The Christ who gathers: Christian Unity and the challenge of justice

IMG_7383This week a report has been published for the Church of England on the governance and management of Cathedrals. It makes helpful recommendations (65 of them!), many of which we have been implementing in our local cathedral over the last couple of years. And so this report comes as an affirmation of how we have been putting it right, sorting it out and making it fit for its mission today and for years to come. In this report there is a wonderful section on ecclesiology, the theology of what it means to be church. In this there is the notion of ‘gathering places’, the places where identity is shaped and people become the people of God in that corner of Christ’s kingdom. They quote extensively from an essay by Simon Oliver, who is Van Mildert Professor of Theology at Durham University. This is taken from a collection of essays called ‘Holy Ground’ (‘Holy Ground: Cathedrals in the 21st century’ Sacristy Press 2017).

Simon Oliver takes us on a journey of what it means to be gathered. And fundamentally we are gathered by the Christ who gathers: Christ who is the centre of all things. He is our mediator and advocate, as St Paul put it. So to be gathered, to be church, is to be gathered round Christ. This is because Christ prayed that all may be one as he and the Father are one. This is not an optional extra, but foundational and fundamental to who we are as Christians.

Now to root this, we have a sense of being united in space and time, in common affirmation. We have not just bobbed up, but are rooted in the faith and the community of faith that stretches back to the apostles and therefore the first calling, first gathering of Christ. How that is expressed today is of course part of the rich tapestry that our different traditions represent and some of that journey has been painful and fractured, but any church has to have a link with the whole body gathered round Christ otherwise it misses something profoundly important about who we are, what it means to be a follower and disciple of Jesus Christ. And we need this to hold us when there are differences between us; we have to hold to the more in common than divides. That more in common is the Christ who gathers, who prays the we will be united.

This gathering is expressed in multiple directions. I’ve hinted at time and space, reaching back to the apostles and Christ, and being rooted here and now, in this place. As mediator and advocate Christ links heaven and earth, indeed the notion of his ‘Kingdom coming on earth as in heaven’, which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, is heaven meeting earth and changing it, transforming it. And so the third direction is outwards around us, in the world. And that links us directly with the theme of this year’s Christian Unity Week. The linking around us, beyond us, in the world, cries out for justice. We cannot pray the Kingdom and not do this, not hear this, not demand it. And so whenever there is hunger, there is oppression, there is enslavement and exploitation, the gathering Christ is present and demands that we act.

This theme of enslavement and liberation is a live issue for us in this city and we know it only too well. At a recent multi-agency meeting of the Communities and Cohesion Group to look at slavery in the city, I found myself in the company of the British Red Cross, Citizen’s Advice and two trafficked women, as well as representatives from the Police and Council. The stories were horrendous. One told of being used as a sex commodity, only to find that when she sought help her immigration status became the primary focus. She had been exploited and trafficked, so of course her status was not in order. There was nothing about her being here that was ‘in order’, and her case is on-going. The British Red Cross, who work in areas of conflict and crisis, have an active caseload in our city seeking to help those who are used and abused, who find themselves abandoned and destitute, vulnerable to a system that fails to join up the dots. There were too many stories of how official structures push people into deeper desperation. This means that the fear of escaping their captors is understandably very high, because the nightmare is likely to deepen – frying pans and fires come to mind.

Our response to slavery, exploitation and trafficking needs to be joined up. It starts with basic human compassion that recognizes and honours the inherent dignity of each human life. No one is to be treated in the appalling way those who suffer abuse are. This makes a report in The Guardian back in October all the more disturbing (‘Police failing to tackle slavery, says report’ 24th October 2017). The police are struggling to combat the cases, not least because of the ‘not our girls’ factor. Those involved don’t come from round here, so compassion is diminished, people don’t tell. “In one case, the inspectorate were told: ‘The public view is, they are not our girls’.” We could add ‘boys’ too, because exploitation involves all genders. It seems that we are back to the debates of the 18th century and William Wilberforce and former Dean of Peterborough Peter Peckard’s campaign to end slavery.

Peter Peckard was a former Dean of our Cathedral and is buried at the east end. In 1788 he wrote the abolitionist treatise “Am I not a man? And a brother?”. Peter Peckard’s argument was that those being enslaved are worth the same dignity as everyone else, because they share the same humanity. He therefore described the slave trade as a ‘vile trade in human misery’. It was a case he had to make, because while he was writing his essay another tract was published arguing the case for slavery! It sounds astounding today, but it was not a self-evident, and it would seem it is not so self-evident today either. ‘Not our girls’ is a warning shot to us, especially in times when what divides us seems to be emphasized over what brings us together. We have seen this in so many ways before when those who are ‘not us’ are treated in dehumanizing ways, not least in the Holocaust and other genocidal atrocities. On Thursday this coming week representatives of the city and other faiths will gather here to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, the ultimate in dehumanizing and of what happens when the cancer of ‘not our girls’ takes hold.

The economics of sexual exploitation are sobering. The profit margin is enormous. According to a report in The Guardian back in July, the day after the Church Calendar remembered William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson (31st July 2017) modern slavery is more profitable than it was in the age of empires. The return today is 25 to 30 times higher than it was for the slave traders of the 18th and 19th centuries. The average is around £3,000 but for sexual exploitation it is around £36,000. With an incentive like that it is not difficult to see how the unscrupulous and callous can be attracted to it. It remains a ‘vile trade in human misery’.

Peter Peckard concluded his essay by reminding the legislature that they have a duty of trust, to do no evil and to do good.   “The happiness and misery of their fellow creatures is put into their hands, and they are by all means in their power to remove the one and to promote the other. They ought religiously to establish Justice…” (p85). Compassion is the first step, where ‘not our girls’ becomes ‘our sisters and brothers’, and the official structures need to have the systemic means to put this into effect.

We gather with Christ as the centre because Christ gathers us and prays that we will be one. As he gathers us, so heaven touches earth and the requirement of his kingdom is that this reaches beyond us and around us. The cry of justice is fundamental to who the church is because Christ gathers all in all, is the fullness of all in all (Ephesians 1.23). It is he who prays that all will be one as he and the Father are one. The unity brings an inherent dignity which all people share. The shame of the ‘vile trade in human misery’ is a rejection of Christ and his call that all be one. Christian Unity Week confronts us with the challenge and demand for justice too.

Sermon preach for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 21st January 2017


About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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