Given at St Ethelburga’s Centre, Bishopsgate, on 10th May 2017
It is a joy to make my first visit, as patron, to St Ethelburga’s here in the heart of the City of London. I am looking forward to our conversations this evening.
The idea for this centre, focused on conflict resolution and makers of peacemaking, emerged after this building was severely damaged in 1993, following an Irish Republican bombing attack nearby.
My predecessor and friend, Cardinal Basil Hume, joined then-Bishop Richard Chartres of London in his appeal to secure the funds to bring the place back to life. Cardinal Hume’s successor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, lent his patronage. The Catholic community remains supportive. Today, St Ethelburga’s is refreshing its work reaching out in new ways to Christian and other communities to ‘make peacemakers’ out of the hundreds who will take part in its programmes this year.
How much need we have for peacemakers in today’s challenging times at home and abroad where many feel fear and insecurity and where community, solidarity, that unity of purpose, which builds and sustains our sense of optimism, can sometimes seem under intense pressure.
So today, I invite us to reflect together on how those of us who are rooted in religious faith can contribute to the revitalisation of community through the reinvigoration of hope. Hope after all is both a core Christian precept and a fundamental human value. St Paul reminds Christians that when we are at peace with God, in Christ, then we have a ‘hope that will not let us down’ (Romans 5.5).
Pope Francis puts this another way suggesting that ‘God's mercy can make even the driest land become a garden, can restore life to dry bones’ (cf. Ez 37.1-14) (Easter Orbi et Urbi message, March 2013). This is because the building of hope is about the God-given dignity of every human person and is the core of all truly good human endeavours.
A Tale of Three Cities: Liverpool, Birmingham, London:
Three great British urban centres play a significant part in shaping my perspective this evening: I grew up in Liverpool and was first ordained to serve there. Before coming to London to take on my current office, I was Archbishop of Birmingham. Now London is my home.
I know these three cities well enough to realise that attempting comparisons between them is bound to lead to trouble. Each has its own unique perspective and its own distinctive sense of humour. Just one anecdote: A Brummie to a Liverpool scouser: Have you heard that Birmingham is now the second city in England? Oh, says the scouser, what happened to London!
More seriously, all three cities have been touched by the violence that sprang from the conflict in Northern Ireland of which this building is a reminder. Each has been shaken at different times and in contrasting ways by economic shock, social and political insecurity or by urban deprivation. And each has faced, or faces, conflict and violence, whether by knife crime, domestic violence, street riots such as in 1981 and 2011, or small minorities being led astray by extremist groups such as ISIS and the English Defence League. Yet it is precisely my experience of the resilient goodness of people in those challenging circumstances that encourages me to face the future with a true and certain hope.
Meaningful Dialogue between Peoples:
Central to that hope is the importance, and presence, of heart-to-heart dialogue between peoples of great difference.
How well I remember that day just over 15 years ago, which, effectively, was my introduction to the work of inter-faith relations, in Birmingham. On the morning of 12th September 2001, a telephone call was received in Archbishop’s House asking if I could go, more or less straight away, to the Central Mosque where there was to be a show of public solidarity, by the faith leaders in the city, for the Muslim community.
This public gathering, on the steps of the Mosque, was the initiative of the late Rabbi Dr Leonard Tann, who taught Hebrew to our Catholic seminarians in Birmingham, and who had learned that the Mosque had received a number of threatening and abusive telephone calls in the aftermath of the terrorist hijacking of three airliners and the terrible destruction they wreaked. He was determined that the Muslim community should not be left alone. The gathering was an important one because it gave impetus to the meetings of the Faith Leaders’ Group in Birmingham, giving them shape, character and focus. It started, and it remains, a group based on personal relationships, building personal and communal solidarity and growing in its capacity to respond to difficult and sensitive moments.
I rejoiced to be part of it. I treasure those memories. I salute its on-going achievements.
I remember well, for example, our shared efforts to promote Religious Education, both locally and at a national level, too.
I remember our difficult discussions and moments when controversy surrounded the performance of a play by a Sikh author (The Behtzi Affair by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti), which gave offence to that community.
I remember our efforts to establish an inter-faith fund for the benefit of children in Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion. What a symbolic effort that was, drawing on the generosity of Christians, Jews and Muslims.
I remember the difficulties and discussions we had when worldwide controversy broke out about a small part of an incisive speech given by Pope Benedict XVI in Regensburg (University of Regensburg, Germany, 12 September 2006). It was a fruit of our relationship that in Birmingham no trouble ensued; rather, a respectful acknowledgment of the Pope’s right to speak as he thought best and an attempt, rather better than elsewhere, to look carefully at what he actually said. And you may remember he was exploring the complex relationship between religious faith and the place of violence, a theme which highlighted the very issues with which we now all struggle.
I remember with particular satisfaction the remarkable partnership between the Faith Leaders’ Group, Birmingham University and the city authorities in staging a three-sided exploration of the role of faith in God shaping and giving life to the modern city.
This learning lives on in my present work:
St Mary’s University in Twickenham, of which I am Chancellor, is seeking to be an open home to debates about the appropriate place of faith in our society. I note that its new Professor of Business, Stock Exchange Director Mark Hoban, was here to give an inaugural lecture, focusing on ethics in finance.
I have also helped establish and develop an initiative called Blueprint for Better Business which is prompting many in business to look again at their underlying purpose, and see beyond the financial bottom line to how they serve, or fail to serve, the society in which they operate.
This wider horizon is crucial for us all. I have welcomed most warmly the Chief Rabbi’s insistence that the great charity work of the Jewish community must reach out beyond its own circle. He illustrated that recently by travelling to one of the Greek Islands to see how their funding was helping the work of welcoming refugees, none of whom are Jewish. Here at home there is much celebrated cooperation between us, in dialogue and outreach to those in need.
Very recently, I was delighted to travel to Rome with four British imams to introduce them to Pope Francis and discuss common interests. He told us:
‘The most important work we must do today among ourselves and with humanity is the work of “the ear”: listening. Listening to one another without hurrying to give a response.’
Meeting him was a moving experience for our small group, which comprised two Sunni leaders and two leaders from the Shia community across Europe. For us all it was a moment in which we recognised a spiritual depth, or dimension, that underpins the religious faith of each of us. We also enjoyed visiting Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who is the President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue in the Roman Curia, who was busy making final preparations for the recent visit of Pope Francis to Cairo and the Al-Azhar University, the central seat of learning in the Sunni world.
We had planned this visit long before the recent events on Westminster Bridge. However, it became all the more important as a result. If we make enemies out of people who are our friends, then we are falling into the very trap that the terrorists want us to. We do their dirty work for them, for they want to sow division and hatred and exploit it for their own ends. There is no space for hatred between those who are our friends.
In describing all these efforts I am not upholding a bland ‘tolerance’ that actually wants to privatise all that people hold dear, especially their faith, that reduces friendship to the lowest common denominator and pretends that something constructive is taking place. I mean, rather, robust and reciprocal conversations, and the recognition of shared and urgent concerns. These include the questions of violence and religious faith, and violence and secular ideologies. They include pressing social needs such as low wages, the lack of affordable housing or living rents, the impact of war and the mass migration of people, an affirmation of the spiritual dimension of human flourishing and the centrality of charity. This is the ‘meaningful dialogue between peoples’ that we must seek. And because I see in many quarters a rising commitment to such committed and engaged dialogue, I see reason for hope and confidence for our shared future.
Meaningful Collaboration between Places:
A further point of reflection for me this evening is about the importance of places as points of meeting and collaboration between people. An obvious example is here, St Ethelburga’s, a place where people come from such different walks of life and convictions.
More often, for me, I see such meetings of people from every walk of life in our parishes, be they in Liverpool, Birmingham but especially here in London. I would not be able to find many parishes in the Diocese of Westminster (which, incidentally stretches from the Thames to the northern boundary of Hertfordshire) in which there are people from 20 or 30 different nationalities. Often, within a parish, 40 or more different languages are spoken, and people meet each other, share customs and tastes, bound together, of course, by a common Catholic faith. Such parishes are a true reflection of the wonderful diversity of this capital city and places where integration is constantly being built. Our schools teach English to the parents of immigrant children; our liturgies include the traditions of other cultures; our social outreach, which does not look at faith belonging, crosses every boundary.
So often it is the churches that bring together ‘Remain’ voters and ‘Brexit’ voters, those at the top of the economic pyramid sitting next to those who struggle, those with learning disabilities and those who pioneer breakthroughs in knowledge, entrepreneurs and trade unionists, to say nothing of the huge diversity of students in our schools and colleges, hospital and university chaplaincies, all human life indeed. But it is human life gathered, consciously or otherwise, together, and in that I find cause for hope.
Dioceses, too, with their great geographical reach, bring people together in places and across places that sometimes might never meet. They broker new friends, new frontiers and new experiences. They open up new horizons. And at their very best each local congregation is a bridging point to wider community service and kindness.
And so many diocesan efforts reach naturally into international cooperation, not only within our own churches but as churches together. Last week the Anglican Holy Trinity Church, Brompton, gathered 5,000 Christians from across the world to a packed Royal Albert Hall where Cardinal Tagle of Manila, President of the Catholic Caritas Internationalis, the world’s largest charity, shared his insights in a conversation with Nicky Gumbel, the founder and leader of the international Alpha Faith Formation course.
In moments such as these, and in so many more, we discover so much more vividly what it means to belong to one another. Speaking to well over one million young people in Poland last summer, Pope Francis cried out to them:
‘Say “No” to the sofa! Don’t think that in order to be happy all we need is a good sofa – a sofa with a built-in massage unit to put us to sleep…That is probably the most harmful and insidious form of paralysis for young people, because little by little we start to nod off, to grow drowsy and dull while others – more alert than we are, but not necessarily better – decide our future for us. Say “No” to the sofa!’
So let us thank God for all these places and occasions which wake us up and help us to the habit of embracing the other. These too are real reasons for hope.
The Resilience to Embrace Mercy and Hope:
Finally, there is one more point I would like to make.
The choice to build meaningful dialogue between peoples, and the aspiration to sustain concrete collaborations between places, needs an ethic to sustain it, to undergird it when the road is steep and the going is tough. This we can call perseverance, a gift of the Holy Spirit, or in a more contemporary word: resilience.
Thousands around us know what this kind of resilience feels and looks like: those who have worked for decades at grave risk against modern slavery; parents like Barry and Margaret Mizen who have persevered in the campaign against street violence long after their son, Jimmy, was murdered; young carers who rise in the middle of the night to keep an eye on their own parents who struggle with cancer or a long-term health condition. Here many are to be included: peacemakers and community builders in the streets of cities broken by conflict or war; the witness of the survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides such as Srebrenica and Cambodia, which scar our recent human memory and, lest we forget, the monk and the hermit, the enclosed religious sister and every person who knows the importance of prayer, who in the silence of the very early morning catches a glimpse of the Creator in the newly dawning day.
May I quote Pope Francis again:
‘I am always struck when I re-read the parable of the merciful Father. ... The Father, with patience, love, hope and mercy, had never for a second stopped thinking about [his wayward son], and as soon as he sees him still far off, he runs out to meet him and embraces him with tenderness, the tenderness of God, without a word of reproach. ... God is always waiting for us, He never grows tired.’ (Homily on Divine Mercy Sunday, 7th April, 2013)
This is the message that sustains the Christian through the darkest night of the soul and motivates the pursuit of the highest causes and the greatest goals in the face of the most severe opposition. Because God waits, we can rest. Because God does not turn away, we may persevere. The author to the Hebrews encourages us to ‘grasp the hope held out to us’ as the ‘anchor’ for our souls (Hebrews 6.19). Such resilience depends upon more than determination and willpower. It draws on our sense of divine destiny and purpose, a fundamental conviction that human flourishing is about more than self-actualisation, individual aggrandisement, and that it is diminished when community and solidarity are denuded. Recently, I heard this lovely quotation, from G K Chesterton, I think: ‘Often, today, we are troubled by a sense of having lost our way. But, more than losing our way, we have often forgotten our home address.’ Only when we know with the certainty of faith where we are actually going, the home provided for us when this journey is over, the Father who awaits us, will we find the deepest resilience we need today.
This, then, is the ultimate source of our hope: not that at the end of the day we can sort all our problems, but rather, at the end of the day, there is a sure and certain home awaiting us. And every day we act in that hope for it opens for us the road of understanding, compassion and mercy, of solidarity and of those thousand acts of kindness and charity, which go against the caricatures that critics may care to launch in our direction. Last year, for example, in our diocesan report to the Charity Commission, we were able to state that our activities were supported by four million hours of voluntary time and effort!
The existence of St Ethelburga’s is a powerful testimony both to the darkness and disharmony that can taint our world and to the fruitfulness of that resilience and profound hope so often found in people of faith. Here, for these reasons and in this place, this evening, we can be renewed in the sure and certain hope that within all that is best in the human spirit, especially when it bears joint witness with the Spirit of God, there is the capacity to persevere with true resilience in the work we do in the service of all people in this city and in our world today. Thank you.