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2015 - the year in review

01 January 2016


People queue to buy a copy of Charlie Hebdo after the attack on its editorial staff

People queue to buy a copy of Charlie Hebdo after the attack on its editorial staff


THE attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, which left 12 dead, alerted Western Europe to the threat of terrorism fomented in Syria and the Middle East. Another result was that Hebdo’s scurrilous treatment of religion came to be far better known.

It should not have been necessary, but when Pauline Cafferkey contracted the Ebola virus after having returned from Sierra Leone, the British public finally took notice of the disease that had been devastating communities in West Africa for several months. She recovered, but had to fight a bout of meningitis a few months later.

Church House, Westminster, was exceptionally busy, with the release of seven strategy reports. Perhaps the two most contentious concepts were “managing talent”, with talk of talent pools, and “resourcing the future”, with the suggestion, still to be approved, of dipping into the Church’s reserves to support mission.

As one source of contention receded, with the consecration of the Rt Revd Libby Lane as Bishop of Stockport, so another, differing views of sexuality, came to the fore with the start of the shared conversations. An official guide for participants addressed openly the prospect that some might find it impossible to remain together.



Looking ahead to the May General Election, the House of Bishops issued a 52-page pastoral letter, urging an end to partisan politics. A Conservative MP, Nadine Dorries, criticised the Church for seeming “very keen to dive in on political issues when no one is asking it to”. A Labour MP, John Cruddas, called the letter “an act of great leadership”. (Later in the year, Ms Dorries said that she had been abused sexually abused as a child by an Anglican priest.)

At the start of the General Synod sessions, the Archbishop of Canterbury addressed the issue of the C of E’s new strategy reports: “A Church that looks for strategies to survive has lost the plot,” he said. None the less: “My fear is that many of us have lost all confidence in the gospel.” The Synod was also told of the Church Commissioners’ willingness to look at a scheme to fund church growth from capital reserves.

Churchpeople had to get their heads round mitochondrial replacement, the first in what promises to be a long list of ethic debates about genetic editing.

A new report highlighted how thinly spread rural ministry had become, and asked for the lifting of various administrative burdens. Islamic State militants murdered 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya.



IMMIGRATION, kept at the top of voters’ concerns by elements in the press and the UK Independence Party, was the focus of an All Party Inquiry, which severely criticised the practice of detaining immigrants without a time-limit; the UK was the only country in the EU to do so. Of the 3500 people in detention, 400 had been held for longer than six months.

The exodus from the Middle East had not yet begun in earnest, but the UN reported that 4.8 million Syrians were living in areas defined as “hard to reach” with humanitarian aid.

An international Anglican-Methodist commission concluded that, apart from views of the historic episcopate, there were no “church-dividing differences” keeping them apart.

The Chancellor’s last Coalition Budget contained a surprise announcement boosting the roof-repair fund for listed buildings to £55 million.

Participants in the C of E’s facilitated conversations on sexuality reported examples of “good disagreement” breaking out, though some criticised a lack of engagement with scripture.

After months of preparation, and a legal challenge from some “Yorkists”, Richard III was reburied in Leicester Cathedral, a short distance from the car park where his remains had been found the previous year. In his sermon, the Bishop of Leicester touched on the king’s reputation, but emphasised God’s mercy.

Gloucester was the first diocese for which a woman diocesan bishop was announced, the Ven. Rachel Treweek.



The foundering of a boat packed with 400 migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya woke the public up to the plight of desperate people fleeing war zones in African and the Middle East, and Syria in particular.

In the mean time, Islamist outrages continued: militants massacred 148 students, most of them Christians, at Garissa University in Kenya on Maundy Thursday.

An earthquake in Nepal on 25 April killed more than 9000 people and injured more than 23,000. Rescuers were hampered by the inaccessibility of many of the towns and villages worst hit.

The centenary of the start of the Armenian massacre triggered further debate about the culpability of Turkey, overshadowing the unity of Gallipoli memorial services.

All the party leaders appeared in church settings in the run-up to the General Election. A Church Times poll indicated that 48 per cent of Anglicans intended to vote Conservative (27 per cent favoured Labour, 16 per cent UKIP, and six per cent Lib Dem).

A Conservative proposal to give housing-association tenants the right to buy was condemned as “economic nonsense and immorality” by the Bishop of Manchester. The Trussell Trust reported that foodbank use had risen by 19 per cent in a year.

A Christian charity reported a research finding that popular films helped dementia-sufferers with memory, if not total recall.



The Preacher to the Papal Household, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, speaking at a leadership conference in Holy Trinity, Brompton, gave a first outing to his suggestion that “In the eyes of God — and of our persecutors — we are already one.” (He repeated this before the Queen at the opening of the General Synod in November.) A US report on deteriorating religious freedom in the Middle East coincided with a conference in Bari, Italy, where the “end of Christianity” in the region was talked of openly.

Prebendary Rod Thomas, chairman of Reform, was appointed Bishop of Maidstone, with responsibility for conservative Evangelicals who object to women bishops. Oxford, meanwhile, discovered that the Crown Nominations Commission had been unable to agree on a nominee.

In one of the many stories touching on sexuality, Ashers Baking Company in Northern Ireland was fined £500 for declining an order for a cake with “Support gay marriage” iced on it — just a few days before the Irish Republic voted 62 to 38 per cent in favour of same-sex marriage.

The C of E’s national investment bodies announced that they were selling fossil-fuel holdings worth £12 million. The Commissioners had also been active in challenging high executive pay awards.



The Methodist Church published an independent report on nearly 2000 cases of reported abuse, spanning 64 years, in which 200 ministers and 1600 lay people were identified as perpetrators or alleged perpetrators.

In a ruling that countered the current trend, an employment tribunal determined that a nursery worker, Sarah Mbuyi, had been unfairly dismissed for telling a co-worker that God “was not OK” with homosexuality. She had responded to a direct question.

Archbishop Welby visited China and, in a carefully worded sermon, encouraged believers to be respectful and gracious when communicating their faith. He was more openly critical of the Church’s record in England when he spoke at an event to mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta: the Church had often failed to uphold the charter’s values, he said.

Pope Francis issued an encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, in which he linked poverty and economic forces with the degradation of the planet, and called for a “bold cultural revolution”.

In one of several mass shootings in the US during the year, nine worshippers were murdered by a gunman who joined them for a Bible-study meeting in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Carolina.



IN HIS first Budget after the election, the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced that the Government was planning its own version of the Living Wage. But he also revealed plans to allow local councils to weaken Sunday-trading laws.

There was mixed news on a report in parish giving. The overall total given in 2013 was the highest ever — nearly £1 billion; but failure to keep up with inflation meant that this figure represented a drop in real terms in the 11 years from 2003.

Church opposition moved into gear to combat the latest attempt to legitimise assisted suicide. Rob Marris’s Bill had “the potential to damage both the well-being of individuals and the nature and shape of our society”, the C of E’s adviser on medical ethics said. (The Bill was defeated in the autumn.) The European Court of Human Rights dismissed a claim by Tony Nicklinson’s widow and Paul Lamb that UK resistance to assisted dying violated the right to respect for private life.

Sister Frances Dominica ASSP was “flooded with messages of support”, her lawyer said, after her foundation, Helen House, asked her not to return after allegations of historic abuse had come to light. She strenuously denied them. The General Synod approved new rules allowing it to suspend any priests as soon as they were under investigation for safeguarding issues.

The Supreme Court in Pakistan agreed to hear an appeal by Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. After two postponements, 26 March has been set as the date for the appeal.



SONGS of Praise was praised, by and large, for broadcasting a programme from the Jungle, a makeshift refugee camp outside Calais. The Chaplain to the Channel Tunnel, the Revd David Slater, warned that Eurotunnel staff were suffering stress from the repeated attempts to enter Britain. David Cameron spoke of a “swarm” of migrants waiting to enter.

Islamic State jihadists beheaded an archaeologist, Maamoun Abdul-karim, and dynamited Roman temples at Palmyra.

Bishops in South Sudan expressed their grave concern about the future of their country, after stuttering peace talks between different tribal factions, and in the wake of a UNICEF report of serious atrocities in Unity state.

An on-air murder of a reporter and a cameraman in Virginia shocked a country that was increasingly familiar with inexplicable shootings.

St Mary’s, Shoreham, opened a book of condolence after 11 people died after a crash at an air display.

Attendance at English cathedrals was boosted by increased numbers of weekday visitors. Evangelicals, canvassed for their views in a survey on values, placed consumerism at the top of a list of modern sins, followed by obsession with celebrity. The top virtue was a sense of humour, followed by tolerance.



THERE was a groundswell of support for refugees from Syria after the circulation of a photograph of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy, named at the time “Aylan”, who had drowned on 2 September trying to reach Europe with his family. Concern grew, too, about conditions in “the Jungle” camp at Calais. Thousands, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, offered to accommodate refugees. The authorities, however, discouraged such offers.

The new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, told Third Waymagazine that he was “not anti-religion at all”. He also supported a Christians on the Left campaign for a work-free Sunday.

Roof lead continued to be attractive to thieves, who were now diversifying into paving slabs, insurers reported. A Justice Minister assured the Church that incense would not be banned under the Psychoactive Substances Bill.

Pope Francis addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the need for action against climate change: “Any harm done to the environment . . . is harm done to humanity.”

The new Community of St Anselm was established at Lambeth Palace, for young people wishing to spend a year “in God’s time”.



The Lords Spiritual were part of a rebellion against plans to cut tax benefits for workers. In the same week, the Bishop of Gloucester became the first woman bishop in the Lords.

A former Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Peter Ball, received a 32-month prison sentence, after having been found guilty of sexual offences against teenage boys and young men.

The Prime Minister responded to a plea by 84 bishops to settle 50,000 Syrian refugees in the UK rather than the Government’s target of 20,000. With respect, he said, they were wrong.

Russian air strikes against Syrian rebel groups, some of them attached to Islamic State, encouraged further military action on the ground. The Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, a city with a large Christian population at present under attack, urged the West to stop funding groups that opposed President Assad: “You are pushing on us fundamental jihadis who want to kill everyone who is not similar to them.”

The Synod on the Family in the Vatican left space to deal pastorally with couples who wished to receive communion after a second marriage. The same weekend, the Vatican cricket team beat the Archbishop of Canterbury’s XI in a historic match in Rome.

The diocese of Chichester apologised and paid compensation to someone who complained to it of sexual abuse by the war-time Bishop George Bell. The diocese accepted that it had failed to act correctly when the complaint was first made in 1995. There were complaints about the way the complaint had been handled.



THE co-ordinated terrorist attacks on Paris on Friday 13 November, which left 129 people dead and more than 400 wounded, dominated the news through the month. A suggestion that one or more of the attackers had entered Europe in the midst of the refugee chaos turned public opinion back again against the migrants.

Church charities working with disadvantaged people shared the relief they felt when the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced

A C of E advertisement, in which the Lord’s Prayer was recited, was deemed unsuitable for cinemagoers. It had been intended to run before the first showings of the new Star Wars film. The ensuing publicity meant that the ad had a good showing on YouTube.

The Queen inaugurated the new General Synod. In a short meeting, the new members discussed the migrant crisis, and heard Archbishop Welby speak about the possible use of armed force, “in a quasi-policing form”. There was also a presentation about Talking Jesus, a piece of research that suggested, among other things, that 30 per cent of non-Christians felt more negatively about Jesus after a talk with a Christian.

A competition for fund-raising ideas, run jointly Ecclesiastical Insurance Group and the Church Times, turned up more than 400 suggestions, and was won by a church near Wigan, for a worm-charming contest.



THE climate dominated the month, breaking records for unseasonal warmth in the south of England and excessive rain in the north. Southern India was hit by floods, the Philippines by a typhoon. In Paris, governments agreed an ambitious package of measures to combat the effects of global warming.

In the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris, a parliamentary vote in favour of air strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria was followed within hours by the first of these strikes. Church leaders were divided, and even the Archbishop of Canterbury, who voted for them in the House of Lords, spoke largely against.

The All Parliamentary Group on Hunger reported on a year in which the hunger experienced by many of the poorest was not acknowledged as “urgent” by the Government, it said. It did, though, welcome the significant fall in the number of benefit claimants sanctioned.

An abuse survivor, Dr Julie Macfarlane, wrote in theChurch Times about her encounters with lawyers retained by the diocese’s insurers. An official church response, elicited by the BBC’s Sunday programme, stated: “The clerical abuse described by Julie Macfarlane is utterly appalling. There are no words which can accurately reflect the extent of shame and regret that we felt on reading her account. We pay tribute to the depth of her bravery and courage in retelling this story, and offer our unreserved apology, not only for what happened but what she’s had to endure since.”

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