Sunday, 1 April 2018

Aussie Cricket, Labour anti-Semitism & Chichester Diocese - How the Unacceptable becomes Conceivable

The Australian ball-tampering scandal, the Labour party’s troubles over anti-Semitism and the shameful story of what happened in the diocese of Chichester revealed in the inquiry into child sexual abuse - all of them have something in common - the ease with which organisational culture can slip to a point where the unacceptable becomes conceivable.

The Aussie cricket team has been pushing the boundaries of fairness in what it takes to win for years. Hostile comments before series begin, sledging the opposition during games, aggressive behaviour towards opponents – they have been ‘butting heads’ with opponents for years. Small decisions, pushing the boundaries over time probably made the option of using some sandpaper to rough up the ball to win a small advantage in a series that was going against them seem just one more thing. It was nothing special, something they could get away with like they had got away with so many other questionable practices for years.

The Labour party’s traditional sympathy for the Palestinian cause has allowed the cancer of anti-semitism to grow undetected, moving imperceptibly from a critique of Israeli government policies in particular to a hostility to Jews in general. Again, snide remarks, offensive tweets went unchallenged, all leading to a point where it became acceptable to habitually criticise Jews, defend anyone who did, or make whistle-blowers feel ostracised.

In the diocese of Chichester, the problem began with trusting clergy too much, assuming they could not be at fault, turning a blind eye to rumours of clerical misbehaviour. That then gradually turned into a whole culture of covering up abuse, siding with the perpetrators not the victims, doing anything to preserve the reputation of the church over against the needs of survivors. A culture of secrecy allowed the virus of exploitation to spread, and the victims were those who should have been protected all along.

In all three cases, I’m sure those who took those initial small, seemingly innocuous decisions never felt they were doing anything heinous. It’s only in retrospect that we can see the slow but sure slide to cheating, vilification and abuse.

Those of us who have the responsibility for overseeing organisations of any kind need to watch our organisational culture like a hawk. Taking moral shortcuts, the easy way out, allowing lies or even half-truths to spread – it all leads only in one direction. St Paul once called for “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God’ (2 Cor 6.6-7). All this points out the importance of keeping habitual standards high, holding to honesty, moral vision and courage at all times - before it’s too late.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

The Grenfell Tower Memorial Service - A Reflection

The evening of June 13th was an evening like any other in London – it had been a hot day, and the sun went down on a calm, gentle, night. That evening people went out for a meal, went to bed, stayed up talking, doing what people do in London on a warm summer’s evening. Yet that night was to change the lives of so many here in this Cathedral today.

Since then, it has been a long six months. Many here grieve for loved ones, precious people who perished on that dreadful night. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts & uncles, cousins, sons and daughters. Today would have been the first birthday of one of the youngest victims of the fire. Many still struggle with their memories. There are still far too many living in hotels, in a kind of limbo, not sure of what the future holds. There are so many unresolved issues and questions, and it’s hard to live with uncertainty.

Yet in the following days, in the middle of that unimaginable tragedy, we saw something extraordinary. People started coming from all over London, all over the UK & even beyond, bringing offers of help - water, toys, nappies, blankets, food. Churches, mosques, community centres opened their doors as people came with suitcases of clothes they had collected from their homes and driven across the country to deliver.

The emergency services worked tirelessly – ambulance crews, firefighters who entered the Tower again and again, the police - often going far beyond what was required of them to rescue and to comfort.

We saw acts of simple, but remarkable generosity. On the Sunday morning following the fire, I was standing in one of the streets near the Tower, when a man came up to me with his 6-year old son. He said that Alfie had collected together all his pocket money, and rather than spending it on toys for himself, he wanted to give it to one of the families who had lost their home. Alfie handed me a tin – a dented, well-loved Marvel Avengers tin – with about £60 in it – it was all the money he had.

The fire took place during Ramadan and in the summer there are fewer hours of darkness. Many Muslim volunteers had to work long hours in the heat with no food because of the fast, and did so with great willingness and dedication. They worked alongside people of all faiths and none to do what they could to bring help and hope.

I remember standing outside one of our churches the day after the fire, helping the Christian community there organize the help coming in – a crowd of people had turned up to help. What struck me was the variety. Every ethnicity, background, age – for a moment we all lost our fear of each other, we lost our obsession with ourselves and we reached out across the city in love for our neighbour. 

It was a glimpse of what our society could be like - a place where we were for a brief moment more concerned about our neighbour’s wellbeing than we were about our own.

Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to love God and to love our neighbour. As we come to the end of this difficult year, as we celebrate Christmas, as we move into a new year, nothing can remove the memory of that night – nor do we want to forget those dearly loved people who were lost. Yet my hope and prayer is that this new year can bring new hope of a future, a vision of a city where we lose our self-obsession and listen and learn from places and people that we wouldn’t normally think of reaching out to.

There is something about a Cathedral – it is a place where we are aware we are in the presence of something - someone - bigger than ourselves. As we cross the threshold into this building, it doesn’t matter whether we are politicians, religious leaders, volunteers, survivors, bereaved, residents – we are all equal in the eyes of God. Love makes no distinctions. We are all neighbours to each other and we are called to love our neighbours.

Today we remember with sorrow, grief, tears. And we pledge that those we have lost will not be forgotten.

Today we ask why warnings were not heeded, why a community was left feeling neglected, uncared for, not listened to.

Today we hold out hope that the Public Inquiry will get to the truth of all that led up to the fire at Grenfell Tower, that it will listen to the hopes, fears and questions of those most directly affected by it. And we trust that the truth will bring justice, and that justice will enable true reconciliation – the eventual healing of the divides in our life together that this tragedy has revealed.

As we come this to special time of year; as we enter a new year, we also look forward. We long for a society where we have learnt not just to tolerate our neighbours but to love them. Which means to listen to them. Not just our friends, those who are like us, but our neighbours – those we do not choose, yet who are placed alongside us precisely so we can learn to love them. And to do that we need to see our neighbours differently. Not as those to be feared, despised, neglected. But as a gift to be cherished, valued, loved.

The message of this season, the message that we celebrate this Christmas is found in that ancient word Immanuel - God with us – that God understands, listens and hears the cries of those who feel forgotten and abandoned. And we trust that this service today is an assurance that the families most deeply affected by this tragedy are also not forgotten by our nation, by those who watch and listen around the country today.

My hope, my prayer is that today we will pledge ourselves to change - from a city where we didn’t listen, where we didn’t hear the cries of our neighbours because we were too wrapped up in our own interests and prosperity, to create a new type of life together, where we are turned not inwards to ourselves, but outwards towards each other: a society known for listening, compassion and love. In years to come, our hope is that the name of ‘Grenfell’ will not just be known as a symbol of sorrow, grief or injustice, but a symbol of the time we learnt a new and better way - to listen and to love.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Why Freedom is not what you think it is

I have always struggled to understand what Christians mean by freedom. There is quite a lot in the Old Testament about Israel as free people, in the New Testament about how Christ sets us free, Christians talk a lot about freedom, and yet Christianity has always seemed to demand things like obedience, submission to God's will, adopting a moral code where certain things are right and certain things are off-limits, none of which really seems like freedom. 

For a number of years now I've been pondering this question, and the result is a book which has just been published, entitled “Bound to be Free: the Paradox of Freedom”, published by Bloomsbury. At the risk of sounding a little arrogant I think I may have worked it out - at least to my own satisfaction!

The problem is not so much a Christian understanding of freedom, but the secular way of thinking about the concept which most of us imbibe without even thinking about it. The book traces the roots of secular notions of Freedom in the libertarian tradition exemplified by thinkers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill. The basic idea here is that freedom is individual freedom. It is the ability to do what I choose with my own goods, talents, time and opportunities, without any hindrance from wider bodies like the state or government. J.S. Mill extends this into the idea that such freedom is necessary from all kinds of social restriction and expectation, and that individuals should be free to do as they choose, as long as they do not harm other people, and do not infringe upon the rights of others to exercise their own freedom within their own personal space. 

If that's the way we understand freedom, then it's not surprising that Christians struggle to fit biblical notions of freedom into that framework. However, there is I think a problem with this secular way of thinking about it.

Societies need to somehow square the circle of allowing and enabling personal flourishing, while at the same time enabling social cohesion. The secular libertarian view allows a certain level of personal liberty, but doesn't do very well when it comes to social cohesion.

Basically the problem is this. On this view of freedom, the Other, whether understood as my neighbour, my wife, my children, my friends, or the state, is understood as essentially a limitation or even a threat to the exercise of my freedom. The exercise of freedom is possible within my own personal space, as long as I don't tread on the toes of anyone else, but this sets up the other person as someone whose boundaries I need to tread very carefully, and needs to be resisted in case they tread on mine, precisely because the Other is a potential threat, and therefore someone essentially to be feared.

The Christian idea freedom is very different. It is not freedom to do as I want, because what I want is so often the problem. The Christian doctrine of sin tells us that our desires are not always very healthy, in fact very often we desire what will ultimately destroy us, our relationships and even our planet. Instead Christian freedom is the freedom from anything that would hold us back from becoming the people that we were meant to be - people capable of love for God and for our neighbour, as Jesus taught we were to be.

It is therefore freedom from that obsession with ourselves, our image, wealth looks and prospects, and freedom to be properly self-forgetful in love for our neighbour. It is not so much freedom for myself as freedom from myself. It is freedom from habits we wish we could kick, political systems that stop us caring for one another, an economy that sucks us into personal self-centred consumption. The key to that, says Christianity, is learning first of all a love for God - a recognition that I am not the centre of the universe, and that I need to learn to re-boot my life to fit the way the world is, where God lies at the centre not me, as I develop a relationship with my Creator. I then learn to love those he has given to me – my neighbour for starters. Freedom is therefore a gift and not a right, and the Other becomes not a threat nor limitation, but a gift - a gift to enable me to exercise this crucial virtue of love, and to grow in my ability to love my neighbour. The other is now not a threat but a gift, and so the Christian account of freedom squares the circle of personal flourishing and social cohesion much better than the secular one does.

Of course there's a lot more to the book than this, but it begins to give you a sense of the argument. If you want to get your copy – click here.

Aussie Cricket, Labour anti-Semitism & Chichester Diocese - How the Unacceptable becomes Conceivable

The Australian ball-tampering scandal, the Labour party’s troubles over anti-Semitism and the shameful story of what happened in the diocese...