I have a weird life.

Last Monday I chaired a Bishop's Staff Meeting in Leeds before getting the train to London to record BBC Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage (Christmas special) with Robin Ince and Professor Brian Cox. I got the first train back to Leeds for the formal opening of our new diocesan office on Tuesday morning. Wednesday saw me back on the train to London for the House of Lords (also on Thursday) covering a number of issues facing the country and the world. Thursday evening I was on a panel at City University, London, on the ethics of migration – with some excellent panellists that made me want to do more academic work again. Friday morning I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 (always a privilege) before having coaching and then doing a shed load of emails and other work. Saturday and Sunday were spent at Limehouse with my cell group, and Monday I spent in bed feeling like death. Today was the House of Bishops at Lambeth Palace, followed by a meeting with the government's Lord Bourne on faith issues'. Now I am back on the train to Leeds.

Me and Nick Baines

Why do I tell you that? Well, few people get an idea of what a bishop does – or the range of stuff that he/she is expected to cover. Simply illustrative. Back in Leeds, I start at 8am tomorrow and have meetings all day in the Diocese. Never boring.

But, while all this is going on the world bleeds.

One of the recurring conversations at the moment is whether democracy works. Well, of course it does. It delivers what people vote for. However, it is not necessarily truthful, intelligent or wise. It does not necessarily deliver what people thought they were voting for. Nothing new there. But, one of the glaringly bizarre questions emerging from both Brexit and Trump is why people didn't question the language used by the elite who led the campaigns. For example, who exactly is “the establishment” if it isn't the very people who were slagging off the establishment? How is “the elite”, if it isn't hugely privileged and economically comfortable people who will not suffer one iota from the consequences of what they persuaded people to vote for!

How many billionaires are there in the Trump administration? Why is President Putin so happy?

And all this finds focus in the cries of the children of Aleppo. While the blood flows today in the final brutality of war, the rest of us are confronted with an unpalatable challenge: we tell our government not to apply military power in Syria … only to complain that the Russian/Assad violence on our screens has been exercised without opposition. The West doesn't know what it believes. No wonder Sergei Lavrov (Russian Foreign Minister) was quoted on Twitter this afternoon as saying: ” We are fed up with the constant whining of our American colleagues.”

We will see what happens. In the meantime, Christians will find a vocabulary in the Psalms for the conflicted cries of “how long?” and “why do the poor suffer?” and “why are we so rubbish at getting things right for the sake of the weak and vulnerable?” (which,I admit, is a rough translation).

As I mentioned in a debate in the House of Lords some weeks ago (on the admission to the UK of unaccompanied Syrian refugee children from Calais), the generation of children who suffer from our inactivity will not forget what we did not do for them. The seeds of the next three or four generations' violence are being sown now.

And we cannot pretend ignorance.

 

Despite my deep European experience and connections (as well as affections), I decided early on in the referendum campaign to treat it like a real debate and listen to the arguments. The whole point of a debate is that those involved should listen and, if appropriate, be willing to change their mind. I wanted to be open to being persuaded either way. Consequently, apart from a couple of general observations about the nature and terms of the debate on the Reimagining Europe blog, I decided not to campaign for either side.

I then intended to put my personal conclusions into writing here around ten days before the referendum itself – on the grounds that after that there would be little or nothing to say or hear that had not already been said or heard. Then, when I was about to do it, Jo Cox MP was murdered in Birstall, West Yorkshire by a man who, in court, gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”. In the light of this, and wondering what would actually constitute a “free” Britain, I have pondered further.

I had intended to do a longer piece, arguing my points thoroughly. I no longer have the stomach for it – and, anyway, I am now too busy with other things. So, I will keep this brief and to the point, but also point to the Bishop of Chelmsford's excellent and thoughtful piece as the context-setter for what follows here.

Baroness Brady wrote in the Sun – and I think she encapsulates very succinctly and well the struggle many people feel between head and heart – that her heart is saying:

I love my country, I want to protect it. We don't want anyone telling us what to do and we'd be OK on our own.”

And there, I think, is the crunch. A mature country, like a mature human being, is open to seeing itself as it is seen from the outside, and then learning from that. A country that can be interdependent is one that is confident in itself – confident enough to learn from others, to look at itself critically through the eyes of others, and big enough to know that no country “is an island, entire of itself”. It is big enough to hold others to account and to be held to account.

The campaign itself has been depressing beyond words. Project Fear was not a monopoly exercise on either side. But, what pushed me to the limit was the irresponsible quoting of figures and promises that were baseless in fact and unarguable in reality. 'Facts' turn out actually to be assertion or mere opinion. For example, taking the economic statements:

  • Trade deals require at least two parties. Assuming that, were the UK free to negotiate its own deals – as if this can be done independently and in isolation – it is entirely possible that the other parties will ultimately not allow us the best deals for us and on our preferred terms. In fact, countries we have slagged off for being incompetent and corrupt might not forget this when dealing with us in the future. It cannot be assumed that negotiations will always land us with the best deal – and the promise that we will get our own way is questionable on a number of grounds. As Wolfgang Schäuble said with typically German clarity: “In is in, out is out”. It takes two to tango and the other's affections cannot be taken for granted.
  • Access to the single market will require that we obey the conditions the EU will impose (including free movement, etc.), pay the money accordingly, but allow us no vote in the setting of the rules or voice at the table when they are being set. If anything is “undemocratic”, surely that is – it is better to be at the table where our voice can count.

But, the economic arguments are not the most important ones for me. No one can promise what will happen if we stay or of we go. Boris Johnson can say with total confidence (as he did last week) that “Yorkshire will thrive like never before if we vote to leave the EU”, yet he can offer not one shred of evidence that this will be the case, what it might look like or on what basis he can state it as bold fact. I would be interested to hear the argument, but none is offered because none can be made. It is all speculation and wishful thinking. So is much of the Remain case for what might happen if we do vote to leave. This is unaccountable sloganising for emotional impact; it just has little to do with reality.

Furthermore, as relatively little has changed in the banking system since the crash of 2008, it is little wonder that predictions of a further major crash are now coming thick and fast. The threats to the British people come not from membership of the EU, but from the same old sources: a financial system that has not been fundamentally amended since 2008, a growing rift between the rich and poor across the globe, conflicts to which we have all been party, and an increasing disconnect between populations and the political classes.

We know that security cannot be assured in isolation. If we are to be secure, then we also have to look to the security and interests of those alongside whom we live. Britain cannot look to its own security in isolation from the wider continent and the wider world. A fragmentation of Europe – which happened a century ago as the archetype of the Law of Unintended Consequences of series of small decisions that, together and uncoordinated, caused a world war – is entirely possible again. The UK will be affected by what happens elsewhere. The EU is the institution to hold the thing together politically so that we do not find ourselves having to react to decisions made elsewhere over which we have had no say because we have no accountable institutional relationship. Leaving the EU might sound attractive for the UK for certain reasons, but what then happens in the EU (and on the continent of Europe) will impact on our islands: we cannot simply draw up the bridge and pretend we can be secure alone, thrive alone.

The dismissal of 'elites' by… er… elites is bizarre. The constant belittling of 'experts' is both miserable and inane – especially when the same politicians will be building their political cases on the support of experts from next Friday onwards. Migration is a global phenomenon and it will not cease to impact the UK if we vote to leave. The debate has used migration in a way I hoped had been left in the 1930s; few of those who speak of it have actually been out of the comfort of England to see the reality lived with in places like Iraq, Syria and Libya. For years migration has been a toxic subject in our public discourse, Concerns are real; domestic solutions cannot be found in isolation from the global.

“Take back control” sounds marvellous, doesn't it? Yet, it assumes we do not have control of our country. Is that true? If so, in what way? Shared sovereignty is not the same as lost sovereignty. Decisions made in the EU are not done to us, but with us. Yet, the rhetoric pretends that we are victims of powers beyond our control – as if we were absent.

Like many others, I am not blind to the need for substantial reform of the EU institutions. Its democratic accountability and financial probity need serious attention. We can only drive these if we are at the table, holding others to account. I believe we need to be in if we are to hold others in. And, contrary to much of the Brexit discourse, we cannot cannot uphold the interests of Britain without paying attention to the interests of our neighbours and listening to their critique of us. Not always getting our own way is not the same as being subject to a lack of democratic process.

Finally, the language of pure, selfish, tribal self-interest – economic, cultural, social and political – is not one that translates into my understanding of Christian identity or justice. When Paul the Apostle wrote to the Christians in Philippi that they should “have the mind of Christ” and “look not to their own interests, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves”, I don't think he was indulging in other-worldly piety. A confident people is strong enough to face this, not to close it down.

So, everyone must come to their own conclusions on Thursday. Promises and predictions made on both sides should be weighed for their realism and integrity: are they wishful (or fearful) thinking, or are they rooted in something accountable in some way? And how might they be subject to “events” that will inevitably confound both the promises and predictions made before “events” happen? I respect the judgements people will make – there are cogent arguments on both sides, even if these have largely been sunk beneath the tide of bile and sloganising that has characterised this dreadful campaign.

I conclude (as there isn't time to do this properly) with an observation. Closely connected with churches in other EU countries, we will continue – whichever way the vote goes – to work with humility and without hubris for reconciliation and closer relationships with our neighbours. Christian theology might not indicate which way people should vote on Thursday, but it does set a context for hopeful (rather than fearful) imagination; it demands that we do not misrepresent our neighbour's case (the ninth Commandment); it calls for the establishment of relationships of love and grace; it opens up the possibility of generosity and security rooted in a recognition of our mutual humanity; and it calls us to pay attention to the constant and ongoing need for mercy and hope.

I will vote to remain in the European Union. And I will do so because I want to ask not just what Europe can do for us, but for what we can do for Europe … and that means being committed to the European Union.

Whichever way we vote, and whichever way the vote goes next Thursday, who and how will we be on Friday?

 

Following the furore over the bishops' letter to the Prime Minister about refugees, I was asked to put pen to paper for the Yorkshire Post to explain why I agreed to be a signatory. The reason I agreed is that I had just spent the day meeting people who have been on the wrong end of war, displacement, humiliation and hopelessness – just like many of those escaping from the Iraq and Syria we have helped create. So, here is the article published this evening for tomorrow's paper.

I am not sure what the politicians and political commentators have been doing today? Still seething about the letter written by 84 bishops to the Prime Minister asking for a rethink on the numbers of refugees to be let into the UK? Still sitting behind screens being sarcastic about bishops and their big houses (which are actually their offices)? I have read today that some responses are becoming less hysterical now that the letter has actually been read.

Forgive me for being just a teensy bit touchy on this. I am in Sri Lanka visiting our link bishop of Colombo. The Church of England dioceses have links across the world: West Yorkshire and the Dales has close connections with Sudan, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Sweden (Skara), USA (Southwestern Virginia), Pakistan and Germany (Erfurt, though, obviously, this is not an Anglican link).

In other words, rather than simply pontificating about situations, we actually have grassroots connections with them. When asked why the bishops don't wade in on, say, the 100,000 killed in South Sudan, well … actually we have and we do. We also go to Sudan and see the impact of the conflicts in the South. It could be argued that we know what we are talking about.

So, back to the letter to the Prime Minister. If you are one of those seething about the well-meaning bishops getting it wrong again, have a look at this first:

First, the bishops agreed the letter to David Cameron some five weeks ago. It was kept private. We were promised a response. Is not five weeks quite a long time to wait, especially as we were told we would hear soon? (Funnily enough, a letter from the Home Office arrived on Tuesday.)

Secondly, we were clear that we are not against the government, but responsible for asking the moral questions. To be portrayed (by some people who should know better) as anti-Conservative is wrong, lazy and ridiculous. Every government of every shade thinks the church is against them. Labour ought we were right wing; the Tories think we are all lefties. We just have to get used to the knee-jerk responses that this defensiveness provokes.

The job of bishops is not to be popular or simply to go with the current, dominant flow – of culture or power – but to tell the truth, even if we might eventually be proved wrong in some things. The church cannot duck its prophetic vocation. Read the Bible and we are always getting into trouble with the powers that be – it goes with the territory.

Thirdly, many dioceses are now already looking at how we might support refugee families in our areas, including issues of housing. Some are further down the road than others.

Fourthly, comments about how the bishops should get their own house in order before “lecturing the rest of us” should be recognised for what they are. No one is “lecturing” anyone. It was a letter. Spot the difference? And it was a letter directed to a particular person, not “the rest of us” – unless the commentators themselves are identifying so closely with the government that you have to question the independence of their judgement.

The focus of this argument should be on the plight of refugees and the causes of their plight. Arguing about which bishops are targets is a mere distraction.

Today (Tuesday) I have moved from Kandy to Jaffna in Sri Lanka. We visited small rural communities and met people whose limbs have been blown off (or worse) during the thirty year civil war that ended in vile brutality only five years ago. One man with no left leg and a mangled right leg and foot cannot work and cannot support his family. An elderly woman has lost all her relatives in the carnage and now is totally alone. We went to an orphanage run by the Church of Ceylon where we met the inspirational priest and his wife who led a group of mentally ill women through the war zone to safety; they also brought several dozen orphaned girls. They were separated and only found each other again once the war ended. The warden of the orphanage has only one leg.

How many of the commentariat have actually got out from behind their screens to meet real people with real faces and real lives? Just asking. Because this is how the church lives, and it is how the bishops learn reality away form our small island.

Syria is a catastrophe. It is not numbers who are fleeing – it is people. And their torment will continue long after they have escaped the immediate horrors.

Much of our conversation here revolves around the civil war and questions of the church's role in reconciliation. It is funny how similar questions about the relationship between church and state keep arising – as well as bishops' prophetic responsibility to not keep quiet for fear of upsetting the powers.

I think our letter might have been too gentle and diplomatic, after all.

This is the text of this morning's Presidential Address at the first Diocesan Synod of the new triennium in the Diocese of Leeds (West Yorkshire & the Dales):

“As far as I am concerned, to die in Christ Jesus is better than to be king of earth's widest bounds.” So wrote Syrian-born Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr, at the beginning of the second century. And not a bad way to start this first synod of the new triennium on the day we remember the remarkable saint.

If nothing else, it focuses our mind on why we are here, begs us to keep our business in a true perspective, and invites us to remember, as Ignatius did in his powerful final letters to early Christian churches, to heed the injunction of Jesus himself: that if we do not love one another, we are whistling in the wind. (Which I cannot pretend to be an entirely accurate translation of the Aramaic.)

Ignatius was clearly no romantic. He pleads with his fellow Christians in Rome not to allow anyone to get in the way of his martyrdom. But, although often questioned, this was not some maniacal death-wish, but, rather, an urgent plea for clarity and not compromise in his living and his dying. Like the Apostle Paul, “for [him] to live is Christ, to die is gain”.

I have to admit, this feels a little glib when said by me – and probably by you. We do not face the lions of the Colosseum or the bloodthirst of the Roman powermongers who thought human life cheap enough to provide fodder for the entertainment of their bored souls.

Yet, for many Christians in the second decade of the twenty first century, this is precisely the choice they face. In countries like Syria and Iraq, where Christians have lived, prayed and served for centuries, it is entirely possible that the next decade (or sooner) will see them almost completely absent. Persecution of Christians is something our own politicians and media appear to find difficult even to mention by name – as if to do so would, rather than being truthful or factually accurate, be selective or intolerant of the suffering of others. Needless to say, this is utter nonsense.

But, it also reminds us that easy recourse to claims of persecution in this country is equally stupid. Ridicule or marginalisation – either deliberate or by cultural default – is not persecution. That is a word that should be reserved for our brothers and sisters who are being crucified, butchered, driven out, abused, dispossessed and rendered homeless and, sometimes, hopeless in a world of violence and misery.

Well, you might think this is a bit of a miserable way to begin a new synod in this diocese. You might even be right. But, my intention is to locate the experience of many Christians in the world against the backdrop of our experience and business today. Are we building a diocese and a church that has its priorities right – one that creates the spaces in which people can come to faith in Jesus Christ, be nurtured in the community of his people, serve the world around them with a wide vision of God's grace, and so order their lives that people might look at us and listen to us and recognise that for us “to live is Christ, to die is gain”?

This is a question that I live with every day. Whether conducting worship, preaching, enjoying meetings, ordering the life of a diocese-being-created, or praying and reading, this is the one that won't let me go. And I know I am not alone. Colleagues both lay and ordained are doing their work in the light of and under the shadow of that question, even if not all would frame it in the language I am using here. Given that we face a million distractions every day, we have to keep coming back to the fundamental questions of who we think we are and why we do what we do.

I well remember, with some personal embarrassment, asking the former Archbishop of Canterbury which great divine the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann was quoting in a lecture at Cambridge when he paused in his lecture and said, deeply and meaningfully: “God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.” Rowan Williams looked sadly into my eyes and said, “I think he was quoting himself.” He was. Moltmann's autobiography was published just a week or two later and was given the English title of 'Broad Space'.

The wide space of our hope must be focused on the particular details of the choices we make.

Now, this pertains to the internal business of the diocese – for which this synod exists; but, it also applies to and shapes our response to the world in which we do our internal business. The budget for this diocese has to be debated in the context of a church that is reviewing how we might use our buildings in the future, how many clergy we can invest in (and how to train, equip and resource them for the task we decide we need them to do), how to shape our administration in the future, and how to nurture mature Christian disciples in West Yorkshire and the Dales. Yet, all of this will be debated in the light of an unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants into Europe – a test of what we really mean by 'solidarity' and 'union'.

Last Thursday we held at Bradford Cathedral the first Diocesan Clergy Study Day since our diocese was born at Easter 2014. The Chair of the West Yorkshire Methodist District, Dr Roger Walton, led us in the morning thinking about discipleship. In the afternoon we were led by the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, in thinking about a theology of place – coincidentally only two days after publication of the Church Buildings Review report by a committee that he chaired. These were not two separate and distinct topics. Rather, they hold together: discipleship is to be exercised by people who live in space and time, have bodies and use buildings. Discipleship, like worship, has to happen somewhere. And how we regard that 'somewhere' matters a great deal.

So, this is both the great opportunity and the great challenge we face in our diocese. How do we focus on evangelism, nurture, service and discipleship in a way that sees our buildings not as a burden, but as a resource? The answers are not easy, but the question must constantly be asked. In recent developments in the diocese this has been this has been central.

We have appointed two new archdeacons who will strengthen not only the leadership of the diocese, but also bring new capacity to supporting, encouraging, challenging and resourcing the parishes. I look forward to Beverley Mason and Andy Jolley beginning their new ministry towards the beginning of 2016, and am sure you will wish to encourage and support them as they embrace the changes in their own life and ministry and location. At this point I also wish to pay tribute to Archdeacon David Lee who stood down as Archdeacon of Bradford in the summer and who is conducting pilot studies on buildings review in the Bradford and Leeds Episcopal Areas. He will retire at the end of January 2016 and we will have an opportunity to thank him for his ministry during that month.

As you know, we have also finally bought a new office in central Leeds, only a five minute walk from the station. Bringing our administration under a single roof will bring enormous benefits as shape up to move in one direction and develop a common culture for the diocese. I pay tribute to those who have been involved in the often complex detail of searching for, identifying and finalising the purchase of this building – especially Ashley Ellis and Debbie Child and their colleagues, and members of the Diocesan Board of Finance.

We are making good progress. Consultations on a new parish share system are being conducted; reviews of training and communications have been completed – a review of mission activity is now being commenced. We are on track with our projected journey: by the end of 2014 to be legal, viable and operational – for which we owe a huge debt to the often unseen work of John Tuckett; by the end of 2015 to have reviewed the areas of diocesan life and mission and worked out options for shaping the diocese in the future; during 2016 to create the new shape, institute the new governance structures, set our direction, and agree how to finance it. From 2017 we should be up and running as a single diocese with the historic assumptions and ways of doing things united in a single system. This might not be the language that everyone will want to use, but it is the best I can offer at this stage.

I am personally very grateful to all of you for being willing to serve on this synod, bringing experience, perspective and commitment to the work of the diocese – constantly asking the fundamental questions, bearing one another in love (especially those charged with doing the detailed work behind the scenes), and praying for the mind of Christ in both what we do and say, and how we do and say it.

We will conclude our synod today by turning our eyes both outwards and inwards: outwards to the pressing needs of those – Christian, Muslim, Yezidi, Jewish, and those of no religious faith – who are being oppressed and driven out of their homelands. The plight of refugees is desperate. Yes, there might also be among them those who might ride on the back of genuine collective despair for their own individual interests and gain. But, the abuse by some should not blind us to the appalling choices faced by millions of people in this world. How we respond to their plight matters enormously. It is not a simple matter. As I wrote in the Yorkshire Post last month, we do need to engage both head and heart as we consider how to respond and at what level. Today we have an opportunity to share our wisdom on this, recognising that this is the beginning and not the end of this matter, and that the situation changes every day.

So, I commend the life of this synod in this triennium. Let us apply our best efforts to attending to the calling God has given. And not lose sight of the fundamental truth that our ministries derive from our discipleship, and that discipleship cannot be held distinct from the material stuff we live with and use.

To God be the glory. And to his people peace.

The spiritual leaders (bishops of the Landeskirchen) of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland has today published a statement in response to the challenges posed by mass migration and the current refugee crisis. The English text can now be read here. The press notice can be read here, and the link to the signed statement is at the bottom:

The statement reads as follows:

Zur aktuellen Situation der Flüchtlinge Eine Erklärung der Leitenden Geistlichen der evangelischen Landeskirchen Deutschlands

„Wie köstlich ist deine Güte, Gott, dass Menschenkinder unter dem Schatten deiner Flügel Zuflucht haben!” (Psalm 36, 8)

1 Gott liebt alle seine Geschöpfe und will ihnen Nahrung, Auskommen und Wohnung auf dieser Erde geben. Wir sehen mit Sorge, dass diese guten Gaben Gottes Millionen von Menschen verwehrt sind. Hunger, Verfolgung und Gewalt bedrücken sie. Viele von ihnen befinden sich auf der Flucht. So stehen sie auch vor den Toren Europas und Deutschlands. Sie willkommen zu heißen, aufzunehmen und ihnen das zukommen zu lassen, was Gott allen Menschen zugedacht hat, ist ein Gebot der Humanität und für uns ein Gebot christlicher Verantwortung.

2 Der Mensch steht im Mittelpunkt aller Bemühungen. Viele Menschen sindweltweit auf der Flucht. Die große Herausforderung besteht darin, jedem Einzelnen gerecht zu werden. In ihrer Not begeben sich Menschen auf der Flucht in Lebensgefahr. Es ist humanitäre Pflicht, alles zu tun, um Menschen aus Seenot und vor anderen Gefahren zu retten. Gegen menschenverachtende Schlepperbanden und mafiöse Strukturen innerhalb und außerhalb Europas muss mit polizeilichen Mitteln vorgegangen werden. Die wirksamsten Maßnahmen gegen die Gefahren auf der Flucht bestehen in legalen Zugangswegen nach Europa. Wir fordern deshalb legale Wege für Schutzsuchende und begrüßen Diskussionen über ein Einwanderungsgesetz, das neue Zuwanderungsmöglichkeiten für Menschen auf der Suche nach Arbeit und einem besseren Leben eröffnet.

3 Unsere Gesellschaft steht vor einer großen Herausforderung, aber auch unsere Kräfte sind groß. Wir sind dankbar für die vielfältige Hilfsbereitschaft! Allen, die ehrenamtlich oder beruflich, aus Kirche, Zivilgesellschaft, Staat und Politik helfen, eine Willkommenskultur zu leben und mit einem beispiellosen Einsatz für die schnelle und menschenwürdige Aufnahme und Unterbringung von Flüchtlingen zu sorgen, danken wir von ganzem Herzen! Mit Entschiedenheit wenden wir uns gegen alle Formen von Fremdenfeindlichkeit, Hass oder Rassismus und gegen alles, was eine menschenfeindliche Haltung unterstützt oder salonfähig macht. Sorgen und Angst vor Überforderung müssen ernst genommen werden, dürfen aber nicht für menschenfeindliche Stimmungen missbraucht werden.

4 Als Kirche prägen wir das Zusammenleben in dieser Gesellschaft mit. Daher treten wir dafür ein, gelebte Willkommenskultur und die damit verbundene Integration zu einer zentralen Aufgabe unserer Gemeinden und Einrichtungen zu machen.

5 Mit Sorge sehen wir die Hintergründe und Ursachen der Flüchtlingsbewegungen: Klimaveränderungen, Kriege, Verfolgung, Zusammenbruch staatlicher Gewalt, extreme Armut. In diese Fluchtursachen ist auch unsere Gesellschaft vielfältig durch globale Handelsbeziehungen, Waffenlieferungen und nicht zuletzt durch einen Lebensstil, der die Ressourcen der Erde verbraucht, zutiefst verwickelt. Eine Umkehr von diesen ungerechten Verhältnissen ist an der Zeit.

6 Uns in Deutschland ist aufgrund unserer Geschichte in besonderer Weise bewusst, welches Geschenk es ist, Hilfe in der Not und offene Türen zu finden. Ohne die Hilfe, die uns selber zu Teil geworden ist, wären wir heute nicht in der Lage, mit unseren Kräften anderen zu helfen. Wir als Leitende Geistliche wollen uns dafür einsetzen, dass Europa jetzt gemeinsam handelt und seinen humanitären Verpflichtungen gemeinschaftlich nachkommt. In der Gewissheit, dass Menschen unter Gottes Flügeln Zuflucht haben, bringen wir die Not aller Menschen in unseren Gebeten vor Gott und bitten ihn um Kraft für die vor uns liegenden Aufgaben.

The EKD previously pubished a helpful statement here on the refugee challenge (9 September) in Europe and it helpfully contains links to other church/Christian statements.

The World Council of Churches has published the following statement:

Today the countries of Europe are confronted with the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. But compassion and action seem to be tragically insufficient to meet the pressing need. This is so despite the tragedies reported daily from the shores and borders of Europe – let alone from the countries from which these people have been forced to flee by conflict, oppression and extreme poverty.

It is now absolutely and critically necessary that all European states take their proper responsibility in terms of reception and support for people seeking refuge, safety and a better future for themselves and their families. This cannot be left only to the states where they enter first.

Taking responsibility for human beings in desperate need must be done without discrimination on any criteria other than their needs. We are shocked to hear of some countries rejecting refugees on the basis of their religion.

Today, Europe – both West and East – is being tested on the strength of its commitment to human dignity and rights. This is a test of our human values and Christian legacy.

Some churches are taking a lot of responsibility in this situation, even beyond their capacities. WCC member churches in many of the affected countries are providing support to refugees and migrants, and raising the awareness of their congregations and state authorities to the need for a compassionate response, in spite of limited resources and of their own difficulties. The WCC encourages churches in countries of arrival, transit and ultimate destination in their efforts to welcome the stranger, and to model a compassionate response to people in such desperate need. We need ecumenical cooperation in these efforts, in order to ensure that they make the greatest possible contribution to alleviating this terrible suffering.

The WCC and its member churches’ commitment to supporting refugees and displaced people is part of its original condition and calling. When the World Council of Churches came into existence in 1948, the disastrous humanitarian impacts of the Second World War were still a very present reality. The international community was still struggling to cope with the massive population displacements caused by conflict and crimes against humanity. Churches and their specialized ministries were key actors in the humanitarian response to this unprecedented suffering, and have continued to be in the forefront of assisting refugees and immigrants, from emergency relief to long-term support.

This commitment is shown in many parts of the world also today. During these last days I have seen how the churches in Latin America are responding to the situation of migrants and internally displaced people in their own contexts.

The WCC continues to challenge churches worldwide to rediscover their identity, their integrity and their vocation as the church of the stranger. For we are the Church of Jesus Christ, the child refugee (cf. Mathew 2:13).

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Matthew 25:35.

This is the text of an op-ed article I published in the Yorkshire Post this morning:

The Prime Minister has been clear that the UK’s response to the refugee crisis has to engage both head and heart. He is right. To divorce one from the other is not a good thing to do.

It has also been argued that policy should not be made on the basis of an emotional reaction to a distressing photograph on the front page of a newspaper. Yet, the photograph of a drowned little boy became the icon that transformed “swarms” and “hundreds of thousands” into the raw and defenceless humanity whose fragility is easier to relate to. There is a human face to each individual refugee.

So, the current migration crisis in Europe – driven by the destructive violence of dysfunctional countries in the Middle East and northern Africa – is a tragedy of such enormous proportions that we have to respond with the heart (and our hands) in order to address the immediate plight of stricken people. There is little point holding committee meetings to discuss politics if the people the policies are aimed at helping die before the deliberations are complete.

Yet, the Prime Minister is right to insist that the head be engaged. We can rightly be caught up in the immediate anguish about the plight of so many refugees – particularly children who have no family, no home and no obvious future. But, we also need to do the cool work of assessing the implications of the compassionate response we offer.

So, it seems to me that the massive popular response of practical compassion is both powerful and moving. It is also challenging: are we prepared to still be supportive in ten or twenty years time when the consequences of our compassion have to be lived with?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has been clear in recognizing the complexity of the situation, but also in demanding a clearer response by the UK Government to the crisis: “Now, perhaps more than ever in post-war Europe, we need to commit to joint action across Europe, acknowledging our common responsibility and our common humanity. As Christians we believe we are called to break down barriers, to welcome the stranger and love them as ourselves (Leviticus 19:34), and to seek the peace and justice of our God, in our world, today… We need a holistic response to this crisis that meets immediate humanitarian need while tackling its underlying drivers.

This statement recognizes the challenges of finding a common strategic response to a situation of chaotic origin. It should not be surprising that millions of people feel they have no option but to flee from appalling violence, nihilism and destructiveness. And it should not be surprising that they want to come to Europe when we have spent generations praising the standards of living and relatively peaceful nature of the Europe we have created since the Second World War. It has become a test of our humanity as to whether we respond with practical compassion to our fellow human beings or leave them to their own fate.

Some politicians and commentators are suggesting that we can't solve the problem (principally, but not exclusively) in Syria by simply taking more and more refugees – and reasonably make the case that to do so simply feeds the human traffickers. They are right to insist that more strategic attention has to be paid to tackling the problem at source – especially as so many of the problems have arisen partly as a consequence of western military intervention in places that have now collapsed into violence.

But, this is not an ‘either-or’ conundrum. The Prime Minister has been reported as saying that “we can't take any more”. But, this is not a given – it is a choice. We can take more refugees – we choose not to. That is a different matter.

Conversely, we can choose to take any number of refugees we like, but only if we do so knowing that we must then – willingly and generously – pay the price for doing so. After all, many countries in Europe took in millions of migrants during and after the last world war, and this at a time of poverty, crisis and economic privation. We now have more than the means to address our human and moral obligations; the question is simply whether we choose to do so or not.

To do nothing is to choose. And that choice also is a moral one.

Perhaps the compassionate and costly response of Germany has something to do with a living memory of such humanitarian need on their own land and caused by their own choices. There is no reason why we on our island should not demonstrate a similar compassionate imagination. Furthermore, if not already being done with some urgency, other Middle Eastern countries (probably excluding Jordan which has already absorbed huge numbers during the last few years) should be pressured to take refugees – something they seem not to be keen to do.

Many groups in society – including churches – have responded with remarkable love and care, seeking partnership with local authorities and other groups. We must be prepared for the long haul and not just the quick fix.

There is a fundamental question underlying responses to the current migration and refugee challenge in Europe. In the question behind the title of Primo Levi's arresting book, it is simply: what is a man? What is a human being?

If the answer is that a human being is valued according to their economic contribution, potential or liability, then that will have a profound influence in shaping our response, both emotionally and intellectually.

If, on the other hand, a human being has inherent value – not simply because she exists or is valued by those who say she has value, but because she is made in the image of God and infinitely loved – then the response will be consistent with that. A Christian response must begin with a biblical understanding of what makes a human person – everything else has to flow from that.

It sounds a bit academic to ask a question of (what I call) theological anthropology in the face of such immediate need, but it is important that we do. It is important that our political leaders are clear about their answer to this question and why they think what they do think.

Taking this seriously will help us to distinguish between a response dominated by cost benefit analyses and one shaped by a humanitarian assumption that chooses to make a choice of principle and then pays the price (socially, financially, economically, and so on). Yes, the economic and social questions need to be raised and faced; but, do they follow a committed response to immediate need or precede it?

When listening, viewing or reading coverage of the current challenge and political responses to it, I think this is the question to ask in order to understand what motivates the response.

(I wrote this while listening to a lively debate at the EKD (German) Kirchenkonferenz on what statement to make about these matters. The statement will be published next week and I will publish it on this blog as soon as I get the final published version.)