Posted in Croydon, Poverty and Justice, racial justice, refugees

Still seeking. A farewell sermon

‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
   and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
   with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
   with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
   the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6: 6-8

It’s all quite simple, really. What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? This evening I want to begin by celebrating some of the many encouragements of my time in Croydon – and particularly some of the ways in which I have seen the words of the propet Micah worked out in practice, in our communities.

There are so many that I will inevitably miss some out, so apologies in advance. But to call some to mind, recent and longer ago: it was a privilege to be with many of the community in Sutton as new arrivals from Hong Kong were made welcome; to be at the Mayor of Croydon’s dinner, bringing together people from all the diverse communities of this borough; to be speaking at the Reigate Social Justice Focus, learning together how to protect victiims of trafficking and identify those at risk of county lines involvement; to serve as a vice-president of the Reedham Children’s Trust and of Surrey Community Action, in their different ways resourcing the voluntary sector in helping those most in need; to be invited to the amazing Friday meeting of community, police and borough at Croydon Voluntary Action; and so many more.

From these, and so many others, I’d like to celebrate three qualities which – as it happens – I talked about at my welcome service in 2012. On that occasion I said this – ‘the church can live in hope because, and insofar as it is durable, it is rooted, it is hospitable. If we can be those things, we need have no fear.’ And I would add, ten years on, that these are qualities of healthy community, whether or not God is named as the source.

Healthy communities are places of hospitality. I have heard so many who offer their help to those in need repeating the words of St Francis, whether they knew it or not – it is in giving that we receive. Taking the risk of hospitality, especially to those who are different from us, especially to those who receive little or no welcome in society as a whole, rewards us as individuals, and enriches the communities of which we are part. I’ve been honoured to witness the extraordinary work done by the Croydon Refugee Day Centre and by the Refugee and Migrant Network in Sutton. Equally, to see foodbanks at work in Redhill, in Purley, and across the episcopal area. That is hospitality in action. I’d like to share one example of a time when I received hospitality. After the murder of George Floyd, I went with many other to Croydon Town Hall to mourn, and to state publicly our opposition to racism in all its forms. It was deeply moving, as a while privileged man, to be invited to share in the leadership of that gathering as we knelt together.

Healthy communities are deeply rooted. Some people think this is the opposite of what I’ve just said, that hospitality and openness must diminish identity. I think it’s the opposite: that a really rooted sense of self and community identity is only strengthened by welcoming others, by enabling them to put down roots, to feel at home. I realized quite soon after I arrived that comparatively few people, in their minds, live in Croydon, or Sutton, or Surrey. Yes, that might be on their postal address, but most people attach to something much more local – South Norwood, or Coulsdon, or Cheam, or Horley, or Oxted. And there’s actually no contradiction between caring passionately about the place you identify with, caring about your own culture, faith and background, and caring equally passionately for others.

Healthy communities are strong, and resilient. Communities which are both properly proud of who they are, and generously open to others, are communities which can flourish and grow. Both are needed: a place with no sense of root or identity will probably become a place which no-one claims, a place for which no-one feels responsibility; at best a dormitory for people whose lives are elsewhere, at worst a place from which everyone is trying to escape. A place which does not welcome new people, new ideas, new cultures will become rigid, and brittle – and when the pressure becomes great enough it will splinter into a thousand fragments. It is by welcoming the new into the old that resilience is built, the capacity to look forward, to adapt, to face the future with hope.

I have seen a lot of those qualities – and if only that was how the whole world was, all the time. But there is another reality, too.  When I came to Croydon in 2012, the town was still coming to terms with the damage inflicted during the previous year’s riots. That rift in community was the most extreme, but it is not an isolated event. It is not exactly new news that we live in a time and place in which the bonds of community are continually eroded by many of the ways in which we live. Some of that erosion is through things which are also good – like the freedom many of us have to move to different places, different countries. I’m not sure how we would have kept going without digital meeting – and digital shopping – over the last couple of years. The downside though is that all these conveniences also diminish the long term relationships and the daily local interactions which build community. In many places you don’t really know your neighbours, because your lives and theirs are in completely different networks. That is the way I see the tide flowing everywhere, one of the relatively few things in common between Thornton Heath and Blindley Heath. Community needs continually and consciously to be built up, to counter the erosion that contemporary society is continually inflicting on it.

So to the three qualities I’ve mentioned I’d like to add a fourth, and to leave it with you as my encouragement and challenge for the future. The one feature which I think is common to all the amazing projects and networks I’ve encountered is that they were sustained by people who believed that they could make a difference. I could come in as a bishop and praise, and encourage. Sometimes I could make connections or open doors. Sometimes I could help organisations see a wider vision, look further into the future. But all of that was to help, sustain and resource people who didn’t think of themselves as “powerful” – but who were making amazing things happen. And if that isn’t power I don’t know what is.

So to those of you who know you have power here today – whether it’s in the church, or in statutory or voluntary sector – I want to remind you that power is given to you in order to give it away. The only good use of power is to empower others, in a virtuous circle of giving. It’s certainly not given to enable you to dominate or humiliate; it’s not given to build up your institution against the other lot; it’s not given either in order to do things to others, however well-intentioned. It’s given to be shared, to create the conditions and to encourage the situations in which people can make their own choices in freedom and equity – to enable everyone to own their own power for good.

And to any of you here who believe yourselves to be powerless – know that you are not. In your life, in your community, in your networks, you have power. Communities are built, rebuilt and sustained from the ground up, by people who decide to use the power they have. No amount of well-intentioned top-down activity can make a difference, unless it meets with the desire to build community at the place where community happens – in ordinary lives, in everyday life. To return to Micah’s prophecy – that is what the Lord God requires of us all: in our own lives, and in our communities, to do justice and to love kindness. What it looks like to put that into practice is what I’ve wanted to highlight and celebrate tonight.

People will have will have their chance to speak in a moment. To get my retaliation in first: whatever I have been able to give, I have myself received; whatever you have received from me, I have received so much more from you. I can ask no greater memorial than this: that in your own way, in your own place, you commit yourself to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God. That is what the Lord God requires of us all. Let it be so. Amen.

Posted in coronavirus, Poverty and Justice, racial justice

A pandemic for the poor?

The BBC has a page with all the info. you probably don’t want to know about the coronavirus vaccination programme in the UK. Until very recently (not sure why they’ve stopped) they included maps of your local authority and its region, helpfully colour coded to show where vaccination rates were lowest and highest. The Guardian has something similar if you want to take a look.

In each case, areas with fewer vaccinations are in a lighter colour. And wherever you look, it’s area of (primarily urban) deprivation which have the lowest vaccination rates. The UK Government makes much of the overall rates of vaccination, which are impressive – 75.8% of adults have received their first dose up to June 4th. But in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets it’s 41%. In Nottingham it’s 43%. In Southampton it’s 51%. And the same story goes across urban areas all over the country.

And what goes for this country goes even more for the world. Across Africa virtually all countries are in single digit percentages, and many are less than 1% vaccinated.

So now we come to the crunch time, the really difficult decision: will the rich and powerful continue to think the coronavirus is really important when it’s no longer an issue for them personally? In the UK, will decisions about further loosening of restrictions be made on the basis of those who will be most affected? Or will they be ignored in the rush back to entertainment? In the world as a whole, will the governments of prosperous and vaccinated countries put real energy into making us all safe? Or will they spend that money on building barriers to keep out the infected hordes?

Up to now, it’s been in the interests of the powerful to protect everyone. Now that that isn’t so much the case, what will we see? It’s clear to me what’s right. In the UK, we should measure our actions by the effect it will have in the least vaccinated places, not the most. Tower Hamlets should be our guide, not East Suffolk. Across the world, we must keep on investing until we are all protected.

Posted in Church of England, racial justice

God looks like you

I was struck, and struck hard, when listening to Radio 4’s Start the Week, by both Chine McDonald and Jeet Thayil’s reference to the Head of Christ, by Warner Sallman. By their accounts, this picture of Jesus as a white man was everywhere among the Christian communities in which they were brought up, Nigerian and Indian respectively. As they talked about its effect on them, I realised that I had also seen that image, but only as far as I can recall in the homes of parishioners of African Caribbean heritage. I cannot remember once seeing it in a white Anglican home. Similar images abound of course in stained glass windows and much other Christian imagery. But not in the home, hanging over our dining tables, or taking prime space in our front rooms, alongside the family pictures.

That, I think, is what ‘whiteness’ is all about, especially in a British context. The absence of Sallman’s picture from (my) white experience is a powerful metaphor for the difficulty many white people have in seeing what is so obvious to our GMH (global majority heritage) brothers and sisters. White people don’t need to look at an image of Jesus as a white man to think of him as such. In fact we need not to do so. Seeing Sallman’s picture would be dangerous – it might bring to consciousness the assumptions of ethnic primacy which operate at an unconscious level, embedded in our culture.  Most white Christians, most of the time, are able quite honestly to disavow any racist intention in their conscious thoughts. But the frame of their experience, and of the black experience, are both formed by the idea that Sallman’s picture expresses: Jesus looks a whole lot more like white people than those of any other ethnicity.

Christ as Masai

I don’t think Sallman’s picture is great art, but I have no problem with him depicting Jesus as someone of his own ethnic background. The mystery of the incarnation is that in Christ God adopted human form, for the sake of all humanity. Depicting Christ as ‘someone like me’ is only part of Christian spirituality, but it is an authentic part when held in balance with a broader understanding. I once had a set of pictures of Jesus showing him as Inuit, and African, and Japanese, and many other ethnicities, and those different pictures expanded my own spiritual understanding of Christ. So there shouldn’t be a problem showing Jesus as a white man.

The problem – and it’s a huge problem – is that that image also carries with it the weight of hegemonic whiteness. It tells me not just that Jesus is like me, but also that he’s not like those who have a different skin colour or appearance. It makes it easy to accept a world in which leaders (religious and otherwise) look a lot more like the white Jesus than people of any other ethnicity. Like it or not, it reinforces the false message of white superiority. Some white people find that reality hard to accept; my answer is that we would have to have very good reason to reject the testimony of our GMH fellow believers. Whiteness has deprived people of many GMH origins of the sense that Jesus was really, truly, like them.

So how do I, a white Christian, get out of this bind? Not by denying that Jesus is like me – that would also be denying an important dimension of God’s saving act in the incarnation.  It’s not the Christian way to balance that act of deprivation with another deprivation in the opposite direction. That is not the way that leads to a renewed Christian identity which celebrates all as equally made and loved by God. The perpetuation of hegemonic whiteness needs to be overcome by conscious, deliberate repentance and also by hopeful celebration. There must be repentance, because I need to turn around and go another way – and so does the whole Church – in repentance for benefitting, knowingly or not, from a sinful structure which has unjustly privileged those like me. But there must also be celebration, because repentance is ultimately joyful, a journey closer to the love of God.  The celebration must be of the whole, full picture of Jesus as one of us, a Middle Eastern man who was also the Son of God embracing the whole of humanity.

The Church of England’s Anti-Racism Task Force has set out for the CofE some practical steps to take. It’s really important that things are done; it’s equally important that the things we do are signs of a change in culture. Only when the disparities of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ are gone will we all be truly free to be who God made us. Maybe one of the signs of heaven is that we no longer need to say for ourselves ‘God looks like me’, but all find an even deeper joy in saying to one another ‘God looks like you’.