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.
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.