronomy 30:19).  

The Gospel - the Good News - is that hope triumphs over despair, love triumphs over fear and life triumphs over death.  Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life in all its fullness... I am the resurrection and the life." 

Today, let us choose life.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Helping to save child refugees

On Saturday the Bishop of Croydon sent an urgent email to all clergy in his area asking for our support at the House of Commons today when the Children and Social Work Bill was debated. Amongst a mixture of items including sex education and safeguarding issues was an amendment to a clause which would have allowed the continuation of the so-called 'Dubs Scheme' introduced last year, with some difficulty, allowing unaccompanied child refugees safe have in the UK. Much to its shame, the government has closed the scheme less than 6 months after it started. The amendment tabled today would have made local councils declare if they could take more child refugees, rather than central government imposing a cap. The evidence is that several local authorities have spaces and are willing to take more child refugees than they have been offered.

Lord Dubs addressing the group

With Bishop Jonathan, clergy from the Croydon area, several Jewish leaders from London and representatives of  Safe Passage UK visited the Palace of Westminster to let our MPs know we were here, and to listen to the debate. We were joined by two well-known actors - Toby Jones and Juliet Stevenson. The groups was addressed by Lord Alf Dubs who was himself a child of the 'kindertransport' in the 1930s, which brought Jewish child refugees fleeing the Nazis - hence the support from many Jewish groups.

The amendment was tabled by the Tory MP for Cambridgeshire South, Heidi Allen, and supported by several London MPs, but sadly not by our MP Chris Philp. Yvette Cooper (Labour) spoke passionately and cogently in its favour, reminding the government benches that the government-appointed expert on modern-day slavery had advocated allowing greater numbers of child refugees safe haven as a way of combating the evils of human trafficking.
Disappointment at the vote

The opposition parties and several brave Tory MPs supported the amendment but, to our great disappointment, it was defeated by 287 to 267 votes. Reactions from our group afterwards were 'shock', 'shame', 'gutted'. But Alf Dubs and Yvette Cooper met with us and urged us not to give up hope. Only by changing public opinion in favour of child refugees will things change.

The UK has done much to help refugees in the past, and the government should be applauded in maintaining its level of international aid - significantly higher than any other EU country, I believe. But to block the number of unaccompanied refugee children entering at 350 is a stain on our national pride and needs to be cleared. Jesus said, "Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

BBC coverage of the story: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-39187290

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Blessings of Lent

This is the text of my article in the Parish Magazine: 

Now is a good time to think about how we might observe Lent. This is a season in the church’s year which we can use to simplify our lives and consider our priorities in relation to God and neighbour.

In relation to God: we might want to develop our experience of prayer, in which case I commend the Prayer Course that has just started on Thursdays; or you might join one of our existing small groups that will be entering into the stories of people who met Jesus, through bible study and meditative prayer. You might want to read the bible more, in which case you may need to give up some time you spend on social media or watching the TV… or just get up a bit earlier.

In relation to your neighbour: you might consider helping one person every day during Lent. Look around and ask God to show you where and who you could help. But try to resist the temptation to tell everyone about it on Facebook or Twitter – it’s enough that God knows.

Traditionally, the forty days of Lent is related to the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness before starting his ministry. That time of testing reminds us that Jesus has shared our common experience of temptation and suffering, but he overcame our enemy the devil. We may find that by giving something up during Lent – time, comfort or a luxury food – that we enter, in some small way, into that suffering that Jesus experienced – we share with him as he shares with us.

Let Lent be a blessing and a means by which we can draw closer to God and the people he loves.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Turn of the Year

As the sun sets on 2016 there's an excuse to become a little philosophical about what's going on in the world. I can't remember feeling less optimistic and more uncertain about the year ahead. The prospect of the Trump presidency worries me, the muddle over Brexit frustrates me, the situation in the Middle East saddens me, the continuing terrorist threats disquiet me, and here at home the railway disputes depress me. But as a preacher I'm supposed to proclaim Good News. So where is it?

Mrs Alexander, the 19th century vicar's wife, wrote many children's hymns which are often dismissed as sentimental and old-fashioned, but many of them were written to help children understand basic Christian doctrine. One of the most immortal lines is 'He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all.' In a simple and direct way that captures the mystery of the incarnation: God becoming man. And that is where I can find Good News.

It's good news that Jesus came and lived among us, sharing all our human emotions and experiences - even death itself. It's good news that Jesus was born in poverty, was threatened with extermination by a cruel king, and ended up as a refugee all before the age of two. It's good news that Jesus suffered, that he was tempted - in fact that he was made perfect through suffering. It's good news that he has taken those experiences back to heaven with him where, one of the biblical writers tells us, he lives to intercede for us. Knowing what it's like to live our life, he can bring our case before our Father God.

So even if the world continues to be dark and troublesome, and many people suffer, and we may suffer too - God is among us, he is with us in trouble and joy, in peace and in pain. Good News for 2017.

Saturday, 20 August 2016


A few months ago I planted six small tomato plants in our greenhouse and now they are touching the roof, full of ripening fruit. With regular watering, occasional feeding and cutting off unwanted shoots they are doing what they are meant to do: bearing fruit.
Jesus said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

The Israelites went in search of a fruitful land ‘flowing with milk and honey’. Jesus wants his followers to go in search of fruitful lives: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” It’s simple, isn’t it, the key to a successful life: stay connected to Jesus, and be fruitful.

So what is the fruit of our lives that the bible talks about? St Paul described the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ – nine characteristics of a Spirit-filled life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Who would not want that fruit in their lives? It takes time to grow – just as my tomatoes have taken several months. But if we are connected to Jesus through his Spirit that spiritual fruit will begin to grow and ripen on our lives.

Paul talks about the ‘fruit of righteousness’: the fruit that comes from a right relationship with God, justified and forgiven through faith in Christ. He talks about ‘bearing fruit in every good work’, that is the fruit of actively doing good to others, and the fruit of sharing the gospel so that the church grows numerically. And the writer to the Hebrews speaks about ‘the fruit of lips that confess God’s name’ – that is the fruit that comes from speaking out words of praise and worship.

On October 2nd we will celebrate our Harvest Festival in church, thanking God for the fruit of the earth, but at any time of year we can be looking for a fruitful harvest in our own lives, and when we see growth – or others see it in us – it’s something we can thank God for. We are made to bear fruit: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Making sense of the Referendum: further reflections

This is the text of the article I've written for our parish magazine; a more concise version of what I posted the other day. 

One of the things I love best about the British is our ability to find humour in the worst situations. After England’s defeat in Euro 2016 a friend posted on Facebook: ‘So leaving Europe once this week just wasn’t enough!?!’ And another: ‘Thank goodness it was only Iceland. Tesco would have really thrashed us.’ A good sense of humour is essential at the moment as we contemplate a very different and uncertain future in relation to Europe. My own feelings following the referendum were of shock, anger, fear and sadness. But what’s done is done, and we can’t reverse the decision. So it’s time to look forward with faith, hope and love.

Faith in the God who is sovereign over all. Much of the European debate has been about ‘who is in control?’ Is it the UK parliament in Westminster, or Brussels? Of course it’s not as simple as that – if only it were. In a modern global world where multi-national business transcends national boundaries sovereignty is much less clearly defined these days. We may be a sovereign power, but, for example, we don’t have any control over oil prices and so we will all feel the consequences of more expensive petrol. While Jesus was on earth he lived in a small outlying province of the Roman Empire. There was no democracy at all, yet he was prepared to accept the earthly power of the Emperor: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” At the same time, he could say to the Emperor’s representative, Pontius Pilate, “You are right to say that I am a king….My kingdom is not of this world.” The kingdom of God, that we become members of through faith in Christ, is one without geographical boundaries, its government rests on the shoulders of Jesus the Messiah, its entry requirements are through a narrow gate, but at the same time it is open to all who will pass through that gate – Jesus Christ. The prophets of the Old Testament looked forward to the coming of this kingdom that would outlast every other kingdom and empire – even the EU. So my faith is not ultimately in the sovereignty of a political institution, necessary though it may be for the ordering of a good society, but in the sovereignty of God.

We need to have hope for the future. The big financial institutions are notoriously afraid of uncertainty, and we will no doubt see a contraction in our economy at least in the short-term. Hope helps us look beyond that, and is the only antidote to fear. Yes, we may be worse off economically as a result of this vote, but ultimately our security is not in the value of our house or pension fund. Compared with the majority of the world we are fantastically rich. True Christian hope runs deeper than optimism, which depends more on your personality. Hope is based on the belief that in Christ all things are made new – and that starts with ourselves. Hope is located in the future – not ‘pie in the sky when you die’, but the life of heaven breaking into earth, the life of the future in the present. So if all around seems to be uncertain we can still have hope.

And then there is a great need for love. The worst result of this referendum has been to see the naked hatred of some people towards immigrants from the EU and further afield. I fear that those who voted to leave the EU because of immigration will be bitterly disappointed as (a) nothing will change for at least 2 years, and (b) Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are both pro-immigration, though in a more regulated way than at present. I don’t think it will be long before those who voted to leave will feel betrayed and will give vent to even more anti-immigrant hatred. So as a church we must stand up for the ultimate Christian value of love: love for our neighbour, and love for our enemy. There is no distinction in love – it covers a multitude of sins. Love means we must welcome those who have every right to be here but may be feeling unwelcoming; it also means we must, in some way, reach out to those who feel they have been ignored and pushed aside in their own country. So love extends as much to the Polish or Latvian worker and the Syrian refugee, as it does to the white working-class Englishman.

The other thing we can do in the church is to pray: pray for our political leaders, many of whom looked as shocked as the rest of us following the result; for the leaders of the EU – that there will be no vindictive spirit motivating them; for the leaders of our financial institutions as they hold the economy together; for those who have disagreed fundamentally over this issue; for those who voted as a protest against the political elite because they have felt ignored or taken for granted.
This is now a time for rebuilding and looking forward. It may not be the future many were looking for, but it is an opportunity to put faith, hope and love into action.

‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayers, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Reflecting on the Referendum

There is an ancient Chinese curse that says “May you live interesting times.” In fact it’s probably not Chinese, and probably not ancient, but it certainly describes what we woke up to on Friday morning: the biggest political shock since 1945 when Labour swept to power after everyone expected Churchill to win the election, and the biggest political miscalculation since Eden’s decision to invade Suez in 1956.  This is such a significant turn of events that we can’t shut our eyes to it in church, so I want to reflect theologically on it this morning . I have to put my cards on the table and say that what I felt on Friday morning was a mixture of shock, anger, sadness and fear. Shock – because, although everyone thought the vote would be close, no-one actually expected it to go this way; anger – because there has been so much disinformation and downright lying which I believe has deceived people; anger because nearly half the nation has been pulled unwillingly into a place we didn’t choose; and fear, because we simply don’t know what will happen now. Sadness, because any break down of relationships is sad. But I’ve had a couple of days to reflect and to put my own feelings to one side and to look at where we find ourselves through biblical lenses.

The three big issues that the referendum was fought over were immigration, sovereignty, and the economy. What has been uncovered is the deep division in the UK: between the metropolitan areas and the rest of the country – London and the rest of England; between England and Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland. It seems that the prospect of the UK splitting apart is again on the table: Scotland away from England and even Northern Ireland uniting with the Irish Republic. Already there have been 100s of applications in NI for Irish EU passports.  Division between young and old, between middle class and working class, between rich and poor, between the ‘elite’ and ‘the man in the street’. And that has left me chastened to some extent. Because I have identified so much with the affluent, politically literate metropolitan population that I have dismissed the very real concerns of those who feel hard done-by, ignored and trodden over.
What will happen now. Probably tomorrow petrol prices will rise by 1 or 2p a litre. (I wonder if we will revert to gallons?) Those with pension and other investments will probably see their value drop by up to 10%, and those 1000s of UK pensioners who live in the EU will be harder hit. Those of us who go abroad for a holiday will find it more expensive. And already EU citizens living here are beginning to wonder if they are welcome. 
A particularly unwelcome reaction is from ISIS who are rejoicing, according to The Times, over what they see as the gradual break up of Europe. And Vladimir Putin is reported to be rubbing his hands in glee at the prospect of a weaker Europe.

But we are where we are; we can’t go back, and as one German politician has said, “Out is out.” So now we must look forward with hope and build a new future.

In an article in The Guardian on Friday the columnist Owen James said that immigration was the prism through which many people had viewed the referendum. And I think he’s right. Many working class people have felt overlooked and pushed aside, and helpless to do anything about what they see as the threat of unlimited immigration, in spite of the arguments that the majority of immigrants from the EU and elsewhere are hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding people. The UK is often described as a tolerant nation, where people of all races and cultures are welcomed. And maybe we are, but beneath that there seems to be great fear and resentment. In the bible God told his people to remember that they were immigrants. Each year at the harvest festival they were to take their gifts with the words, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deut 26:5). And because they were descended from a wandering nomad, and because they were a people delivered from slavery they were to welcome the alien among them. Several times in the psalms it is said that ‘God watches over the alien’ (Ps 146:9).  Now I think that the British, by and large, are compassionate towards those that suffer. I am proud that this government has consistently kept up its level of overseas aid – even if not all of that ends up in the right hands. But it’s a sign that we care. And if those among us who are from the EU or further afield are feeling nervous then as a church we must reassure them and make them know they are welcome. The bible uses the image of pilgrimage to describe our journey of faith – we are all pilgrims and strangers in this world, and as such we should accept those who are among us, especially those who are in the community of faith, but also all people that we live alongside. The church has a role in speaking peace and reassurance to white working-class English people as much as it does to Polish workers and Syrian refugees. And at the very least we need to pray for the unity of our nation, and that division and hatred won’t just be covered over but healed.

It’s sometimes been said of immigrants to the UK, “They don’t belong here.” The question this referendum has uncovered is ‘Where do we belong?’ Where does our loyalty lie? Who is in control? Where is sovereignty located – in parliament, in the monarchy, in Brussels? What exactly does sovereignty mean? The word ‘sovereign’ comes, ironically from an Italian word sovrano, which is derived from the Latin super meaning ‘above’. So a sovereign is a supreme ruler or head. Since the 17th century the power of the British monarch has been limited by parliament, so sovereignty has been shared between the 2 institutions. Every international body that the UK has been part of has involved trading a bit of sovereignty in order to belong to it: The UN, NATO – both of which can take authority to direct our armed forces in localised conflict areas – and the EU. Along with sovereignty has been the issue of democracy.

Ironically the result of the referendum has put the majority of the country at odds with the majority in parliament. About 500 out 650 MPs supported the UK remaining. It’s going to be interesting to see how our sovereign parliament acts to carry out a policy that it disagrees with. More ironic, to me at least, is the fact that holding a referendum is not a very British thing to do in the first place. In most important decisions, such as the vote on same-sex marriage, it was parliament that decided whereas in Ireland and in France that issue was decided by a referendum.

So where do we belong? To whom or to what do we give our loyalty? Who is, or should be, in control?The prophets in the OT looked forward increasingly clearly to a kingdom that would be established where God was king. Unlike the empires that came and went – the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman Empires (later the British Empire) – this kingdom would never end. In the dream that K Nebuchadnezzar had, retold and interpreted by Daniel, this kingdom would be like a rock that filled the whole earth.  And it’s this kingdom that Jesus started to proclaim as soon as he began his public ministry. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” His whole ministry was given over to proclaiming the kingdom through words and actions: parables, miracles, exorcisms. And this was a kingdom that was focussed on him – the king of the kingdom, yet a king who would be rejected, betrayed and crucified. St Paul writing to the Corinthians says that such a king is a stumbling block to Jews – who were looking for a heroic messiah to deliver them from the Romans – and foolishness to the Greeks – who looked for a great philosopher. The writer to the Hebrews, reflecting on the temporary nature of life on earth, says that ‘here we do not have an enduring city’, and Peter, writing in his first letter to believers scattered round Asia Minor (modern Turkey) because of persecution, addresses them as ‘strangers in the world’. When Jesus faced Pontius Pilate, the representative of the greatest earthly power – the Roman emperor – he said, “My kingdom is not of this world…You are right in saying I am a king…”

So when it comes to questions of sovereignty and belonging, to whom do we give our loyalty and allegiance, and where do we belong. As Christians we must echo Paul’s words when he says, “Our citizenship (using a Roman term) is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Phil 3:20). For me, that means that I don’t get too hung up about earthly sovereignty. Jesus was prepared to accept the earthly sovereignty of Caesar when he famously said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The example our Queen gives is the best one as she recognises that we are all ultimately under the authority of God. She has been scrupulous in maintaining her constitutional neutrality in the EU debate, even when The Sun tried to imply her support for the Leave campaign. We may never know what her personal thoughts have been on the matter. The question of belonging is important, though. As Christians we belong to a kingdom that has no geographical borders, whose government is on the shoulders of King Jesus, whose entry requirements are through a narrow gate, but at the same time open to all who will pass through that gate – Jesus himself.

One of the complaints about the EU has always been that it’s full of ‘faceless bureaucrats’, and that it’s impossible to relate to an MEP because the European constituencies are so big – the whole of London, for example. The parish system of the C of E locates the church in a small area that allows us to know who lives here, and them to know us. When I walk around in my dog collar people, round here at least, know I’m the Rector (even if they call me Vicar!). Through the local church we can help people to have a sense of belonging to a kingdom that has no borders, because it’s the local church that is the ‘shop window’ of that kingdom. I think that should give us a real mission opportunity – particularly to those who feel that they are ignored or overlooked by the big structures and institutions.

One of the slogans used by Boris Johnson and others has been ‘Take back control’. It’s a powerful slogan, but like most slogans fairly meaningless. As a nation we British don’t like being told what to do – by our own politicians, let alone by foreigners – even our close ally the USA. Some years ago Nicy and I took a group from our previous church to Israel, and I noticed that as soon as British tourists got off the coach they would scatter and find their own way round, whereas American and Japanese tourists would stick together, all wearing the same hats and moving round like a flock of sheep. Who is in control? Is it the UK parliament or the EU institutions. I wonder how many people have actually bothered to find out how the EU works, through its elected Parliament, its Council of Ministers – each from their own member country, through its Commission – a kind of civil service, or its Court. Some have talked about our independence from foreign control as we can completely cut ourselves off from the outside world. Well, the only country that has done that successfully is North Korea. From a theological viewpoint, the question of control becomes THIS: ‘How much control of our lives do we allow the Lord to have? There is a danger in valuing independence as a concept so highly that we put ourselves as individuals at the centre: not Brussel, not Westminster – it’s up to me what I do. Jesus looks for people who will allow him to be in control.

We’ve been thinking about wealth and how we handle money recently. Jesus had a lot to say about it. The EU was founded as a Common Market to allow trade without tariffs. It would be very sad and a great shame if we found ourselves locked out of the single market. Ironically, if we do join the single market again, like Norway, we will still have to pay a wacking fee and allow free movement of goods, services and labour as Norway does. The
bible has little to say about modern international trade and the sophisticated economies of today’s world. What it does talk about is honesty in selling, not lending at extortionate rates of interest, not hoarding wealth, and being generous. Where is our ultimate security? I said earlier that there is much fear around today because people don’t know what will happen to our economy – on which so much else depends. All the signs are that in the short-term we will experience a significant contraction in the economy. And that forces us to consider ‘Where is my security?’ If my pension fund contracts, if the value of my house goes down or my mortgage increases where is my faith and trust? And of course that applies to us as a whole church: since we urge people to give in proportion to their income, if that income goes down we have to accept that the church’s income also goes down. This is where we need to trust God, and to encourage one another.

Finally, where do we go from here? No-one is quite sure. Never has it been more important to pray for our political leaders in the UK and EU as they chart a course through new waters. Using that metaphor let’s pray for our David Cameron in these next few weeks that he is ‘Captain of the ship’. We need to pray for the civil servants and others who will spend years now unpicking the 1000s of laws and regulations that have bound us to the EU – it will be as delicate an operation as separating Siamese twins. Let’s pray for financial leaders and institutions, and for foreign citizens who live here and UK citizens who live the EU.  And for those who voted to leave because they feel overlooked, ignored and pushed aside.

We are where we are, and we can only look forward now – not to a rosy nostalgic past, whether that was the last 40 years in the EU or further back. 
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayers, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’