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9/11

In a few short days we will be commemorating the 20th anniversary of ‘9/11’ – the horrific terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda on the USA on that fateful morning  of Tuesday 11 September 2001. The impact of that horrendous act has been sewn into our global and personal DNA by now. In the attacks 2,996 people were killed, 25,000 people injured, as well as 18,000 people impacted by the tons of toxic debris that were spread across New York by the collapse of the Twin Towers.

In response to al-Qaeda’s barbarism, the USA and its allies launched its ’War on Terror’ that included the  conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Syria amongst other places. That in turn led to 800,000 deaths and over 35 million people being displaced. All because of something that 19 men ( with the average age of just 24) did 20 years ago. It was and still is such a huge tragedy.

Most of us I suspect can recall where they were on ‘9/11’. At the time, I was working with the UK Armed Forces that day in a Government building somewhere in London. At the time it took me  back 10 years in my mind when a previous office that I worked in was bombed as part of the IRA’s Mortar Bomb attack in February 1991 when they tried to assassinate the then Prime Minister John Major and his entire Cabinet. Although we escaped unscathed, I can tell you that being bombed is not a nice experience and you never, ever forget that feeling  of fear and dread, and I guess at some level it lives on in you. ‘9/11’ brought that memory back to us as we stood arm in arm with our American cousins both in thought and deed.

From a Christian perspective how to respond to acts of terrorism and barbarity is never easy. For example, the first public response of President Joe Biden to the recent atrocity at Hamid Karzai Airport in Afghanistan where more than 100 people were murdered was robust and blunt: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay”.

As Christians of course we are called to be peacemakers and to forgive (“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” -Matthew 6:14-15). However, the practice of that when it becomes very personal can be a totally different thing.

I think of the ex-Anglican Priest Julie Nicholson whose 24 year old daughter was one of the 56 people murdered by Islamic terrorists as part of the ‘7/7’ bombing in London in 2005. She felt she had to quit her position in the church because she could not forgive the suicide bomber who killed her daughter. She argued that her faith did not measure up when things became so tough. She said: “I could stand up as an Anglican priest, with my dog collar on, and speak those words of forgiveness and reconciliation. And then I would go into my house, close the door and know I didn’t believe them”. So forgiveness is a really tough act to undertake but Jesus does command us to do it as difficult as it can be.

When 11th September comes round I suspect many will sit in silence, to pray for all those affected and we hope we are able to forgive.

What is a Christian?

From time to time, I get into a conversation, and someone asks me to define what a ‘Christian’ is, what we believe in and if we are different from other people. Now there are a number of ways of answering that but one of the best descriptions of who we are as a faith was also one of the earliest descriptions made of Christians.

In the 13th century, a manuscript was found which was entitled ‘Epistle to Diognetus’, believed to have been written by a Greek writer, but which has been dated as being written around 130AD-so it is regarded as one of the earliest Christian apologetics (arguments in favour of Christianity). We are not sure who the author was or who the ‘Diognetus’ referred to was, but what was written over 1,800 years ago is still as good a definition of what a Christian is or should be as anything else I know:

“ (Christians) dwell in their own countries but simply as sojourners (temporarily). As citizens they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do others, they begat children, but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table but not a common bed -they are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh”.

“They pass their days on earth but are citizens of heaven. They obey prescribed laws and at the same time, surpass the laws in their lives. They love all and are persecuted by all. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are reviled and yet they bless. When they do good they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment they rejoice because they are brought to life.”

A broad Church

A very familiar phrase is “We are a broad church” which secular organisations -especially political parties – regularly use to show  that an organisation can contain a wide range of beliefs, styles and opinions. The Christian faith is quite literally that. Around 2.5bn people are Christian (around a third of the World population in fact), and they are part of up to 45,000 separate denominations – quite an incredible figure. The vast majority belong to churches in the 5 main Christian families of Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern or Oriental Orthodoxy and Restorationism (including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Church of the Latter Day Saints/ Mormons etc).

Even here in our own parish, we have 5 separate churches who pray, worship, praise, honour and submit to Jesus and God not together but as similar but decidedly individual church families. Although it is sad that as a faith, Christianity has splintered from its early days, into congregations of different styles of worship and even belief, we should be strengthened by the knowledge that there are more things that bind us together than those that separate us.

Jesus, I suspect, would not be surprised at how His church has developed over the millennia, as it was surely to be expected when a faith such as Christianity happens that is truly open to ALL people- whatever their background, whatever they have done to themselves or others, no matter how knowledgeable or not they are, and irrespective of their own personal politics. Christians have always sought to understand who Jesus is, what that means to them individually and how they should worship, praise and live their lives according to Him.

Disagreements and debates amongst Christians are nothing new of course. They happened very early on in church history - St Paul disagreed that Gentile followers of ‘The Way’ had to follow Jewish law- that was a debate he had to win for spiritual and practical reasons, and it led the way for Christianity to become the world force it now is. In the 17th century the Puritans left England to go to Holland and America because Church of England reforms were not to them sufficient (sound familiar?) as they sought a literal belief in scripture with minimalistic worship without the rituals, crosses and church decorations that Anglicanism brought with it from Catholicism.

So, we are all Christians together – even if we worship in separate places and may believe different things about we see and honour Jesus and God.  

Being made welcome?

One of the attractions of becoming part of a church family is how you are welcomed in and can feel that you belong- my local church in Princes Risborough is usually very good and giving newcomers a very warm welcome where you can feel that you are wanted and are made to feel part of an extended family. Sadly however, that is not always the case with churches.

I was recently re-reading the excellent memoirs of the Rev Richard Coles -Vicar of Finedon (Northamptonshire) -who was talking about how he moved from his sex and drugs rock and roll lifestyle as one part of The Communards into becoming a Christian.

Richard was feeling what he called “twinges towards religion” and going through a deep personal crisis “I felt, in crisis an almost overpowering yearning for the feeling of peace that I had experienced sitting in chapel when I was young”. However, he had a problem: he was and is gay and as he remarked:

The Christian Church was the enemy; in a general sense, the defender of reaction, obfuscation and distributor of opium to the people; in a specific sense, the most implacable enemy of gay liberation, the most consistent in opposition to the liberalisation of law and culture and not a place of welcome”.

Thankfully, Richard took the plunge, and not only did he find his place as part of a church family ,but he later became Ordained and is, in my book, one of the most impressive and passionate defenders of the Christian faith in this country.

However, a point he makes that is sadly still the case today in some church communities is how unwelcome some people are made to feel in church (his quip is that “some of us were, and are, as welcome as ‘Typhoid Mary’ at a parish lunch”) just because they are different in some way – they might be Lesbian, Gay or Transgender, or they could be Black, Asian, Disabled or just ‘different’ from the majority of people.

At our church our mission statement is bold and clear: “Sharing the love of Christ with all”. That last word “all” is so important – we make no exceptions-no matter how different someone may be, we pledge to share Christ’s love with them. Like Jesus  himself who embraced people who were different (tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers etc), the whole church family needs to welcome with open arms, hearts and minds those people who perhaps we don’t understand, agree with, or can accept. We have to do that because Jesus demands that of us. So, Share your love. And do it now!