Some scenes, if I may, from the last six weeks, all of which have something to do with division.
Scene 1. Being in Gaza City meeting the incredible staff of the Anglican run Al Ahli hospital, proudly showing me their brand-new mammography suite ready to be used to provide diagnostic services to Palestinian women. Children ran around the compound playing, and we sat eating fresh dates, pushing the flesh out of their skins which was a new experience for me. I talk with the medics and admin staff about the political situation and how they struggle to get permits from the Israelis to leave the Gaza Strip. I can’t get those peoples’ faces out of my mind. They are the people whose land was marked by the footprints of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to and from Egypt.
Scene 2. Returning that day through the Hamas and Palestinian Authority checkpoints with cheerful greetings, across no man’s land where even the birds didn’t seem to sing, to the partition wall, its watchtowers and razor wire, then through the airlocks, body x-ray machines and extensive searching of the Israeli terminal.
Scene 3. The following day, visiting a wetland conservation project in the Jordan valley run by Israelis in close cooperation with their Jordanian near neighbours across the heavily patrolled and watched border fence, to support the important bird migratory route. We sat drinking mint tea in a kibbutz talking about peace and cooperation with former enemies.
Scene 4. Two days later – taking shelter, lying on the ground, hands over my head, as the sirens screeched of incoming Hamas rockets. Bumm, bumm, the noise overhead as they were intercepted or landed somewhere; something that was to repeat itself as news became clearer of the horrific Hamas attacks.
I know these experiences will shape me and how I see that conflict, indeed how I see all communities divided and upset and angry by long dispute and different stories.
As will scene 5, sitting in Parliament on Wednesday evening listening to the testimonies of Israelis with family members who were kidnapped on 7 October and are being held hostage in Gaza. Raw and deeply upsetting, emotion was high in the room. After 40 days and 40 long nights, they have no idea whether their loved ones are alive or dead. I can’t repeat what I heard about the brutality of Hamas on 7 October. The sense of national trauma is immense.
Scene 6 is as I left Parliament, a protest was taking place with chants, angry voices, concerned voices, forgotten voices, and quiet voices, people waving Palestinian flags, but also some deeply disturbing antisemitic remarks. But what was palpable was the sense of trauma across the Arab world at what is happening in Gaza.
We need at this time to have care for our Jewish and Muslim neighbours. Antisemitism has always been a light sleeper and now it is wide awake. Islamophobia is built on much ignorance and scapegoating.
On a visit to the Synagogue here in Norwich on my return from Israel, the Rabbi read a beautiful poem, An Isaiah Appendix, by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
Don’t stop after beating the swords
into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.
Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into plowshares first.
We continue to pray for that day, for the hostages’ release, for an urgent ceasefire, for water, food and medicine to reach the Palestinians caught up in the humanitarian disaster that is unfolding in Gaza. Peace will only come to that troubled region if people talk and trust is built so that people become willing to lay down seeing an enemy and instead see another human being before them made in the image and likeness of God – with loves and passions, family and work, disappointments and hope.
Walls are not the answer. They entrench us, building division and mistrust.
But as I left Gaza I saw beehives in the fields near the Eretz crossing. Palestinian beehives. And just across the border, at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, we passed big signs advertising its honey house and farm. I remember reflecting that, whilst I had passed through walls and electric fences and air-locked rooms entering Israel, perhaps the bees flew over and collected pollen and nectar from the fields of both Gaza and Israel, each jar mixing the taste of both places; sweetness that knows no boundary.
A couple of weeks ago, the House of Bishops met by the river Thames at Cookham, and one evening we visited the Stanley Spencer gallery. I was struck by this painting in the collection. It’s called Neighbours. One woman is stretching over a hedge to give her neighbour some of her tulips. We know they are her home-grown pride and joy because there are still some growing in front of the dog kennel. We have no idea of the story behind the painting. Had the dog been barking all night and this was a peace offering? Was it a birthday or the day of the neighbour moving in. Or was it a token of reconciliation after a long heavy silence? Or an expression of neighbourly love? Their hands meet at this moment of gift. Even the old gnarled tree seems to lean over into the neighbour’s garden to offer a gift of embrace.
I’ve kept thinking about this picture because to lean in like that to a hedge is mighty uncomfortable. You puncture your arms and feel the privet. Yet these two neighbours are content with that discomfort because there is some greater good in giving and receiving a gift from one to another.
Today, I am conscious that there are a wide range of views in this room at the decision that the General Synod reached on Wednesday. It followed years of attentive listening to each other and to God. It has been a task of theology being worked out in the community of faith by conversation and prayer, by the study of Scripture in the light of reason and tradition.
The bishops were asked to show leadership and the truth is that we are not united in what the outcome of that leadership should look like. Our pastoral response is one that tries to offer kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, and encouragement. For some people who wanted to see equal marriage in church we have not gone far enough, for others, we have gone too far as for them these decisions go to the heart of our salvation. St Paul says to the Philippians: “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing” (Philippians 2.2). As we gather here we are not united in heart and mind about these issues, but I hope we are united in heart and mind in our love of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.
For some, I am no longer a Christian brother. It saddens me that I can so quickly be labeled – for it is God to whom I will answer on the day of judgement for my actions. But I am clear, very clear, that those who profoundly disagree with me are my Christian brothers and sisters. They are a gift to the Church, to the Church in this Diocese, and far more unites us than divides us as we seek to win more people for Christ across Norfolk and Waveney. And what I believe with every ounce of my being is that the walls of our divisions do not reach as high as heaven.
What I am also clear about, and have consistently said with Bishops Jane and Alan, and now with Bishop Ian, is that the three bishops have a deep care and concern for all who seek to live together in this Diocese.
To see those we disagree with as made in the image of God allows us to see them not as the other but with an equity as God sees them. The love with which Jesus Christ sees them is what I need to learn more and more, and I am sorry when I’ve failed in that regard. In such a way, we are able to reach out across the prickly hedge in support of the other, but also be willing to receive support from the other who has a name. To hunger and desire for our sister and brother in Christ as God hungers for us.
We live in a body that is messy; that’s life. The Dominican friar, Timothy Radcliffe, in one of his daily meditations for the recent gathering about Synodality in Rome reflected that “orthodoxy is spacious, and heresy is narrow”. How, I wonder, do we create that generous space for us to live together? How, I wonder, can we model an abundance of grace rather than a famine of grace at this time? How, I wonder, can our dealing with disagreement be a gift to a world that sees too often things as binary choices? A world where this is what I believe and this is what you believe, becomes I am right and you are wrong, and then I am good and you are bad, and then, in the Church, I am in and you are out.
At crucial moments in the gospels, we always hear these words: “Do not be afraid.” St John tells us, “Perfect love casts out fear.” So let us pray that the Lord will free our hearts from fear at this time. Christ is Lord of the Church.
Here is perhaps a small, local example of where that has happened. Earlier this week I received an encouraging email from Rachel Foster. “Tonight is the final, celebratory, evening of the Living in Love and Faith course that I have been facilitating at Heacham church”, she wrote. “Being amongst a group of people, who arguably could not have been of greater polarity in their views, who have engaged so willingly with each other for this course has been an enormous encouragement. To be able to use the material beyond its initial phase to assist the process of listening and wanting to learn together is also heartening and I sincerely hope that others will consider this as an option to continue to find ways to move forward in the coming months.”
Friendship flourishes when we dare to share our doubts and seek the truth together.
Having had my appetite whetted for the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, I’ve been reading some of his other poems and was struck by one that I think speaks to our Church at this time. It is called The Place Where We Are Right:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined House once stood.
Our task is in our name – Synod – which means to walk together. We walk together across that tilled soil sowing seed and building a house together. A house fit for Jesus to sit with us as he breaks bread and shares the wine of his Kingdom. A house where he leads us out, saying, “Come, follow me”.
Follow me, he says, with our hands clasped in prayer for our daily bread.
Follow me, he says, placing in our hands a jar of healing balm.
Follow me, he says, taking us to a deserted place.
Follow me, he says, to build bridges of care that reach out to our neighbours, not walls of separation that make us walk by on the other side.
Follow me, he says, to the hill outside a city wall where I will open my arms in love to embrace you all.
Follow me, he says, to a garden where on the third day you will experience my risen self always with you.
God’s hope transcends our disagreements. At this time, may all of us and our whole world be touched by the one whom St Augustine called that “beauty so ancient and so new…I tasted you and now hunger and thirst for you; you touched me, and I have burned for your peace.” May God’s grace work in each of us, so that in the future we might look back at this time and become aware that God was with us all along, and that our hearts burnt within us.