Presidential Address – Governing Body, September 2010

Presidential Address – Governing Body, September 2010

As you know, at the last Governing Body, we discussed in groups where we wanted the Church in Wales to be in 2020 and I devoted my Presidential Address to looking at issues which I regarded as critical.  There will be a follow up to this in groups at this GB so that we don’t lose the momentum. 

As I said in April, the Church in Wales is not simply concerned with its own life and structures and welfare, but with the world God has made.  The heart of the Gospel is that God loves the world He has created and the hope is that that, in turn, will engender in us a love for God and for our neighbours.  We exist to serve God and the communities in which we are set, and that, as far as the Province is concerned, of course, is Wales.  And concern for local communities, and concern for the nation, is not just a general benign concern but means getting involved in specific issues of our time.  The minute I say that, I know that some people will accuse me of meddling in politics and I am reminded of Archbishop Tutu’s words “I don’t know which Bible they are reading when people say religion and politics don’t mix”.  Politics has two meanings.  It describes political parties and elections but the older meaning is derived from the root of the Greek word ‘polis’ which is ‘city’, what we would today call ‘society’.  If party politics divides then this kind of politics is really about what holds us together.  It is about cohesion; it is about the common good.  And the common good, of course, is of concern not just to governments, but to all of us, because it is about a bond of belonging and mutual responsibilities – it is about families and communities and justice.

In an illuminating discussion on the parable of the Good Samaritan in his book ‘The Idea of Justice’, the 1998 Nobel Prize Winner in Economics – Amartya Sen – says that: the Samaritan was linked to the wounded man through the circumstances in which he found him, the event itself.  There became a causal connection between the two which established their “neighbourliness”.  The Samaritan found the man, saw the need, provided assistance, and thereby entered a relationship with him.  This link has significant implications for the exercise of what we might call “compassionate law”.  For the Samaritan was not moved by charity, nor by a sense of “justice”, nor even by a sense of “fairness and equality”, none of which applied because he did not know the wounded man.  He became linked with him simply because of the ties of their common humanity.  Such contact expands our sense of justice and the boundaries of justice are extended by the force of our mutual connections. 

So Sen maintains that few people are ‘non-neighbours’ because we are all linked through social, political, economic relations, and also through shared concerns about the injustice and inhumanity which challenge the world, as well as the violence and terrorism that threaten it.

The Authorised Version of the Good Samaritan includes the phrase ‘The Samaritan came to where he was’ which is the essence of Incarnation.

Doing justice…” says Archbishop Rowan Williams “…is living and acting in such a way that God’s passionate care for, and involvement in each person’s welfare becomes visible”.   Our laws and justice system seek to reflect the fact that we are bound to one another and that brings obligations in its wake.  To quote him again, “law limits power for it recognises the moral presence of others”.  It is indiscriminate recognition.

We need to remember all that in what is being discussed at the present time about the ‘Big Society’.  The Prime Minister describes this as “A redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street.  It is about empowerment, freedom, responsibility.”  Now, if by that he means we are all responsible for one another – ‘two and a half cheers’ as Archbishop Rowan said, but what does it actually mean?  The Prime Minister goes on to say ‘that governments will be doing less in terms of, for example, new schools, youth and after-school clubs.  It means businesses training people for work, charities rehabilitating offenders.  All of that, of course, happens already, since Churches as well as other voluntary organisations do so.  But does the ‘Big Society’ mean the State withdrawing from areas of life where it is needed most – withdrawing from vital services which, in the end, leads to the poor and the vulnerable being most affected?  It also has to be remembered, of course, that many voluntary organisations rely on State grants for their existence but those grants are at risk.  Government has to ensure that all have access to good quality education, health and other public services and to govern in the interests of the whole nation.  Because, as Sen says, ‘we are all inextricably bound to one another’.

But we belong not just to the nation of Wales or the UK, but to the wider world.  For what is true within nations is also true of the relationship that exists between nations.  The fact that we can know about events across the world in a matter of seconds – often things we would rather not know about – expands our sense of justice and the realisation that we belong to one undivided humanity.

In this way, we are neighbours to all who suffer repressive governments, those caught up in war, refugees, the starving and those suffering from natural disasters.

The rest of the world cannot, therefore, ignore what is happening in, for example, Zimbabwe.  The Christian Church is being persecuted there but the population as a whole is suffering, and the nations of the world, especially South Africa, ought to be putting more pressure on President Mugabe.  Zimbabwe, once a prosperous nation has become one of the poorest with its farming industry all but destroyed. 

Nearer home, the situation in Israel/Palestine is also appalling and the UK bears a historical responsibility for that particular region as it does for Zimbabwe.  Now I realise, that whenever I say anything about this matter, I will be accused of being anti-Semitic, but our own Prime Minister has described Gaza as a prison camp.  We, in the Church in Wales, have been involved with the Near East Council of Churches and, therefore with Gaza because we have provided them with a mobile dental unit.  It had been hoped that this would be self-funded by now but that has not proved possible.  Running costs this year are so much higher, because the only way the NECC can get fuel and medical supplies is through the tunnels and black market prices are high.  It will cost £26,000 this year and the Church in Wales has only £20,000 left to fund it.   Gaza is the second most densely populated area in the world with 1.2 million people living on a strip of land between the desert and the sea measuring 280 square kilometres.  Two-thirds of these people live in abject poverty, in refugee camps, after the confiscation of their homes and land by the Israeli Government.  The situation is worse now than when I visited in 2001, when there were people living in terraced zinc shacks, without electricity or water and with open sewers running down the streets.  Gaza City itself was like a bombsite.  The situation resembles the apartheid system in South Africa because Gaza is next to one of the most sophisticated and modern countries in the world – Israel.  Whereas Israel has excellent technology and infrastructure, in Gaza people carry goods by horse and cart.  Whereas Israel has an educational system second to none, next to it children live who are denied even a basic education because their schools have been bombed. 

Some have claimed that Gaza is well stocked in every commodity, and has just opened a new shopping mall.  In actual fact that shopping mall is the size of a small Tesco’s and has stalls like Cardiff Market. According to Oxfam, which sends a report on the situation in Gaza based on what it calls ‘reliable international sources’, only 32% of the industrial fuel needed in one week in August 2010 for Gaza’s power plant was allowed into Gaza.  The result was that the power plant shut down completely for two days after exhausting its reserves of fuel, triggering power cuts of 16 hours per day – affecting water supply, sewage treatment and removal, and the functioning of health services. 30% of households in Gaza have access to running water for only 4 to 8 hours per week; 40% receive water once every four days, and the other 30% obtain it once every two days.  Half of the normal level of need of cooking gas entered Gaza in August; no diesel or petrol has been delivered for weeks – hence diesel and petrol being taken through the tunnels at the risk of attack by the Israelis. Imports are limited, raw materials severely restricted, no building materials are allowed into Gaza, exports from Gaza are banned entirely.

The blockade in Gaza has destroyed public service infrastructure and hospitals have power cuts for twelve hours a day, emergency medical treatment for residents of Gaza is denied, and 40 million litres of sewage is being discharged every day into the sea because of lack of fuel to pump or treat human waste.  Family members in Gaza have been separated from relatives living in the West Bank and elsewhere. 
Now, no-one denies that Israel has the right to exist and defend itself, and it is indeed surrounded by states that want its destruction, and one cannot condone the firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas.  But the longer things continue as they are then moderate, ordinary Palestinians become more resentful and are in danger of being radicalised.  The United Nations, the Security Council and the European Union want crossings to Gaza to be permanently open to allow access for humanitarian and commercial aid and all of this was agreed between Israel and the Palestinian authorities in 2005.  In December 2009, a group of leading Palestinian Church leaders issued what some regard as the most significant theological statement on the Israel/Palestine conflict in many years.  It was eighteen months in the making and was written for two groups – firstly for Palestinian Christian communities, all of which have adopted it without exception and, secondly, for the international Christian community.  It is known as the Kairos document.  The Methodist Church, this year also produced a report and discussed it at its conference called ‘Justice and Peace for Palestine’.  Both of those reports say that the key hindrance to security and a lasting peace for all in the region is the occupation of Palestinian territory by the State of Israel.  Israel militarily occupied the West Bank, east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights in 1967 and, after forty three years, it remains the occupying power and thus responsible under International law, for the welfare of Palestinian inhabitants of these territories.  Archbishop Rowan wrote a paper as long ago as 1994 entitled ‘Holy Land and Holy People’ where he argues that the biblical people of God, the Jews, are given a homeland in order to better facilitate the promotion of community life defined by wisdom and justice.  On this understanding, the modern State of Israel, if it claims also to be the homeland for the Ancient Jewish people of God, must take seriously this vocation as the paradigm nation where justice and wisdom are seen to be done.  Settlements by Israeli settlers are illegal under international law, and over one third have been built on Palestinian privately owned land.  The wall that has been built covering a distance of 702 kilometres, four times as long and twice as high as the Berlin wall consists of fences, ditches, razor-wire, grooves and paths, an electronic monitoring system, patrol roads and a buffer zone, not only separates Israelis from Palestinians but Palestinians from family members and friends.  In rural areas, it effectively cuts them off from their olive trees and fruit and vegetable plantations.  In July 2004, the International Court of Justice declared the separation barrier illegal, and called on Israel to cease construction to dismantle constructed areas and provide reparation to those materially damaged by the construction.

Now we, as a Church, perhaps cannot do very much except that we ought to acquaint ourselves with what is going on, and fight against injustice, and demand that the rule of law be upheld wherever it is being flouted for whatever reason.  We have a duty to speak out.  What happens to one person or nation affects us all.

The poet Waldo Williams expresses it well in one of his poems:

“God’s mysterious net
Binds every living person;
Reconciliation and the whole web
Of me, you, Him……..
Me, you together
Despite the world’s divisions –
He makes whole his world”