Feeds:
Posts
Comments

INTRODUCTION

Walking into a Batwa home seeing a couple of blankets on the dirt floor of a room no more than 8’x8′ and being told that 4 children share this space every night is seeing poverty starkly. Yet these 4 children smile and are cheery. They proudly showed us the 1 school textbook they possessed. Walking into a flat with damp walls, a mattress on the floor but almost no furniture, and virtually bare cupboards in the UK is also staring poverty in the face. Again the children smile and joke. Poverty is a reality in just about every nation on earth. It is relative, and open to perception; the Batwa children would probably love a mattress but they might still prefer to share it and actually prefer the warmth of their climate to the damp of the U.K. They might prefer having open space to grow a small amount of crops to having to buy from shops and eat processed food. But in simple relative terms the children in the UK are better off than the Batwa. This, I hope, already illustrates that the issue of poverty is not as straightforward as can appear. Yet it also highlights that some aspects are clear. Poverty is about food and hunger; it is about shelter and clothing; it is about education and opportunity. Poverty is not simply a matter of income; so whilst the World Bank’s definition of a person living on less than $2 per day has some distinct advantages; as does the carefully calculated Living Wage Foundation’s living wage levels, if we reduce poverty merely to income we will fail to understand it properly. Simply throwing more money at poverty will not solve it; although equally a refusal to recognise that income levels do matter will only make poverty worse. There is a poverty that comes from lack of social relationships; from prejudice and inequality of opportunity. There is a poverty which comes from a lack of love. There is a spiritual poverty which fails to recognise, allow, or attempt to crush and destroy the human spirit with all its capacity for imagination, creativity, awe, wonder, worship and prayer. Poverty is multi-faceted and interconnected. It has therefore to be confronted and tackled in a multitude of ways. Fortunately because so much of life is interconnected it is quite possible to be working in several ways at once. If, though, we are to tackle poverty then not only must we recognise its multi-faceted nature we need to seek to understand its causes. Failure to recognise and tackle the causes of poverty means that we will only ever respond to the symptoms. So we will feed the hungry but not ask why the hunger exists. We will tend the sick but not see if the causes can be eradicated. We will wonder why after all the effort we put in so recently to help that the same situation has arisen once again. I have thus far made an assumption. The assumption has simply been that poverty is an evil that needs to be confronted. I am clear that as a Christian I have to believe this. However there are those who will argue that poverty is the fault either of the poor themselves, or of their own inept and corrupt governments and that they should be left to resolve the issues for themselves. Poverty is thus not ‘my’ or ‘our’ problem it is ‘theirs’. So although brief let me explore what the causes of poverty are as outlined in the Bible. There is, I believe, deep wisdom found here that current research and theories end up echoing and contextualising for the post-modern world.

POVERTY AND SOCIAL STRUCTURES

The story of the Israelites Exodus from Egypt is foundational to understanding the Old Testament laws that tackle questions of poverty. The Israelites found themselves enslaved by an oppressive rule and government that increasingly made their situation individually and corporately worse and worse. Under Moses’ leadership God rescues the Israelites from this oppression. Constantly the Israelites are called to remember this deliverance as inspiration for their response to the most needy and vulnerable in their society, namely the widows, orphans (fatherless) and the stranger / alien (e.g. Exodus 22.22-24; Leviticus 19.9;23.2; Deuteronomy 10.18f; 24.17-22) It is the character, nature and action of God which is to be the leading reason why God’s people are to respond to poverty (Psalms 10.14,18; 68.5; 146.9) Within the way that Israel was expected to function, particularly once in the Promised Land, was to be socially structured in a way that meant the poor were properly provided and cared for. So the gleaning law stopped the ‘maximisation’ of a land owner’s profit so that the poor could gather for themselves. So here the poor are given the dignity of working to provide for themselves, not simply living off goods given to them; although this was also part of the social structure (Deuteronomy 14.29; 26.12f). The Levitical law of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) provided for the ownership of land to never become so out of kilter that the poor could never get back into ownership. It is a radical law that looks at the wiping out of debt to allow everyone to start again on an equal footing. The prophets of Israel strongly condemn the exploitation of the poor by the strong. It was the king’s responsibility to ensure that the poor and the weak were properly provided for and not exploited. The prophets had to call to account not only the Kings but also those around them, those who had accumulated wealth and power, for their self indulgence, forgetting of God, and exploitation of the poor (e.g. Psalm 72; Isaiah 1.17,23; 58 Jeremiah 5.28; 7.6; 22.3; Amos 4-5,8). Thus both the laws of the Old Testament and the call to uphold them from the prophets point to the social structures being key in seeking first to avoid poverty, and then when it occurs to alleviate it. The letter to James makes it quite clear that this concern for structure and the behaviour of the wealthy and powerful remained foundational for the early church too.

POVERTY AND NATURAL DISASTERS

There is also recognition that poverty could come about through natural disaster. This applied to individuals, as is seen in the example of Job losing everything (Job 1-2). It is also seen in the impact, for example, of earthquake, locust plagues, and drought; suffering follows for all. Jesus made it clear in referring to the innocent deaths of 18 when the Siloam Tower collapsed that we should not equate such suffering with specific guilt or judgment; in the world the way it is suffering happens. (Luke 13.1-5) Poverty can be the result of no ones specific fault. The response should be that of compassion. Such disasters may be ‘large’ in that they affect huge numbers of people. They can also be ‘small’ in that it might be the death of a family member which leads to loss for the family as a whole. Natural disasters are the result of nature at work. Although this said we should rightly check out that a ‘natural disaster’ has not actually been caused by human mishandling of water supplies, or pollution through bad mining practices, or building collapse through poor quality construction. Where this is the case then we need to take up responsibility, whether that be an individual, a company or the actions of the wealthy in humankind, as with climate change. Poverty can be caused by natural disaster, great and small.

POVERTY AND PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY

Then there is reference to poverty coming about through an individual’s own choices, even laziness. In the book of Proverbs the ‘sluggard’, or ‘slothful’ person, is warned that this leads to poverty (Prov 6.6-19; 13.4; 19.24; 20.4; 24.30-34). St Paul has sharp words for those who will not work to provide for themselves and their family (2 Thess 3.6-12). So some poverty may be caused by a person’s own attitude and failure. However this needs to be set alongside the much harsher, and more frequent, warnings made to the rich to beware their self indulgence, failure to care for the poor and tendency to trust in their wealth rather than in God (Luke 12.13-21; 16.19-31; 1 Tim 6.6-10,17-19; James 5.1-6; 1 John 3.17) So personal responsibility does matter. A person should not deliberately choose the way of laziness. This is one reason why the gleaning laws allowed for the gleaner to have the dignity of working for themselves to gather the grain ( a story beautifully told in the Book of Ruth). But to over emphasise this as the major cause of poverty is both to overplay the biblical material on poverty, and tends to be argued by the wealthy who then conveniently ignore all the warnings on themselves, and the injunctions to be generous with their wealth.

CONCLUSION

Consistently throughout history we can find the poor being blamed for their own poverty by the powerful and rich. The theme of the ‘sluggard’, the ‘feckless’ or the ‘unworthy’ poor is repeated time and again. It is frequently seen in our own day; where the poor are too frequently named as ‘wasters’, ‘scivers’ and ‘scroungers’. Yes there are some who do not do what they could for themselves. But to make poverty primarily the responsibility of the poor themselves is to reverse the order of the causes of poverty. It is to make the minority cause the main one. This inevitably will then lead to focus responses on things that connect with individual living rather than tackling the major root causes. The primary causes of poverty are social structural ones. If we really want to tackle poverty we need to analyse these and reform them. Very often these structures favour the rich and the powerful, who therefore tend to be reluctant to make changes that leave them less wealthy and less powerful. However if we really mean it when we say we want to end poverty we will have to tackle the structures in both our own society and in matters like world trade. As we do so we will respond compassionately to those who find themselves poor through the impact of natural disasters, both great and small, and we will encourage personal responsibility. In all honesty it can seem an impossible vision and dream to believe that poverty can be over. The gulf between rich and poor seems so wide and so deep. This is whether the gap is within our nation, or the even greater gap between the rich and poor nations. However I believe that holding on to the vision matters. It is, at the end of the day, a vision from God and one that I therefore believe will one day happen. It is for us all to work to see that day come when poverty will be over and a future generation of Batwa children will not be so poor and no child in this nation will live in poor housing, health and most importantly of all not knowing love, both human and divine.

I began my sabbatical study leave by attending an international consultation on Child Theology. This gave real space to engage freshly with theological exploration of what it means to do theology where the child is placed in the midst of us all by Jesus. Many of those attending also exercise ministry amongst poor and vulnerable children. The heart of Child Theology is to ask, ‘What happens to all aspects of theology when a child is placed in our midst?’
Then after a few days reading it was time to fly to Rwanda. I approached the researching around the projects in East Africa from a simple question: “Did these begin as a compassionate response to the needs of children in poverty and move over time into more questioning of why they were in poverty and thus towards action around questions of justice?”
The reasoning behind this was the simple observation that very often individual Christians (and indeed those of other faiths and none) see a need and respond with compassion. Only later as they discover more do some at least start asking more questions about why the situation has arisen in the first place, and then find themselves involved in advocating and working for justice. Many never move beyond a compassionate response. (This is not intended as a judgmental statement purely observational). This journey can be observed in the recent history of Foodbanks in the UK where the Trussell Trust, for example, began very simply wanting to respond to a need, and whilst continuing to do this has moved ever more into questions of advocacy and policy based on issues of justice alongside compassion. The same can be seen in the recent development of ‘Holiday Hunger’ activities taking place across my diocese during the past 2 summers.
The reality I found however was that in all the projects in East Africa with which I spent time from the outset there was not only a compassionate response but also inspiration from wanting to pursue matters of advocacy and justice. These have developed and altered through the years but every project had some root desire for justice from its inception.
BYUMBA, RWANDA
The Hannah Ministries’ Tumerere Project has worked with child-headed households since 2005. It began in response to the reality of child headed households created because of the 1994 genocide and the impact of HIV/AIDS. It has always been small scale. It involves feeding, developing skills that could be used for work (haircutting, basket weaving, tailoring), and helping ensure that these families rights are protected. As Josephine Mujawyira, one of the founders put it, ‘Care and love given to these children can help produce good citizens for our country.’ Alphonsine was first helped by the project in 2006; 10 years on her memory of the first impact of the project was, ‘it gave me lots of change; I grew up, gained weight, got hope, met other children and was helped to feel that life could continue.’
The Batwa Project in Kibali has developed a great deal since I first visited it. This project was the initiative of the Anglican Diocese who have had assistance from both Christian Aid and the Red Cross. The adults talked of how their lives had improved through fewer babies and infants dying because of ill health, cold and lack of shelter. They are pleased that their children attend the local school (including the first few to attend secondary school). They also invest hope in their children, ‘They will change our lives’. The children themselves spoke positively of school; they have good relations with other pupils. They feel confident and comfortable participating. There is less stigmatisation (a major change).
KABALE, UGANDA
African International Christian Ministry was established by Enoch Kayeeye in 1983. It runs a Vocational Training College, works in community development across the region, including some specialist work with the Batwa. They have worked with orphans care and fostering. Over 30 years there has been a consistent commitment to this work. It has been far from easy. Yet meeting a community development worker who began in 1989 with a small group of people now coordinating 88 local groups with 5,674 members is testimony to faithfulness and inspiring in regards to how things can develop and mature. Sitting with the Batwa hearing them talk of their changed lives through local community development and engagement is also deeply moving.

KISORO, UGANDA

The Potters Village was he project about which I had heard much but had never before visited. It began in 2007 when Revd Jenny Green, a CMS Mission Partner, had had more than enough of burying babies who did not need to die. What began as a baby rescue mission 9 years ago now still does that work, although in very different ways, but also has a paediatric medical centre, a child crisis centre, a nutrition centre and works out in the community with the families into which the babies are fostered. It has 58 staff, all local except for Sue and Dr Mike Hughes who lead the work today.

BUJUMBURA, BURUNDI

The Rainbow Centre, like The Potters House, started as a response to babies being abandoned, or parents simply being unable to care for their child adequately. It moved into fostering through local families very soon after its inception. The centre offers support, training, and activities. This was founded by 3 leading church women, headed by Mathilde, wife to the then Anglican Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi. This was a local response to local need, drawn from a conviction that acting locally was probably going to be more effective, and more able to use funds well, than that originated from larger international bodies. 13 years on it continues to work with the Childrn and families that came to them first in 2003. It continues, in the midst of a nation in crisis, to operate. Visiting foster families was truly inspiring.

 

Alongside these 5 ‘core’ projects Rosemary and I found ourselves visiting many others that also work with and for children in poverty in these 3 neighbouring nations in all their similarities and differences. An SOS Childrens Village, vocational training, health centre, and schools in Byumba; pre-school and single parent families work, schools and college, elderly persons work in Shyogwe Diocese, Rwanda; vocational training in Kisoro; health centre, church planting and community leadership in Gitega Diocese, Burundi and key conversations with those engaged in encouraging preschool development across Rwanda, tackling the support of orphans through community fostering in Rwanda, street children in Burundi, and education and health care in Uganda.

Alongside this there was the privilege of exploring with church leaders questions of the impact of the widening gap between rich and poor in all three of these nations. The questions raised by political stability and instability on the poorest, and particularly on the lives of children.

It was simply an enormously rich 4 weeks. I met so many inspiring people, from children in deep,poverty through to those in senior leadership. There were many smiles, laughter, an enormous amount of singing and dancing, and inevitably tears and heartache. But the abiding memories are of the former rather than the latter.

So in these first two posts I hope to have offered something of a flavour of what I did and why. Moving on I want to reflect on poverty and its causes; specific issues relating to child poverty. Then something about motivation of those who work alongside children in deep need. For now I hope you have enjoyed travelling with me through my brief memories of 4 wonderful weeks.

 

INTRODUCTION
I last took 3 months sabbatical study leave in 1998 whilst I was Team Rector of Walthamstow. In theory I should have then taken some more 7 years after becoming a bishop; this would have been 2011. So this sabbatical study leave had felt a long time coming. Planning began when I was still Bishop of Southampton but first the move to Southwell and Nottingham, in 2010, and then to Durham in 2014, meant 2 postponements. However the idea of exploring children in poverty and some church responses to it had never gone away. The delays meant this was now being done from a different perspective – being a member of the House of Lords and actively engaged in political debates about child welfare; living in the North East with its wider range of child poverty and longer term engagement with Burundi alongside Uganda and Rwanda have all affected what I did, the reading I have undertaken and the overall approach.
Then as the 3 months came to a close I had to decide just what I would do with all the riches I have experienced and gained from this time away from the regular responsibilities of being the Bishop of Durham. I know that it will shape my thinking about life and ministry in the Diocese, as a bishop and in wider national and international matters. This shaping happens over the weeks and months that follow as further reflection happens on re-engagement with local parish and diocesan life.
Several people asked me if I planned to produce a book out of it all. Well for the present the answer to that is No. Instead I have decided to share some of the thinking and reflection through a series of blog pieces. I hope this may get some discussion going. The aim will be to publish a new piece every week for the next few. It might be that slightly more than that appears, or slightly less. I would not be surprised if I am still producing some into the New Year. Whilst I have an outline I have no master plan and the reflections that arise, and responses made, might make me change direction, or go off on a tangent. But to begin I thought I would simply set the scene of what I did and briefly why.

WHY CHILDREN?



Ever since I became a Christian as a teenager I have engaged in working with children. Any analysis of my whole ministry shows that at the very heart of God’s calling on my life has been ministry with, by, to and for, children. I believe every Christian, and every church, has a responsibility to engage with children in some way; how else can we learn ‘to become like a child’; how else can we express God’s love to these ‘little ones’? Hence it is nothing short of a tragedy when a church has no children, or when adult disciples have no opportunity to engage with children regularly; such a lack inevitably stunts the spiritual growth of any church or individual. If there is no child in our midst then we simply miss so much of what God brings to us through them.
In society, and the world, I am ever more convinced that how the most vulnerable are viewed and treated lies at the core of what makes for a Good Society. So much of what is often written and said about the Common Good appears to be orientated around an adult world; this is all the more so when economics is allowed to be the dominant narrative of our corporate lives. The vulnerable, which must include children because of their dependence on adults, can never be the economically most productive. So how they are viewed, valued, cared for, listened to and included is central to being a healthy society. As the prophet Micah outlined, ‘God has shown you what is good … to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6v8) The responsibility of a nation’s leadership includes, ‘defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor.’ (Psalm 72v4) So children in poverty must be at the heart of all our concern.
But I also believe that some of us are called to a particular ministry role with, to and for children, and this has been a central part of my own calling. This has always had at its heart a concern for their spirituality, and their own living relationship with God in Jesus Christ. As the years have rolled on then my focus has broadened from simply the church’s ministry to, with, for and by children to a concern for all children and childhood. This has been particularly focussed around children and poverty. 2 of the blogs that will follow will explore the question of poverty in general and of child poverty in particular. For now I simply note its centrality to my own calling.

WHY EAST AFRICA?



Another part of my calling has been to be engaged with the world church; in particular I have found myself called to engage with the Anglican Church in South West Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
Just as children were part of my engagement as a disciple from the outset of my Christian journey so too has my awareness of being a world Christian. Here I am deeply grateful to the folk of Staneway Chapel in Ewell, Surrey, and the leadership of the Christian Union at Kingston Grammar School. These were the 2 bodies through whom I came to love Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. They nurtured me in the early years of my discipleship. Both taught me from the outset that I was joined to a worldwide body of Christian believers. I have always understood myself to be a world Christian. Now this is something I really wish every Christian would grasp for it opens up the world, and the faith, enormously. I have been so enriched by it. But it was at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, during my training for ordination, that my engagement with East Africa began. Enoch Kayeeye was a CMS Study partner from Kabale, SW Uganda. He was placed in the room next to me at Wycliffe in 1981 and a strong friendship developed, which remains to this day. It is this friendship which led me, and Rosemary, to become more directly engaged with this part of God’s world and church. My curacy parish (All Saints with Holy Trinity, Wandsworth) was very engaged with the Ruanda Mission, and my training incumbent Allan Sirman was a member of its Council. On joining Scripture Union as Inner London Evangelist I was encouraged to become a member of the Ruanda Council myself. In 1994 the Rwanda genocide happened and we moved to St Mary with St Stephen, Walthamstow, a parish with Rwandan links. In 1997 I made my first visit to Rwanda; another followed in 1998, alongside Kabale, as part of the first sabbatical study leave. Leaders of the Anglican church in these nations became friends; friendships that have now lasted over 20 years. Visits happened to either or both every year. Burundi followed from 2000 onwards, but particularly from pre Lambeth Conference 2008. So our connections are now long and deep. They are primarily with Ugandans, Rwandans and Burundians, not ex pat mission partners (although we have always had good friends amongst these too). Half the population of these nations are children. Huge numbers live in deep poverty. They have taught me so much.
So the idea was to in some way put this all together. Do some concerted reading around Poverty, and specifically Child Poverty, in my own context of the UK, and the context of a world where so many children live in poverty. Spend time with Ugandans, Rwandans and Burundians who have sought out of their own love for Christ to respond to the reality of child poverty in their own midst. So the focus was on local responses rather than those made by the global organisations (although there is inevitably some overlap as will become clear in later blogs).
I have made new friends along the way and I am enormously grateful to all who have given advice, time, challenge, encouragement and support.
In Part 2 of this first blog I will outline what I did.

I visited Burundi last week on behalf of Archbishop Justin, and personally, to encourage Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi, the bishops and people of the Anglican Church of Burundi at this time of deep crisis for their nation. Relationships matter; face to face meeting is important in showing that we care. Prayer matters; by it we express our concern and commitment before God. In the mysterious ways of God as we pray for people thousands of miles away it is effective in encouraging others.
The House of Bishops came together for a morning to share with me what is happening around the country. Our news, where there has been any reporting, has focussed on those fleeing the country into Rwanda, Tanzania and Congo. Possibly 150,000 have now fled of a population of around 11 million. Amongst these are many leaders of the political opposition. The other focus has been the demonstrations against President Pierre Nkurunziza standing for a ‘third term’, the attempted coup of May 13th and the continued demonstrations since. The picture they painted for me however was of much larger numbers of people who are internally displaced. But they are not in camps. People have moved away from Bujumbura particularly to stay with family and friends elsewhere in the country. Imagine your home suddenly having up to four times as many people living in it. Add to that that many Burundian homes are small, the plumbing and drainage are poor (or non-existent) and food is becoming more expensive. For just how long can this internal disruption affecting many more than the refugee numbers be sustained? In talking with the pastors of churches in 3 of the most affected areas in Bujumbura on Sundays recently their congregations are down by 30, 50 and 75% simply because people have moved away. Streets that are usually teeming with people are quiet and almost empty.
In the south Nyanza Lac has seen 45% of its population cross into Tanzania. Many of these people only returned from Tanzania in recent years. As they have left they have sold many goods, including the iron sheeting from their roofs. One organisation told me their research suggests leavers have been selling their goods for only 15% of the real value. Once that money runs out on what will they live? When they return how will they rehabilitate their homes again?
But in the north some who have left have started to return and life largely goes on as normal. Here most schools are open whereas in many places they have been closed for the past few weeks. The universities are all closed; hundreds of students sleep rough opposite the U.S. embassy compound. All the boarding schools (that is most of the secondary schools) are closed too. When so many young people are simply hanging around what do they do in their frustration, anger and sheer boredom? Demonstrating can become a way of life for a period.
The word I heard most over these 2 days was ‘Fear’. There is real fear of the violence, and of how it might grow or how violently it might be suppressed. There is fear of the youth militia which appears heavily armed. There is fear of the police taking people away at night, and of torture in police and prison cells. There is fear of a return to the civil war that ended in 2003. One bishop described Burundi as no longer the land of a thousand hills but the land of a thousand rumours. Rumours circulate like wildfire, even with the closing down of social media. Unbelievable things have already happened, so why not believe more unbelievable rumours?
There is deep fear about a developing food crisis. This is not rumour, it is genuine concern expressed by all the NGOs representatives with whom I met. It was the word of a group of women in one of the poorest parts of the city. It is harvest time but with people fleeing not all the harvest will be taken in; where it is it might be hoarded rather than sold. Even greater concern is that because of uncertainty people will not plant in this next season so that there will be no harvest at the end of the year. In a nation where most people simply live from harvest to harvest this would be serious disaster. Oxfam, Christian Aid and others are already trying to plan for the possibility of major humanitarian aid being required. Inflation is rising; without a solution soon this will only become worse. The Central Burundi Bank does not have the resources to hold the Burundi Franc artificially high for very long; especially if the international community withholds funding until free and fair elections are held.
On one level it is hard to be anything other than pessimistic for the next months, whatever political settlement might be reached. So much damage has already been done. Yet I had one of the most stimulating discussions I have had with a group of young men in a long time over lunch by the beautiful Lake Tanganyika. Young Christian business entrepreneurs, young leaders of Christian organisations like Alpha all passionate about wanting to serve Christ fully. Staying put because they love their nation and believe it can have a hopeful future. They want to exemplify integrity and genuine participation for all. There was the Mothers Union group continuing to meet for their literacy and micro-finance meeting. Whilst expressing deep fears they were also expressing a determination to keep living and to keep developing for the good of their families and community. There is the remarkable broadcasting work being supported by Great Lakes Outreach. When independent radio stations have been trashed and forced off the air the Christian radio and TV stations are regularly putting out programmes talking about peace, promoting and encouraging all Burundians to work for the good of the nation, not self interest or power.
There is the quiet determination of Anglican and other Church leaders to promote dialogue and peace in all communities and at the head of the nation. There is the conviction that prayer matters; so 24-7 prayer chains are established in many churches.
For me the challenge is to stand with my sisters and brothers in prayer and to encourage many others to do so. Burundi is one of the very poorest, least significant nations on earth. This is exactly why in God’s economy it really matters. God bless Burundi.

ASHES TO GO

7.15am Ash Wednesday and the Rector, Curate, retired priest, 2 Readers and half a dozen church members walk down the few yards from St Michael and All Angels, Houghton Le Spring to the bus station. Robes are being worn; small pots of ash are in the hands of the 3 of us in priests orders. Only Sue, the Rector, has done this before and that was in Washington DC, a very different social setting.
Over the next 2 hours we have quite a number of people who ask to be ‘ashed’. The sign of the Cross is placed on their foreheads and they are reminded, ‘Remember that you are to dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and follow Christ / know the forgiveness of Christ.’
Everyone does so with proper seriousness and reverence. They potentially carry the sign of the cross through everything that they do for the rest of the day. People will ask them questions about it. So I later had a conversation with 2 Muslim boys about the cross on my forehead. There was no antagonism; plenty of bemusement and also clear indifference. Some simply wanted to talk; others asked for prayer. The latter was largely with lay people not the clergy.
Inevitably there has been criticism from some within the church (I haven’t yet had any from outside it). There is the accusation of it being a stunt. There is also an accusation of it being cheap grace.
In one sense it can be seen as a stunt but I think rather it is us trying to take out into the public realm the truth and reality of the good news. I struggle to see how this is cheap grace when the emphasis lies on our frailty, mortality and sin. Too often I think we may be in danger of underplaying the reality of sin, but not here. No one could go through this unaware of acknowledging human sinfulness and the need for turning from it to find forgiveness in Christ.
I am happy to admit that it was experimental for me. Would this work as a way of taking something of the good news out into the streets? Well the people involved have already said that they cannot wait for next year. They say they have had their confidence in the gospel strengthened; they feel more able to talk about their faith. I saw ordained ministers offering something that enabled the people of God to share their faith and minister the good news to others.
I am certainly ready to do it again in 2016 and hope others will join in.

CHRISTMAS DAY SERMON

Every second 4 babies are born around the world. By my calculation that means that in our Christmas Day thus far around 168,000 have been born. They have been born in so many different circumstances; smart hospitals, less smart ones, refugee camps, birthing centres, street corners, the back seats of cars, and even some at home. There have been water births, Caesarian sections, forceps deliveries and straightforward ones. Some have arrived unexpectedly in a rush, others after long arduous labour. Sometimes Dad has been present, or close by, at other times he has even been unaware that he has just become a Dad. Midwives and birthing assistants have been very busy. A little over 7,000 of these babies will not survive until their first birthday. The majority of all these new members of the human family, all bearing God’s image, have been born into poverty; many into extreme poverty.
I always have mixed feelings for anyone born on Christmas Day in our nation. Just what is the best way to celebrate such a birthday with everything else that happens around Christmas Day? But that is a question from a rich person in the rich part of the world. For many there will be little capacity to celebrate either Christmas or Birthdays though my experience of the poorest is that they will do all that they can to do so.
Rosemary and my 4 were all born well away from Christmas. I remember each of their births well. It was a privilege and joy to be there; although seeing my beloved wife in such agony did not make it a pleasant time throughout. We were fortunate; we had fabulous support from what is still the brilliant National Health Service and wonderful midwives. The births all went safely and our 4 have grown up healthy. We all know that this is not the case for everyone; particularly for those who are poorest where alongside the 7000 born today who will not make it to 1 year old another 750 will die before they are 5. This is a dramatic improvement since 1990; over this period child mortality for under 5s has improved by around 50%. The prospects of living for every child in almost every nation on earth are much better than they were just a few years ago. But the task of improving the life chances of every child, and indeed every birthing mother, continues to be one that has to be pursued.
Of course the life chances of a baby born 2000 years ago in the Near East were worse than they are for most babies born today. This was not enhanced by being born away from home, and not having the best medical care available in Bethlehem at the time. We can safely assume that everything possible to make Mary’s labour and delivery will have been done within the limited circumstances. The new born boy may have been laid in a cattle feeding trough but I think we can safely assume that attempts would have been made to make it as clean as possible, and that fresh straw or hay would have been provided. After all Joseph and Mary were deeply aware that this child was very special indeed and that God had given them an awesome responsibility to fulfil. Many questions must still have remained in their minds about why they had been chosen. They must have wondered why on earth God had added to the complications by making them have to travel all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem so late in the pregnancy. And surely God could have arranged things a little better to ensure there was room in an inn? But no, God apparently wanted His Son born into difficult circumstances not easy ones. God was determined to face life with its difficulty not in its ease.
Mary and Joseph will have been full of hopes, and of fears. The hymn writer made a clear point with ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight’.
Indeed the birth of every child comes with a mixture of hopes and fears. The mixture will vary from parent to parent and circumstance to circumstance. For some there will be many many fears and few hopes; for others it will be all joy and hope with any fears being minimal and pushed away. However for all there will be a mix.
Every child is a sign of hope. They indicate life continues; they offer a future beyond ourselves; they will be here after we are gone. They can bring about new things in our world. Here might be a future inventor like James Dyson, a sports star like Katy McLean or Rory McIlroy, a politician like Baroness Maeve Sherlock or a church leader like Libby Lane; or simply, as it will be for most, a future good citizen serving their neighbour well.
For every child as a sign of hope there will be hopes. Parental and grandparental hopes particularly. But we do well as a society to help children as they grow have hopes and aspirations. It is the responsibility of every community and of us all to encourage and engender hope for every child; whatever their background or ability. Here in the North East there is a need to raise the aspirations of our children and young people, especially of those living on our large estates and in some of our villages. It is the responsibility of us all to make it clear that cycles of deprivation can be broken; one generation can be different from another. It is particularly the role of the church to encourage hope and aspiration for Jesus coming into the world tells us that everyone is valuable and everyone can be fully the person God made them to be. Jesus came to give life in all its fullness. His coming is good news for ordinary people like the shepherds of Bethlehem to whom God first announced the arrival of His Son.
There are always fears at the birth of a new child too. Fears about their health and development. Fears about our ability to cope as parents. I can still remember the fears of not hearing Caroline breathing and wondering if she had stopped completely. I remember the fear of wondering if I could have enough love for a second child when all my love was focussed in one; not realising just how much love expands when the second arrives; and indeed the third and the fourth. Love is not a limited commodity it can just keep growing which is why I can love them even more now than when they were first born. Fears are understandable and inevitable but it is love that drives out fears. It is hope that overcomes the darkness of despair.
We need as a society to help parents with their fears. Parenting support matters greatly. We need to help parents give their children the time and love they need. So wage levels and employment patterns are important so that parents do not have to work every hour they can to make ends meet or have to leave their child in the care of others for too long. Good child care is important but good parenting even more so. The Christmas story also reminds us that both mothering and fathering matter. Children need good role models from women and men. Fathers need to be encouraged to take their full responsibility for children alongside mothers.
Yes Mary and Joseph would have had many fears alongside their hopes. They would have had the same fears as every parent with their first born child. Perhaps their fears would have been heightened by the particularity of their son. But they had also been given insights into the hopes for him in a way that none of us could ever experience. So many hopes for the baby Jesus; although just what these would mean Mary and Joseph did not know.
This Christmas let us reflect on the value of every child. Let us celebrate the hope that every child brings. Let us encourage and support parents in their great calling. This Christmas let us reflect again on the birth of the child in Bethlehem.
For this child, named Jesus by the angel Gabriel (Yeshua in Hebrew; he who saves), this child is the one who brings hope to every child born today. This child is God with us; God alongside us in our humanity; in our frailty. This is God submitting himself to the total dependency of a foetus and then a new born baby. This is God committing himself to experience humanity from the inside, with all its risks and oddities. This is the God who will learn to sit, stand, walk, talk, control his bowels, learn to read and become a carpenter. This is the God who will face death and triumph over it; the God who will take into himself all of human sinfulness and rebellion and restore us into his life and family. Every child is unique; there are no repeats ever in God’s creation. But this child is unique in a very special way for He is God incarnate, enfleshed, embodied; God as a human being. As such Jesus is the hope for every child born today.

Christmas always conjures up stories and images of children waking up excitedly on Christmas Day to open presents that have mysteriously arrived in stockings, pillow cases and under brightly decorated trees. It is a time of smiles and laughter; of fun and games. Lavishly made TV specials add to many peoples’ and families’ celebrations. For most people Christmas is a time of rest, and of joy. It is good to celebrate and enjoy time together with family and friends. It is also the season of goodwill towards others whom we see as less fortunate than ourselves; charities are well supported at Christmas. Many people volunteer to bring some joy to others through meals, parties, visits and surprise presents. Generous giving to others in need should be part of Christmas for us all. We miss part of the season’s joy if we do not catch something of the joy of giving.
Yet we all know that for some Christmas accentuates loneliness; it heightens grief; it creates unpayable debts and it opens wounds. Sadly it will not be ‘Happy’ for everyone. Some children will go hungry, even on Christmas Day. The rising reality of child hunger in this, still one of the richest nations on earth, causes increasing concern. Child poverty is not just a scandal now it anticipates long term issues for those children’s overall life chances and expectancy. It is not as horrific as scenes of slaughter of children in a school in Peshawar, Pakistan; innocent lives taken away so cruelly. Nor is it as awful as the desperate plight of children in refugee camps in Syria, Turkey and elsewhere; nor the deep long term hunger of children in South Sudan. But it is a serious wrong. All of these should make us weep, cry out in anguish, yearn for justice and some hope in the face of it all, and play our part in bringing about change.
The true story on which all of Christmas is founded speaks both to our joy and our sorrow. It leads us to celebrate and to weep.
Jesus’ birth is caught up in both. There is joy for Joseph and Mary at the birth of the God promised child. A joy shared by angels and shepherds. There is the lack of room for a pregnant mother in an inn and the use of a feeding trough for a cot. There is the anguish at what it might all mean. Later it became worse with the flight into Egypt fleeing the horror of Herod’s slaughter of so many innocent children whilst in jealousy and rage he tried to destroy the most royal baby ever born.
Christmas celebrates this extraordinary birth that changed the world. It is filled with pain and yet also joy. Joy at the good news that God is involved with us; that in and through everything God does care.
May this Christmas be one of much joy but also of deep awareness of where joy is missing. May it be one where generosity marks us all. May it be one where together we commit to a better future, especially for those in most need in our society and across the world.