Dear Lord and father of mankind forgive our foolish ways

A terrible day. A European tragedy, which like a Greek tragedy will wreak its revenge on human folly and weakness

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We have detonated an historic political and economic ‘earthquake’, fuelled further a divided Britain that will trigger the breakup of the UK and the collapse of Europe as a continent of peace, solidarity and cooperation. Farage, Johnson and Gove  you have captured the hearts and minds of the masses. Your ‘Independence Day’ and your vision of Britain is so alien to the nature of God and the ways of his kingdom.

Great Britain has become Grate Britain which will now grate, shred, pulverize, crush, crumble and fragment our nation and Europe.

This is a very sad day with fearful consequences in the years to come.

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In Danger of “Nailing our Colours to the Myth”

I watched with disgust and impending fear the news from Marseille, where scenes of fighting, mob violence and a disregard for any respect for the rule of law is evidenced on the streets of the city. I am ashamed and disgusted by the incendiary behaviour of a small group of thugs from Britain and well orchestrated, armed gangs from Russia, egged on by provoked local French youths. Questions will be asked about how the French police authorities have responded but the crowds of English fans, caught on camera singing anti-German songs and chanting “sit down if you hate the French“, “Fuck off Europe, were all voting out” and “Isis, Isis, where are you?” reveal abhorrent violent behaviour undergirded by ignorance and racism.

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My fear is not because of an isolated incident connected to football hooligans but by the rise of nationalism, extremist policies and the growth of far right and far left groups, all of whom are working towards breaking up Europe. Nigel Farage, gloating at the prospects of a Brexit victory, declared triumphantly this morning that “the European union is breaking apart”. It is Nigel and the future politically belongs to people like you and other extremist groups across the Continent. You have masterminded a superb campaign that has exposed and exploited the fault line in the Conservative party and appealed to those former Labour supporters who have felt the impact of the Government’s austerity measures, and by your clever rhetoric, have decided that the problem lies with too many immigrants.

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The reason why I’ve spent much time recently praying and thinking and latterly speaking and writing on the European referendum is because I believe that it is the single most important political decision that our country has made in my lifetime.

The decision that Britain will take on June 23rd will impact the lives of millions of people, not only in this country but across Europe and the wider world. I have campaigned not for myself but in the interests of my family, friends and people across this great continent. I will be voting in the referendum, very mindful of the legacy that will be left from this referendum for my children and grandchildren. If, as I fear, Britain will vote to leave the European Union, I want my children and grandchildren, my many friends here and across Europe to know that I voted to remain in the EU and I did so, not because I am uncritical of what it has become but because I did not want to trigger a movement that would see the collapse of something that has held the continent together in peace for over 60 years.

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We have experienced the longest period of peace in Europe since the Roman Empire and I cannot believe that Britain, which at its best, exhibits tolerance, moderation, respect and decency and has used its immeasurable powers to influence for good the wider world in many ways, is now on the brink of being the nation that triggers the breakup that I believe will cause untold damage to Europe and the wider world. I listened to the Queen on Sunday, who, in her short speech at The Patrons Lunch said, I hope these happy celebrations will remind us of the many benefits that can flow when people come together for the common purpose, as family friends and neighbours. If only that could be rediscovered as we think of our relationship with our European neighbours.

I have argued previously about my distaste for referendums. This one was not called in the spirit of honest democratic engagement but as an attempt to placate anti-European wings of the Conservative party and win back those who were leaving the party and joining UKIP. As Matthew Parris said recently, David Cameron will rue the day he resorted to plebiscites to settle big issues. They’re a tool of demagogues and dictators. Hitler and Goebbels used this to influence public opinion back in the 1930s and I believe the same dynamic is at work today and will probably work for the Brexit campaign. Referendums are used to coerce and manipulate public opinion. They are seldom fought on facts and the naïve, if not stupid idea that it is easy to glean the facts from either side of the argument in this campaign is ludicrous. When I hear people say, “If they would just give us the facts” it reveals how lacking in understanding and at times how ignorant we are. The issue cannot be explained in a soundbite sentence. The referendum raises a whole host of complex issues that need careful and discerning consideration.

People also say they are sick of the soundbites but politicians know that those soundbites, those cliched headlines, even if they are exaggerated or are blatantly untrue, they work and they shape and influence public opinion. The Brexit campaign has been masterful, capturing public opinion, overwhelmingly supported by large sections of the media, playing on the fears, manipulating half-truths, distorting information and increasingly, blatantly lying.

Referendums are rarely fought on facts but on buzz phrases and soundbites. I heard on the radio this this week that the Sun’s front page headline read, BeLeave in Britain…The Sun says… Vote to Quit EU on June 23. It reminded me of that notorious headline that appeared on the Sun’s front page on the morning after 1992 general election, It’s The Sun Wot Won It. It is regularly cited in debates on the influence of the press over politicians and election results and has since become a political catch catch phrase  in the UK.

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Those who are leading the Remain campaign are accused of fear mongering. They are guilty of exaggeration. But the scurrilous claims and at times blatant lying of the Brexit campaign is quite extraordinary. Despite every verifiable independent evidence to the contrary, their battle bus and their strap line remains, The UK sends over £350 million to the EU every week. By any stretch of the imagination, this simply isn’t true. It is a lie but it will remain on the bus and in the campaign because it is working. When you start to talk about such huge sums of money it’s a clever way of manipulating uninformed public opinion.

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Break the actual figures down and you discover that the amount of money that Britain pays into the EU equates to £4.40 per week per person, the equivalent of a cup of coffee and a cake. I was speaking in centre in Yorkshire last week and somebody came up to me and asked what, if anything did the EU do for the North of England. Well, for a start, the North East of England receives more money from the EU then it contributes to the EU. Why? Because we are poorer economic region. Our industries, the arts and things like the Angel of the North, the Sage, our national parks, universities and the very centre where I was speaking, have all received funding from the EU. It’s the principle of the redistribution of wealth, to help the weaker and poorer parts of the continent to grow and develop. It’s a lifeline to the poorer countries of southern Europe. The idea but if we came out of Europe that the north-east would be better off could not be further from the truth. Levels of poverty will increase and with all the attendant pressures and problems that would ensue.

In percentage terms, the UK pays less than 1% of its national GDP to the European Union. They won’t tell you that in the media. You have to search for that in the Office for National Statistics. Such facts do not get told and an uninformed public is swayed by the headline figures, oblivious to the truth. The same is true on the issue of immigration. We are told that immigration is a drain on our economy when the truth is immigration brings more money into the country, by people working and paying taxes, than it takes from our national budget. Immigration is an incredibly challenging issue and its complexity means that there are no easy answers. Yet again, tabloid headlines will persuaded an uninformed public and the momentum is now so strong in Brexit’s favour that the likely outcome is as I fear a vote to leave the EU. Playing the immigration card, preying on people’s fears, fuelling their concerns, allied to ignorance, is clearly working, as current polls reveal.

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Another card that is being played is that the EU is undemocratic. This is not true. We elect members to the European Parliament. Elected members, on our behalf, appoint committees to work on all aspects of European legislation that has to pass through the European Parliament, which has democratically elected members and each member state has the right to veto. The EU is based on the rule of law. Everything it does is founded on treaties, voluntarily and democratically agreed by its member states. It is governed by the principle of representative democracy, with citizens directly represented in the European Parliament and each member state is represented in the European Council. This council is composed of the heads of state or government of the European Union countries, the President of the European Commission, who was elected into office by those heads of state of each government, including our own Prime Minister. Then there is the Council of the EU, whose members are drawn from government ministers from each European country, according to the policy area that is being addressed. Each EU country holds the presidency on a six-month rotating basis. Of course, there is great need of reform within the EU but let’s not be hypocritical or tell lies that suggest that the European Union is totally undemocratic, with unelected members deciding on our future. They are elected members of the European Parliament. Let’s first, take the log out of our own eyes and remember that we have just under 800 unelected people in the House of Lords!

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It’s claimed that this is our last chance to remove ourselves from the undemocratic Brussels machine . Well let’s just be reminded of some facts; only 13% of the laws that were passed in Britain in 2014 came from Brussels and those decisions were made within the European Parliament, where Britain was represented. The United Kingdom has 73 elected members of the European Parliament, (9%, which is not an unsubstantial number. Germany has 96 MEPs and France 74). How tragic that UKIP, avowedly anti-EU is representing Britain because it is a substantial part of the UK democratically elected group of members within the European Parliament. Acting as an irritant, blocking progress in negotiations on policy-making, we are less able to shape and influence for good the European Union and play our part in reforming it and calling it back to its original vision and purpose, with renegades and opponents of the EU, elected allegedly to serve but in reality, acting as stumbling blocks and the disturbers and disrupters of progress. UKIP has failed in previous years to gain any real ground within British politics but a pincer movement has engineered them from being a small but significant voice representing the UK in the European Parliament to a movement that is now about to gain significant ground in British politics, not through a General Election, (where they gained one seat!) but through the misguided opportunity that the Referendum has provided.

I believe history will look back on the decision that we are about to take and that my children and children’s children will suffer the consequences of giving power to people like Nigel Farage whose purpose in politics has been to break up the European Union. He will rejoice, as will Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and other Brexit leaders and they will be joined in their celebrations by Marine Le Pen and her National Front Party in France, Geert Wilders and his PVV Party in Holland and President Putin who will be getting the champagne ready for when we vote to come out of the European Union and signal the domino effect that will see its collapse in the coming years.

Latest intelligence reports confirm the fact that Putin is building a ‘super army’ in preparing for ‘large scale” conflict as NATO struggles to curtail his plans. Putin wants to bring the former Soviet States back into the fold to create and leave a legacy of a ‘Greater Russia‘. Despite the poor state of the Russian economy Putin is upgrading Russia’s conventional military and is mobilising the army, navy and air force for war. No wonder Britain has been asked to provide more troops for the 4000 strong NATO defence force based in Poland.

It might be considered scaremongering to say that Britain and Europe will be stronger together than alone but I believe but it is very true and any fragmentation across the continent will only encourage Putin in his ambitious, totally undemocratic plans.

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His control over Russia is extraordinary and he, like Hitler and his Russian predecessors, manipulate and control public opinion, not least by controlling the media. As is true in Russia today, so there are aspects of the referendum debate here where telling the truth has disappeared and people have succumbed like those that the Apostle Paul warned about in his letter to Timothy, imposters who will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. For example, it doesn’t matter that the overwhelming evidence, from all quarters, from independent financial institutions, leading experts in the field of economics, world leaders, leading academics, and, in an unusual stance, church leaders like the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Bishop of Durham, all come out in favour of the Remain campaign. Justin Welby said that he would be voting to remain within the European Union, saying that Britain should be a country for the world.

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Warning against succumbing to our worst instincts” over immigration, he clashed publicly with Nigel Farage over what he says are UKIP’s attempts to stir up racism. Welby said he would vote to stay in to avert economic damage that could harm the poorest. He said that “a vision of peace and reconciliation, of being “builders of bridges, not barriers” was one of the principles at the heart of the country’s Christian heritage. The EU he said “needs renewed vision; major reforms”, but remained in part responsible for the maintenance of peace on the continent since 1945, which was “the greatest cause for thankfulness that we can imagine”.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury said, My fear is that if Britain steps back from Europe it will be stepping back from its own heritage. In Britain we have not done too badly in sharing with and learning from others. In talking in isolationist terms we run the risk of nailing our colours to a myth.’

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I believe that we are about to trigger a movement that could see the breakup of the EU and with it the consequences of conflict, a widening gap between rich and poor and an inevitable outbreak of war in some part of Europe in the ensuing years.

I am fearful by what I see played out in the Referendum and the consequences of us leaving the EU.

For an insightful comment on the subject of religious liberty and the Referendum see Steve Holmes blog: http://steverholmes.org.uk/blog/?p=7622

Lord have mercy upon us.

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Europe: Yours Concerned

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In a few weeks time Britain will go to the polls to vote in the European referendum. As disciples of Christ, called to live out the gospel by the values of God’s kingdom, it is imperative that we think and pray about the issues facing society, including those that the Referendum raises.

I have for many years had an interest in Europe and have enjoyed the opportunity and privilege of travelling extensively throughout the Continent, not least through my work as one of the leaders of the Northumbria Community. It is through reading, travelling, meeting and many conversations with friends and associates across the continent, both in the East and in the West, that I carry a real concern for Europe at this time. I have also been influenced and inspired by the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose writings have informed us as a community and many others exploring what it means to live faithfully as disciples of Christ in a changing world. Bonhoeffer, observing happenings in his native Germany in the 1930s became increasingly disturbed by the trends, attitudes and policies that were being taken, notably under the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.

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Like Bonhoeffer I carry similar concerns for what I see happening across Europe and particularly here in Britain, where I fear that our attitudes and actions may potentially fuel the fires of nationalism and contribute to the fragmentation and breakup of relationships across the continent that will lead inevitably to conflict and war. What follows is unapologetically long and I guess will only appeal to those who see the seriousness of what is happening with the Referendum. For others, wait for the next blog, which will not be as long. I have engaged in lots of conversations and been asked to speak on a few of occasions about the Referendum and in order to do the subject justice, I have spent a good deal of time praying, reading and reflecting and what follows is some of my findings: I am incredibly disappointed by the lead that politicians of all parties have given on the debate that we should be having about the Referendum. It seems as though everything hinges on economics and how better or worse off financially and materially we will be if we stay in or leave the EU. Economics governs and influences so much of life but I believe there are greater and more significant questions to ask, such as, what kind of nation, continent, society do we want to be. What values do we want to build civic society upon? What legacy of civilisation do we want to bequeath to our children and our children’s children? These things seem absent from the current debate. When the current debate is regarded as simply a matter of economic and political issues we need to be reminded that Europe is so much more. Europe is not just a political creation or economic entity. As the historian Christopher Dawson wrote: Europe is a society of peoples who shared the same faith and the same moral values. The European nations are parts of a wider spiritual society, and it is only by studying the nature of the whole, that we can understand the functions of the parts.

It is a historic cultural reality that Europe has emerged from the idea of Christendom, a culture or assembly of cultures rooted in the Judaeo-Christian values. The term ‘Europe’ derives its origins from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus and while there’s no doubt that pre-Christian civilisations, like the Greek and Roman Empire contributed to Europe’s intellectual, cultural and political inheritance, it was Christianity which brought together the disparate tribes of Europe. It was the Christian faith that provided the foundation and a worldview that paved the way for the pursuit of unity and democracy across the continent. European Christendom in the Middle Ages provided the historical ‘matrix’ from which separate ‘elements’ or nation states arose.

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It was appreciating that these European foundations were essentially Christian that inspired the founding fathers of the European Union. Most people, including the majority of Christians, have no idea that the European Union was founded by Christians. A key figure was the Luxembourg born French statesman Robert Schuman. He was a Christian Democrat, an independent political thinker and activist. He served office twice as the Prime Minister of France, as Minister of Finance and also as its Foreign Minister. He was instrumental in building post-war European and transatlantic relationships and was involved in establishing things like the Council of Europe, NATO and principally the European Union. Together with other Christian statesman; Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor of post-war Germany and Alcide di Gasperi the Prime Minister of Italy, they laid the foundations of the EU. With the horrific experience of two world wars they appealed to the recovery of Europe’s Christian roots. The context for what was to be known as the Schumann Declaration, was the aftermath of the Second World War. Following the deaths of millions of people and the devastation of a continent wracked by war, the climate was one of hatred, bitterness, mistrust and suspicion, following Hitler’s defeat. Germany had been defeated but the task of rebuilding a devastated and divided Europe now presented itself. How was it to be done and upon what foundations and with whose values? What could be put in place, not only to secure peace and begin a rebuilding process but something that would break the seemingly inevitable cycles of conflict and war among European Nations? A small committed group of statesman, who shared common values, the majority of whom were Christians, laid the essential foundations for Europe’s future. They believed that a renewal of Christian values in a way fully compatible with modern democracy, personal freedoms and human rights could be a great force for healing the self-inflicted wounds of a battered war torn continent. Highly respected and known for his integrity and humility was Schuman. A devout Catholic, in May 1950, he proposed a bold plan to bring together the people of Europe in peace and solidarity.

We are called to bethink ourselves of the Christian basics of Europe by forming a democratic model of governance which through reconciliation develops into a community of peoples in freedom, equality, solidarity and peace and which is deeply rooted in Christian basic valuesSchuman Declaration

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In the current debate on the European referendum, this remarkable, visionary declaration, which paved the way for the founding of the European Union, is forgotten. Schuman believed that the Judaeo-Christian values which had laid the original foundations for Europe during the first millennium of the Christian era, notably through the influence of Celtic monks and missionaries, provided the inspiration for the shaping of modern Europe after the Second World War. Decades of attempts to reshape Europe with secular rationalism, nationalism and fascism had confirmed his conviction that Europe’s future depended on the recovery of Christian values which would shape political and economic realities. Europe, in defeating Hitler and his fascist worldview was facing another threat, the emerging strength of communism with the Soviet Union in empirical mode. A third world war was a frightening prospect. Europe needed to stand together against the potent threat of the Soviet Union.

The peace and prosperity of Europe since the Second World War is not simply the consequence of Hitler’s downfall but I believe, it came about through Schumann’s declaration and the founding of the European Union, together with the incredible generosity of American economic aid through the Marshall plan and the trans–Atlantic partnership of NATO. Thank God for the generosity of the United States to Europe following the Second World War. It was interesting to hear Barack Obama last week when he was over here in England, now a ‘free man’, able to speak his mind, warning Britain, not only of the economic consequences but the damage to European nations and also how transatlantic relations would suffer, should Britain leave the EU. Mindful of the horrors of the Second World War, in which thousands of Americans lost their lives helping Britain and its allies defeat Hitler, America saw that Europe was on the brink of economic collapse Industrial capacity had been wiped out. Trade had ceased. People were starving, many were destitute and given such struggles were liable to turn to communism. America, seeing the potential damage to Europe from communism, gave aid and strengthened the recovery of the continent. The 1953 London Conference together with the Marshall plan saw the burden of debt lifted and what today would be over $150 billion of American aid poured in to rebuild economic capacity, enabling countries throughout Europe to trade with each other and stand firm together against the threat from Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The Marshall plan and NATO emerged in the late 1940s following the war and helped to propel Europe towards peace and prosperity but were able to do so because of the moral climate of forgiveness, reconciliation and cooperation that Schuman and his Christian colleagues created with the establishing of the European Union. Another of the architects of the European Union, Jean Monnet declared at an early stage that, we are not forming coalitions between states, but unity among peoples. The aim of the Union was to make future wars between member states impossible by eliminating competition for natural resources through the common market, and bringing about mutually beneficial economic relationships. Later on, the monetary union, the creation of the Euro was designed to make this even easier and bring members closer together still. The flow of money from one country to another was supposed to be used as a kind of social glue to align the interests of members and prevent future tensions erupting. To these ends, the EU’s single market aims to guarantee ‘four freedoms’ between its 28 member states:Freedom of movement, for people to live, work, study and travel without restriction.Free of movement of capital to facilitate investment between member countries. Free movement of services, enabling the cross-border delivery of services. Free movement of goods, with no internal customs barriers and common customs policy towards other countries.

Britain’s involvement in the European Community has always been controversial. Ever since closer integration was first proposed it has been a source of contention. Britain declined membership of the EEC when it was first formed in 1957 but eventually joined in 1973. A referendum in 1975 showed an overwhelming, 67% of the electorate approving our membership.  Scepticism grew in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher and increased further with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 under John Major. It was this treaty that brought about closer integration and the handing over of some substantial powers to the new European Union, despite concessions being granted to the UK to keep the pound. From 1997 Tony Blair sought closer integration still, though with a stronger economy, wider support for joining the Euro was limited. Bitter divisions have ensued in recent years, most recently being brought to the surface by the euro crisis. The current climate of suspicion, mistrust and bitter divisions has provided the context for the rise of Eurosceptic parties like UKIP here in Britain and their counterparts, mainly of the far right and a few to the far left politically, across the Continent.

The Vote Leave campaign raises the issue of money that the UK pays for its EU membership and the potential benefits of recovering that if we were to leave stop it is said that we will regain control and the money that we spend can be better spent on our own priorities as a nation, e.g. the NHS.European bureaucracy is commonly cited is costly and time-consuming, over yielding in its demands and unnecessary rules and regulations. Anti-EU arguments include; saving money spent on membership of the EU, freedom from red tape, bureaucracy and over regulation and the ability to control our own borders and prevent unlimited immigration.

The Britain Stronger in Europe campaign on the other hand, maintain that our economic prospects and prosperity are more secure by staying in the EU. Richard Branson, the business magnate says: Being part of Europe means that we are part of one of the biggest trading blocs in the world. So the bottom line is we are much stronger being part of Europe than being an island to ourselves. It is said that the benefits of being ‘in’ are about a stronger economy, stronger security, stronger leadership and greater influence on the world stage. Other pro EU campaigners argue that issues of national defence and fighting organised crime are better addressed as part of a larger body, rather than in isolation. Leaving the EU could “undermine our ability to protect ourselves,” two former senior British intelligence officers have said. Former MI6 head Sir John Sawyers and Lord Evans, who ran MI5 until 2013, argued the EU is essential for sharing data and counter-terrorism, which they describe as a “team game”. Writing in the Sunday Times, the intelligence chiefs claim Brexit could precipitate “instability on the Continent”, worsening the existing “economic difficulties, the migration crisis and a resurgent Russia“.

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Overlapping but distinct from monetary issues is the question of immigration. Critics argue that the free movement of people within the EU has led to unsustainable levels of immigration. Brexit campaigners say that the only way to regain control of our borders is for Britain to leave the EU. There is no doubt that the European refugee crisis has brought new attention to this issue. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants have crossed into Europe in the last two years, a large proportion from war-torn Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. This has put considerable pressures upon the European Union. The European Parliament has voted in favour of a quota system that distributes asylum seekers fairly across all the member states. The migrant crisis is a highly emotive issue and has always formed a key part of the argument against EU membership.

The migrant crisis has revealed what values truly drive our political leaders and the governments of European nations. I have written in my previous blog, whilst travelling in Belgium and the Netherlands about the different responses that have been made and my being both ashamed and appalled by my own governments attitude in response to the refugee crisis. The Bible says little about border controls or immigration but it does say a lot about migrants and refugees. Where we tend to categorise migrants and refugees in terms of their reason for entry; work, study, family connections or seeking asylum, the Bible looks at the issue from the point of view of need and intention. There are broadly only two categories of migrant found in the Bible: the ger and the nokri. The ger is typically described as someone who lives on the edges of society, potentially marginalised and vulnerable. They may broadly correspond to today’s refugee or low-paid economic migrant. They are people who have no family or land of their own, who live hand-to-mouth and are reliant on the goodwill of native Israelites. They are frequently mentioned alongside other marginalised and homeless exiles who need extra protection. He has shown you what is good. What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God, (Micah 6:8).

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Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other, (Zechariah 7:9-10). The ger was generally willing to integrate into Israeli life, and in almost every respect was to be treated the same as a native Israelite, (Leviticus 19:34). The Israelites were constantly reminded to look after the alien and stranger in their midst, remembering that they were once foreigners in Egypt’ (Exodus 22:21).

Then there was the nokri, someone who was culturally and financially independent, whose allegiances lay outside of Israel and who potentially represented a threat to its culture and religion. There are numerous warnings about nokri people and their ‘gods’ leading the Israelites astray, often in combination, as was the case with Solomon’s many foreign wives (1 Kings 11). The Bible is far more wary of the nokri, for these reasons, though welcomes those who genuinely want to become a part of Israel, particularly after the exile. Analogous groups today might include the higher-paid and temporary economic migrant, those who refuse to integrate in any meaningful way, and arguably even wealthy individuals and corporations who domicile themselves outside of the UK to avoid paying tax. It would to my mind, include many of the Russian, Chinese, Indian and other foreign influences and investors, who certainly do not adhere or care about the values that have shaped Europe, the Judaeo-Christian tradition that has shaped the European Continent.

Whilst the present discussions tend to focus on the economic benefits, or otherwise, of allowing different categories of migrants into the country, the Bible is more concerned about whether someone from another country is willing to integrate with Israelite culture and religion and whether they are a threat to the country’s identity. It is also concerned to ensure that the poor and vulnerable are protected, rather than those who are already able to help themselves.                                                                                                                                    Again there is an irony in that those who want us to come out of the EU will probably open the floodgates to more unregulated foreign influences that will more seriously erode any British values.

I was asked to speak at a session during a recent denominational assembly on the subject of the European Referendum, during which I shared some of the biblical insights on the issues it raises. The Bible has a lot to say about the concentration of political and financial power. It also sheds light on the debate about centralisation and subsidiarity.

The Bible warns of the dangers of centralised power. The epitome of this is seen in the story of Egypt, under whose highly centralised and bureaucratic rule, the Israelites spent many years in slavery. Centralised power almost inevitably is distant, unaccountable and can lead to misunderstanding, injustices and abuse. I see this played out in our own British democracy. Government, led by the ‘Westminster set’, are to my mind, oblivious or insensitive to the needs of the vast majority of people in the regions. I have been back and forth to London over the last couple of months and people look at me incredulously when I say that most property prices in the north-east have remained static or have fallen over the last 10 years. I live in a beautiful place but businesses on are high street are going to the wall, redundancies are common place and the impact of government cutbacks and austerity measures are felt keenly and adversely affect thousands of people, who are mainly unnoticed and uncared for. Government, when it is removed from the realities of the ordinary people whom it serves, because it is distant, inevitably leads to poor consequences.

The risks inherent in any concentration of power meant that the people of Israel were commanded to take a different approach in their own political structures. After they had been rescued from their slavery in Egypt and they entered the Promised land, Israel existed as a loose confederation of tribes, which operated fairly independently and came together under the leadership of an individual only when circumstances demanded it, such as times of war. It’s salutary to be reminded that when Israel demanded a king so that they would have a leader like the surrounding nations, this was considered a rejection of God’s authority and a development that would pave the way for higher taxes, conscription and servitude, (1 Samuel 8). Instead of a centralised top-down government that was seen in Egypt and Assyria, the Bible reflects the idea that decisions should be taken at the lowest, most local level possible. Decisions should be taken by those who are affected by them, by people who understand their context best. Decisions were only passed up to a higher, more central authority if they could not be better addressed at a lower level.

The idea of subsidiarity is found in Catholic social teaching which reflects that biblical approach to government as one as large as necessary, as small as possible.

The principal of subsidiarity is built into the EU. It is established in article 5 of the Treaty of the European Union: Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level. What has happened however and which is contributed to arguably the most contentious aspect of the U.K.’s relationship with Europe has been the transference of increasing powers to the European Union and Brussels. This is seen as undermining of Britain’s sovereignty and it’s argued, the ability for us in the UK to make decisions which reflect our own national interests. A common complaint is that the legislation that comes out of Brussels imposes significant burdens on UK citizens and businesses. I recognise this but think it is foolish to suggest that coming out of the EU would deliver us from burdening bureaucracy. We have become so bureaucratic, attributed as much by the poisonous and pervasive litigation culture that has come come not from Europe but from America. We are ruled in issues of governence now by fear, mistrust and suspicion and so many of the policies and practices in the workplace and society generally are determined by having to protect against someone suing you.                                                                        Thank God we don’t have the right to bear arms year in the UK so we haven’t resorted to resolving conflict by shooting people but we’ve certainly bought into the litigation, ‘I’ll sue you’ culture from the States. In the debate about subsidiarity, the risk of undermining each country’s autonomy can be seen most clearly in the recent experience of Greece. The terms of the bailout which has allowed Greece to avoid bankruptcy and remain in the EU has been decreed by the European Union. Conditions imposed upon Greece that were not agreed by the Greek people or its leaders but by EU officials and creditors.

There was a deep irony being played out in the negotiations and history was forgotten. How ironic that it was Greece who helped post-war Germany to recover economically and was now being crippled by Germany and other EU nations. Surely what was good for Germany in 1953 should have been good for Greece in 2015, i.e. debt relief and financial investment not crippling bailout measures. The Greek finance minister at the London Conference of 1953 signed a treaty agreeing to cancel 50% of Germany’s debt. A biblical perspective on the issue of debt was in part realised at this time; that any loans granted was supposed to be made without interest, (Deuteronomy 23:19) because the express purpose of the loan was to enable economic independence, which allowed the recipient to get back on their feet stop the creditor was not supposed to profit financially from the arrangements. Wow, is that so different from the current practices of the money markets! Charging interest was seen as a form of injustice, a way that the rich extract money from the already poor. The rich rule over the poor and the borrower is slave to the lender, Proverbs 22:7 and the text reminds us that debt almost inevitably involves a relationship of power and is a challenge to remember that in God’s eyes there are obligations on the lender as well as the borrower in any loan transaction.

Greater and closer the integration with Europe has led to member countries feeling they are unable to determine their own laws and policies. This is a real and valid concern as the centralisation of power leads to distant, detached decision-making at best. At worst, it is to dominant and coercive and harmful to those who it is supposed to serve. This accusation could certainly be levelled against some of the EU legislation, as it could some of the policies that have been imposed by our own Government.

Brexit campaigners argue that by coming out of the EU it will enable us to regain our sovereignty. That I believe is pure fantasy. As a nation, with the encouragement of successive governments, we have already given away our sovereignty to a whole variety of external powers, including the EU, over many years. Huge, foreign-owned multinationals determine levels of investment and jobs in this country as a consequence of decades of British nationalised tuitions and businesses being privatised or sold to the highest bidder. Think of all the public utilities, water, gas and electricity, once owned by the British public, just as, coal mines, steelworks, railways and other means of public transport were nationalised. Under Margaret Thatcher and the dogma that drove her government’s policies, the country’s public utilities, together with giving people the right to buy publicly owned council houses, were sold off in the pursuit of privatisation, deregulation and the notion of a free-market economy was let loose. Thatcherite policies allied to the and the determination to demolish the power of trade unionism, whose abusive powers and behaviour in the late 1970’s gave the perfect excuse for them to be taken on and defeated in the 1980s, raised funds for the British economy but in so doing eroded any sense of subsidiarity and sovereignty.

I found it a deep irony that during the Union Jack, flag-waving euphoria and the singing of Rule Britannia that accompanied the celebrations following our defeat of the Argentinians in the Falklands war, that at the same time, the UK government was quite prepared to sell off the country silver to foreign buyers. It is big business, foreign investors, the money markets that influence and determine so much of our life and work in Britain. Foreign companies acquired over £70billion worth of British enterprises in 2014. Under Margaret Thatcher’s Government, legislation made it easier for foreign investors to snap up British companies. It won’t be long before the vast majority of the British working public will be working for foreign companies. We are prey to overseas predators, whose money is welcomed but whose values are never questioned . The removal of regulations on overseas investment by former Tory Chancellor Geoffrey Howe in 1979 has ushered in an era of British companies being sold off with little or no restraint. A raft of restrictive old practices in the City of London have been cast aside over the past thirty years allowing foreign banks to flood into the City and exert unchecked pressure and influence, far more undemocratic than those posed by us being in the EU.

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Take for example the situation last year when Ed Miliband proposed a freeze on gas and electricity bills for every home and business in the UK for 20 months if he won the election, cutting annual bills by £120 a year on average. The media went ballistic, they saw it as ‘state intervention’ in the free-market economy. Foreign owners and shareholders of utility companies waged war on Miliband and his proposals, lobbied the government, threatened and cajoled and were given guarantees that such a proposal would not feature in any Conservative manifesto. And who are these utility companies owned by? Americans, French and other nationalities, with many of their shareholders having little or no interest in how Britain is doing as a nation. What matters to them are profits and a return on their investment. Take for example Northumbria Water. It sounds lovely doesn’t? ‘Northumbria Water’. It sounds nice and local but when you pay the bill you may be surprised to learn that the profits leach away to the other side of the world. Like nearly every other one of our public utilities, it is foreign-owned. Northumbria Water is owned by the Hong Kong-based billionaire Li Ka-Shing, one of the richest men in the world, who has made more than £630 million profit in the last two years. He also owns Superdrug and the 3 mobile network. The idea that coming out of Europe will regain our sovereignty and our ability to determine our own affairs is ludicrous. The UK government provides a free market environment which has sold off our own natural resources and the deregulation and legal and financial loopholes that we continue to allow and in some ways encourage people like Li Ka-Shing to be able to operate their companies like Northumbria Water and pay less than 10% corporation tax. It is scandalous. It is wicked and promotes and rewards the rich at the expense of the poor. Where now is the voice of the prophet Amos, who in God’s name would have utterly denounced such practices?

It is an illusion to believe that leaving Europe will somehow restore national sovereignty when our utilities, including our energy security is largely dependent on French and Chinese governments deciding whether or not things like nuclear power stations are built. British steel’s future is determined by Indian entrepreneurs and German and Japanese companies will decide the long term health of our car manufacturing industries. Decades of privatisation of the public sector has seen outsourcing contracts, (look at what’s happening currently in the NHS) to US Corporations. American companies have staff living, working, lobbying government and courting health executives here in the UK, ready to invest and offer ‘improvements’ to the NHS. Of course they are not interested in the nonprofitable areas of healthcare. They are working for shareholders, for whom profit is the critical thing. These things are a much greater threat to British sovereignty than EU regulations and bureaucracy.

There is also the issue of the escalating and damaging problem of housing, particularly in London and the south-east. So many properties in central London are now owned by Russians, Chinese and Saudi Arabians. Vast tracts of land throughout Britain are being bought by the Chinese. How ridiculous to think that the EU and migrant workers are a threat to British sovereignty when under our noses we have thrown open the doors to nations whose values and ways of life and work are so alien to the European values that are rooted in Christendom. The power and influence of US corporations, China, India and Russia will not be diminished by coming out of the EU. Nor will the government find itself in a stronger position to persuade anyone to pay a fair contribution towards our civil society through taxation. Ironically, it is the EU that has taken measures to try and stop our markets being flooded by cheap and inferior imports from China. Legislation worked on by the ‘bureaucrats’ in Brussels, at the instigation of elected members of the European Parliament, legislation, that our own UK government has chosen to ignore. So much for being dictated to. A bit of protectionist policy on foreign imports proposed by the EU might have helped to prevent the closure of steel works on Teesside and remove the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over Port Talbot and Scunthorpe. We have exported our sovereignty worldwide through globalisation since the 1980s. As one commentator has put it; The Brexit illusion but fog in the channel will cut off the continent from the mainland will do nothing to change that reality.

A Unease over Referendums

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I confess also that I have a great unease about the use of referendums. Historians, political analysts and psephologists (people who study and analyse elections) know only too well that Goebbels and Hitler used referendums to shape public opinion in Germany in the 1930s. It was Josef Goebbels who said that, the most effective form of persuasion is when you are not aware you are being persuaded.

I am fascinated and intrigued by Social Identity Theory. This relates to a person’s sense of who they are based on their affiliation with a group. The theory was put forward by the psychologist Henry Tajfel, who was best known for his pioneering work on prejudice and social identity. He highlighted the idea that people gain their sense of identity and self-esteem from the groups that they associated with. e.g. social class, family, football team, church, etc. Such groups give a sense of social identity, a sense of belonging to the social world. He said that we increase our self-image by enhancing the status of the group to which we belong. So, when I go to watch Middlesbrough play football and we are doing well, I will often hear the crowd singing, “We’re the finest team in football, the world has ever seen” (how deluded can you get!). More seriously, we can increase our self-image by enhancing the status of our nation, “Britain is the best in the world“. If you take that on board then consciously and unconsciously we start discriminating and holding prejudicial views against others, that is, the group we don’t belong to. For example, think of some of the things that some Brits say about the French, or Scots say about the English and vice versa. What particularly concerns me and I listen or observe it nearly every day in the run-up to the European referendum is the anti-European language and attitudes that are being expressed, against the Germans, French, Brussels, the bureaucrats. ‘We are British‘ and what I sense is a powerful and very persuasive mixing up of what it means to be patriotic and nationalistic. I think what often gets confused is patriotism and nationalism. I am quite patriotic, (well actually I am quite confused about who I should be shouting for when the Home Nations play one another in the rugby, with historic family allegiances coming from three different nations!) but being patriotic is different from being nationalistic. It is I believe possible to be patriotic and not nationalist.

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Social identity theory observes the power of creating self-esteem and identity by enhancing the status of the group to which we belong. It inevitably leads to a sectarian attitude of, “us” and “them”. We categorise people. It is known as the in-group (us) and out-group (them). Social identity theory states that the in group will discriminate against the out group to enhance their self-image. This is what is going on in Britain currently. The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that those who belong to the in group will seek to find negative aspects of an out group, thus enhancing their self-image. The attitudes and language, now permeating the conversations and discussions and debates about the Referendum are creating prejudiced views which feed racism, breeds sectarianism, nurtures division and fosters suspicion, mistrust, fear, conflict and provides the context for violence and war.

Tajfel said that by stereotyping, (putting people into groups and categories) is based on normal cognitive processes, the tendency to group things together. By doing so we tend to exaggerate the differences between groups and the similarities of things in the same group. The consequence of such cognitive behaviour is that we see the group to which we belong, (the in-group) as being different from the others, (the out-group) and the members of the same group as being more similar than they are. Inevitably it leads to ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. Think about some of the examples of in-groups and out-groups: Northern Ireland – Catholics and Protestants, Republicans and Loyalists. Rwanda – Hutus and Tutsis. Yugoslavia – the Bosnians and the Serbs. Football – Newcastle and Sunderland, Man Utd and Man City, Celtic and Rangers. Social class – working class and middle class. Germany – Jews and the Nazis.

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Tajfel suggested that there were three mental processes involved in evaluating others as ‘us’ or ‘them’. The first thing that we do is categorise: just as we categorise objects and things in order to understand and identify them, in a similar way we categorise people, including ourselves, in order to understand the social environment. So social categories like black, white, Christian, Muslim, footballer, accountant; are all terms that are used because they are useful. If we can assign people to a category then it gives us some clues about those people. If we know that somebody is an airline pilot, it gives us some understanding of who they are and what they do. Similarly, we can derive our identity by knowing what categories we belong to and much of our behaviour is influencing conditioned by belonging to such groups.

In the 2nd stage, social identification, we adopt the identity of the group we have categorised ourselves as belonging to. So for example, if you have categorised yourself as a football fan, the chances are you will adopt the identity of that group and begin to act in ways and have attitudes that conform to the groups identity and patterns of behaviour. Your self esteem is bound up with belonging to that group.

The final stage is social comparison. Having categorised ourselves as part of a group, if our self-esteem is to be maintained, our group needs to compare favourably with any other group. This is critical to understanding prejudice, because once 2 groups identify themselves as rivals, they are forced to compete in order for the members to maintain their self-esteem. Competition inevitably leads to hostility between groups as they compete for place or resources. A fascinating psychological insight comes from realistic conflict theory which illustrates the conflict that occurs when two groups are in competition for limited resources. And we can see this being played out in the debate on the European referendum. We, must control our own borders, keep migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers out. “They will threaten our resources“, “They will take our jobs“, etc Inevitably, such language fuels the attitudes behind them and leads to discrimination.

This is what’s going on and I fear that what we are seeing in the consciousness of the general public here in Britain will reap a harvest of destruction across the continent. As troubling as the sectarian, subtle racism and emerging nationalism that is emerging, is the power and influence of the media that is weighing in heavily on the Brexit side. Behind most of the newspapers and TV channels, are media moguls, who are determining editorial policies, whose interests lie in Britain coming out of the EU. Make no mistake, the press will play a vital and deciding role in the EU referendum result. The British press is dominated by Eurosceptics. I saw this abundantly evident in 2012 when the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition for advancing the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe over 60 years. Most of the British media didn’t even report the news! Of course not. It is not what anti-European, press barons and media moguls want the British public to hear about. We are served a daily diet of negative coverage about the EU. Rarely can you read or hear about any of the positive things that the European Union is doing to benefit Britain on issues of peace, security, human rights, democracy, the environment, trade and the rule of law. Newspaper headlines are on the whole very anti EU and use patriotic phrases that cleverly deploy and engender nationalist feelings and perpetrate anti-European attitudes. And of course most people are informed consciously or unconsciously by what they read, see or hear from the media.

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And that’s why it is so difficult for us to be properly informed about the issues. Yesterday for example we saw The Sun newspaper depicted an image of Angela Merkel with David Cameron as his puppet with the headline, Germany SABOTAGED David Cameron’s EU renegotiation and he let them, IDS sensationally claims. The Sun, together with another anti Euro paper, The Daily Mail, are the most popular newspapers in Britain, which in itself is both revealing and very sad.

I listened to the interview on the Today at One programme with a German member of the European Parliament being interviewed on the issue, where he challenged Iain Duncan Smith, refuting the ‘ridiculous’ claim that was being made by the former Cabinet office Minister. IDS declined the invitation to respond or to be interviewed by Martha Karney, the programme’s presenter. The myth was not able to be defended and the damage had been done, and a largely unthinking public had been fed the perception from the morning newspaper headline that David Cameron is indeed just a puppet of the German chancellor.

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Another example of media influence is the continuous drip feed about the terrible bureaucracy of the European Union and the waste of money that is spent on bureaucrats in Brussels. Well, here’s a fact that might be of surprise: the total size of the European bureaucracy is about exactly the same size as the number of people employed by Derbyshire County Council. According to the office of National Statistics, currently, Derbyshire County Council employs 36, 519 public sector employees. This compares to the 33,000 employed by the European Commission. I think most people being presented with those figures would be surprised, given the angle and slant that the media is taken to deceive and influence public opinion on the issue of bureaucracy.

The media absolutely love Nigel Farage.

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He is given so much more airtime and press coverage than other Opposition leaders. He isn’t even an elected member of Parliament. He represents UKIP, a political party that only has one MP in Westminster. Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party, the SNP, the DUP and Sinn Fein, when do we hear anything of their views on Europe? We hear them but not as clearly and repeatedly as those articulated by Farage. He is a brilliant communicator, a remarkably persuasive political figure. He can influence and persuade an audience with great ability. You can see this played out time and time again on the radio and TV. He is a remarkable orator; so was Oswald Mosley! Mosley was described as a ‘brilliant orator’ possessing extreme self-confidence, whose persuasive rhetoric often lead crowds singing, ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow‘ having been won over by his presence and eloquence in the 1930’s. Poisonous, damaging and very dangerous, as I believe Farage is. There are nasty xenophobic elements within UKIP, which is becoming a potent force in British politics. Allied to the remarkable growth and ascendency of the SNP in Scotland, nationalist attitudes are spreading throughout the UK. You have to hand it to the SNP, they have been brilliant in capturing the hearts of the Scottish public, demolishing Labour. They have done it with a mixture of opportunism, strategic thinking, brilliant marketing and utilising social media to great effect. They are an extremely well disciplined political party, everybody is ‘online’ and woe betide anyone who steps out of line or utters a voice of dissent. It’s not all sweetness and smiles within the rank and file of the party; there is more than a fair degree of coercion and being held in line by the powers that be.     I believe that we are witnessing a phenominal growth of nationalism and tribalism across Europe and were we to exit the EU, the result would be celebrated by parties on the extreme right and left across the Continent. Marine Le Pen and the national Front in France in France, Geert Wilders and his Pff in Holland, the AfD in Germany, all extreme right wing parties will hail a Brexit victory as good news. So will President Putin in Russia. It is within Russia’s interest to see Europe fragment. All the while we are engaging in disputes and falling out with our European partners, Putin is assembling nuclear warheads, flexing his military muscles in the war in Syria and strengthening his military might for the future. A frightening prospect. The thought of Putin continuing to rule Russia, a return to patterns of behaviour witnessed in the Cold War years and a President Trump in the White House and we will be seeing books and films depicting Armageddon!

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The Referendum throws up so many issues that are deeply concerning which should cause us to pray and think deeply as we go into the polling stations on June 23rd. We need to think seriously about these issues ask ourselves why we are voting the way we will. Is it for self-interest? Out of national interest? European interest? Global interest? Will our vote make the world a better place? What will my vote mean for my children and grandchildren, for the generations who will have to live with the consequences of my vote in the European Referendum.

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It’s pretty obvious that I will be voting to stay in the EU. Not that I am uncritical of how the European Union has developed, how it’s become more bureaucratic, is dismissive and distant from some of the peoples and nation states who are its members. Nor how what has developed would come under strong criticism from Robert Shuman and his fellow EU founders. It is not perfect or ideal by any stretch of the imagination. However, I believe in its reformation and for working for the renewal of the values it enshrines in its constitution rather than by leaving it. By voting to leave, I believe, we will begin the process of dismantling the European Union. Sometimes it’s easier to repair and restore rather than demolish or try to start from scratch. I fear the consequences of leaving the EU and I am concerned about the rise of extremist parties emerging across Europe, with a resurgence of nationalism, bordering on racism and xenophobia. The impact of the gospel brought by our Celtic forefathers and mothers in the faith, who lay the foundations of Europe and provided the stability and morality of Judaeo-Christian values and combated tribalism, is in danger of being undone.

Lord grant us wisdom and discernment and in your mercy…. Hear our prayer.

 

 

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Journey’s End and Home Again

We left Northumberland in the snow as we began our trip and our return from Belgium saw a fresh snow accompany our return from the Ardennes.

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After a quiet and relaxing day, which gave us the opportunity to spend some quality time with Ben and Lucie, we decided to leave early the next day for our return home. We love Ben and Lucie as do many in the Community and many more who were privileged to meet them when they served on the house team at Nether Springs for two years until last summer when they returned to Belgium. I first met Ben when he was a student at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague and the fruit of the partnership between the seminary and the Community has been a great blessing to us in many ways. It is so heartening to witness young people like Ben and Lucie, seriously seeking God and exploring what a vocation means. Trying to live by the values of faith and not buying into the secularist and consumerist addictive ideologies that promise much but do little for the soul and have little to contribute to the wellbeing of society.

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Now when I say we left early the next day I mean early. We set the alarm, arose and left Spa just after 4.00am! Our hope was to get round the ring road around Brussels before the rush hour and get to Calais in time for the 9.40 ferry. Snow was falling for the first hour, turning to rain as we moved north and whilst the traffic was busy, we had a very good journey and arrived at the ferry terminal to be told that we could get on the next ferry just after 8 o’clock. This was great news and a smooth crossing and an earlier than anticipated arrival in Dover enabled us to begin the journey north. By the afternoon we had reached North Yorkshire where we stopped off to see Shirley’s mum and for me to get some sleep for a couple of hours. Rested and refreshed, we made the journey home, accompanied by The Archers on Radio 4 and the football commentary of Middlesbrough’s game against Cardiff on Radio Tees, (they won 3-1). Shirley has been very gracious and generous in letting me listen to sport on the radio and television throughout our married life. She has no interest whatsoever in most sports but is happy that the rest of the members of our family both play and support our respective teams.

It is good to be home. Northumberland is our home and for the time being where we belong. We, like those who joined us on the Community Weekend, have returned home, rejoicing at the wonders he has shown us. It is been really good to have been accompanied on this trip with Shirley; a rare treat and whilst I have been busy working it has been lovely to have her company and be together on my birthday last week in Bruges.

I return home encouraged by what I have witnessed, challenged by gaining a further insight into the plight of refugees and the range of attitudes and ways different countries are taking in response to the crisis and enriched by the people whom we have been privileged to meet and share with on our travels.

And now home to a very cold but bright Northumberland it is time to resume life as ‘normal’. Emails to catch up on, more speaking engagements and lectures to prepare and an Overseers Day and Trustees weekend requiring preparation.

I am mulling over and reflecting on the trip. Like the African who said to the tourist after they’d travelled for a few days; I’m waiting for my soul to catch up with my body. It’s easy to just move on to the next thing without taking time to reflect, and for Christians, to pray about what you’ve experienced whilst travelling. The fruits of such pondering may never be shared but the principle of prayerful reflection is at the heart of the contemplative life.

There is much in African and Native American spirituality that conveys wisdom to our fast paced, frenetic, consumer orientated world. As I reflect and consider how we are responding to the refugee crisis, rooted in concerns about immigration and the economy I am reminded of the following Native American Indian wisdom story: I saw a very large house. They told me it was a bank and that the white men place their money there to be taken care of, and that by and by they got it back with interest. We are Indians and we have no such bank, but when we have plenty of money or blankets, we give them away to other chiefs and people, and by and by they return them with interest, and our hearts feel good.

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Such wisdom speaks volumes and challenges our self-interest and reflects more of the values of the Kingdom of God than so much of our contemporary secularist and consumerist, post-Christendom society.

Respect for the world God has gifted us with, for other dwellers on this sacred and beautiful planet is rare. However, I have been privileged to see respect for God, one another and other human beings throughout our European wanderings and for this, I am deeply thankful to God, the source of goodness and love.

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Au Revoir, Vaarwel, Auf Wiedersehen,

DAY 9     Conversations, Conclusions and Benedictions

Our final morning of the Community Weekend sees people in reflective mood as we spend sometime after Morning Office in quiet. Each person having received the Journeying with Community booklet is using the reflective exercise to think about their own individual response to the Rule of Life. After coffee we gather together to share, with listening ears and hearts to people sharing their responses and aspects of their journey of discernment.

There is a very positive feel to the sharing and the conversations that flow about how Community Companions and Friends can relate and encourage one another in both Belgium and the Netherlands is helpful. An insightful and helpful discussion ensues that will lead to further initiatives, gatherings and Community Weekends and things for us to ponder and respond to back at Nether Springs, the Community’s mother house.

Our time before lunch concludes with sharing Midday Office. It has been great to see different Companions from four different countries lead the Offices over the weekend. We have the obligatory group photo, (see below), a momento of our time together. I explain that as the Community has grown, each Easter, when we gather, near or far, to make or renew our ‘Yes’ to God, to Availiabilty and Vulnerability, it is like taking out and looking at a family photo album. Seeing new members and being reminded of existing members of the ‘family’ is a pleasurable thing and is cause for much rejoicing and thanksgiving. We end our time over another great lunch and with a sense that we will all be together again in the not too distant future and that for many this weekend will see them entering the noviciate process in the coming months and years.IMG_8207

People were a little reluctant to leave; saying farewell is inevitable but carries some sadness and the enticement of further post lunch cakes delays departures further! As we prayed at the end of Morning Office, we feel confident that for each one of us who have been here, that God will bring us home rejoicing at the wonders He has shown us.

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Shirley and I are staying on overnight to continue conversations with Ben, Lucie and Pascale in the morning but after a clear up, turn around of the house and mountains of washing up and laundry washing we all have some downtime. Shirley and I go down in the late afternoon to meet with our Belgium friends who have driven down from Liege to meet us in Spa. Michel and I were school exchange partners back in the early 1970’s and we reconnected with one another a few years ago when we where on a camping holiday as a family camping holiday in the Ardennes. Passing the town where I stayed with Michel and his family many years before, we took the opportunity to discover if they were still around after over twenty years of no contact. Our explorations proved fruitful and within two hours we were reunited. We have become close friends ever since and see each other at least twice a year, in Belgium and in Northumberland. This summer we will be sailing together in Scotland. After another good Belgian beer, (can recommend Val Dieu – it’s even got God’s name on it!), we walked around a nearby lake and continued catching up over a relaxed meal in the town before we bade our friends au revoir.

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Returning to the house we enjoyed a quiet hour reading and the day ended with a game of pool with Ben and his older brother Jem. After the  deep  conversations and weighty matters of the Community Weekend it was good to spend some down time pottering, relaxing and being beaten on the pool table!

 

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Explorations and Intentions

DAY 8              The serious business and intentionality with which people listened and reflected on the introduction and teaching on the history, ethos and Community’s Rule of Life was much in evidence as we spent the morning together. The folks gathered here have come to do business with God and it’s a joy to witness their resolve and to listen to their stories which have led them to explore journeying with the Community.

It was heartening and challenging to hear the experiences of our two of our Companions in the Netherlands, geographically isolated from one another and any other Community folk, share what it means to be Alone yet Together in Community.

It’s once again a privilege to witness the impact of the Community’s Rule of Life in giving coherence, a ‘language’, affirmation and encouragement to people who have been seeking God and struggling to find a place to call home. I am encouraged that the seeds sown many years ago, when we first made connections with people like Floor, are now bearing fruit in both the Netherlands and Belgium. There is a real sense that something is emerging now that will see more growth of the Community within these countries. Our Community Weekend here has not only drawn Dutch and Belgians though. It’s been delightful to welcome five Americans, three now living in Amsterdam and two in Brussels. Christine from Germany, now living and settled in London journeyed here by train and her presence as someone who last year completed the novitiate process has been very helpful.

After a full morning we enjoyed another sumptuous lunch and then relaxed on a free afternoon that saw some go for a walk around the woodlands and springs that make this place a spa town, others stayed and enjoyed the comfort of this big and beautiful home, some enjoyed a siesta and others pottered around the town.

We gathered together again for Evening Office followed by a meal during which we shared the Community’s Family Communion, Around a Meal Table. This simple yet powerful liturgy conveys the gift of community in its words, simple actions and gestures.

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Retiring to the drawing room, wine and beer flowed as did a conversation on the novitiate process and what it means to those who wish to explore and journey further with the Community.

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Aware of the gift and special place that this house is, we asked Pascale to share its story. Like some many happenings in the Community, much has been borne of struggle. Pascale and her husband always had a dream of parenting a large family; their own biological children and adopting others, particularly children with physical and mental handicaps. The vision became a reality with a move from Brussels to Spa back in the 1990’s. With a vision for getting a large home for their growing family they came to this house. An amazing, big and beautiful house with lots of grounds and garden space. The only problem was their large vision did not correspond to a large sum of money to purchase the property! The banks would not lend them the all the money required to buy the house, but determined and undeterred, Pascale’s husband, Benoit shared the situation with his Dutch employer, who miraculously lent them the remaining money needed to proceed. Several years later the company closed its operations in Belgium and Benoit lost his job. So what of the loan? His Dutch boss wiped off the outstanding debt in an extraordinary act of generosity that served the purpose of helping a family who were providing home and family to children who would otherwise have been in institutions. There were still some bank loans to pay off and the ensuing years, where employment was uncertain, were difficult but the family grew and their home here was established. Tragedy hit the family six years ago when Benoit died, (he was just in his forties) and out of the devastation and sorrow has emerged a greater resolve and determination to continue the work of making home and family for those whom society struggles with integrating. Pascale, now the mother of five of her own children and four adopted, handicapped children, plus Gauthier, one of their adopted children who died, also fosters babies on a frequent basis for a few months at a time, from when they are born until the time when suitable adoptive parents are found.

It is a joy and privilege to be part of this remarkable family, living, sharing and working together. Society has many unsung heroes, who shun publicity and prefer just to get on with living the life they feel called to. Being among such folks stands in such stark contrast to the lifestyles and values of so much contemporary western consumerism. Creating home and ‘family’, being hospitable, welcoming the stranger, being compassionate and celebrating the things that really matter ~ people, the earth we are called to tread lightly on and God, these are what matters. Material things, consumer goods, possessions, they are secondary to simply being human.

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We listed to the meditation for Day 19 on Friday night as we shared Evening Office and the words certainly capture the experience of this home here.

Lord, take this song and fill it with your presence

Let it bring a word of hope to weary, care-full hearts

Take this song and fill it, Lord

Fill it with yourself

 

Lord, take my life and fill it with your praises

Let me speak a word of peace that Jesus brings in me

Take this life and fill it, Lord

Fill it with yourself

 

Lord, take this place and fill it with your blessing

Let it be a haven where the poor in spirit sing

Take this place and fill it Lord

Fill it with your praise

 

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Ardennes: patisserie, community, politics and responses to the refugee crisis

DAY 7

A good night’s sleep after a long and very stimulating day we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and bade farewell to our wonderful host and friend Ada, resolved not to make the gap between seeing each other so long next time.

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We travelled south and into Belgium arriving in the beautiful town of Spa in the Ardennes. I love this area and remember with fondness my school exchange visits here when I was in my teens. Staying with a Belgian family for three weeks and returning after I left school to hitchhike and reunite with friends here. Friends that I lost contact with in my twenties but have since reconnected with and who we shall see and stay with after this Community Weekend.

Three years ago we held a European Community Gathering here and since then we have welcomed Benjamin and Lucie (Belgians) to work on the house team for two years and now Daniel and Katrin and baby Paul (Germans) have returned to be part of the team at Nether Springs.

I am delighted to be back and again to receive the warm welcome and wonderful hospitality  of Pascale and her family here in Spa. Our arrival greeted first by the two lovely dogs and followed by drinks and one of the amazing tartes made by the amazing Pascale. Oh for patisseries like they have in Belgium in England….

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Over the course of the next few hours folks start to arrive; familiar faces, new friends exploring the Community, others wanting to become novices. It is the gift of God, the drawing together of people to a Way of Life, a ‘community of the heart’. We gather for Evening Office to officially begin the weekend and within minutes of being together, that sense of belonging is felt. We move to eat together and sit, all seventeen of us around the long dining table where conversations flow so effortlessly and easily. I hear the words of one of our early Community songs coming back to me as I observe this ‘communion’ ~ this meeting of hearts among people; God called forth a people and we responded to his call… When we started we were strangers we hardly knew each others names. Now we are brothers and sisters and we will never be the same.

We assemble again after clearing up and washing the dishes, (all part of being in Community) to share our stories, our connections and interest in Community and our hopes for the weekend. Common themes emerge; of seeking God, homecoming, living with questions, struggles, heart searching yearning for authenticity of life and faith. By the time we concluded with Compline, the Boisil Compline, I felt like the saint himself, that I was welcoming and witnessing the arrival and emergence of some remarkable younger people whom God was going to call and use for his purposes here in Belgium and the Netherlands.

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Exciting days made all the more real by the events in Brussels as leaders of the European nations discussed and worked so hard to resolve the problems, issues and concerns raised by our British Prime Minister and his commitment to a European Referendum in the UK this year. As I caught the headlines late last night that an agreement had been reached in Brussels,  I anticipated what has immediately transpired; a split in the Government over whether to leave or stay in the EU. The Prime Minister has this morning fired the starting gun on the Referendum campaign. I hope he is able to win and put this sorry debate behind us all.

As we drove through Nijmegam yesterday, Floor pointed out the house where in 1944 there was an historic split, the Vrijmaking,  within the Dutch Reformed Church. I thought I had misheard him. “1944?” Wasn’t there more pressing matters facing the Dutch people and the church in the Second World War than contending and falling out about the issue concerning the regeneration of infants at baptism? That just about sums up my frustration with so many splits within the church and other organisations and my frustration with the current debate that Britain has forced in Europe. When Europe is facing one of its biggest challenges, the global refugee crisis, we have reduced it to a parochial matter of self interest. Out pathetic response to take 20,000 refugees over the next four years does little to address the global crisis or alleviate the pressure on our European partners. Last year alone over 1.2 million refugees arrived in Europe, 84%  coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Iraq, countries experiencing conflict, widespread violence and insecurity, or highly repressive governments. The idea that it is nothing to do with us what happens to these refugees is both ignorant and untrue. Our foolish engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan and our meddling in the Middle east has fuelled the fires of terrorism, war and violence across the globe and contributed to the global refugees crisis.

Just to take Syria, one of the countries worst hit by war. The civil war there is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Half the country’s pre war population, more than 11 million people have been killed or forced to flee their homes. Families are struggling to survive inside Syria, or make a new home in neighbouring countries. Others are risking their lives on the way to Europe, hoping to find acceptance and opportunity. And the onset of some harsh winter weather conditions makes life as a refugee even more difficult. Millions of Syrians are looking to Europe for help. Millions, not 20,000! That’s why I say our response is pathetic, lamentable and has won us no friends or favours from our European counterparts.

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It has struck home to us forcibly how countries like Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands are reaching out with compassion to refugees. Every place we have stayed in has evidence of help and support. Bruges, Antwerp, Dordrecht, Giessenburg, Arnhem and here in Spa, where just up the road from the house here, there is housing, education and welfare facilities for over 500 hundred refugees.

There are, thank God, some people and places who have welcomed refugees with hospitality, not hostility, where those seeking refuge are seen as people not problems.

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I was a stranger and you welcomed me…

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