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/ 24 December 2014

Christmas Message 2014

Bishop of London with Harry and Jock of Walking with the Wounded
Date: 20141224

December is traditionally a time of great joy for the Christian Church. Yet, this year, that joy is tempered by our commemoration of the anniversary of the First World War, which stands soberly as a reminder of one of the Church’s greatest failures.

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Some months ago, on a visit to Frankfurt, I reflected with German theologians on the letter sent on 1 August 1914 by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Kaiser’s Chaplain. The Archbishop wrote that, “War between two great Christian nations of kindred race and sympathies is, or ought to be, unthinkable in the 20th century of the Gospel of the Prince of Peace”. Three days later our nations were at war.

As we look back on those grave events, we cannot change the past. However, we must accept responsibility for how we remember it: the future depends on how we remember the past.

During the visit we were taken to a small museum, designed to illustrate the context in which the Bible was written. One of the exhibits was a block of stone from the city of Priene in Asia Minor bearing an inscription from the days of the Roman Empire. It celebrates the Emperor Augustus and reads, “The birthday of the god [Augustus] has marked the beginning of the good news for the world.” There are other inscriptions which describe Augustus as “saviour of the whole world”.

St Luke in his story of the birth of Jesus Christ turns the imperial propaganda on its head and he has the angel of the Lord announce:

“Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour which is Christ the Lord”.

On one level, the contrast between the ruler of a large portion of the globe and a child born in a stable in an obscure province of the Empire is absurd. But the Roman Empire and indeed the city of Priene is a romantic ruin while the child continues to win new followers.

This year, my role as President of the Bible Society took me to China. Nanjing is a centre of Bible printing and the Amity Press in that city turned out 20 million copies of the scriptures last year. The Christian community in China has increased a hundred fold since my first visit, just after the Cultural Revolution in the early 1980s. In seeking explanations for this explosive growth, there was no mention of political factors but reference to Christian charitable work which has been recognised officially in a new statute passed in 2012.

Any religion, however, which has imperial rather than charitable ambitions is very dangerous. The global city of London plays host to refugee communities from parts of the world devastated by violence, inflicted under the cloak of religion. All religions are exposed to the temptation denounced by the prophets as “idolatry” – making a god in our own image. Idolatry is the process by which a bruised and humiliated ego surreptitiously reascends to worship some projection of its own rage and lust for power.

The nativity plays taking place in so many of our church schools tell a different story of how God so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us in a vulnerable child. That child points the way to a generosity of spirit which, thank God, I see all around us as the year comes to its end.

One of the most cheering carol services I shall remember from this year was to support the London Air Ambulance. This independent charity, which has to raise two thirds of its funding from donations, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Over the years the air ambulance team has brought skill and hope to 31,000 critically injured patients within the M25.

Most recently, a training institute and a patient follow up service have been developed while negotiations are underway for a second helicopter as this charity seeks to deliver the scale of service that London needs. Someone whose life was saved by the combination of generosity and high professional skill which puts the helicopter ambulance into the air commented:

“It’s humbling to know that it was people’s donations that got London’s air ambulance to the scene of my car crash. I can’t thank enough all the charity supporters for helping to save my life. Without you I would not be here and my daughter would have never been born.”

Another memorable pre-Christmas gathering was in support of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust. Enough money has been donated to honour the Queen’s sixty years on the throne that there is real hope that blindness caused by trachoma will be eradicated from five Commonwealth Countries by 2020. We heard Dr Andrew Bastawrous of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicinedescribe his work in Kenya. One of his video clips showed two elderly ladies, friends over many years who were blind and had never seen one another. When the bandages were removed after the operation they saw one another and danced.

Closer to home, the Evening Standard’s Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal has shone a light on some of the delayed consequences of the dangerous work we expect our service men and women to do. The deployment in Afghanistan is coming to an end but the impact of the lives of those involved will last for many years.

With the help of the Standard, awareness of the issue is clearly rising. I joined a personal contribution to homeless veterans last Friday; two ex-servicemen, Harry Bucknall and Jock Davis, were on the road walking from Dorset, to the steps of the Royal Exchange, in support of Walking With The Wounded. I was delighted to be there to welcome them, joined by so many Londoners for pop-up Carols with the choir of the Military Wives and the band of the Coldstream Guards.

There are so many other examples of self-giving generosity that I have witnessed throughout the capital and the country this year. While it sometimes seems as if the political narrative is struggling to offer plausible hope for the future, there is good news all around us if we choose to look and above all participate. What we choose to remember from 2014 will shape the future. I hope that you will remember with hope this Christmas that the Babe of Bethlehem outlives the Emperor of the World.

(Image: Bishop Richard with Harry Bucknall and Jock Davis at ‘Walking with the Wounded’ on Friday 19 December 2014. Image credit: Ian Davidson.)

About Richard Chartres

The Rt Revd Richard Chartres KCVO was the 132nd Bishop of London from November 1995 until March 2017.

Read more from Richard Chartres

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