Sunday 5 January 2014

The first 'Sunday' of 2014

Here are my first impressions about this morning's Sunday on Radio 4. 

The first Sunday of 2014 began with an interview between Edward Stourton and the Archbishop of Sudan, Daniel Deng, discussing the descent into chaos of South Sudan - the world's newest nation - after just two and a half years of independence from the Muslim north. Archbishop Deng says it's not a tribal conflict, rather it's a political issue, a power struggle. (That's not quite what I've been reading). He wants the outside world to pressurise both sides. 

The first Muslim-related story of the year came next. The website describes this feature thus:
As an Islamic charity unveils plans to open a new hostel for Muslim Women in Manchester Edward hears why it's needed and discusses the taboo subject of domestic violence within the Muslim community.
Edward talked to Iqbal Nasim of the charity National Zakat Foundation (NZF) and to Karima, a Muslim woman who spend some time in a London hostel run by the NZF. Both guests talked about how helpful such hostels were and how the specifically Muslim character of the hostel caters for their needs more than other such shelters. Despite the website blurb, there was very little discussion of "the taboo subject of domestic violence within the Muslim community", just one cautiously-worded question from Edward. Both Iqbal and Karima said the problem effects all communities.

St Giragos Church, before

Then came a fascinating report from the BBC's Dorian Jones. Sunday has a special interest in Turkey, if the sheer number of reports from that country is anything to go by, but this was one of the most unexpected. It told of how the restoration of an Armenian church "has become the focal point for ethnic Armenians seeking to rediscover their cultural identity and faith in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast." The church is now awaiting a priest, currently being trained in Jerusalem. In the wake of the Armenian genocide, many child survivors of the mass pogroms were taken in and brought up as Muslims. Many remained unaware of their Armenian identity until very recently. Now some ethnic Armenians are converting to Christianity. One lady said that the Kurdish struggle for identity helped spur their search for identity. A schoolteacher said that, though there's now greater freedom to express their identity, Muslims still discriminate against them. She added that Kurds see them as not Kurdish while Armenians outside Turkey still see them as Kurds. The local Kurdish mayor who helped fund the restoration of the church emphasised its importance, rejecting Turkish Muslim mono-identity. He said Jews, Christians and Muslims used to live there. Another Kurdish man said the church will help them face up to the past, as many Kurds took a prominent part in the massacre of the Armenians. 

St Giragos Church, after

"Should foreign aid be made conditional on a country's record on religious freedom and human rights?" That was the question put to former Conservative minister Liam Fox, who believes it should, and Kevin Watkins of the Overseas Development Institute, who believes it shouldn't. Actually, there was a lot of common ground between them. It was only that Kevin Watkins believes that withdrawing aid from governments that persecute Christians, women (he mentioned Malala), their Muslim minorities (both cited Pakistan in that respect) and gays (Kevin cited Africa) could hurt the people it's intended to help. The discussion was prompted by the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Both guests agreed it's hard to do much (via aid budgets) about countries like Iraq and Syria, which are descending into anarchy. 

The BBC's Bob Walker then reported on a campaign by a group of UK Sikhs "to have the events around the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, recognised as genocide by the UN 30 years on." We heard from a variety of those campaigners, who allege that the Indian state was seeking to wipe out the Sikh population in the Punjab. Bob's commentary did give us a flavour of the Indian government's side of events, but his report was dominated by one side of the argument. However, after the report ended Edward Stourton said that the programme had approached the Indian High Commission to give its side. "Several times," he emphasised. They got no response. It's very unusual for Sunday to feature something of interest to the Sikh community though, so this is a step forward.

"As the film The Railway Man comes to UK cinema screens Louise Reynolds talks about the war-time experiences of her father, Bishop Eric Cordingly, as a Chaplain in the notorious Changi Prison during the 2nd World War." Bishop Cordingly's diaries and secret notes have now been published in a book, Down to Bedrock, brought out last October by his daughters. They relate to the horrific events surrounding the building of the Thai-Burma railway. The bishop felt no hatred towards the Japanese because of it though. Hate died in the prison camp for him, said Louise. His Christian faith directed him in that startling direction. 

Finally came that discussion: 
St James Church Piccadilly has erected a 26-foot-high wall to 'draw attention to Israel's anti-Palestinian policies'. But is it too political a gesture for the Church? Rev Lucy Winkett, Rector of St James's Church and Professor Alan Johnson, Senior Research Fellow at the British Israel Communications and Research Centre discuss.
Lucy struck much the same defensive position that Sue described yesterday, reiterating many of the same points she made in that Guardian article. Alan, as befits someone who agreed to take part in  a 'Bethlehem Unwrapped' debate, was generous to her (giving her the benefit of the doubt over her intentions) but remained critical of the event as a whole. He described it as a series of anti-Israel events, full of wild rhetoric, attended by lots of extremists. He said that the installation was misleading as 95% of the security barrier is a fence not a wall and that it doesn't surround Bethlehem. He says the event failed to bring out the point that it is necessary, given that a terrorist attempt to bomb a bus in Israel was made within the last couple of weeks, given that 900 people were killed in three years by terrorists before the fence went up and given that 90% of attacks have been thwarted by it. Unfortunately, as usual, the discussion came to an abrupt end. 

Lucy Winkett

Edward's question to each guest can be summarised as follows:
- (To LW) You must have known that you'd have been accused of a stunt by doing this?
- (To LW) That's all you were trying to do, support the people of Bethlehem - not make a broader political point?
- (To AJ) Do you accept that account?
- (To AJ) What did you make of the force of the "striking" visual impression of the installation?
- (To LW) I asked because its so striking it's bound to overwhelm the context, isn't it?
- (To LW) Whatever your intentions, a lot of people have taken it in a different spirit, haven't they?
- (To AJ) What do you think?
Such are my first impressions and sketchy notes. That final discussion in particular needs rehearing and unpacking further though.


  1. Thanks for these Sunday critiques.
    Between services this morning I saw that Sky was asking if the "Church was dumbing down" with its removing any reference to sin etc in its baptismal "vows". Certainly the public thought so...but( quelle surprise)..Ruth Gledhill(Times Trustie) was wheeled along to cite that this was mere "change of emphasis". Yet again, the godless public have a more acute sense of church hypocrisies and the failing to remain a true lighthouse for Christian certainties; than do the "liberal church and media commentators". A lesson for us all there?
    Did the BBC fear to mention this, or was it just that they`d had no time to put a piece up to "celebrate this new change of emphasis"?
    2. Lucy Winkett and Giles Fraser are the BBCs kinda J-guyz.
    Small wonder then that Melanie Phillips(who had put both Winkett and her boss Welby) in the frame over the St James stunt was not invited onto Sunday to reprise her argument. When was the last time the angry writer of a public letter to Lambeth Palace, was not afforded their pop at the C of E c/o Stourtons Show?...that meat a bit strong for the chicken livers at BH?
    The BBC-forever at the service of Gadhaffis Little Green Book had it been blessed by Giles Fraser or Tony Blair first!
    But thanks for listening and reporting it all-saves me being a hissyfitting grump at morning prayers!
    Suppose there`ll never be a talk about why Epiphany is reduced to a Sunday and not the 6th as of old...nor why the BBC seem to prefer their services to be BBC-praising Themed Services(like todays re radio broadcastings), rather that Bible-backed acts of worship to God and to Jesus...not the managers of the Lowry Folk Club collectives!

  2. I'll keep doing them, Chris. It seems to be a habit with me now!

    If you fancy a proper Epiphany sermon (in two senses of the word 'proper'), I came across this a while back from the late Canadian scholar Dr. Robert Crouse, which is a fine example:

    Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, and the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany - that great festival on which Christians, for at least fifteen hundred years, have celebrated the manifestation, or showing forth, of the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God made flesh.

    Just as the showing forth of the glory of God in Christ takes many different forms, so our season of Epiphany commemorates many different things. First, the coming of the wise men from the East to worship at the cradle of the Infant Christ; then, the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, with the voice from heaven declaring that this Jesus is the beloved son of God; then the visit of Jesus, at twelve years old, to the Temple at Jerusalem, where the learned doctors were astonished by his understanding and his answers; and then, a series of Jesus' miracles: the changing of water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana; the healing of a leper, and the centurion's palsied servant; and the calming of the troubled sea. Then, at the end of the season of Epiphany, we have prophetic lessons about the final coming of the Son of God, in power and great glory.

    Many different things - a great diversity of commemorations; yet they are tied together by one common theme. They are all aspects of the showing forth, the shining forth, the "Epiphany" of the divine glory of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, the Eternal Word of God, made flesh. Thus these many commemorations of Epiphany make up a continuing meditation upon the meaning of the Christmas miracle - the miracle of God with us, God in our flesh, Emmanuel, God visible to human eyes, God audible to human ears, God tangible to human touch, God manifest in human life, judging, restoring, and transforming it by the grace and truth he brings. "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth."

    On the Feast of Epiphany itself, tomorrow, we commemorate especially the coming of the wise men. "When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the King, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."

  3. Those learned travellers - perhaps Chaldean scientists, astronomers (actually, we know very little about them) - came first to Jerusalem, the Royal City, the obvious place to look for the new-born Jewish King. But, instructed by the Scriptures, they were directed further on, to Bethlehem, and it was a strange sort of King they found there: they found a little child there, with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. There, at the manger, they offered their symbolic gifts; god., acknowledging a king; incense, the symbol of God's presence; and myrrh, the ancient funeral spice, recognizing the mortal human nature of the Son of God, destined to suffer and to die in sacrifice for all mankind.

    A remarkable performance, really. What was there, after all, about the humble manger scene to suggest the divinity, the kingship, and the sacrificial destiny of the Infant Christ: How was divine glory shown forth there? Surely, it was a glory visible only to the eyes of faith: faith, to see in a helpless infant, who cannot even stutter, the Almighty Word of God; faith, to see the King of Kings, and Lord of all the worlds, in a swaddled baby, who cries for mother's milk; faith, to see the Very Son of God, "God of God, Light of Light", in all the poverty of a cattle stall, exposed to all the bitter winds of human indifference and disdain.

    A remarkable performance, certainly; but that, you know, is the proper work of faith, and the pattern of faith for all of us. "Where is he that is born King of the Jews: Where is the Son of God, who comes to save us: Where is that Bread of Life for whom our spirits faint? Faith bids us find him, as it were, in a stable. Faith bids us find the Word of God in human words; faith bids us taste the very life of God in bread and wine; faith bids us see the Son of God in one another - in the least of these his brethren, to see and to declare his glory shining there.

    Our human inclination is ever to lust for the spectacular, the novel, the entertaining, the compelling. We look for something new and different, some "gimmick", some new recipe that promises what we call success. But faith ever calls us back, to work out our salvation in the common, everyday life of the Christian fellowship, the disciplined routines of Christian worship, prayer and study, and works of Christian charity.

  4. Christian life is not fundamentally the fevers and chills of emotional excitement: it is rather the careful, thoughtful learning of the Word of God, day by day, year by year; the nutriment of the Christian sacraments, and the deeds of love and mercy which flow from Christian charity. In the normal, everyday things of the Church's life - the words of Scripture, prayers and sermons, the outward signs of sacraments - the world sees only human words, only poor and common things: halting human speech, a bit of water, bits of bread and wine, and so on. But faith has eyes to see in all these things the shining forth, the "Epiphany" of the Son of God, the miracle of God with us, Emmanuel. And faith has gifts to offer him; not much, perhaps, in worldly terms, but by his own grace we have that one best gift, acknowledging his divinity, his kingship, and his sacrifice, the gift he treasures most - the gift of adoration, the gift of the humble obedience of mind and heart.

    "Fear not to enter his courts, in the slenderness
    Of the poor wealth thou canst reckon as thine,
    Truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness,
    These are the offerings to lay on his shrine.
    Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;
    Bow down before him, his glory proclaim;
    Gold of obedience and incense of lowliness
    Bring and adore him; the Lord is his Name!"

    No Wise Man can offer more, and surely faith cannot offer less than adoration; for to the eyes of faith, the everlasting glory of the Father shines forth in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh - "and we beheld his glory", day by day, we behold his glory, "the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." Amen.

  5. That`s my next couple of months sorted there Craig. Thanks for putting it up, why on earth are we all settling for mediocrity in our churches when such treasures still exist.
    To be honest, until we begin to get a new generation who actually knows or cares for this kind of depth of learning...the Church probably should employ good speakers like Patrick Stewart and such-just to read this kind of sermon out-and available on CD before the nation loses its ability to listen for more that 35 seconds, as well abs being unable to read prose like this.
    Or do we have to move to Canada now?
    Thanks again....on the side of the angels again as ever.

  6. PS theological point...Crouse says that Jesus was baptised by John, true enough according to Matthew.
    Yet in Lukes account(which is an ordered and chronological one, and not blocked for teaching purposes, unlike Matthews as we`re led to think) John has just been arrested previous to the baptism, and seems to have been just one of many baptised en masse.
    How do we square this-if Luke is correct, it rather scotches alot of stained glass windows and great artwork I`d have thought!


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