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/ 24 December 2015

Christmas Message 2015

All Hallows Bow procession with lights
Date: 20151224

Christmas is coming at the end of a year in which terror has invaded the boulevards of Paris and the streets of Brussels. Terror has for many years been an accompaniment of life in Baghdad and Beirut and no stranger in Jerusalem. Talking with fellow Londoners, it is no wonder that at this dark time of the year I find that there is a widespread sense of foreboding.

One of the cries of Advent, the period of waiting before Christmas, is that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”. It is the cry of an ancient prophet but what reality does it have in 21st-century London?

I found the answer in Fern Street Community Centre in Tower Hamlets. The nearby church, All Hallows, Bow is growing in a parish that is 65 per cent Bangladeshi Muslim. “Light in the darkness” is a theme common to Jews, Christians and Muslims, all of whom honour Abraham as a pioneer in faith. As it says in the Holy Quran, “God guides whoever he will to his Light”.

The Christian community, while continuing to worship in growing numbers in All Hallows, has moved much of its work to the Fern Street centre. They decided to celebrate Advent by holding a festival of light and invited their neighbours to join them in creating lanterns for a procession of light.

The community centre is a place where Muslim neighbours feel at home and by doing something creative together, first meetings have turned into friendships.

One of the most frequent comments you hear about the Bangladeshi-Sylheti community in Tower Hamlets is that “they need to get out of their houses and learn English”. But what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. As well as offering help with English, some of the All Hallows folk are learning Sylheti. Hospitality and the sharing of food is also a path to friendship and halal barbeques provide a setting for building a sense of community which overcomes separation.

The Christmas story reveals God who so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself in the person of the infant Jesus Christ, his human face. Jesus is also called in the Bible “the Word of God”. In Bow, the “Word” has been translated into our various languages and has taken up residence not in some temple or palace but among us.

While amidst the darkness we find ourselves menaced by that threat of terror and the unknown, at the same time people are searching for spiritual depth. In this post-denominational world, our Church can recover her profoundest identity as a deep church, open to friendship with all, as Jesus intended.

Church growth in London in recent years has been encouraging and deeply humbling. From early beginnings in the Eighties, there have been 62 new worshipping communities established in the Diocese of London over the past 20 years — representing thousands of new Christians. We continue to make good progress in fulfilling our Capital Vision pledge of creating 100 new worshipping communities in addition to our network of parish churches by 2020.

What is inspiring about the example of All Hallows is that a confident Christian community has stepped outside the walls of the church following the example of God, who at Christmas time did not insist that we come home to him but who came to us. Tragically he came to his own people and “his own received him not” but there were always those who had faith, as there are today in east London.

The lanterns I saw in Bow were fashioned into fantastic animal shapes and the inspiration of the procession at the heart of the festival of light was Noah’s Ark. The imagery was striking, particularly now in reflecting on this month’s historic global climate summit in Paris. There, almost 200 countries, irrespective of economic development, tradition, faith or culture, were gathered together, united by a common threat.

Ultimately we are all passengers together in the ark: our planetary home, the Earth. If the ark springs a leak in steerage, it will eventually engulf all of those aboard — including the first-class cabins. This was the stark reality that drove the climate negotiations in Paris.

Earlier in the year I saw the effects of climate change for myself while in conversations with Muslim scholars in Jordan, close to the site where Jesus was baptised. It was a shock to see the Jordan River reduced to a brown trickle, a vivid illustration of Earth-strain.

As citizens of this golden age there is a temptation for us all to pray the prayer “Lord let it last my time” and to immerse ourselves in our busy lives. The opposite temptation is to dwell on the apocalyptic possibilities to such an extent that we are immobilised.

And just as the Earth is currently menaced by climate change, that threat is mirrored by the fractures in the human community globally. We all need to seek for a greater and richer unity.

Christians are certainly not exempt. Speaking at a recent service in Westminster Abbey in the presence of the Queen, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher to the Pope, observed that those who are persecuting Christians throughout the world and burning their churches do not discriminate between Catholics, Protestants or Pentecostals. “For our persecutors we are all Christians and it is time that we looked at things in the same way.”

Unity in Bow was expressed in the procession of the lanterns. Peace demonstrations are often full of anger but this was a good-humoured demonstration of peace and security that brought together and cemented friendships among people of very different family histories and cultures.

Amid the encircling gloom, the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Jesus came into the world long ago and far away in Bethlehem but the light is still visible with the power to inspire and transform people across London — in Bow and beyond.

This article was also published in the Evening Standard on Christmas Eve.

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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