July 2017


Sunday 31 July 2017

Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury led the four hour service that inaugurated the new (39th) Province of Sudan. Packed, joyful, chaotic (in the best and most enjoyable sense), it also saw the wonderful Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo installed as the first Primate of the new province. There are loads of photos and videos on Twitter, but I simply post here a photo I took – possibly the worst ever taken of an Archbishop of Canterbury at work.

Although the Inauguration was the primary reason for coming to Sudan, we did a lot of other stuff. We started off staying with the UK Ambassador who, despite being an excellent ambassador, turns out disappointingly to be an Arsenal fan. However, he is a fluent Arabic speaker, so the odd weirdness is forgivable.

The four-day trip also saw us flying down to Kadugli in South Kordofan on Saturday after only two hours sleep. With a serious security accompaniment into town, we met with the Governor before engaging with religious leaders about the realities behind the rhetoric of religious harmony. Two things emerged: (a) Christians and Muslims really do live side by side here, despite the recent history of violence and civil war – which is not to do with religious identity, but with ethnic and political claims; (b) Sudan has been remarkably generous in welcoming refugees from South Sudan and (in Kadugli) from the Nuba Mountains regardless of religious identity. Discussions were frank and informative.

This set the tone for what followed. Having returned to Khartoum in the evening, we got some sleep ahead of the great Inauguration on Sunday which was attended by government and Muslim leaders.

Sunday, however, did not only see loud and lively worship (visually obscured by unrestrained media and security men). In the early evening a small group of us went to visit the President of Sudan. We spent just under an hour in respectful but frank conversation about Sudan, its international reputation, the challenges faced by Christian churches, and other matters. It was good-humoured, but open. The demolition of churches was just one of the issues addressed, but so was the challenge to Sudan of continuing US sanctions.

So far, so interesting. And the Archbishop demonstrated both stamina and diplomacy in a succession of demanding engagements. Even the celebration dinner at a Khartoum hotel meant talking relentlessly to a wide range of people. It was all hugely enjoyable.

So, today continued the rounds. A Sudan roundtable meeting this morning raised questions about how the new Province should be supported – and how that support should be prioritised and coordinated – by external partner dioceses and agencies. I had to leave with Archbishop Ezekiel after two hours as we had to join the Archbishop of Canterbury’s group at a series of meetings with government ministers.

At each of these meetings – with the Governor of Khartoum State, then the Foreign Minister, and finally with the Minister of Guidance and Endowment (religious affairs) – the Archbishop raised matters of concern alongside discussing wider political and economic issues. It was both wide-ranging and focused, and questions of religious discrimination, demolition of churches, freedom of religion, etc. were all discussed honestly and respectfully.

The trip basically concluded with a dinner laid on by the UK ambassador at his residence. A number of ambassadors and diplomats joined in a serious discussion about Sudan, its challenges and gifts, and its potential futures. A big question haunting most conversations during the trip emerged again: the need for the United States to lift sanctions against Sudan on 12 October. The UK Government supports this, believing the three-month extension from 12 July must be the last. Interestingly, it wasn’t just the economic cost (or political pressure) that dominated the discussion; rather, it was the potential loss of hope by ordinary Sudanese that would prove most damaging. Of course, it is easier to measure economic impact than psycho-social despair.

This probably doesn’t read as very exciting. I write it mainly in order to keep a record of it. But, I also need to demonstrate that the agenda of the Church runs wider than the issues it is normally associated with in the media. Poverty, reconciliation, economics and politics go to the heart of the Christian gospel, and there can be no abstract discussion of such matters without an intelligent, informed, questioning and serious engagement with the people involved – both the powerless and the powerful.

The Archbishop moves on to Uganda tomorrow morning. I return to the UK on Wednesday, flying out of Khartoum late tomorrow night.

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On Sunday the new Province of Sudan will be inaugurated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Khartoum. This brings the total of autonomous provinces in the Anglican Communion to 39.

The Diocese of Leeds has had a partnership link with Sudan for nearly forty years, and Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo was over with us in Leeds in March/April this year. That’s why I am going.

The reason for the creation of the new Province is this. The Episcopal Church of Sudan covered the whole of the original country. When South Sudan separated just a few years ago (2011), the single Church eventually created an internal province for Sudan. What is happening on Sunday is the natural (and necessary) consequence of the creation of separate countries.

Given Sudan’s drive to have one nation, one faith and one language – Sudan, Islam and Arabic – and to guard its own integrity over against the seceded South Sudan, relations between church and state might actually become clearer and better: a church for Sudan.

More anon. We leave Heathrow soon.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show:

I came across a great line the other day. A hundred years ago GK Chesterton wrote: “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” And can you blame them, we ask?

Well, I actually have no idea if any of the greats ever expressed themselves on the matter of dairy products; but, I do know that nothing is out of bounds when it comes to words teasing the imagination and sending the mind off in directions it didn’t know were there. As I once said to Billy Ocean: “When the going gets tough, the tough write poetry.”

The point of this is that some people are gifted in being able to look at the world differently – then to shine a light on it from a new direction.
We have just had a group of students from a German university staying with us in Leeds. They all study theology, but, shaped by their own experience of living not in England and emerging from a cultural memory that is coloured by a century of unspeakable violence, they look at things differently. And the gift of it all is that by looking at God and the world through their eyes – filtered through their perceptions – I get the chance to see differently. It is wonderful – as are those students.

And, believe it or not, that is the point of reading ancient texts like the Bible. You enter a different world, and then have to work hard at looking through the eyes of people from a different age and world in order to catch the glint of a glory too easily hidden behind the familiarity and busyness of ‘today’.

I have heard it said that if something is too hard to understand at first glance, then it isn’t worth bothering with. Well, I beg to disagree. Precious stones do not pop out of the ground and on to a jeweller’s display tray. Novels don’t leap effortlessly onto the page and appear in a bookshop. Wisdom does not drip from the Magic Meaning Tree, but has to be learned and dug out and refined and learned.

So, I go with the poets on this one. Nearly three thousand years ago one of them wrote: “The price of wisdom is above rubies.” I say: “Get digging.”