Posted in refugees, spirituality

Not looking away

Recently I was asked if I could write something for the Fellowship of Contemplative Prayer about praying contemplatively amid the disorder of our world. This is what I wrote.

 

Contemplative prayer is about looking. That’s what the word means. The call to contemplative prayer is to remain focused (another visual image), to bring your attention back time and again as it flits away, to that point of attention which can become the place in which we know ourselves to be seen and loved by God.

After I was asked to write this article, I did a little research of my own and came across  an article quoting some of the more surprising and difficult verses that Robert Coulson, the Fellowship’s founder, had used in his own prayer – verses such as “I will visit upon you the evil of your doings” (Jer 23.2 RV). As the article pointed out, these are verses “that we personally would find challenging, if not impossible, to use in our contemplative prayer time”.

Those verses were of judgement, verses which challenge our sense of ourselves as loved by God. Especially because of our own knowledge that some of our doings are indeed evil, we find it almost impossible to stay with verses like these.

But if we can move in deeper, I think a verse like this can in fact take us closer to God, through the path of mourning. I’d like to invite you if you can to stay with this image in prayer.

This is a picture of the former “Jungle” Camp in Calais before its demolition.
The Jungle, and other even more squalid encampments which have followed it, are our attempt to turn our collective eyes aw2015-11-14 15.20.27ay from those who have come to Europe – some seeking asylum, some “merely” escaping from poverty. We in the UK turn our eyes away by making it uniformly difficult for anyone to get into the country, however justified their claim might be. You can only claim asylum on UK territory – and without travel documents (which most asylum seekers won’t have, naturally) there is no legal way to get here. So people wash around our fortified borders, looking for a way in.

The Jungle was a place of squalor and desperation and danger – and also of extraordinary acts of love and mutual service. But you could only find that love, those signs of God’s presence, by staying with the ugliness and the pain. If you do not look away, but look for God here, you have no choice but to mourn the disorder in our world which has led so many people to prefer this life to the life they were leading in their countries of origin. And in that mourning you cannot help but find that you, like me, like all of us, are not separate from that disorder. We are all implicated; we are all guilty. And there is no simple, easy answer, but there is forgiveness, and so there is hope.

The prayer of contemplative mourning is not one of self-loathing. Seeing, staying with the pain of our world, and acknowledging that we are part of the cause of that pain, is also a way of opening ourselves to be a source of healing. There were extraordinary people in the Jungle, some migrants themselves, others from the UK and across Europe, who dedicated themselves to bringing what hope they could. As you all know, it is not just the active life of service which brings the love of God into the world; the contemplative life is an equally vital, if more mysterious, means of God’s grace. In the painful prayer of mourning, the healing of the world is brought nearer.

Christianity … combines the moral fervour of the martyr with the laid-back ethic of the hippie … Those who live as though the future had already arrived … are prophets, and as such figures marked out as objects of political violence; yet they also live like the lilies of the field and take no heed for tomorrow

Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice, p. 105

Discuss …

Posted in refugees

Welcome to Britain! Here’s the bill

The UK’s Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration is investigating the Home Office’s charging for services in respect of its asylum, immigration, nationality and customs functions. Still bothering to read? You should be.

So, imagine you are a refugee who has recently been granted leave to remain in the UK, you and your spouse and children. You may well have had a senior and well-paid job in your country of origin, but in all likelihood you arrived here with nothing, and your qualifications aren’t recognised in this country. But this is where you want to belong, where you want to be your home country, the place to which you are committed for life. So you take whatever work you can, probably minimum wage, but better than nothing. You get along, just, from month to month, but it’s a struggle.

And then, naturally enough, you want to express that commitment by becoming a British citizen. You realise these processes aren’t completely free. And being of an enquiring turn of mind, you find out about other countries too, just out of interest. If you were in Belgium, it would cost you €200 (currently about £177). If you were in the United States, it would cost you $725 (about £550). In France it’s just €55. And in the UK – £1,330. And if you make one mistake on your form, the application will be turned down without refund. Children are a bargain at a mere £1,012.

You’re told that this is because of the great benefits that citizenship will bring you. and you wonder – is UK citizenship really 27 times more valuable than French? And you also  think – that’s all very well if you’ve got capital to invest, but I don’t, and no-one is yet offering low interest loans on citizenship application fees to people on low and precarious incomes.

You know already, through personal experience, that the UK makes it tough for anyone who wants to get here to claim asylum, unless you’re lucky enough to be included in one of the resettlement programmes. But you’re through that now; no need for a hostile (or even ‘compliant’) environment any more. So what’s all this about?

You try to do some research – and you find a quotation from a research project which makes you even more perplexed:

Research has demonstrated that achieving citizenship is important in migrant integration and social cohesion, among other benefits for both migrants and communities in which they live; cultivating a loyalty amongst migrants for their new home country and its values

So do the government not want me to be loyal? Do they not want me to become integrated into my new society? Do they really, still, not want me at all?

Posted in Uncategorized

Clay jars – a sermon on the ordination to the priesthood of Mark Anderson and Stephen Srikantha

2 Corinthians 4:7: we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
KintsugiI know that some of you saw the installation that Alison Clark (who as well as being an artist is also my wife) placed in Southwark Cathedral as part of the commemoration of the terrorist attack on London Bridge. The theme was ‘Broken Beauty’, and Alison took inspiration from the Japanese tradition of kintsugi. Kintsugi is the art of repair – but instead of trying to conceal all sign of the original break, the kintsugi craftsman makes it more visible. The object is whole again, but the line of the fracture is outlined in gold – and I have a bowl here which illustrates the art. A beautiful earthenware bowl in its own right made more beautiful having been broken, and repaired.
We have this treasure in earthen vessels, in clay jars. Paul’s passionate and loving argument with the people of God in Corinth revolves in large part around what it is that makes an apostle – what sort of apostle is he, and does he match up to the competition. In both 1 and 2 Corinthians Paul denounces as foolishness any attempt to demonstrate his superiority by the world’s standards. Instead, he boasts in his weakness, in his sufferings, in his humiliations – if you really want to compete, he says, compete to be the last and the least, not the first and the greatest.
And that is not just a particularly subtle psychological ploy in order to come out on top – the ancient world knew nothing of the cult of the underdog. A slave was a piece of property, to be disposed of at will; being at the bottom of the heap didn’t confer some paradoxical kudos. Paul went this way because he had to as a follower of Jesus. If the Son of God had emptied himself, had taken the form of a slave, given over to the shameful death of the cross, then what other path could his followers take in their turn?
There are several explanations offered by scholars for Paul’s particular use of ‘clay jars’ as his example. One that I find particularly helpful is that he may have been referring to the small, cheap, disposable pottery lamps that were in use in Corinth – lamps filled with oil and with a little floating wick. And that may help us trace the connection back to the previous verse
For it is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ
Paul is telling the Corinthians, in as many ways as he can – it’s not about me; it’s about Jesus. If you’re still looking at me, and me only, you’re looking at the wrong thing. I am here as the vessel through which the light and life of God can flow into the world. Focus, he says, on my weakness, because then you will be able to see the power that comes from God.
Paul is talking about his own ministry, in contrast to his unknown opponents who appear to have criticised him – for exactly the things that he now wears as his badges of honour. And he in turn accuses them of being concerned in the end for their own glory, and not the glory of God. That has been throughout the centuries the one of the great temptations of the church, and especially of its ministers. Whether it be through accumulating palaces and lands, or power in the state, or perhaps more recently having your own personal aeroplane, those who are called to glorify God have consistently found it difficult to distinguish the glory of God from their own glory. But holding exactly that distinction is one of the first marks of a priest in the church, and one of the most powerful witnesses that we can make to the transforming power of God at work within us.
If I can move with only a slightly awkward change of gear into the contemporary age, one of Leonard Cohen’s finest lines has been echoing in my head – ‘there’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in’. It is through our fragility, our brokenness and our weakness that the light gets in to us – and that is how it shines out again.
We start, all of us who are Christians, with the knowledge that we are sinful and broken people in a broken world. We start with the desire to be re-made by God, to become the people God created us to be. It is that deep knowledge that our lives are centred around God not ourselves, that the love of God has shone in our hearts, that the light has got into us as we acknowledge the cracks that sin makes in us, that is the root of all our Christian discipleship.
And we start there too as those called into ordained ministry. None of us come because we know we are worthy of this calling; on the contrary, it is essential to our calling that we know we are not worthy. Mark and Stephen both come today to this service with many gifts and talents, for which we thank God. In their different ways they are highly skilled, and they have worked hard to learn and to grow into their calling. I have great confidence in them both. But I am most confident because I am sure that for them both their ministry rests most deeply not on all those skills and abilities, but on the grace of God.
The light gets in through the cracks, says Leonard Cohen; the light shines out through the earthen vessels, says St Paul. It is in the wholeness of your humanity, Mark and Stephen, that you are called to serve the church as priests. In your weakness and your uncertainties as much as in those things which flow easily and skilfully. This is not a profession in which you can specialise just in the things that you particularly prefer. To be a priest of the new covenant of Christ is a calling to stand for God to the people and for the people to God in many different ways. Some of them are mundane and frustrating, some are frankly scary and many are deeply joyful. It will be as often through your stumbling and weakness as through your skill that people will see Christ.
We are all on a pilgrimage towards the wholeness of our being in God, but we also bear the signs of our human weakness. This kintsugi bowl has been broken and more than repaired, it has been remade. It is better than before it was broken. As priests, you bring that gift and promise of reconciliation through pronouncing God’s forgiveness of sins and through presiding at the eucharist. The priesthood is nothing less than a calling to embody for the church God’s mission to remake the world, and to enable the whole church to share in that mission.
You cannot do this in your own strength; but you do not need to. You are as Christ’s disciples filled and surrounded by the love of God – in your hearts and shown through the love and support of families, friends and the communities you serve. You have been called as the person you are, not to try to become someone else. As you begin to explore the gift of priesthood in your ministry, let it inhabit you as you inhabit it, so that you can begin to understand for yourself what it means to be a clay jar, a fragile and breakable human being, who is also, and through acknowledging that fragility all the more so, a lamp shining for the world with the light of Christ.

Posted in Uncategorized

Don’t you love illegal immigrants?

A guest post from Rev’d Martin Kettle. Martin is a policy advisor to the Church of England. He writes in a personal capacity.

Christians do not want a hostile environment. We want to love everyone. That means we want to love illegal immigrants. We DO love illegal immigrants.

Because we love them, we don’t call them immigrants, because we don’t like using nouns as labels to stick on people’s foreheads. This person came into the UK at the age of 4 with their family, is now 21 and is now in a detention centre pending removal. Is this prison an immigrant? Someone else has been here since the 1960s, having come from Jamaica: for sure they migrated, but that doesn’t make them less British than anyone else. And of course, ‘immigrant’ is very often racist code for someone who seems to belong to a visually identifiable category of people many of whom have come to the UK in the last 50 years.

Because we love this person, we don’t call her ‘illegal’. No one is illegal – that is, no one exists illegally. In some places it has been illegal for black and white people to make love. So dual-heritage people were in that context illegal, in exactly the same sense that ‘immigrants’ may be ‘illegal’ today. No one exists illegally, anywhere, ever. God’s favour rests on each single one. Worse still, of course, is turning the adjective into a noun, ‘illegals’.

A hostile environment begins with what is politely known as ‘othering’. The oldest profession, in politics, is the uniting of the people against a common foe. If a real foe does not exist, it becomes necessary for one to be invented. Internal enemies, as in the human body, are the most potent. How we, with absolute rightness, boil and rage against anti-Semitism and all racisms, which slam the label of enemy on a group of fellow-citizens.

A government minister last week said ‘there should be a hostile environment for people who have no lawful right to be here’. The vision seems to be that those unlawful people experience a hostile environment, while everyone around them does not. This is the stuff of sci-fi. An environment is an environment. If, say, it is overcast, that is an environmental phenomenon. There are never small clouds localised over the heads of specific individuals who are marked out as potential targets of imminent precipitation.

There is enough evidence, already, that the measures which Parliament has incrementally approved in pursuit of this hostile environment are constructing an environment for everyone which is markedly nastier. As with all incremental growth of state-sponsored intolerance, the process proceeds step by step and with the drawing in of groups of people to take on, like it or not, something of the demeanour of an enforcer. People working in banks, the DVLA, doctor’s surgeries and hospitals, in NHS IT, in education. Nearly 2 million private landlords, and employers. At the same time, access to justice for the individual has been progressively curtailed by severe restrictions on legal aid and the reduction of appeal rights.

It would not be difficult to set up proper research projects to test the impacts of all this. That really is not happening.

As a nation, we are concerned about integration, about social cohesion. Dame Louise Casey’s report two years ago pointed out the risks to national well-being of having divided communities. There are consultations going on now about the issues. This is a fabulous opportunity for Christians to speak of the common good, to reach for those organic metaphors about community unity with which the New Testament is liberally stuffed. It simply is not possible, either in logic or in the real world, to talk about Britain both in this way and in terms of a hostile environment.

The latest move is to speak not of a hostile environment but of a ‘compliance environment’. To be sure, a clipboard is a less alarming thing than a lynch-mob. Nevertheless, the world of Kafka is as dystopian as any vision of violent enforcement. Compliance or hostility, it still comes down to the fear of a knock on the door. ‘Your papers do not appear to be in order’ is one of the more chilling stock phrases of social drama.

Where do Christians go with this? As ever, to the divine dignity of the human person, and the divine callings of human society. Everyone is fearfully and wonderfully made, whatever label is branded on their brow. Communities have a vocation to hear, welcome and celebrate each and all.

The big point is: none of this is incompatible with people being responsible for their actions, and being held responsible. For all but an out-and-out no-borders internationalist, of whom there are rather few, it may be right that a particular person who has entered the UK illegally should be removed from the UK. It is not necessary to pillory and execrate that person in the process.

If we only realised this we could save the country a lot of money and close most of the immigration detention centres, without going soft in any way on illegal behaviour. Local communities can, with the right information and resourcing, support and hold people, treating them on equal terms as mature and accountable adults.

Our representatives in Parliament are very keen, to their credit, on the resettlement of vulnerable and traumatised refugees in local communities. Various schemes are growing, and the more local civil society is vitally engaged in the resettlement process, the better the outcomes and the value for money. Faith groups are prominent in nearly all of this.

Exactly the same community dynamics can enrich the way in which as a nation we respond to people whose right to be in the UK is in doubt. There are examples in a number of countries around the world, which have been rigorously researched by the International Detention Coalition. Places where people’s lives, including family life, are not just put into a damaging state of stasis while the process grinds on, but where they can work and volunteer and study and contribute and pay taxes and generally be human while their cases move towards a determination.

This has been about immigration. Not primarily about those who seek asylum, ask for protection as refugees for whom return would be impossible or dangerous. But wherever you try to draw distinctions between good and bad migrants, true and false asylum seekers, economic migrants and refugees, you will find uncomfortably broad overlaps and borderlands, grey areas which, for the people who live in them, can be very grey indeed.

Our government, our Parliament, our people, are not ogres. There are so many in the Home Office, in every place, trying to do the best job in a humane manner. Often there are open doors to engagement: for example in the weighing of asylum claims resting on the profession of Christian faith, where church representatives have long striven to contribute to informed and rational casework processes, with some success especially at the present time. But the thread of Christian values running through our country’s self-identity has a real and practical role in national discourse about immigration, one that is readily shared among those of other faiths and none. It is not about hostility and its close relation, hate. It is about community and its personal correlate, love.

Posted in art, Uncategorized

Guest blogpost: Broken Beauty

The Japanese art of Kintsugi works with brokenness. Ceramics that have been damaged are repaired with gold.  This is a mending process that acknowledges rather than hides from the past and in so doing takes the risk of something new.

This theme of Broken Beauty is the title of an artist residency in Southwark Cathedral that will take place in May and June 2018 to mark the first anniversary of the London Bridge attack.

Southwark Cathedral was in the centre of the terror and violence of that night and remained closed for a week afterwards. As a member of the congregation, I was deeply aware of how painful the closure would be for the Cathedral staff at the very moment when the cathedral would have wanted to be open for those in need of solace.  The fabric of the building had been damaged including external and internal doors.  During the Dean’s sermon on the first Sunday after the cathedral was reopened, Andrew Nunn explained how the marks on the Sacristry door would remain as an acknowledgement of what had taken place and this painful event in the life of the cathedral and the local community.

My artist residency includes a specially commissioned work incorporating prints taken from the Sacristy door together with prints from other parts of the cathedral that have been worn and damaged over the centuries, during which time the cathedral has been witness to many periods of violence. Goldwork will be added to the piece as an echo of Kintsugi. This installation will be hung in the RetroChoir from 2nd June 2018 alongside two of my existing pieces on the theme of mourning and healing.

‘Quilt’ combines printmaking and textile as a reflection on mourning.  This was first exhibited as a group show in Roundhay, Leeds in the exhibition ‘Word turned upside down’ in 2017, taking a contemporary look at the Beatitudes.  This piece was created in response to Jesus’s saying: ‘Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.’ The quilt is made of men’s cotton hankerchiefs. Each square contains a fragile monoprint on tissue paper. Running through each print are gold stitches.

Heirloom continues the theme of broken beauty. Instead of disgarding these broken shells, each has been painted in Japanese Sumi ink and the edges gilded.  Sometimes the most important things to pass on are not perfect objects but qualities that strive to find beauty and work for wholeness, to be repairers together. There will be two community events linked to this residency, Mending Circles where participants are invited to bring an item of clothing to sit and mend together (you can book in here (June 4th) or here (June 7th).

Alison Clark is a British artist whose work includes drawing, painting, printmaking and installation. Her work revolves around a sense of place, whether documenting a shoreline or printmaking from the interior of a church building. This she combines with her academic interest in listening.  She has exhibited across the UK including an artist residency in St Peter’s de Beauvoir Church, Hackney in 2016 and a solo exhibition in Orkney in 2017, where she is a member of Soulisquoy Printmakers.

Both the faithful and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies: the laity from having to listen to them and the clergy from having to preach them!

Let us renew our confidence in preaching, based on the conviction that it is God who seeks to reach out to others through the preacher, and that he displays his power through human words.

Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 69-70