Thursday, 23 April 2015

Truth and Tolerance

Since moving here one of the challenges that has sometimes been addressed to us is to question whether our firm convictions, and the centrality of importance we have given the prayer life of the community has limited our potential to be open to those of different or no faith. It is a question, interestingly enough, which I have most often heard from others who profess the same Christian faith I am aspiring to live through this experience.

At the most simple and practical level, we were invited to move here to establish an intentional, residential, Christian community, so the grounding of the community in Christian faith and values was never something which was up for debate. For me, to be grounded in faith is much less about following a set of rules or doctrines, and much more about finding space to open ourselves to the love and guidance of God: so to be a Christian community, the centrality of prayer had to be an unquestionable reality.

Equally, with a vocation to live in and serve the city it was clear that our ministry would bring us into contexts with people of all faiths and none and every spectrum of belief in between: it is part of the joy, excitement and challenge of city centre life and was also never in question. We have shared our table with people of different faiths and none, and our voluntary work has brought us into contact with those of many beliefs and cultures. In prayer too, we have been joined by those with theological positions vastly different to one another, with those of other faiths, and with those unsure about the very existence of God.

To explore this challenge a little further, though, it is, I think, a question which draws on a deeper societal context: one which holds both great promise and great danger for the church as well as for wider society, and on which it is well worth pausing to reflect.

I wonder whether, as the pendulum swings away from past intolerance and strict narrowly defined codes, we have strayed into a place where we have assumed that tolerance and understanding means standing for nothing; or perhaps more accurately not daring to admit to those things which are part of our fundamental beliefs and identity. Our very positive desire to be welcoming and inclusive has left us in danger of succumbing to the myth that “anything goes”. Our belief in universal freedom has left us so desperate to keep our options open that we have shied away from experiencing the true freedom of making a commitment. The most dangerous heresies are always those which are the closest to the truth.

It is true that as a community we hold strongly to our Christian identity. It is not something for which I feel the need to apologise. I don’t think holding tightly to a vocation to pray and be inspired by the love of God and being open and welcoming of those who do not believe in that same God have ever been mutually exclusive.

On the contrary, it is the experience of God’s unconditional love through prayer together which has given us the courage and confidence to turn outwards. Finding our hope in prayer doesn’t make us better than others, nor does it mean we do not have our own questions, struggles, doubts and difficulties; but it has inspired the vision and vocation to always look outwards beyond our core community, and be open and welcoming to others. Of course there is always room for improvement, but I think, both through our volunteering and our hospitality, it is something we have done reasonably well so far. Perhaps it is the security of knowing ourselves to be loved just as we are, found in the experience of God’s unconditional love, which has also allowed us to deepen relationships with others in all their diversity.

I know that this challenge, offered undoubtedly in love, grows out of a desire to embrace diversity, and welcome people as they are. It is a legitimate aspiration, and is, I think, one of the things Jesus did best. But Jesus found the strength for the ministry which took him out towards others in the firm foundation of a life of prayer and relationship with the Father. For us too then, like the Jesus we dare to try and follow, welcoming one another in mutual love never means forgetting, denying or hiding who we truly are. 

Friday, 10 April 2015

Turning the Tables on Trident

"We are called to live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion for all wars. Do you faithfully maintain our testimony that war and the preparation for war are inconsistent with the spirit of Christ? Search out whatever in your own life may contain the seeds of war. Stand firm in our testimony, even when others commit, or prepare to commit acts of violence, yet always remember they too are children of God"  
Quaker Advices and Queries, 31.

I marked the entry into Holy Week somewhat differently this year. On Palm Sunday a group of about twenty of us gathered at the gates of Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment. We braved the wind and rain to share food together, then, after a short liturgy at the gate, set off to walk around the perimeter of the base, pausing at fourteen stations of the cross, to remember the events of Jesus' passion and pray for those involved in or suffering as a result of the nuclear weapons industry.  It took around three hours to circle the base, a reminder of just how vast the operation is. At each stop we left a fabric cross tied to the fence, ragged ends flapping in the wind: fragile symbols of hope in a place of death.

This is the place of the cross
Where the suffering servant suffers still
Hidden behind barbed wire and state secrets
Veiled in hatred and fear
But this place too
This is still Holy Ground

The following day took a group of us to Burghfield, the other nuclear facility nearby, where the missiles are actually constructed, to blockade one of the gates. There was a strange contradiction between the beauty and peace as the sun rose above us, and the weapons of death being built behind us.

This was a new experience for me, and I cannot deny feeling distinctly apprehensive before we arrived, even if I was not going to one of those lying locked in front of the gates. Nerves aside, though, it did feel like exactly the right place to be. One by one, those on the ground were cut out of the tubes and moved to the grass verges. Some three hours after our dawn arrival, the gateway was clear, apart from the police vans which still kept it very effectively closed. Once everyone had been removed, we gathered to pray and sing together, before sharing the peace, with each other and with the police and going on our way.

The whole two days felt like a fitting way to commemorate Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, followed by his turning of the tables in the temple. Just as Jesus made his way to the centre of power to challenge the political and military powers of his day; so are we, as Christians called to continue to challenge systemic injustice and violence in the societies where we live. The industrial-military complex is one of, if not the most, significant of those systems in the midst of which I feel we are called to bear witness to the hope of other possibilities.

The timing had a dual significance: with this moment in the liturgical calendar coinciding with parliament being dissolved in preparation for the general election. Although work on trident renewal has already begun without official parliamentary approval, it will be in the hands of the next parliament to make a final decision. It is not too late for them to seek the way of peace.

On a personal level, the whole experience was powerful in many ways, not all of which I feel have necessarily fully been able to process or would be able to explain. From a loosely connected network of people, we built, in twenty-four hours, a close-knit, supportive, loving community of people we had to dare to trust. Too often peace is seen as the passive alternative of "just letting things happen" or of "keeping ourselves to ourselves", and it was inspiring to share with others an understanding that peace is an active, committed, alternative voice. Whatever the future holds for the UK nuclear weapons industry, it was important to be present, at this time and in this place; to put our time, our energy, our efforts into saying no, not in my name.

Related Links: 
Reflections by one of the others present on the Put Down the Sword blog

And in the media:
Premier Radio
Morning Star

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

You are the Salt of the Earth

A month has passed since we welcomed something over forty people to Birmingham for a Taize weekend on the theme "You are the Salt of the Earth," with many more joining us for Saturday evening prayer.

A fair amount of hard work and organisation from a number of people went in to making the weekend run smoothly. I hope they, like me, agree it was worth it. There were times of prayer, opportunities for sharing and discussion, the sharing of experiences on themes of solidarity and friendship, a fresh look at familiar bible texts. There was good food, good conversation, good company.

Afterwards I was asked what my favourite part of the weekend was: but there was no one moment that stood out. The best thing about the meeting, for me, was simply this: the spirit which encompassed the whole; that somehow, together, we created a beautiful space: a space of genuine prayer, of willing engagement, of shared hope.

So thank you: to all who came, who participated, who prayed, who sang, who played instruments, who played silly games, who cooked, who ate, who made cups of tea, who spoke, who listened, who shared, who moved chairs, who washed-up, who laughed, who entered fully into this shared experience.

Together we made something beautiful. Together we are the salt of the earth.