Abba is best known as the Swedish poppers who at least gave us singalongamammamia. But, it is also the way Christians pray – abba being the intimate term of address Jesus told his friends to use when praying to God who is their father.
Not such an off-the-wall thought while the world burns tonight. I am in the diocese of Skara in Sweden to celebrate tomorrow the 1000th anniversary of its existence. Skara was linked with the historic diocese of Wakefield which is now part of the new diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales, and this is my fist visit – although technically I am here to represent the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The abba bit has crept up because not long after I arrived this evening I was invited to a closed-door conversation about the Middle East with bishops and others. The conversation was led by the Lutheran Bishop of Jordan and the Holy Land and an Egyptian Coptic Orthodox bishop. It was frank and robust.
I don’t intend to breach the implicit confidentiality of the discussion. Some conversations are only possible because confidentiality can be trusted. However, I am at liberty to make one or two observations on the back of it. Next week – particularly if I still have had no response from my letter to the Prime Minister about comprehensive strategy – I will come back to the questions I raised three weeks ago.
- Churches outside the Middle East need to be working with and through the churches in the Middle East, and not simply channeling their support through NGOs. Christian leaders and communities on the ground know the reality and have the channels that work. (This applied also to places like Zimbabwe when I was involved some years ago.)
- Churches outside the Middle East need to convey in multiple and varied ways the message and the reality that our brothers and sisters are not alone in their dire struggle. Relationship has to be demonstrated in multiple expressions that together build a picture.
- Churches in the Middle East have enough statements made – they need a strategy for long-term survival. It is widely recognised that the loss of Christians from (for example) the Holy Land leaves the space to polarised conflict between two enemies. The presence of Christians brings a different set of relationships and allows ‘enemies’ to be held in the same space. Christians need to be in their lands for the benefit of others.
- The West needs to let go of its paralysing guilt and develop a strategy that will hold in the long-term.
- In the midst of the massive propaganda war over Gaza and Iraq/Syria – mediated by selective representation – it is murderously difficult to identify ‘truth’. But, how we address these questions has implications not only for people in conflict areas, but also for communities closer to home. See the rise in anti-semitism in England and wider afield in Europe – but also hear the voice of the Muslims who ask my how they can protect their Jewish neighbours and the synagogues in West Yorkshire.
- The 1000 year history of the diocese of Skara in Sweden covers periods of success, disaster, war, oppression, fear, jubilation, and every other phenomenon that goes to make up life in the real world. Nothing romantic about it. But, it reinforces the commitment of Christian churches to place and territory – not to lord it over others, but to stay when others go, to serve when the world seems to be falling apart around us. In it for the duration.
Which, of course, is the hard question facing us in the Middle East: how do we enable Christians to stay in their lands and thrive into the longer-term future.
I am not saying this is the last word. Rather, I am simply ruminating on a difficult discussion this evening.