Monday 20 October 2014

Sermon at Uppingham School

Preaching at Uppingham Boarding School: (Reading: Luke 4 verses 16 - 21)

It’s a privilege to be here, and perhaps one of the most daunting tasks I’ve ever had – I come from a very unprivileged background – leaving school with no qualifications besides a C in Art, I went back to education later on in life when I wanted to be a social worker and activist for Christ.

I am, I think, possibly the first member of the clergy to address you who is well known for being arrested! My ministry developed during growing opposition to war in Iraq, spending on Trident Nuclear weapons, and I strongly support the Occupy movement which has sprung up globally from Wall Street, St Paul's Cathedral and more recently in Hong Kong. I had thought that opposing an elite who are growing richer and more privileged through the avoidance of taxation and the accumulation of wealth would hardly make me suitable Uppingham material!

So if it all goes wrong today I would like you to put the blame fairly and squarely on your Chaplain's shoulders; James, do you remember nothing of our time in Durham? I was the first Cranmer student to be arrested since that incident in the 60’s when a student was caught supplying pot to fellow ordinands! A story which throws some light on the quality of clergy that came from Cranmer during that period. They were very good.

James possibly fondly remembers at Cranmer College being part of the Jubilee 2000 movement which argued that the global south shouldn’t have to pay back the huge debts to the rich Western Nations who lent vast sums of money to them for things like weapons and expensive Western technology (such as nuclear power stations built on fault lines.)

The campaigning life that I have lived, that led me to spend nights in police cells, be the city centre priest for Bradford, to work with drug users and murderers – and now has led me to be the Chaplain to Sunderland University – a University with one of the highest percentages of students who never normally access higher education. – I have been led to all these wonderful and challenging places because I have tried to wrestle with the scriptures such as the one which we have just had read out.

When you hear yourself called a Christian, a follower of Christ, remember what it means. Christ means – Messiah – literally 'the anointed one'. And when Jesus uses the term ‘the anointed’ in this passage, this is what it means to him: ‘He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, regain site to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of Jubilee.’

Whenever you use that term ‘Christ’ remember what it meant to Jesus: ‘Anointed to bring good news to the poor’

I’m known as a liberation theologian, and that is often seen as someone who works with the poor and suffering, working in the favela’s of Brazil or the foodbanks of England. But actually Jesus worked equally with the rich and poor alike. In the story of the rich young man, it says he loved the rich young person, as he helped him to see that his riches and privileges actually were a huge burden. He wanted him to see that there is so much more to life than wealth and power – that love is the real key to happiness and the kingdom of God. Similarly when the rich and powerful leader Nicodemus comes to see him, he jokes with him and reminds him that he must be born again – by which he is saying that Nicodemus must not assume that his status is derived from the family he has been born into – but by allowing a rebirth, based on God working through him afresh.

When I am usually talking to kids of your age group in the North East, I am normally addressing the hardships they will face: Unemployment- the North East has one of the highest levels of youth unemployment in the country: Homelessness - most young people in our region will never be able to earn enough to buy their own property. We normally talk about the high cost of living, the cost of accessing Higher education. Most of you will never have to be so concerned with any of those issues because of the life you have been born into.

For most of you, the questions life will throw at you are very different. Just remember this – if the faith stories of Christ, Muhammad, Buddha have any impact on your life – the questions will probably be this: How have you used the gifts and privilege’s that you have been lucky enough to have been born into, how have you used them to build a better society, one where there is good news for the poor, the broken, good news for those who are oppressed? How have you built up a kingdom of fairness, peace and love?

When you really encounter poverty and oppression, Christ asks you to have compassion, and to work out your responsibility to bring about change.

You are the change makers of the future. How we tackle climate change; how we reduce the gap between rich and poor; how we either accumulate power and wealth or choose to share it out - will partly be down to people like you.

But rich and poor, we all have some common struggles with life: How do I fit in? Does anyone really love me? What is it all for? Why did you hurt me by doing that? How on earth did they allow Judy Murray on Strictly? The big questions in life.

The stories in this book (the Bible) will help you make sense of some of those questions. Use it wisely and all things will be well. Blessings on your journey, chose your companions wisely.

Dealing with home grown fundamentalism

No, not another blog about ISIS. This is home grown fundamentalism.

On walking through the city centre yesterday, I encountered two men berating a group of young people. The two men were from a local Pentecostal Church, and were, not surprisingly, describing how Gay people were going to hell. The young people were disagreeing with them.

Now, the easiest thing to do in that situation is to quickly walk away, hiding my dogcollar, and just getting on with the shopping needed for the event that was going on later in the Minster.

But I couldn't bring myself to do it. This hateful bile might become the image of Christianity that would stick in the minds of these four perfectly lovely young folk, unless something changed the story.

I turned to the group and with a big Howson smile aimed at the teenagers said: "our church is very welcoming of Gay people, not all Christians have these attitudes"

One of the young men turned and smiled. "wow, can I give you a hug?!" We hugged and I shook the hand of the other three young folk. The older of the two street evangelists lost it. "Repent" he shouted holding a bible in my face "You are sowing the seeds of the devil." I ignored him, and talked to the teenagers. "Some churches have moved on, hopefully we can try to remember that Jesus came to show us how to love, and not how to hate. You are welcome at the Minster anytime"

One of the guys began saying something about me going to hell or something, but I didn't engage - what was the point? I've become less convinced over the years that we can change the hearts and minds of fundamentalists - certainly not on street corners. Our job though, is not to allow them to go unchallenged, and not let there voices be the only ones heard. The damage these street evangelists do to the Gospel is immense, and they ought to be challenged where possible.

It's uncomfortable, and we may well be condemned and publicly attacked. It was horrible to be shouted at in the street like that. But I hope I changed the 'story of Christianity' in those young folks heads, and that hug certainly made it all worth the hassle.  

Sunday 19 October 2014

Harvest Ceilidh against Climate Chaos!

I hate Ceilidh dancing with a passion. I organise them regularly at Sunderland Minster for the sake of my wife, kids and all those other strange folk who seem to enjoy the prospect of dislocated ankles and heart attacks.

But today's Ceilidh is an especially important one. This is also a chance to take part in a national weekend of action organised by Christian Aid called 'Hunger for Justice'. It is a call on MPs to take more action on climate change, and to raise more awareness of this earth destroying phenomenon.

In the Philippines last year, 6000 people died and 4 million people were displaced in the biggest Typhoon to ever go inland. It was the 24th Typhoon of the year, caused by the earth's warmer and moister weather conditions. Christian Aid are picking up the pieces.

In Bolivia, the glaciers have shrunk by 30%, leaving people with shortages of water for the first time. Christian Aid are picking up the pieces.

In Brazil, they are facing the worst droughts in recorded history, forest fires are depleting the amazon at  record rate, a 300% increase last year alone. Christian Aid are picking up the pieces.

In Bangladesh, flooding has increased dramatically, affecting the ability of millions of farmers to feed the community. Christian Aid are picking up the pieces.

Christian Aid do not want to continue picking up the pieces. We need to work harder to prevent this global catastrophe. It is the worlds richest countries that are most responsible for this situation, but it is the poorest nations who are bearing the brunt of climate chaos.

We need our MPs to push the EU into 50% carbon reduction targets by 2030, with a deal to be made in Paris at the climate summit in 2015. We also need David Cameron to pledge $1milion for the 'Green Climate Fund' before the Lima conference this December to help the poorest nations deal with the climate chaos brought about by our policies in the West.

Yes, we will be dancing (badly) this evening in the Minster - but we will also be lobbying hard about Climate Chaos with our local MP, Julie Elliott, the Shadow Environment Minister, who will also be there.

Come along and dance, as if the planet depended upon it. Because that might just be the case.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Liberating Hong Kong

Our eyes should be on Hong Kong at the moment, and we need to be praying for a peaceful and just outcome to the struggle for the streets. Not since Tiananmen Square has the Chinese government faced such a challenge to its authority, and they need to know that this time, we expect a different solution than tanks and guns.

It is a heady mix of faith and politics that is propelling the people of Hong Kong to take such risks. The movement was founded by Church leaders, students and teachers, and their non-violent methods are deeply rooted in both liberation theology and the ethos of the global Occupy movement.

Occupy Central with Love and Peace, known as 'Occupy Central' is the civil disobedience movement formed by pro-democracy activists at the heart of the mass street protests.

Three fairly moderate figures - Benny Tai, a law professor, Chan Kin-man, a sociology professor and Chu Yiu-ming, a church minister - are its main organisers.

Occupy Central has been urging the Chinese government not to vet Hong Kong's top leader in the next elections in 2017.

The group said it would begin a mass, non-violent campaign on 1 October, in response to Beijing's ruling in August against fully open elections in 2017, but brought its protests forward by several days following student-led demonstrations outside Hong Kong's government complex.

In recent days, teargas and arrests have rocked the main group of protestors, and they are under huge pressure. Talks on Tuesday will be crucial if we are to see a peaceful outcome to this standoff.

But I think the potent mix of both Christianity and the Occupy ideology is a strong recipe for success, and we need to pray and act to encourage the Chinese authorities to accept the 'winds of change' that are transforming the faith and politics of the region.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Finally getting some closure

I awoke this morning to have several friends post me the news that 'Barkers' of Bradford had been closed by the police for 21 days, while court proceedings are to take place. The Bradford local paper quoted me from the campaign I headed back in 2011, calling on the shop to be closed down. I even ended the day being interviewed by my old friends at BCB, the wonderful community radio station.
All good news - Barkers had always felt like unfinished business from my previous incarnation as city centre priest in that beautiful West Yorkshire City.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Barkers had always pretended to be a newsagent, but actually made its money from selling replica weaponry, real weapons such as crossbows and assorted knives, knuckledusters, plus a whole load of other dodgy and violent stuff. All semi-legal, 'collectors' were allowed to have them in their homes. I had always hated the shop, on a prominent site opposite where I used to get my bus - the window full of horror and stuff to kill people.

But when the so called 'Crossbow cannibal' was on trial for killing three women barely 200m from the shop - the owner decided to put on a special 'crossbow sale'. With the families of victims walking around and the shock the case had caused the city, I went into the shop and asked them to remove the crossbow sale. Initially, the owner said he would - but days later the offending killing machines were still on sale - so I went back in with a reporter from the Telegraph and Argus local paper.

The owner swore at us and told us to get out, and leave him to conduct his business in peace. And so the battle commenced. The papers and radio station joined in, so did a local MP. Privately the police told us they wanted to see the back of it because it was linked to local criminality, but the shop always managed to stay just within the law.

We put peace stickers on the windows in front of the weapons, we held vigils on Good Friday in front of the shop, and held a successful petition from neighbouring shops and those in the street calling on the shop to stop selling crossbows. When I left Bradford in 2012, the campaign was still in its infancy, and I felt frustrated that we had failed to see the place close.

So the news of 'Barkers' demise has come as a great relief. It doesn't end the ridiculous law that allows people to buy lethal crossbows, but it does show that that these shops lead to criminality, the reason for the police action. Hopefully this time the owners will not be able to find a legal loophole and manage to stay open. But at least for now, I've finally got some closure.