The Bishop of London’s Christmas Message for the Diocese
It has been a year since the announcement that I was to be the 133rd Bishop of London. It has been a privilege to have travelled with you since then and I am very grateful for your welcome and ministry. I have been encouraged by the signs of hope I have seen travelling around the diocese. Churches speaking compassionately about the hope they have found in Jesus Christ, caring compassionately for their community and growing deeper into God, towards each other and the world.
It was such a significant moment for me to lead the nation in the act of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in November, marking the end of the First World War a century ago. We remembered the sacrifice of others, and we honoured them by seeking a more peaceful future.
Over the last four years, as we have marked the war, one of the strongest stories has been that of the Christmas truce between British and German soldiers along the Western Front in 1914. The romantic version is that, on Christmas Eve, five months into the war, British troops heard their German counterparts singing ‘Silent Night’. Someone put his head over the top of the defences only to discover that the Germans were wanting to declare a Christmas truce. Gifts were shared: the Germans offered sausage; the British chocolates. Hands were shaken, the wounded retrieved, the dead were buried and, of course, the famous football matches took place along the front line.
Now the fact is informal ceasefires became quite commonplace along the Western Front. In many places, there was an unsaid agreement that there would be a cessation of hostilities when bodies needed to be recovered, or sometimes when there were rest periods. What made the Christmas truce remarkable was the numbers involved, that they openly congregated in daylight for hours – and that they shared gifts.
Gifts have the power to change relationships. Gifts are the measure of who we are. It is in our capacity to give of ourselves that we find ourselves. God gave of himself in Jesus Christ, he made himself vulnerable and changed his relationship with us, with the community and with the world.
The gifts that have the greatest impact are not those brought at great financial cost but of our time, attention, encouragement, respect, grace, kindness and compassion, or love and trust. London is a world-facing city. It is multi-cultural and multi faith, it is both cosmopolitan and suburban, economically successful and confident. It is a city of energy and diversity. Yet it is also a city of inequality, where people feel ignored, marginalised and angry. It is a city where people feel isolated and lonely.
In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, in a city heralded for its history and culture, modern slavery is thriving. Thousands are forced into domestic servitude, forced labour or sexual exploitation in plain sight of Londoners, and many more are at risk of falling through the cracks, hidden from the view of the authorities, charities and the Church.
Behind those statistics there are real people. Whether it be a woman or girl trafficked to work in the illegal sex trade, a man forced to work on a construction site, or a child married against their will, none are free. There is already brilliant work being done right here in the capital. For example, at All Souls Church, Langham Place, taking inspiration from the two stories of women in the Bible being badly mistreated by men and society, the charity Tamar provides essential support and advocacy by reaching out to women suffering through sexual exploitation and slavery in the Borough of Westminster. Tamar is one of the five charities that the Diocese of London will support in its Lent Appeal next year.
We live in a city where too many of our young people are affected by violent crime. This is even truer of those from a black and minority ethnic, or disadvantaged background. Last month, 250 churches across London gathered with youth workers, schools, the police and young people to ask what we can do together. I know from my previous life as a nurse that the only way to tackle these problems is through a whole-system approach. It is only through working together that we can create communities where young people can find their identity, feel they belong, and are safe.
We live in politically turbulent times, with uncertainty for many. The discussions around Brexit are not simply about legislation – they are about identity and the type of city we want to be. The EU Referendum exposed divisions in our society, and the present political process risks deepening them.
These divisions cannot be resolved by Parliament alone – strengthening relationships amongst our communities is the key. Whilst I hope that politicians co-operate across party boundaries to find a way forward in the common good, I also believe that if we can give of ourselves to each other, we can build communities which are integrated and strong. We have more in common than divides us. I hope that churches across this Diocese will take the lead.
We live in a world which encourages us to put a price on everything, and yet we increasingly find it hard to know the value of things. The Christmas truce of 1914 tells us that the most powerful thing we can do is to risk being givers. We are what we give, and some gifts are much more valuable than others. Kindness, gentleness, respect, openness, love and honesty are in a different league of value to the kinds of possessions we will spend our time accumulating – albeit gratefully – this Christmas.
I am very grateful for the gifts you give, of your time to support our young people, to reach out to those who seem isolated or lonely, the time you take to get to know your neighbour, to build communities and to speak of the love of Christ Jesus.
I pray that this Christmas you will find the joy of the angels and the peace of the Christ Child.
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The Rt Hon & Rt Revd Dame Sarah Mullally is the 133rd Bishop of London.
In 2012 she was installed as Canon Treasurer at Salisbury Cathedral, before becoming Bishop of Crediton in the Diocese of Exeter in 2015, primarily serving North and East Devon. She is a member of the Church of England's National Safeguarding Steering Group.
Bishop Sarah was a senior civil servant in the Department of Health before ordination. A trained nurse, she became Chief Nursing Officer for England in 1999, the youngest person to be appointed to the post.
Read more from Sarah Mullally