24 June 2014

‘Here they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims,
And still they were seeking the city of God’

Reflections on the small lake in the grounds of High Leigh after the morning mist and clouds had lifted (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Last night’s heavy rain left the countryside around Hoddesdon shrouded in a heavy mist when I awoke at 5 a.m. this morning and it was some hours before the sun broke though.

In the morning mist and dew, hares were hopping around on the lawn below my window and squirrels were bounding the boughs and branches of the trees. I had a walk in the grounds of High Leigh before today’s sessions of the annual conference of Us (formerly USPG).

The theme of this year’s conference is “Hearts, minds, hands, voices.” And this morning we heard heart-moving voices of Christians for whom inter-faith dialogue is a living reality.

We began the day at 7.30 with the Eucharist for the Feastday of the Birthday of Saint John the Baptist [24 June] celebrated by the Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf, the Right Revd Michael Lewis.

The clouds had lifted at last after breakfast, when the Revd Dr Samuel Packiam, Director of the Henry Martyn Institute in Hyderabad, India, led our Bible study. He is a priest in the Church of South India and has served on a high-level government committee on India’s large Muslim minority. At Bishop Michael’s suggestion, his Bible study focussed on Acts 17: 24-28.

Acts 17: 24-28

24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

Three attitudes to other faiths

Dr Packiam identified three ways Christians engaged in mission in the past have looked at people of other faiths:

1, Others as enemies of God;

2, Others as potential converts:

3, Others as holding to a primitive superstitions.

But, he said, Saint Paul’s attitude to the Athenians in his sermon at the Areopagus was to attack their sense of superiority and to tell them that all humanity is made by God and that God placed humanity throughout the whole earth.

He compared the attitude of those Atenians to Christians who see Christianity as a brand, like the phone we use, which iPad we use or how we dress.

Saint Paul speaks about the sovereignty of God and the unity of the whole human race. God is the author of diversity, and has a purpose for this diversity even when we may discriminate.

He asked us five questions to help us articulate a theology of religion in our plural world:

1,, How do we place the Bible among the Scriptures of other religions?

2, Where do we put God among other gods? (he pointed out that in India there are, perhaps, 33 million gods.)

3, Where do we put Jesus among other saviours?

4, Where do we put the Church among other communities of faith?

5, Where do we place the Kingdom of God among other kingdoms?

He might also have asked where we put Christian priests among the priests of other religions.
Too often, he suggested, religion is a dead body, whose breath is missing, like a golden cage from which the bird has flown. He said 99 per cent of people feel good about religion because it does not threaten them.

When religion is alive it possesses us, he said. But religion too often is a consolation rather than a revolution and rebellion.

The High Leigh Conference near Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire ... the venue for the Us conference (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

The Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf, the Right Revd Michael Lewis, spoke about his Province in the Anglican Communion, the Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East, which extends to three continents, Asia, Africa and Europe.

In that Church, Iran is the only diocese contained within a single country. But when one asks how many countries are in his diocese, it depends on how you count them: the United Arab Emirates is one unit on the international stage, but is seven different emirates, while Cyprus is divided de facto by a line of occupation. So, the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf is a diocese with nine or ten, perhaps even 15 or 16 countries, depending on how you count them.

He then spoke of what it is like to be an Anglican, or a Christian, in those countries, when many countries define themselves as Muslim, and said many people asked whether in the historic heartlands of Islam the Arabian Peninsula and along the Gulf, the word mission should be used and how the Church can reach out to the community or be a voice for justice.

He said he had suggested the passage for Bible study led by Dr Packiam’s Bible study because of its emphasis on the radical oneness of humanity, and its emphasis on the radical oneness of God in whom we live and move and have our being.

The radical oneness of humanity is important in his context, he said, identifying the danger for many Christians in parts of his diocese of living in a ghetto or a club, although Anglicans are often seen the “honest brokers” or “caretakers,” allowing other Christians to worship on their ground.

He said Acts 17 speaks of God as the God of everything and .of the radical oneness of God the Creator. Instead, he might have suggested Philippians 3: 20, where Saint Paul reminds us that our homeland is in heaven, or even two lines from William Henry Draper’s hymn, In our day of thanksgiving:

Yet here they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims,
And still they were seeking the city of God.

In his diocese, many Christians cannot be citizens of the country they live in. Although it is different in Iraq different and the situation in Cyprus mixed, this is true in most other countries, where they remain non-citizens.

The words used for them and by them include “expatriates” and “migrants.” Yet many of these people are committing huge amounts of their lives to those places. Many Indians have lived most of their lives in Abu Dhabi or Dubai or Kuwait, but their children are not citizens of the countries they live in and have to seek Indian citizenship.

He pointed out that the word “expatriate” usually implies those who are economically advantaged, while migrant is generally applied to those with low calibre, low status and low income jobs.

But, pointed out, that although a bishop he too is a migrant, in the same dilemma as an Indian domestic worker, say.

Yet, he said, the normative spiritual state for a Christian is to be a migrant, and our true citizenship is in heaven. Abraham’s story is about his becoming an expatriate migrant, and we remember Moses for travelling on and out so that he can travel back to God.

We are strangers and pilgrims, seeking the city of God, and this is our primary identity.

Looking at the countries in his diocese, he said there are several million Christians in Arabian peninsula and the Gulf. The residents in the Emirates, for example, include five-sixths who are not Emiratis, and a large proportion of these are Christians.

In Dubai, on a normal weekend in Holy Trinity Church, 32,500 Christians pass through the doors, and there are similar figures for Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Bahrain, and similar numbers for Roman Catholics.

The situation varies from country to country, and “persecution” is a word that should not be used lightly used, but should be restricted in use to state institutionalised persecution that is sanctioned by legislation.

He painted an image of a spectrum of experiences from Saudi Arabia, where there is complete denial that there are Christians there, to the problems in large parts of Iraq, where there is objective massive danger in Baghdad and Basra, to Oman, where the attitude is one of watchful, tolerant, friendly hospitality, although not open religious freedom.

Tolerance of Christianity comes in varying measure, and the openness to conversation and dialogue in many places raises questions about mission and evangelism and brings challenge to go beyond facile understandings of mission so that the words mission, evangelism and Gospel are not put not in a box and locked away but are lived out instead.

The opportunities for service are legion, and he cited examples from the areas of medicine and education. They, show radically that we one in our humanity, he said, and there is no need to be afraid of getting involved in any or all of that.

He spoke of the possibilities for great works of Christian witness for justice, such as speaking on behalf of workers who are victimised by their employers, or people needing repatriation. “The opportunities are there if imagination is given free rein,” he said.

He also spoke about the “tragic and appalling” situation in Syria, which had once been a safe haven for refugees in the Middle East, particularly for Christians from Iraq, many of whom are now trapped.

There are over two million refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, countries that are almost breaking under the strain. “It is a really dire situation ... but I don’t see the great powers of the world taking seriously the power of the arithmetic.”

Mission flows from the way we behave towards one another, he said, declaring: “To be frank, I am embarrassed by what is called Fortress Britain.”

A Pakistani family mourn over the death of relatives at the site of suicide attack on the All Saints Church in Peshawar … one of the images shared by Bishop ‘Mano’ Ramalshah this morning

Bishop Munawar (‘Mano’) Ramalshah from Pakistan, a former General Secretary of USPG, spoke of Dr Packiam “adding mystery to the divine,” and thanked Bishop Michael for redeeming the situation of Christians in the Middle East from images of persecution.

But he spoke with pain and emotion of the situation in Pakistan and of the cataclysmic tragedy that struck Christians there on 22 September 2013 with the attack on All Saints’ Church in Peshawar, which he said was the worst-ever communal attack in all time in Pakistan.

The church was built in the style of Islamic architecture, which was a very daring step in 1883, and nine newly-converted Christians were martyred on the day it was opened so that it could be said their blood of the martyrs became the foundation stone of the church.

In the attack last September, over 100 people were killed, over 150 people were injured in the attack, 16 children between four and 16 were orphaned, and 32 children lost the only earning member in their family. Two bodies found on top of the church. The youngest martyr was a child who was eight months in the womb.

He said he had baptised some of those people, married some of them, and now he had buried some of them.

He went on to say he had worn his pectoral cross throughout Pakistan, and sometimes feels more threatened when he is wearing it on the Underground in London. The only time he asked to remove at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. “No Taliban had ever pulled it from my neck,” he said.

The situation in Pakistan continues to be volatile and insecure in Pakistan, with a sharp rise in suicide attacks, and with the vast numbers of killings mow put at many thousands.

He said the creation of Pakistan was the first state whose definition was based on religion. He described this as an ignominious horrendous action to which all of us where party, and one that facilitated the creation of the state of Israel a year later. He called the creation of Pakistan as a state based on religion “a crime against humanity.”

As a Christian, he said, he does not have full rights of citizenship in the land of his birth when he has those rights in Britain, the land of his adoption.

He said the survival of Christianity in Pakistan is at stake: “We are being suffocated... our legal rights are being denied us.”

Yet, he said, Christians in Pakistan are “re-enacting God’s love as we have experienced in Jesus Christ ... This is the moment when we express who we are and what the Gospel is really about.

When asked about Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, who had once been his server, he said he was saddened that the former Bishop of Rochester had resigned and that he is now identified with Gafcon. He said Gafcon is a cancer destroying the Anglican Communion, and because of the Anglican Communion has sadly lost an angel like Archbishop Rowan Williams.

The attack on All Saints’ Church nurdered and maimed men, women and children … one of the images shared by Bishop ‘Mano’ this morning

A personal anniversary

Today marks the thirteenth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I was ordained priest on the Feastday of the Birthday of Saint John the Baptist, 24 June 2001, by Archbishop Walton Empey of Dublin in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, having been ordained deacon by him a ye¬¬ar earlier, on 25 June 2000.

It was moving today to realise I shared my priesthood with people who shared their experiences at the Us conference this morning.

And later in the day I found myself going over-and-over again the words of that hymn by William Henry Draper (1855-1933) that Bishop Michael had cited:

In our day of thanksgiving one psalm let us offer
For the saints who before us have found their reward;
When the shadow of death fell upon them, we sorrowed,
But now we rejoice that they rest in the Lord.

In the morning of life, and at noon, and at even,
He called them away from our worship below;
But not till his love, at the font and the altar,
Had girt them with grace for the way they should go.

These stones that have echoed their praises are holy,
And dear is the ground where their feet have once trod;
Yet here they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims,
And still they were seeking the city of God.

Sing praise, then, for all who here sought and here found him,
Whose journey is ended, whose perils are past;
They believed in the Light; and its glory is round them,
Where the clouds of earth’s sorrows are lifted at last.


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