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Church leaders turn the spotlight on Herod’s successors

27 December 2017


TYRANTS were denounced by church leaders in Christmas messages this year.

In Canterbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury described how 2017 had seen “tyrannical leaders that enslave their peoples, populist leaders that deceive them, corrupt leaders that rob them, even simply democratic, well-intentioned leaders of many parties and countries who are normal, fallible human beings”.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, described how “tyrants like Herod still strut about the world today, their vanity and hubris still causing havoc and misery. But the door of the stable at Bethlehem still stands open for those who long for peace and those prepared to have their lives redirected.”

The Archbishop of York related how the Prime Minister, Theresa May, had “courageously responded” to President Trump, when he “retweeted a vile message from the fascist ‘Britain First’ campaign” (News, 30 November).

In St Albans, Dr Alan Smith reflected on the ultimate futility of walls, including the one being extended by President Trump along the Mexican border, and the “so-called ‘security wall’” constructed by the Israeli government, separating communities in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

“Walls designed to keep people out ultimately fail,” he warned. “Walls can provide a temporary expedience in the face of unprovoked violence, but lasting peace and prosperity require that we meet others face to face and work with them.”

Jesus Christ was “that living bridge which unites earth and heaven, people and nations. And when we open to his transforming grace we discover the walls of fear and division within us dissolving.”

In a year that saw terrorists attack cities including, in Britain, London and Manchester, the public’s response was celebrated.

“I‘ve known and loved this city all my life, but I’ve never been more proud of it than I am now,” the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, said. “Faced by the murder of 22 people in our midst, and the maiming of dozens more, the people of Manchester made the right choices.”

In her Christmas message, the Queen paid tribute to the “extraordinary bravery and resilience” of the survivors of the Manchester bombing, and to the cities of Manchester and London “whose powerful identities shone through over the past 12 months, in the face of appalling attacks”. She spoke, too, of the “sheer awfulness” of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Archbishop Welby observed that Britain had witnessed “terrorism that kills the innocent, claiming that it is the path to freedom in God” and described how “the nature of God, who has all power, and from whom all power comes, is to lay it aside for love’s sake and thus without fear, force or manipulation to offer true freedom for every human being”.

Amid critique of politicians, there were words of challenge for the Church, too. The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, reflecting on a year in which “competitiveness has been the name of the game” (“the political landscape has been dominated by slogans such as ‘America First’ or ‘Britain First’”), noted that “in churches — and between churches — competitive power struggles have often consumed valuable energy, which should have been deployed for something nobler.”

In his Christmas sermon, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, included a defence of political engagement.

“The angels’ song is more political than we often acknowledge, for the Roman emperor, the occupying power in Israel, declared the Pax Romana,” he argued. “The angels sing that true peace comes not from a human emperor but from God revealed in a baby born under occupation.”

The Pope’s message contained a long litany of suffering, including that of children in Syria. He lamented that “an outdated model of development continues to produce human, societal and environmental decline”. The Archbishop of Wales, the Rt Revd John Davies, warned that “the voices suggesting that we should be concerned only for ourselves seem to get louder and louder”.

Meanwhile, Dr Sentamu suggested that “Christmas should re-awaken the rebel in us”. Recalling the rebellious phase of teenage years, he asked: “Whatever happened to that revolutionary within? Has it been overcome by a weariness which prefers to muddle along because we no longer believe anything can be changed?

“Every Christmas is a renewal of God’s invitation to turn away from pessimism and despair and embrace the Christian virtue of hope.”

There was a warning, too: “I don’t think many British people today realise that by casually distancing themselves from their Christian heritage, they have become ripe for a political or religious takeover.”

The overtly political content of messages was delivered as a YouGov poll commissioned by The Times found that “65 per cent of respondents said political figures should keep their religious beliefs cordoned off from their decision-making”. Further to this, 62 per cent of people said that “no religious clerics should have an automatic right to seats” in the House of Lords.



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