If Mary had said no…

by Catrin Harland-Davies.

If Mary had said, “No! 
Ain’t no baby going to grow 
inside my womb –  
find some other woman to give house room 
to the Son of God.” 

If Mary had said, “Hey! 
You’ll have to find another way. 
Keep your Spirit off of me 
and find a meeker woman to be 
the mother of God.” 

If she’d sent that angel back to the sky 
I guess young Mary would have passed us by, 
cos be she ever so gentle and ever so good 
I’m betting that without motherhood 
she’d never have made it into Scripture. 
If she wanted to be in the biblical picture 
she’d have to get healed to find her fame, 
and chances are we’d never know her name. 

If Mary had said, “Oi! 
I don’t care what you’re calling the boy, 
he don’t belong in my family –  
he ain’t coming between my Joseph and me, 
that child of God.” 

If Mary had said “No”,  
Gabriel would’ve had to just go 
if God is a God who honours free will 
and doesn’t force co-operation just for the thrill. 
I wouldn’t blame Mary for getting lairy –  
the task ahead must’ve looked proper scary! 


Then would God have found another virgin – 
someone meeker, weaker, with the urge 
inside of her to bear the child, 
someone obedient, gentle, mild – 
if Mary wasn’t willing enough, 
if she’d summoned her feminism, told God “tough”? 

Or would God have reviewed the situation, 
put on hold the incarnation, 
powered down the special star, 
sent the wise men back to lands afar, 
cancelled the booking for the animals’ manger, 
leaving Bethlehem with nothing stranger 
than shepherds warming round a fire –  
a night off for the angel choir, 
a silent night in the Little Town, 
nothing much really going down? 

Perhaps it was good that Mary was mild 
and couldn’t say “No” to bearing the child. 
If she’d had the guts to stand up for her right 
would there be no miracle that Christmas night? 
If she’d stood her ground for womankind, 
would there be no salvation for humankind? 


What if Mary’s ‘passive humility’ 
was really an act of proud femininity? 
What if she willingly claimed her place 
in God’s awesome, astounding act of grace? 
What if her role in that first Advent 
was a confident, assertive act of consent? 
What if she wasn’t being passively ‘good’, 
but striking a blow for the sisterhood? 

Maybe Mary understood 
that God had a plan and the plan was good, 
but that if God was going to save the world, 
what God needed most was a kick-ass girl. 
If earth was going to receive its King 
God needed things only Mary could bring. 
No use coming top in any meekness tests – 
What was needed was a womb and a pair of breasts, 
and a woman’s courage and a hell of a faith 
and a rough, tough, female kind of grace. 
At the most amazing moment in history 
God needed Mary – this is her story! 

“What’s wrong with you?”

by Rachael Lowe (with input from Catrin Harland-Davies)

“What’s wrong with you?” is not the most welcoming of ways to greet a university student looking for a new church family to join! Every disabled person has their own experiences and stories to tell. This article is my attempt, through my own recurring experiences at different churches, to briefly consider how we can make disabled people feel more welcomed and included.

Let’s start with language. I am a disabled person and use the social model of disability, but what does that mean? The social model says that disabled people are not a ‘problem to be fixed’ but rather we are disabled by the barriers that are created by society. For example, it could be the way that the built environment is designed, an organisation is set up and the attitudes which are held by individuals and communities, which disables people with impairments from full or easy participation.

The Bible has a lot to say about community, including church community. Paul reminds us of our interdependence – 1 Corinthians 12 speaks of us as a body, whose various parts each bring something different to the whole. No one part of the body can decide that it doesn’t belong. How much less, then, can we decide that someone else has no part to play, or limit what role they can exercise? Yet that is precisely what we are doing, if our buildings, the format of our worship, our language or attitudes exclude someone. And even our well-meaning intentions to include can come across as patronising and in themselves become a barrier. When we congratulate ourselves on our openness, because we’re willing to install a ramp or a hearing loop, or to introduce gluten-free bread, perhaps we should pause and reframe our perception. Are we going the extra mile to create an inclusive environment, or are we tokenistically rectifying our previous exclusive practices? Are we simply inviting ‘them’ into our space, or are we willing to recognise our own spiritual impoverishment and to journey humbly alongside people who experience our world differently?

At their best, churches are places of grace, in which we recognise that none of us comes in our own strength, but all are invited by Christ, who places no barriers in our way. Wesley claimed that ‘there is no holiness but social holiness’ – holiness comes by sharing together in the means of grace. As Methodists we recognise that ‘All can be saved’; surely, then, this means that all must be given the opportunity to be fully part of that sharing? Anything about our life and worship which creates barriers to people’s sharing in that social experience of holiness diminishes us all.

Churches are full of kind, well-meaning people. I might be touched that you want to pray for me, but to pray for healing without consent is very impertinent and insensitive. It does not recognise and value where the disabled individual is with their health and spiritual journey. In fact, if you ever feel moved by the Holy Spirit to pray for someone, do not assume, simply ask them what they would like prayers for. It’s about respecting that everyone can be in a different place and a healing for a visible disability might not be what that person most needs prayer for!

So what are the barriers in our churches? Commonly people think about physical barriers like steps to the front door. While this is true, I have come across many churches that have an accessible porch but then steps to the front! Or steps to the pulpit – disabled people are not only found in the congregation! Attitudes can also be a huge barrier. It has happened a few times where I have visited a new church wearing my university hoodie (you need a few brain cells to get into uni) and yet I get spoken to with a baby voice: “Awww, heellooo”!

When I arrive at a new church and get asked “What’s wrong with you?”, the asker isn’t appreciating that it’s as inappropriate  as asking a lady her dress size! – It’s that personal – there are more interesting things about me than the fact I am a wheelchair user! Try asking a question that shows you are interested in me, perhaps about my degree or travel experiences?

My challenge for us all is to think and reflect on the assumptions we make. If you are unsure how to help a disabled person – just ask them!

A Political Epiphany

by Catrin Harland-Davies

I have the privilege of living next door to an Anglican colleague who is a specialist in liturgy. He still has his Christmas wreath hanging on his front door – but now, with a star in the middle, it has become an Epiphany wreath. He tells me that it is to remind his Methodist neighbours that Epiphany is (for many) a season, not a day, and that it still continues. His Methodist neighbours are only too pleased to have such authoritative justification for leaving our own wreath up for a few weeks longer!

Epiphany is concerned with the revealing of God in Christ; it is about the glimpses of glory that come in unexpected places. So it is both surprising and appropriate, then, that it is bound up with a story of political power struggles and the fragile ego of an insecure autocratic leader. Surprising, because such places are not where we expect to encounter God; appropriate, precisely because God delights in encountering us where we least expect it.

As the world holds its fascinated gaze on the inauguration, this week, of the 46th President of the United States, a part of the fascination comes from watching as that beacon of democratic idealism navigates its way between the right – so fundamental to democracy – to protest, and the temptation – so potentially damaging to democracy – to turn to violence in order to enforce one’s wishes and reinforce one’s privilege. And we hear the debates about damage, violence and death caused by differing sides in very different protests; how comparable are the Black Lives Matter protests to the storming of the Capitol? Is violence or damage to property ever justified in a political cause? Were the Trump supporters representative of white working classes, too long overlooked by the political élite, or of white entitlement, experiencing loss of privilege as persecution?

As Christians, perhaps we should be attentive to the season, and add into these questions and debates, another deeply important one – where does God make surprising appearances in the whole situation? And, indeed, where is God in our own political and public life?

The travellers from the East, that first Epiphany, were clearly men of great wealth, and, it seems likely, significant power. They were not Jews, nor had they any political part to play in the life of Judea. They were outsiders, and yet guests to be received with a measure of courtesy and caution; guests who felt in no way unworthy to arrive at the ruler’s palace in Jerusalem, and yet guests who were not above arriving at an obscure house in Bethlehem. They expected births written in the stars to take place in a royal setting, and yet were open to being directed to the least of the cities of Judah. They were Magi – people of standing within their own religious and cultural life, who yet were prepared to find divine action in a far-away land and a foreign religion. They were revered, and yet willing to pay homage to a young child, having been ‘overwhelmed with joy’ at finding him (Matthew 2:10; NRSV).

In contrast to these visitors stands Herod. He has power, privilege, authority, and yet he is driven not by self-confidence, but by fragility. He is motivated by the fear of losing his position, and driven to extreme measures in pursuit of a toddler.

How different these responses are, to God’s coming in Christ! On the one hand is joy, and a willingness to go to the ends of the earth in order to see and to worship. On the other hand, there is fear, hatred, denial, atrocity. Or, to put it another way, God’s coming asks of us a question: are we ready to find God at work in unexpected people and places, and to recognise in that encounter an invitation to know ourselves and others as God’s beloved children, of infinite value precisely because of God’s loving grace? Or are we afraid of the challenge that might follow, to set aside our cherished ways of measuring our value and that of others? Are we ready to be surprised by God, or do we look simply for a vision of God which reaffirms our place, our privilege, our sense of superiority? Does our response lead us to service, or do demand to be served?

This is not just a question for the citizens of the USA. This is a question which should open up every aspect of our lives – our political ideals, our unconscious prejudices, our sense of justice, our interactions with others, our use of power, our willingness to cede power to others…

And above all, it is a question which strikes at the heart of who we are: how do we value ourselves and others – by wealth, power, talent, privilege, or by the measure of God’s love, revealed in Christ?

The Black Lives of History Matter Too

by Catrin Harland-Davies.

We’re pleased to welcome Catrin to the Theology Everywhere editorial team. In particular, she will be looking after our new Twitter account, which you can find here.

Yesterday was Racial Justice Sunday, and it has never felt more urgent – at least to those of us with the privilege of whiteness, who have been able not to notice its very real urgency until now.

A significant question over the last few weeks has been the appropriate way to mark and commemorate our history. A lengthy controversy over a statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College, Oxford, and the dramatic toppling of a statue of Edward Colston into the harbour at Bristol, have focused attention on this issue. Despite arguments that to remove such monuments is to erase the troubling parts of our history, surely it is time for us to recognise that memory and celebration are different things. To remember is not necessarily the same as to honour.

But what, then, is the place of corporate memory, and how do we react to our history? Or, to put it another way, what is our responsibility for the sins of our ancestors? There tends to be a strong reaction against the idea of inherited guilt, and for good reason. Part of God’s gracious new covenant, in Jeremiah 31, promises that: “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.”[1] We are responsible for our own deeds, but not the actions of those who have gone before. So then, the logic goes, apologies or public acts of contrition are out of place. We should not feel guilty about the past, because it was not, by definition, ours to feel guilty about.

And yet, within both the church and wider society, corporate memory of the past, as a lived experience of the present, is deeply ingrained. We gather (in ‘normal’ times!) around bread and wine, and, in remembering, experience the presence of Christ in our midst. We celebrate key events from our Christian or denominational history, with pride, gratitude and joy. In 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, many of us took the opportunity to congratulate ourselves on Methodism’s place in this. It spoke to us of the best of who we are – our heritage, charisms and honour. And yesterday, many clapped for the birthday of the NHS, and even those of us not born at its foundation felt pride not only in its current workers, but in the vision that created it.

Our history makes us who we are today. But if that is true of the best of our history, why would it be less true of the worst? If we are permitted – positively encouraged, even – to share in the glory of our predecessors’ achievements, why do we feel excused from sharing in the shame of their sins? A reason for the celebration and pride is to inspire us to follow in their footsteps, surely; no less, then, should we draw inspiration (of a different sort) from the pain and inhumanity that is so often a part of the historical mix – in our Church, as much as in our society. If we rejoice in the innovation and technical achievements of the industrial revolution, should we not also take time to remember that the wealth that enabled it was founded on imperial entitlement, enslavement, exploitation. And, for that matter, should we not remember that the structures of labour which fuelled it at home were also often exploitative. History is not just the stories of great men, but also of the nameless people who were trodden underfoot in the cause of such ‘greatness’.

And one more reason why we should, perhaps, feel invested in the less, as well as the more, glorious parts of our history: If our history has made us who we are, it should be no surprise that its effects are with us still. That I can go about my life, knowing that my skin colour will not be noticed and will not disadvantage me is not a coincidence. It is the product of centuries of prejudice lived out in slavery, apartheid, segregation, exclusion, marginalisation, overt and insidious racism. That I can live comfortably, in a nation that can afford health care for all, is not an accident – it is the consequence of imperialistic enrichment at the expense of nations whose resources we felt ourselves entitled to. The consequences of history are real now. We do not live in a fair society. Inherited privilege leads to inherited accountability. It is not enough not to discriminate; we need to work actively to dismantle the structures that privilege us. The guilt of our ancestors should set our teeth on edge, because we benefit from it still. It is therefore our guilt, too.

The consequences of our history are real now. The consequences of our present will be real in the future. So it is our responsibility to build a better present – one in which there is equality, generosity, a celebration of difference, but a celebration also of a shared humanity. We do this by remembering, acknowledging and owning our history, warts and all.

[1] Jeremiah 31:29-30

My Prayer List for Our (God’s) Church

by Neil Richardson

  1. A Church grounded in its life in the Holy Trinity: lives conformed to Christ, prayers renewed and deepened by the Holy Spirit and all offered to the glory of the Father through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Experience of the Trinity came first, the doctrine and doctrinal orthodoxy later.

  1. A Church freed from anxiety and fear: anxiety about its own future and fear of the world.

Not forgetting Thomas Merton’s question: ‘Where am I going to look for the world first of all if not in myself?’.[1]

  1. A Church living St Paul’s ‘one another’ agenda: encouraging, loving, forgiving, accepting, supporting, praying for …….. each other.

Saying the Lord’s Prayer from the heart – and living that Prayer – is an important first step.

  1. A Church committed to worship which transforms,

and so helps us see each other, the Church, the world differently – through a deepening vision of and encounter with God.

  1. A Church of disciples embracing gladly the difficulties and hardship we would not have if we were not disciples.

That may mean sometimes distinguishing what God is asking of us from what the Church is expecting of us!

  1. A Church which lives in Christ and speaks of Christ – loving God and everyone and everything in God.

Christian’ (3 times in the NT) is the outward label; life ‘in Christ’ (everywhere in John, Paul and other NT letters) is the inward reality.

  1. A prophetic Church committed to justice and speaking truth to power.

How will the poor hear the gospel otherwise – and the Bible speaks even more about justice than about love.

  1. A Church re-discovering the heights and depths of prayer, including silence and contemplation.

Does our praying sometimes betray the anxiety which Jesus condemns in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘(they) imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard’?

  1. A Church which looks in hope for the renewing of creation and the final revelation of Christ.

‘The Last Things’, even if interpreted differently today, remain an integral part of our faith.

  1. And all this in the closest possible fellowship with our brothers and sisters of other Christian traditions.

Can we draw closer to God unless we draw closer also to them?

Omitted from this list! References to
  1. Membership figures and evangelism

Linking membership figures with evangelism risks turning evangelism into proselytizing. Evangelism is not so much trying to make new Christians as unselfconsciously living and speaking Christ, and letting the Holy Spirit do (much of?) the rest.

  1. Kingdom values

A vague, slippery concept – hardly a scriptural idea. The Gospel is about truth (i.e. reality) not values (E. Jungel[2]).

  1. Relevance

The relevance of God, of worship, of the Gospel itself is axiomatic, (as Bonhoeffer said of the Bible), like the air we breathe or the bread we eat.  Attend to the fundamentals… (Matthew 6:33).

  1. Human Resources, whether money or people.

Scripture is noteworthy for what it omits and includes. Omitted:  references to ‘supporting’ the Church, keeping the Church going, etc, etc.  Included:  a miracle story, narrated in different versions six times, of overwhelmed disciples enabled by the Jesus who multiplied their meagre resources to feed a great crowd.

And finally:

The Inescapable Reality of God.  That is where the Bible starts and finishes – from the Garden of Eden to the heavenly Jerusalem, including the destruction of ‘Babylon’. Instead of church-centred thinking, we need God-centred thinking, living, praying and mission. Church-centred evangelism becomes recruiting, self-centred praying talking to ourselves and each other, rather than waiting upon God.

The inescapable reality of God may yet be the destruction of us all. If we do not breathe this air and eat this bread, how can it be otherwise? Think of climate change, the nuclear threat, the obscene expenditure on armaments, the iniquitous suffering of the poor in bloated, unequal societies. The inescapable reality of God means we reap what we sow.

But this isn’t where we start in preaching the Gospel. Yet – as a great American Wesleyan scholar, Albert Outler, said – ‘the Gospel hasn’t been preached until it’s been heard’. Can we, with God’s help, searching the Scriptures, waiting on God, and sharing ‘the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings’, re-discover the Gospel for our generation?

[1] T. Merton, ‘Is the World a Problem?’ in Contemplation in a World of Action (Unwin Paperbacks 1981), p.145.

[2] Eberhard Jungel, Theological Essays II, (T&T Clark 1995), pp.191-215.

She Persisted

by John Howard

I understand from American Internationals here in Israel/Palestine that over the last year, with all the political events in the United States, that there has been a hashtag – “She persisted” – which has done the rounds. It could almost be a title for Matthew 15: 21-28. A passage that has often troubled me and, as it came around again in the lectionary this year, left me wondering.

Jesus leaves his usual stomping ground, and arrives in the multi-cultural mixing-pot of Tyre and Sidon. His fame, though, goes before him and a woman with (we would say) a mentally ill child – seeks his help. The disciples try to brush her away but she won’t take no for an answer. Jesus speaks to her and he treats her with little more than contempt. “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Matt 15:26 NRSV Anglicized Edition). The context seems to indicate that the children are the Jews – or Israelis- and so the woman is being, in effect, called a dog. While the words might well have had subtly differing meaning at the time, it is difficult to understand Jesus’ response to the woman in any other way than as an insult. I have never found the assurances that some commentaries give – that Jesus’ words were not understand by Matthew as being offensive. (Peake’s Commentary on the passage, p787; Matthew for Everyone, Tom Wright, p201 half recognises the problem but seems to fail to deal with it.) At the very least Jesus was seeing her as a second-class citizen until her persistence won through.

I have been quite taken by a novel I have read recently, “The Fire Child”, (“The Fire Child“, S.K. Tremayne. Harper Press). Much of it is written in the first person; it could be described as a psychological thriller. The three main characters are Rachel, a young woman just married to David – some years her elder, who is a high-flying lawyer from a Cornish family who were formerly lead mine owners and can trace their family line back a thousand years – and Jamie, David’s son from a former marriage. In very differing ways each show remarkable persistence, and while there is no happy ending to the book there is a satisfactory one (perhaps that’s as much as I can say without ruining the book for all who read Theology Everywhere)! What links this book to the passage from Matthew’s Gospel is not just the theme of persistence, but the question of what lies behind the words that are used. The book places words in the mouths of Rachel, David and Jamie but what exactly do they mean? What thought processes lie behind the words chosen? What does Jamie mean when he says he has “seen” his dead mother? What does David mean when he describes his commitment to sustaining the hereditary family home? What does Rachel mean when she calls herself a “liar” about her past?

What does Jesus mean by the way he addresses the Canaanite woman? What was in his mind? Was it the traditional enmity (we might say prejudice) of the Israeli towards the Canaanite? Was he reflecting the irritation and the frustration of his disciples that this woman was getting under their skins? She has stopped her shouting and got down on her knees before Jesus, begging for his help and still he uses the words “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” I know that I can act that way. Too often I do, but I’m ashamed that I do. But Jesus is the Son of God. What is he doing saying words like this and seemingly showing unacceptable prejudices?

Perhaps my understanding about the nature of being divine is at fault. Can God be prejudiced and yet divine? – I don’t think that he can – but more accurately in this dilemma we have to ask, can Jesus be prejudiced and divine – or divinely human? Not, I would suggest, if his divinity is a constant state of being throughout his life. But if his divinity is seen in the process of living – we might say an existential incarnation – perhaps it could then be; a state whereby he learns as he lives from every encounter he has, until his final earthly encounter hangs him on a tree.

How we relate to others by our actions and our words reveal who we are. Rachel, David and Jamie show this in the novel “The Fire Child,” and we do through our lives. It has to be the same for Jesus. He reveals himself through the living out of the Gospel ministry. We can try to avoid the difficult words of Jesus but to do so is likely to deprive us of their power. When we see the impact of his own mistakes, of his own prejudice changing the person of the one we call divine, is that not a divinity that is far more challenging, for it calls us to embrace our experience in the same way.

Ageing, dementia, narrative and identity

by Joss Bryan

In Rembrandt’s self- portraits we track him ageing from his youthful days bursting with energy, to his prosperous middle-age and finally his sad decline into poverty and old age– he becomes an old man characterised by loss. In these and other portraits of his elderly patrons, Rembrandt captures the effects of time on the human body- skin that sags and folds, hands that are dry and knarled by years of activity, whispy, hair – grey and course, and eyes translucent hiding thoughts, fears, hopes. These portraits show us what the process of ageing does to the human body and give us a glimpse of the mystery, the tragedy and the beauty of human ageing.

Life expectancy has doubled over the past 150 years. There is a preoccupation in our culture with the problem of ageing, and caring for the increasing number of older people. Growing old, it seems has little to commend it. Many of us fear reaching this stage of life when we face loss of energy, agility, hearing, sight, taste, hair, dignity and independence; perhaps worse still, loss of our intellectual capabilities; loss of memory.

The stage of Old Age presents us with the reality that our bodies and minds will and do wear out as we draw closer to our inevitable death and many of us in adulthood fear a diagnosis of dementia. We dread the degeneration of our memory and our minds, that essential part of us, which is the centre of our knowledge and understanding. St Augustine in his confessions noted that memory is a ‘great storehouse’, ‘an inner place’, ‘without it I could not speak of myself’, ‘it is my mind, it is myself’[1]. The experience of living with dementia is one in which memories fragment and disappear and the story of who you are disappears bit by bit from you.

How might the Christian faith speak into the vanishing self of the person living with dementia within a context dominated by the language of personhood, which emphasises the capabilities of cognition, self-awareness, memory and the sense of the continuity of self over time.  John Swinton suggests to be a person is to born into and to participate in the human family, and it is our relationality, which is fundamental to our personhood[2].  As Christians, we believe that every human being is created by God, dependent on God and dependent on other human beings. This dependency begins at the moment of our conception and continues throughout our lives. It is a fundamental characteristic of the human person, and the embodiment of our relationality. It also mirrors our ultimate dependency on God the creator. Therefore, the experience of dependency for people living with dementia, and indeed for everyone at whatever age, does not reduce our personhood. Rather, is a reminder of the nature of who we are as creatures and our relationship with God our creator.

In Luke Chapter 2: 25-35, we find the story of Jesus being presented in the Temple, and old Simeon. It is a story of hope, which extends beyond death. Simeon does not represent the past, nor is he a nostalgic figure; rather, he is someone whose identity and narrative is orientated towards the future. His life-story was shaped by a devout faith, which hoped in God’s promises. It was defined by the moment he knew that he would not see death before he saw the Lord’s Messiah. The anticipation of this was the silver thread in his story.

Simeon in the Temple with the Christ Child is one of Rembrandt’s last paintings. Simeon’s eyes are shut, Mary gazes at Jesus cradled in Simeon’s old hands. In this misty scene, Rembrandt depicts the moment when Simeon sees at last the light of salvation and he prays ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. Simeon is ready to end his story and return his breath to the God who gave it to him. The end he imagined has come. He has cradled the continuation of the story of salvation from which Christians for centuries have claimed their identity. It is the story which the Church sustains and holds on behalf of all humanity. It confers an identity on every human being and finds its source in God and our relationship with God. People with dementia may not remember the past in a systematic or chronological way and they may have little conception of the future, rather they are in the present. Is it too much to suggest that we can conceive of each present moment as part of every person’s continuing story with God – whoever they are? The Christ child revealed the eternal truth that in him we can see salvation and that we have a relationship with the God of love, which gives us an identity, which transcends time. So, when that final moment of our life comes, we have nothing to fear, and like Simeon we can depart in peace.

Based on a sermon preached at Jesus College, Cambridge, 13 November 2016.

[1] St Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (London: Penguin Classics, 2002) X8,9,16,17.

[2] Swinton, J., 2012, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, London: SCM Press.

Refugees: people fleeing danger and seeking sanctuary

by Inderjit Bhogal

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) website there were 37.5 million refugees in 2005 and 65.3 million refugees in 2015. This is an unprecedented global situation, the highest figure ever recorded (Betts and Collier, 2017). But who does the term refugee refer to?

The Refugee Convention 1951 (UNHCR online) defines a refugee as a person who:

“owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/her of the protection of that country…”

The UNHCR Global Trends 2015 Report (Hoogte and Richardson, 2016) records that wars, conflicts and persecution have forced more people than at any other time since records began to flee their homes and seek refuge and safety elsewhere. Up of 40.8 million people are displaced internally within their own countries, there are 21.3 million refugees and 3.2 million asylum seekers (people who have applied for refugee status and are awaiting the result) in industrialised countries.  This means that 1 in every 113 people globally is an asylum seeker, internally displaced or a refugee. Syria (5.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million) and Somalia (1.1 million) produced nearly half of the world’s refugees in 2015. Turkey, with 1.6 million Syrian refugees was the top hosting country in 2015, while in the EU the countries with the biggest volume of asylum seekers were Germany and Sweden.

The UNHCR Report also notes that ninety percent of the world’s refugees are from countries close to conflict. This means that they are fleeing war and danger. It is therefore argued (Betts and Collier, 2017) that the very concept of who a refugee is needs to be redefined. The Refugee Convention 1951 restricts the definition of a refugee to a person who is fleeing “persecution”. Refugees are people fleeing persecution, but also the disorder, danger and insecurity of war and terrorism (Betts and Collier, 2017). Refugees are people looking for safety from danger to their lives, sanctuary while they can also earn a living until they can safely return home. This was the original role of the UNHCR, to provide protection for refugees and to find long-term solutions to their plight. However, the definition of a refugee by the UN Refugee Convention 1951 is no longer adequate because it does not clearly state who is a refugee today, it does not say who should provide safety, and it does not offer a long-term strategy (Betts and Collier, 2017).

People fleeing danger remain vulnerable and in need of safety and protection. On 23rd December, 2016 it was reported on BBC News (online) that over 5000 people had died in 2016 on their journeys to find safety.  It was reported in The Times (11 July 2017) that already 2,150 people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year. A newspaper photo of Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy refugee, whose deceased body was found on a beach has become a symbol of this monstrous situation.

So who is a refugee? A more accurate definition of refugee may also help to state who needs to help refugees and help nations to create pathways to rescue and protect refugees.

For me a refugee is someone whose life is in danger (as a result of war, violence, terrorism, persecution) and who has lost the protection of his/her own country (internally or outside). It includes also people who flee for the safety of their lives because of deep poverty, natural disaster or severe weather conditions. Refugees are human beings seeking and bringing the warmth of human relationships. Expect them to enrich you not diminish you.

The current refugee situation is crying out for an end to war and violence, for respectful dialogue between people of different religions and ideologies, equality between rich and poor, and respect for the earth and environment. Refugees are human beings. Refugees have a moral right to migrate for safety. Every nation has a moral duty to rescue and protect refugees. We all have moral obligations to welcome refugees and give them sanctuary.

People of different faiths, beliefs and ideologies can work together to towards these goals.


BETTS, A. and COLLIER, P. (2017). Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System. UK: Penguin

HOOGTE, H. and RICHARDSON, W. (2016). Global Trends: Forced Displacements in 2015.  UNHCR: Geneva.

Making memories

by Graham Edwards

“Making memories” is not a new phrase, but it is one I have heard several times recently. It has come up in conversation with couples and families who realise that the time they have together may be short; “We’re spending time making memories” they say, and we agree it is time well spent. We are all, of course, always in the process of making memories; in those we hold, and even when we are unable to retain them we play a part in the memories of others. Memory is not simply concerned with remembering events, or people, or words; it is much more than that. Julia Shaw (2016, p. xi) argues that memory is where the root of an individual’s identity lies – what she calls your “you-ness”. Memory, she says, “shape[s] what we think we have experienced and, as such, what we believe we are capable of in the future”. Memory, then, has power to affect an individual’s understanding of the present and their perception of the future, enabling identities to be constructed in the context of their whole lives or the life of their community, their perception of history and the claiming and re-claiming of that history.

If an individual’s memories create their “you-ness” then the memories of a community can be understood as creating their “us-ness”; I am fascinated by the way church communities talk about their memories and their “us-ness”. There is, of course, much to be said of memory in the church. There are familiar caricatures: “ah yes, that’s where Mrs. Johnson used to sit”, “this church used to be full every week”, “Reverend Thomas used to visit every member at least once a week”, and so on! In the life of the church, memory does something. Tuula Sakaranaho (2011) argues that memory is collective in its nature because memories are constructed in and through relationship: “memory is intersubjectivley constituted” (Sakaranaho, 2011, p. 139). The way the past is understood and held, is therefore, as Jan Assmann notes, “the decisive resource for the consciousness of … identity. Anyone who wants to belong to the group must share the memory” (2006, p. 87). Within a church, memories are claimed and treasured by the community, because those memories reveal things that might otherwise remain hidden. The memory of full pews perhaps says, “We are a good church, we’ve done incredible things, think of how many people we’ve known.” The memory of ‘difficult characters’ causing friction perhaps says, “Look how much we have grown.” The memory of how well a new hymn book was accepted perhaps says, “We are looking to the future.” Memory holds the “us-ness” of a community that would otherwise be missed, and needs to be told – to be ‘re-membered’. In her work considering religion in modern Europe, Grace Davie (2000) reflects on the function of memory in religious traditions. She uses the term “vicarious memory” to describe the process where a small number of people hold the memory of a religious tradition or community on behalf of others. The religious tradition is sustained as long as those who hold the memories preserve them, which, Davie claims, demonstrates that memory is always precarious because it is held by a group of people, indeed often a small group. This means that because memories are dependent on that group to preserve them, they can easily be lost and may not be sustained indefinitely. The precarious nature of memory is negated somewhat by the way “memory mutates” over time to allow new forms of practice and understandings to emerge, yet sometimes there must be an active challenging of memories to allow them to be assessed in the present life of the community.

Memory is not disinterested recollection; memory creates and sustains the identity of individuals and communities. The way memories are used can allow new life, new ideas, and new practice to be developed within those communities.

My questions are, I suppose, what are the things that need to be forgotten, and what forgotten things need to be remembered as the church seeks to be the community of Christ in the world?  The answers are, however, harder than the questions.


Assmann, J. (2006). Religion and Cultural Memory. Stanford: Stanford Universirty Press.

Davie, G. (2000). Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sakaranaho, T. (2011). Religion and the Study of Social. Temenos, 47(2), 135-158.

Shaw, J. (2016). The Memory Illusion. London: Penguin.

Life and death

by Julie Lunn

As I write, the tragic case recently hitting the news headlines, of baby Charlie Gard, has drawn to its deeply sad conclusion. Charlie was born with a genetic defect; he had a rare mitochondrial disease that causes the body’s cells and organs to shut down, so that he had brain damage, was deaf, blind, and unable to breathe or move by himself. Earlier this week Charlie’s parents, Connie and Chris, conceded to Charlie being allowed to die in a hospice, and now baby Charlie has died: the close of a long journey, even if a relatively short one chronologically. This journey has taken the parents from a battle with the courts, seeking to permit them to take their son to the US for experimental treatment; to an agreement to allow Charlie to die when Charlie’s condition deteriorated and the treatment, which was always extremely limited in its possibilities, no longer offered a possibility of meaningful life; through the fight to allow him to return home to die, but because of the difficulty in providing the necessary ventilation requirements at home, coming to the agreement that Charlie would die in a hospice. Yet, even this was complicated, Charlie’s parents wanted him to be kept alive in the hospice for a week or so, to spend some final peaceful time with him, but there were financial and practical constraints – the need of finding and possibly funding a team who would support him during that time. It wasn’t possible and shortly after being moved to a hospice, Charlie died.

This case has given rise to emotionally charged, emotively expressed feeling and language, even as far as death threats being issued against staff at Great Ormond Street Hospital by some ‘supporters’ of Charlie. There have been numerous opinions expressed about the state ‘playing God’; about court and medical control overriding the wishes of parents; about suffering and the inability to cure all illnesses; about the right to life and the right to be able to die in dignity, without the prolongation of pain; about parental needs and desires, and what is best for the child.

The issue has been rife with ethical dilemmas and the difficulty is, it is possible to empathise with the various positions. Of course the parents wanted their child to live, and be well, and flourish; of course the needs of the child are paramount: was he suffering? What sort of life would he have lived, even if the hoped for treatment had enabled him to do so? Of course doctors are committed to doing what is best for each child they treat; and how hard for the judge to make decisions which determine the future lives of all those intimately involved. Many became involved in the debate – Donald Trump, the Pope, journalists, contributors to Twitter and Facebook with opinions on all sides.

For the parents, Connie and Chris, their reality is that much has had to be relinquished, and the decisions they have had to make have been from a place of deep grieving and loss.

It is a characteristic of our generation that we find such relinquishing, such powerlessness difficult. We want it all. We want to be able to control, to make things happen; and the advances in science, medical treatments, and understanding about living a healthy lifestyle, offer so much more hope for that generally.

But the reality of human life is that we can’t have everything the way we want it. We can’t have life without death. Death is a reality of our existence. We have pushed the experience of death as far away as we can. The Christian gospel, however, is about death and resurrection. Jesus does not avoid death. Indeed, his death and resurrection is the central focus of our faith, the means through which salvation comes to us.

We need to be able to relinquish; yes of course to love and to care and to fight for the best, but also, when it is necessary, to relinquish, to embrace death, and to grieve, trusting to the resurrection life God offers. The work of relinquishing is, according to Richard Rohr in Falling Upwards, the work of the latter half of life. The first half of life being about accrual, gathering to oneself; the second half is about letting go, relinquishing, simplicity. There are no set ages when these stages take place. For Charlie’s parents relinquishing their son has come very early in life. But the spirituality of relinquishing is something we all need to embrace.

Nothing can prepare us for the sort of relinquishment that faced Connie and Chris Gard. Yet, ultimately, we are all called to relinquish all to God. This spirituality of letting go of power, of the desire to control, of simplicity, lies at the heart of who we are and what we believe; ‘I am no longer my own, but yours.’

%d bloggers like this: