A loss of innocence

Last October I was in Jerusalem helping to lead a course at St George’s College.  The participants were drawn from across the Anglican Communion.  There was one person from Northern Ireland, some from the USA, a few from Australia but, remarkably, most were from New Zealand. They had come, literally, from the other side of the world, from the farthest point to be part of what we were doing and it was fantastic. I’d never actually met members of the Maori nation before and among the group there was a large number of people of this heritage.  They were an amazingly wonderful group of people.

Holy Land 2018

Making friends in the Holy Land

So as I woke on Friday morning to the terrible news from Christchurch my thoughts turned to the friends that I had made just a few months before. They had told us about life in New Zealand, the pace of life, the friendliness, yes, the challenges but also the way in which these were being addressed.  Over the years others had told me that somehow life there was that little bit more ‘old fashioned’, neighbours knew each other, you could leave your door unlocked; things like that.  And of course the ‘Lord of the Rings’ gave us a feel for the amazing landscapes, the mountains and rivers and waterfalls and glaciers, the fjords and the woodland.  Stunning.

Then a man walks into a mosque.  The people are there for Friday Prayers.  He opens fire with premeditated determination. Filming it as though it were some game to be played on a computer, streaming it live to the world on social media he guns down 50 innocent people and injures others and sends shock waves across the world.  He drives between mosques, inflicting his evil intent not in one place but in two and who knows who else was on his agenda.  A warped ideology, a hatred of the other, a distorted view of how the world should be, a determination to take revenge, had driven him to act like this, to come as if from nowhere and strike terror into the heart of a community at prayer and rob a people of innocence.

I said Morning Prayer.  The First Reading was from the prophecy of Jeremiah.  These words leapt out at me.

O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation: for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us. (Jeremiah 6.26)

How good God is to speak into the heart of our distress, into the pain of our reality.  Later I heard another voice, that of the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, and those powerful words that have been oft quoted since she first spoke them

‘They are us.’

They are such innocent words, three words, ‘They are us’ which strike terror in the hearts of those who fear difference, or fear their neighbour, who fear the other.  I think I have said on this blog before something that was said to me by a member of of our congregation at Southwark Cathedral quoting what he had written a number of years before

‘To the other you are the other.’

I am as different to my neighbour as my neighbour is different to me. The gun aimed at my neighbour could equally be aimed at me, at you.

It has been a tough week.  I was fortunate last week that the evening meetings I had all finished in time for me to get back to the Deanery to turn on the news and watch, live from the House of Commons, the various votes taken on three successive days.  The voice of the Speaker crying out ‘The Ayes have it, the Ayes have it. Unlock!’ (or the reverse of that if the vote had gone the other way) became strangely familiar to us. The rhetoric inside and outside of the chamber was at times disturbing. The permission to act and speak against our neighbour that Brexit has given has revealed that tolerance for some has hardly been skin deep. But as Pandora discovered when she unlocked her chest you can’t get the genie back in the bottle (mixed metaphors there!) once something is unlocked it can’t be captured again. Lost innocence cannot be restored.  Except we proclaim in Christ that it can.


The loss of innocence

We are in Lent and looking forward to Easter.  The climax of the Vigil that marks the beginning of Easter is when the Deacon proclaims, in the light of the Paschal Candle, the Exultet, that ancient hymn of joy.  And there in that text are words to give us hope

Evil and hatred are put to flight and sin is washed away,
lost innocence regained, and mourning turned to joy.

But is it true? I have to believe it is.  I have to believe that evil is not as powerful as love. I have to believe that Christ’s victory is over sin and death. I have to believe that as Joni Mitchell sang with such sweet optimism in the song ‘Woodstock’ back in 1970 that

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.

I have to believe it for the people of New Zealand who in just a few minutes of evil rampage have had so much snatched from them.  I have to believe it for Muslim friends who are the victims of so much hatred.  I have to believe it for my Jewish friends, and every person of faith, or every person of no faith who can so easily be targeted. We have to look for that innocence out of which is born the total love of the other, the total embracing of diversity, of difference, where ‘perfect love will cast out fear.’

Yet again I had to sit and write a prayer for others to pray in the Cathedral.  It has been a task that has become all too familiar over the past few years.  But familiar or not I will not stop praying and I hope you won’t either.

God, all holy, all loving,
hear the cry of your people in Christchurch,
those caught up in the horrors,
those witnessing the effects of so much hate,
those who hear the news from far away.
From north and south,
from east and west,
draw your peoples into a closer union,
that we may challenge hatred with love,
the fear of the other with friendship
and all evil with your goodness.



I have a feeling that Her Majesty The Queen does not ordinarily wear a mantilla when she goes to church.  But, of course, on those occasions when she has met the Pope at the Vatican there she is, dressed in black, mantilla on her head.  She dresses respectfully as is expected in those circumstances.

The Queen and Pope John Paul

The Queen and Pope John Paul

So why would Marine Le Pen refuse to cover her head when she was to meet the Grand Mufti last week in the Lebanon? We can only assume that it was a deliberate publicity stunt to make her point about people of the Muslim faith. Her supporters will be gleeful but the rest of us, I assume, only saw someone lacking in respect, unwilling to accommodate the traditions and teachings of another brother or sister.

When I was on sabbatical in Jerusalem I had the real privilege, with clergy from the Diocese of Southwark and the dioceses with which we are linked in Zimbabwe, to visit the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock on Haram al-Sharif, otherwise known as the Temple Mount.  The Arabic name for that ancient and deeply holy site means ‘The Noble Sanctuary’ and as any visitor there knows there is a real nobility about the place.  We went, however, as guests of the Waqf which is the religious trust in which is invested the care of religious and other property on behalf of the Islamic community.  But before we went there we were clearly told how to behave, so that we were appropriately respectful.  The women in the group would have to ‘cover up’ and we would all have to remove our shoes when we went into the Mosque.  We would talk quietly, not shout like tourists and respect those who were praying or reading their scriptures.

It was a wonderful visit, we respected our hosts, they respected their guests.

There is one of the Ten Commandments that stands out from all the rest.  Nine of the ten tell us what not to do but the fifth is different

Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20.12)

Having respect for our parents, honouring our father and our mother leads to the promise of a blessing, that life will be long and good.  Good things flow out of respect, we are being told; the opposite must be true.

This constant battering of the Muslim community, constant finger-pointing, disrespect, criticism, denunciation, vilification that we see not just in Trump’s USA but elsewhere is an utter disgrace to the whole of our society.  I was reading a blog by the only hijab wearing member of the White House staff.  She had worked for President Obama, she lasted only 8 days in the Trump west wing.  She wrote that she had to go because she could not stay where her people were being singled out in such aggressive ways.

In Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brain’ the members of The People’s Front of Judea (or was it the Judean People’s Front) sit around asking the question ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ and they come up with a long list.  We can ask ourselves the same question about Islam and the Muslim community and, if we do so, we end up with a list that includes mathematics, algebra, medicine, architecture, the preservation of libraries of thinking and philosophy otherwise destroyed in the western world, the most beautiful roses and sublime poetry.  Just as with the dominant Christian culture in the west they have been responsible for some horrors and we see some of them being played out by sects of Islam today.  But that is not the real story just as the Crusades are not the only story to tell about Christians.

The poet Rumi

The poet Rumi

The Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic beautifully writes in one of his mystical poems

Others call you love, I call you the king of love;
O you who are higher than the imagination of this and that,
go not without me.

God, who is love, God who is the king of love, calls us to the honouring of those in our family, blessings will flow from it.  Covering our heads, removing our shoes is the least we can do, it doesn’t dishonour the God we know in Jesus Christ, it celebrates the love that all people of faith know is at the heart of the divine, the structure of the Noble Sanctuary in which God invites us to dwell, at ease with each other.

God of love,
I stand before you
on holy ground
with all my sisters and brothers.

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017


Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

Led by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark