Monthly Archives: September 2014

An Open Letter to Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury

Dear Archbishop Justin Welby,

I am writing to you following your intervention in the House of Lords in the debate about British Military Action in Iraq. Initially, when I heard you were attending the debate and going to speak, I was extremely pleased that this was one occasion when you had made an active choice to attend a chamber in which I know you are rarely present.

While I disagree with the existence of the House of Lords, at least, so I thought, here was an opportunity for a voice to speak the Christian message of peace and justice. Imagine then my profound disappointment when the only representative of the church to be given the opportunity to inform the debate chose to speak in favour of action which, as a committed Christian, I feel is abhorrent to the faith I follow and its founder, Jesus Christ.

When will we learn? Conflict is an interminable cycle downwards into the worst depths of the human condition; of which the most vulnerable victims are always innocent civilians and from which the only real winners are the arms industry and their friends in the finance sector. I mourn for an institution which calls itself church but which puts their interests ahead of the hope of a future of peace and justice.

Your claim that “ It is the role of the church I serve to point beyond our imperfect responses and any material, national or political interest, to the message of Jesus Christ and the justice, healing and redemption that he offers.” is one with which I strongly agree. As church we are, both individually and collectively called to be prophets, holding up a vision of hope that speaks of another way being possible. But to hear it immediately followed by the words “ But in the here and now there is justification for the use of armed force” suggests that the early part of your speech was merely an empty formulation; when in reality you have chosen to ally yourself, and by virtue of your position, the Church of England, with the temporal powers of this world.

To my mind, as followers of the non-violent Christ, there is no situation, no justification which calls for us to raise weapons of war. This does not mean that I condone the activity of IS: of course I am in full agreement that their barbaric actions (along with those of other armed groups, both those we support and those we don’t) are causing a humanitarian crisis. I agree entirely that now is not a time for inaction, for closing our eyes and ears to the cries of the suffering. But I do fear for a world, and a church, which has come to believe that violent action and total inaction are the only two possible routes when faced with a difficult choice.

For me it is part of the very essence of the Gospel, and not an optional extra, that, in the face of the violent oppression of a regime which victimised the innocent, the route chosen by Jesus was neither violent action, nor passive inaction. It is a route that many in the church are still courageously trying to walk, but which your words suggest may have been institutionally forgotten. It is the route of non-violent, creative resistance, the route of sharing a hope of peace and justice, the route of making visible the pain not to exacerbate it further but to explore and understand and heal it. It is, I believe, the route along which Jesus invites us to follow him.

When Jesus told his disciples in Gethsemane to ‘put down their swords’, swords which they had raised in good faith to protect the innocent and prevent a worse act of violence, I do not believe it was a one off commandment for a given historical moment. I believe it was a commandment he whispers to our hearts repeatedly through the ages: ‘when you hear the battle call, when you see the weapons of war being raised, however good the justification might sound, you my followers, put down your swords’.

My personal church history is a varied one, and these days I hold my denominational identity very loosely, but it was the Anglican tradition which formed my early faith and into which I was both baptised and confirmed. I still hold those roots as a part, though not the whole, of my Christian identity. That said, out of all the churches with which I identify, the Church of England is increasingly the one I struggle with most. I have long been concerned about the church’s choice to associate itself both with military might and financial power; which make words spoken on behalf of the poor look all too often like hollow insincerity. It’s vast wealth and its choice of unethical investment practices, it’s support of a political system where being born into privilege is considered acceptable, and its continued support for acts of state violence, to me are all contrary to the Gospel.

Your words in Friday’s debate did nothing to allay my fears that the Church of England has become corrupted by such associations; and that those members of it who continue to share the Gospel, of whom I know there are very many, do so almost in spite of, rather than because of, the church. My condemnation of your position is paralleled by my admiration of those who continue to  courageously witness to the hope of peace in the name of the church.

I look forward to hearing your response about what drove you to speak as you did and how you are able to understand the Gospel so differently to my reading of it.

You remain in my prayers.

Yours Sincerely

Stephanie Neville

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“The daily practice of incarnation – of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh – is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels. Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper?”

– Barbara Brown Taylor

A few years ago, I was climbing with a friend. I’m not a natural climber – I’m clumsy at the best of times – but I relish the adrenaline, being outside, and the trust you put in other people and the gear, and John was a much more experienced climber than me, and I trusted his experience and knowledge. John ascended, rigged an anchor at the top of the rock, and then I followed. At the top, John explained how I was to get down – two feet firmly on the rock, I was to lean my weight back against the rope until I stuck out 90° to the rock. From there I would be able to abseil down. I’d done this before, but never with the person belaying from the top; something about that freaked me out, and I set off too early. My feet slipped from underneath me and I found myself clinging to the top of the rock, dangling on the rope.

It was quite a scary experience, and yet I had never felt more aware of my own body and what it was experiencing. For a few short seconds, who I was, and where I was, and what I was doing were all the same. I had never noticed – really noticed – what muscles feel like as they push against something, in the way that I did as I struggled back up. My scraped knees didn’t hurt (yet), but I had never been quite so aware of the weight of my own body. Under my fingers, the cold, hard rock felt really cold, and really hard. Since then, I’ve thought of that moment as a sort spiritual experience; there was something about the fleeting lack of distinction, the sense of being very present, the concentration needed… I think the experience has helped me to understand a little of what it might mean for God to be manifest in the world (Peter Rollins describes God, as being ‘hyper-present’, “God not only overflows and overwhelms our understanding, but also overflows and overwhelms our experience”.) Maybe it’s something to do with being immersed in something which meant I no longer felt like I was analysing it as it happened, experiencing without judgement…

There have been similar moments in my activism – again, during moments of relatively high pressure, alertness, or stress – like being in the van, driving to a gate, preparing to blockade it. I wrote about this in an earlier blog article; that sense of being brought into communion with something/where/one in a moment when, given a choice, I might have chosen to fly, run, back down, be somewhere safer, more comforting, more familiar. In a life where we spend so much time on the internet, aware of events on the other side of the world as if they were happening next door to us, it’s easy to feel alienated from our immediate surroundings; the immediacy of information and experience can start to feel like a bit of a wash, and everything blurs a little. God is in that, but God is also in our bodies and in our experiences, in this moment, in our aches and pains, in our happiness and courage, in our being, and in our bodies. For me, this is becoming a growing element of what nonviolence means; being present to the moment and trying to see some of God in it makes it much harder to exclude, defile, or treat others as means to your own ends (and that counts for ourselves, too). That’s what’s so important in the Barbara Brown Taylor quote at the top; washing someone’s feet means being present to what you are doing and to the person in front of you, because that is God. When we see God incarnate in the blood and bone of those around us, that means we have to see them differently; it is an act of being aware and present. Maybe it’s in the moments when we forget to look for God, because we’re present to it, maybe it’s then that we catch a glimpse of the divine.

In peace x

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Swimming pool wisdom

no bombing

Swimming – good for you, good for world peace!