ON A damp, dark, autumn day
in one part of Athens, hungry men and women clutching plastic bags
queue for a hot meal and a large bread roll. Some of the women take
three or four portions to feed their families. Among the crowd are
a surprising number of young people, just a few of the 50 per cent
of them who are unemployed.
The "Church on the
Streets", as this open space is called, serves more than 1000 meals
each day, many to immigrants, but also to a growing number of
Greeks caught in a trap of poverty not of their own making. The
Senior Anglican Chaplain in Athens, Canon Malcolm Bradshaw,
standing with a Greek Orthodox bishop and a pastor from a Pente-
costal church, explained that the Church on the Streets was a truly
This was only one of many
initiatives of churches in Greece, caring for those suffering from
the austerity measures that threaten to overwhelm the country. The
Church of Greece and the Evangelical Church distribute food
parcels, medicines to those who cannot afford to buy them, and also
run homes for the handicapped, for the elderly, and even a small,
beautiful place for those suffering from Alzheimer's.
A SMALL delegation from
the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European
Churches, led by the general secretaries of the two bodies, paid a
visit to government ministers and leaders of the Churches to show
solidarity with the people, and, by listening, to reach a better
understanding of the challenges of a traumatised society and the
place of the Churches in it.
Again and again, we saw
the desperation of those hit most because of the sudden closure of
businesses, rising unemployment, and a resulting increase in the
number of suicides. We came to understand the implications for
Greece of its geographical position, which makes it an entry-point
for many fleeing from countries in conflict.
Many get no further than
Greece, adding to the burden of those who already have so little.
It is no wonder that in such a situation there is an ugly
right-wing, neo-fascist reaction, targeting immigrant communities
and destabilising the situation further.
It was often admitted
that Greece was not blameless for the crisis. Individuals and
institutions had borrowed too readily, incurring unsustainable
debts and sucking the economy into a spiral of more and more debts
to pay off loans, which had become impossible to pay back. But
Greece is not the only country to have taken advantage of what was
all too readily offered. The Greek crisis is not only a Greek
crisis, but a European crisis, inseparable from a global
Archbishop Ieronymos of
Athens and All Greece insisted that it was so much more than
economic: it was an emerging moral and spiritual crisis. Both the
Archbishop and government ministers expressed the need to go back
to the founding values of the European Union: "brotherhood,
solidarity, co- operation". They begged the delegation to present
this challenge to the European Parliament.
At the end of the visit,
the two general secretaries addressed an open letter to the EU: "A
challenge for the European Union as peace-builder". While the Nobel
Peace Prize awarded to the EU celebrates the generation that built
a sustainable peace in Europe, the economic and emerging
humanitarian tragedy challenges it as a peace-builder for the next
AGAIN and again, leaders
from the government and the Churches pleaded with the delegation to
counter the false stereotype of Greece circulating as the "bad guy
of Europe". Greeks are not lazy, fraudulent people. They are
honest, hard workers, with a love of life, given to hospitality,
and with a sense of humour. The country has resources to build on:
agriculture, tourism, and an ancient culture and a history of the
promotion of democracy.
Greeks suffer doubly:
they suffer from the economic crisis, but also from the effect of a
negative characterisation in the media of other European countries.
A Lutheran bishop from Bavaria recognised the negative image of
Greece expressed all too often in German society. He pleaded for
humility on the German side. Germany had received the compassion of
the world: it was given freedom after the Second World War which it
had not deserved or earned.
The crisis threatens not
only Greece, but the whole of Europe -indeed, the world. At the
same time, we saw signs of hope in the response of ministers and
church leaders, and not least of all in the witness of Christians
responding to the crisis together across ecclesial divides - a sign
that there is a better, more effective, and more Christlike
way.This is a special challenge for those, including some in
Greece, who would turn their backs on the ecumenical movement. The
request to us was to hold the people of Greece and their Churches
in our prayers daily.
In the car on the way
back to the airport, my colleague asked whether I had heard the bad
news. Before I could reply, our driver, thinking the question
referred to the news that morning that the latest request for a
bailout for the people of Greece had been delayed, spoke with
passion of his fears that there would be an escalation of
desperation, and a reaction of lawlessness, as the economic
pressures were felt by an increasing number of people.
The Greek crisis set the
problems of the Church of England over women bishops in the context
of the brokenness of the world. How the Church lives with
difference, how those who hold different opinions listen to one
another with patience and generosity, and how they learn to bear
the pain of difference and even enter one another's pain - all this
is a sign to the world that there is another way: "a way of amity
and not of enmity", to quote the Archbishop-designate, the Rt Revd
The Church is called to
be a sign, an instrument, and also a foretaste of the unity that
God desires to give to the world. It is not only the people of
Greece who need our prayers. We need to pray for those who hold a
different position from our own, that together we will find a way
to live in the closest communion possible, not saying: "I have no
need of you," but finding a way that allows all to flourish and to
carry on the mission of Christ in a suffering world.
The mission of the Church
is not only about the words that we speak and the acts of charity
that we perform: it is also about the example we give of how to
live together with differences.
Dame Mary Tanner is a President of the World Council of