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.’

The Sacrament of Place

by Richard Clutterbuck

The Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!

After thirteen years living and working in Belfast I’m about to move back to England. Although Northern Ireland is within the UK it is politically, culturally and religiously a place apart. I have been an English ‘blow-in’ in the city of Belfast and in Irish church life. People often ask me what I’ll miss most about Ireland. My instinctive response is ‘places’. Landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, homes, churches, monasteries, concert halls, cafes, streets – it’s a long list.

To make sense of this theologically, I want to highlight the sacramental nature of place. In sacraments, the stuff of creation becomes both a sign of God’s grace and the means of conveying that grace to us. If that’s true of bread and wine in the Eucharist, and of water in Baptism, it can also be true of places, the physical environment of where we are. A theology of place encourages us to see God’s interaction with the particular: this field or wood or lake or street, or room; these people, this accent, this culture, this story. Some years ago, John Inge wrote A Christian Theology of Place, in which he argued for a recovery of the theological – the sacramental – significance of place. Modern Europeans – especially Protestants – haven’t sufficiently appreciated this theological significance of place and it’s taken living in Ireland to bring it home to me. But, as I look at the biblical narrative, it’s the same God who encounters Jacob at Bethel, Moses on Sinai, Elijah on Mt Carmel, Isaiah in the Temple and Ezekiel by the river Chebar. However, in each case the specifics of the place shape the way the encounter develops.

To start a conversation, here are some facets of a theology of place as Ireland has presented it to me.

Places of Revelation

It’s easy to succumb to a romantic cliche of meeting God in nature. Nevertheless, the ancient Irish Christians sought out the dramatic, the isolated, the peaceful and the windswept places for their monasteries and places for prayer. More recently, the Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, wrote of how specific places in his native Monaghan mediated the divine presence, even saying ‘…that beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God, was breathing his love by a cut-away bog.’ (The One)

Places of Prayer and Pilgrimage

There are places made holy by the prayers and intentions of those who visit them. In Ireland there are still holy wells in rural areas, still well-worn pilgrim paths up mountains like Croagh Pádraig. Traditionally, Protestants have not been so responsive to this – though the recent interest in pilgrimage suggest this is changing.

Places of Evil

Just as a place can be holy, the sacramental vehicle for conveying God’s grace, so it can be evil, resisting God’s power and drawing us away from God’s love and grace. In Ireland that evil is most often associated with violence. The ‘troubles’, with their bombings and large-scale loss of life are largely (though not entirely) in the past, but they have left behind a trauma that is associated with places where human dignity was defaced.

Places of Conflict

Part of Northern Ireland’s story is that many places have conflicting narratives of ownership and significance. This is reflected in disputes about the routes for marches and the names of streets (or of a city, in the case of Derry/Londonderry). Often these narratives have a theological underpinning that demands careful listening and sensitive critique.

Places of Healing

That evil and conflict can inhere in places suggests the need for places of healing where reconciliation and forgiveness can flourish. This, too, is sacramental. There is only space to name a few examples: Corrymeela, Clonard Monastery, (a place for counselling and spirituality in inner city Belfast).

Places of Encounter

The arts journalist, Susan Mansfield, developed a ‘Passion Walk’ in Belfast. It involves downloading a set of audio files onto a phone and then listening to them as you follow a mapped route across the city. The result is quite remarkable: you listen to the passion story, with accompanying music and reflection, as you navigate the landscape of the city centre and harbour. As you take this journey, the familiar story of Christ’s trial, suffering and death takes on a fresh resonance as the narrative is set within these local places. The opposite is true as well: Belfast becomes a different place as you see it through the lens of the biblical story.

A heightened theology of place would make us more attentive to the presence of God in the specific situations we inhabit. And with that would come greater respect and care both for the created uniqueness of each place and for the human environment that develops there. It would also help us to appreciate the spiritual loss people experience when they are dislocated from the places that have shaped their lives, when they are displaced or have to emigrate. Singing the Lord’s song in a strange land depends on being enabled to meet God in new – and challenging – places.

Pilgrim people

by Jennie Hurd

According to the July 2017 issue of Country Walking magazine, pilgrimage is the fastest-growing sector in the European tourism market. Similarly, more than two million people participate in a recognised pilgrimage in Scotland every year, and over 330 million people across the world make a pilgrimage of some kind annually. Pilgrimage in Britain has possibly not seen such popularity since its fourteenth century heyday, when Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales gave insights into pilgrims’ motivations and the kind of activities they got up to as they travelled the medieval roads.

I confess to having contributed to these figures within recent weeks. With a group including some Methodist District Chair colleagues, I walked a version of the Peak Pilgrimage from Ilam to Eyam over two days in May. On the way there, I found myself making an unplanned visit to Englesea Brook Chapel and Museum, which turned out to be an almost-accidental pilgrimage of great blessing. In addition, as I write, I have today made a pilgrimage to the chapel of St Peter’s-on-the-Wall at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex. I have wanted to visit St Peter’s for many years, and spending an afternoon there in glorious weather to think, pray and reflect on ministry and vocation has been humbling and inspiring. I cannot imagine it will be too long before I go on some kind of pilgrimage again. I am a child of the age. I am one of the 330 million.

Given that an intention of pilgrimage is to spur the pilgrim forward on her spiritual journey of life and faith, it seems ironic that it almost always involves travel back in time to an historic site, a place of significance because of its heritage and what has happened there in the past. It seems illogical and counter-intuitive that something that is intended to inspire forward-movement and looking to the future should have such a strong characteristic of retrospection and revisiting times gone by. Wouldn’t it be better to go on pilgrimage to a place where God is doing completely new things, where the visionary and the innovative are taking place?  The very resurgence in the popularity of pilgrimage could be seen as retrospective, resonating with the growth of new monasticism as written about in these pages recently by Roger Walton. Why this looking to the ways and places of the past, and what are we hoping to gain by it? Is it of God, and if so, what is God wanting to give us through it?

Andrew Jones reminds us that Rowan Williams speaks of the importance of “remembering for the future”[1] and of how “memory is central in moving on, with hope and expectation…”[2] Every Sunday in worship, and especially in every celebration of Holy Communion, we look to reconnect with our roots and origins and to be strengthened and renewed for travelling on. So with pilgrimage: it is not merely a nostalgic, sentimental journey but, rather, travel to review our life’s story and to meet again with God in Christ, anticipating that same but deeper encounter at our ultimate destination. The journeying can be important for its own sake, as for the Celtic missionary monks who set off simply as an act of witness with no particular destination in mind. However, the place to which we travel usually holds deep significance: as Jones says, the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim is that a tourist passes through a place, but a pilgrim allows a place to pass through her[3].

If it is paradoxical and ironic that pilgrimage involves travelling back in time in order to move forward, there is further irony in the way in which it ends back where the pilgrim started – at home, dealing again with the ordinary stuff of life. Yet this is where the true value of pilgrimage is seen and where its worth and impact is proven, when the healing, renewal and resurrection born of the pilgrim encounter with God makes a difference to the daily routine. It is a continuous process of looking back in order to move forward, participating in a way of life where “Getting to where we need to go often means finding a new language for where we’ve already been.”[4] Renewed by looking back in order to move forward, God’s pilgrim people travel on.

[1] Williams, Rowan 1994, Open to Judgement: DLT quoted in Jones, Andrew 2011, Pilgrimage: BRF: 33

[2] Jones, Andrew 2011, Pilgrimage: BRF: 33

[3] Jones, Andrew 2011, Pilgrimage: BRF:35

[4] Lane, Belden C 2015, Backpacking with the Saints: OUP: 15

Forgiveness, and growing through our mistakes

by Anne Ostrowicz

In the week of the Westminster attack I found myself marking a set of year 8 (12-13 year-olds) exercise books, responding to questions on John 8:1-11, often entitled, ‘the woman caught in adultery’.

A few weeks earlier we had been studying Jesus’ parables of the lost and I was surprised at just how many in the class, from a wide range of religious and non-religious backgrounds, were really quite indignant about the forgiveness which the younger son received, including that offensive party; it seemed so unjust to the hard-working elder son!

Studying John 8 together, me more-or-less acting what happened in the outer court of the temple, we imagined this woman being dragged, terrified and shaking, by a crowd of men who cared little for her. We focused on Jesus’ silent, measured response, as he knelt and ‘wrote’ in the ground, trying to imagine the effect of this action on the atmosphere, and what Jesus might have been up to.

As I talked I was very aware that in the class was one who has suffered severely for a misdemeanour in his past. And I wondered what he was feeling about Jesus’ response; I know the pain is lodged deep in this young boy’s heart. And there are pupils in the class whose home background, or religious upbringing, can be very harsh when it comes to responding to misdemeanour.

But the pupils began making links with others Jesus treated in similar fashion: Matthew the tax-collector, Mary Magdalene, Peter…  We remembered, too, that forgiveness, compassion, are lauded in all the major religions as the ‘higher way’.

Returning to reading their written homework thoughts, I was deeply moved. Several had been sufficiently interested to go to the internet to research further on what Jesus had been doing ‘writing in the ground’. One turned up the historical detail that this was how verdicts were delivered – in writing first. Another, that it was the older men who had the right to start a stoning. Even more moving was the sensitivity shown to Jesus’ concern for this woman, the power that his grace, this undeserved kindness, would most likely have had to effect a change of heart, possibly a significant change to her whole life. And they were remembering the times in their own lives when grace had had a deeper positive effect than a harsh response of punishment would have done.

And I felt that there had been significant movement in the minds of these young boys: movement towards the beauty and power of forgiveness and grace over judgment and punishment. The possibility of embracing that ‘higher way’.

This time round only one individual was critical of Jesus’ response…

It is a privilege to read my pupils’ thoughts. Their writing also re-ignites in me the awesomeness of Jesus’ teaching.

I have been re-reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. He writes about the less black-and-white attitude many of us enter in middle-age. But why shouldn’t the less black-and-white, often paradoxical truth possibilities, be put to our young people? In my experience, they ‘get it’ and deeply appreciate depth and complexity of thought, provided we give sufficient time to explain and to explore.  John 8 teaches that infringement does not have to be punished, that justice does not necessitate punishment, for the goal is a changed heart, surely the greatest of all achievements.

Rohr suggests that spiritual growth is perhaps not so much avoiding sin, but growing through it. My supposition is that the woman of John 8 became a far more beautiful person, having sinned and so had that encounter with Jesus and herself, than if she had never made the mistake in the first place. Isn’t that just the truth about us humans? Mary Magdalene, Peter, Matthew, Zachaeus…

This week, teaching about Islam to the same class, we listened on-line to the imam at Finsbury Park Mosque who, in the most tense and violent of moments, spontaneously spoke and acted forgiveness and peace. I watched as the Muslim pupils sat a little taller, as they so often do when I draw out the beauty in their own religious traditions and community.

This month I lose my upper sixth, many deeply thinking individuals: Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, atheist, agnostic. My deepest prayer is that they, along with the many other thoughtful teenagers we have in our country, will be ‘yeast’ in the communities in which they find themselves in our country, aware both of the beauty that can be found in religion, and its complexities.

Giving ourselves away

by Sally Coleman

I like going to the hairdressers. I must admit that that was not the opening phrase I had anticipated opening a post for Theology Everywhere with, but I like going to the hairdressers. The time is booked, and I usually anticipate being there for an hour, wash, cut, blow dry, coffee, being pampered, but for me that is not the key thing. The real and lasting enjoyment comes not from a new haircut but from a deep engagement, and conversation with someone who I might not otherwise encounter.

Over the years, talk over the mirror has been about many things, from motherhood and daily life to deep spiritual things, especially when people find out who I am (I was going to write what I do, but I won’t unpack that now, that would probably be the subject for a different post). I have been asked about ghosts and angels, whether I believe in the supernatural, about multi-faith issues, politics, justice, sexuality and so much more. The space is not my space; it is a commercial space where people come and go, a space I must respect and honour, and where I must win the opportunity to engage in conversation. Very often though, I find that those I have met over the years, who have held the power of scissors over my head, are hungry for spiritual engagement and want to talk.

I have found the same in other contexts too, in coffee shops, in placing stalls into town festivals, music festivals, and into Mind Body Spirit Exhibitions, not in order to win people to the church, but to meet with them where they are and to offer a space to talk. Perhaps the best thing about all of this is that each of these encounters has pushed me to think more deeply about the God that I do and don’t believe in, and to encourage those I meet to do the same.

As I reflect upon the Gospels in the light of this, I notice the way that Jesus simply encountered people where they were, how he encouraged them to drive the conversation, to express their needs, voice their doubts and ask questions. His responses were given in parables which again offered those with the desire the opportunity to delve deeper to seek out the meaning, and those stories, simple though they seem, are so nuanced that they still speak to us today.

As a member of a church that is asking deep questions of its future, what challenges me, and what I learn from Jesus’ itinerant ministry, makes me wonder how we might create safe spaces for the type of conversation that I have been describing. How might it look if instead of being curators of Methodism and what it stands for, if we were to become chaplains, meeting people along the way and daring to journey with them. How might it look if we were able to find a way of making the most of our resources, relinquishing buildings and using those that are fit for purpose to their full potential. I know this has been an ongoing debate, and that it has its own problems, pains, and frustrations but we can’t cling on to what is not the answer, and never was. The story of the people of God has always been one of journey/ pilgrimage; even the exilic accounts can and should inform our sense of who we are, and while there are encouragements to settling down (Jeremiah 29: 4-9), they are set in the context of blessing the people that we find ourselves amongst, which may again demand a new thing of us.

Yet none of this is new, these are questions that we have been returning to repeatedly, but so often with the underlying assumption that this is about the survival of Methodism and what it means to be Methodist, and while the theology of the Methodist Church is what has won my heart to Christ and the Christian walk in so many ways, I want to ask what would happen if we were to give ourselves away. To ask not what Methodism is for the present and future age, but to learn from the encounters that we have with those around us. I leave you with the words of Jesus.

Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10: 39)