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General Synod digest: Lambeth and dioceses to address persecuted Church

18 February 2022
Clive Mear/Church Times

The Archdeacon of Lewisham and Greenwich, the Ven. Alastair Cutting

The Archdeacon of Lewisham and Greenwich, the Ven. Alastair Cutting

Persecuted Church

THE General Synod has asked the dioceses to “offer support to link dioceses where the Church is facing persecution” as well as pray for them, and has asked that the Lambeth Conference address the issue.

On the Thursday afternoon, it debated and amended a motion from Lichfield diocesan synod from 2017, then intended to draw attention to the denial of freedom of religion and belief (FoRB) in many parts of the world. Since then, the Bishop of Truro had published his independent review of Foreign and Commonwealth Office support for persecuted Christians (News, 12 July 2019), which became the basis for a Synod debate last year (News, 30 April 2021). The UK is to host an international conference on freedom of belief in July.

In January, the World Watch List stated that 340 million Christians around the world were persecuted for their faith last year; 4472 churches and church buildings were attacked; 4761 Christians killed (91 per cent in Africa); and 90,000 North Korean Christians were given emergency food and medicine through Chinese networks (News, 21 January). The global pandemic was found to have increased persecution through the denial of aid relief and as a justification for increased surveillance.

The background paper presented to Synod states: “The suffering of Christians worldwide is one of deep, heartfelt, and immediate concern to the Church, but such concern does not overshadow or take precedence over other FoRB violations. It may often be the case, however, that the Church has a stronger focus to address the religious freedom violations of Christians, even though it rightly supports and advocates this right for all people.”

Introducing the debate, Penny Allen and the Revd Damian Feeney (both Lichfield) said that the statistics demonstrated the extent of abuse, torture, and violence that governments had a duty to address. Mrs Allen hoped that the national conference would “heighten awareness of countries’ neglect of their own citizens”.

Fr Feeney said that the Church must repent of the part that it had played in the persecution of others. Recent atrocities had shown that these incidents were not isolated; both priests and women were particularly vulnerable to persecution. “We have an ethical imperative to love all people without condition,” he said. “To the Christian, persecution against any is anathema.” He urged the Synod not to “view it in the abstract”.

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, spoke of the emphasis on the marginalised in Luke 6.22, which, he said, made it clear that those under heel were favoured of God. He recalled a pilgrimage to Egypt with Coptic Archbishop Angaelos to sites of the martyrdom of Syrian Copts and Armenian Orthodox, describing the memory as “horrific to this day”. The genocide of Syriac Christians during the First World War had left that community prone to persecution. “Small minorities can do little to protect themselves,” he said. “Our responsibility must be to look unflinchingly at their suffering.”

Stephen Boyall (Blackburn) urged dioceses to engage with organisations such as Open Doors. He spoke of his work with seven- to ten-year olds, who had corresponded with children globally and learned much about their suffering. “Can you imagine growing up trusting Jesus when your dad was killed for Jesus?” he asked. “Let us engage and pray. . . Let our brothers and sisters know what inspiration they are to us.”

Archbishop Angaelos (Orthodox Churches) thanked the two Archbishops and the Bishops of Coventry, Southwark, Leeds, and others for their constant advocacy. “This is something dear to our hearts and touches us all.” He was delighted with the motion — “the work of God in the fullness of time” — and the prospect of the July conference, which would bring the issues to the fore.

He spoke of the death that day of the Eritrean Patriarch, Abune Antonios, after 15 years under house arrest, as “a stark reminder of new violations”: such unjust imprisonments were happening all the time. “This is the time for collaboration . . . for all of us to pool our resources and raise our collective voices. This is not just a theological conversation. People are dying every day.”

The Archdeacon of Lewisham and Greenwich, the Ven. Alastair Cutting (Southwark), spoke to his amendment, which added six further clauses to paragraph (a), listing sources of information, resources, and actions to enable schools and places of worship to engage with the issues and the forthcoming international conference. The amendments, he said, “flow out of the spirit and heart of this motion”.

Mrs Allen thanked the Archdeacon for fleshing out the motion, and urged the Synod to “swallow it whole”.

Peter Adams (St Albans) welcomed the motion and the amendment: “It’s vital that we be well-researched so that we can be good advocates. . . Listen to the issues; be informed.”

The Bishop of Lichfield, Dr Michael Ipgrave, found the amendment helpful and friendly. The genesis of the persecution of Christians was of “spiritual urgency for us, but set in the indivisibility of religious faith. It maps out the challenges we face, but also know to be part of the response. Good relationships, friendship, and trust can be powerful resources.”

The Revd Esther Prior (Guildford), via Zoom, said: “It seems to me that the Spirit of God is reawakening our hearts for the marginalised . . . raising our eyes to see the persecuted Church.”

The amendment was carried.

Gabriel Chui (Liverpool), who is a member of a Farsi-language congregation, said that case studies from that community, including kidnappings by Revolutionary Guards in Iran, were “stories of real people with real suffering: the [thrust] front and centre is to enable our persecuted brothers and sisters to hold on.”

Using sign language, Sarah Tupling (Deaf Anglicans Together) spoke about the work being done in Derby diocese, where the Derbyshire Churches link with the Church of North India had been active since 1977. Friendships had been sustained through ongoing prayer, regular visits, and financial support — some from the Bishop’s Harvest Appeal, she said. The school links programme now involved 25 different schools throughout the Derby region. “We are really concerned about growing oppression, the real challenges they face every day. We stand united with them, ready to support them in any way we can,” she said.

The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, noted that, after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan was now the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian. “The denial of freedom of religious belief is a great evil,” he said. “We are shocked at the scope, scale, and severity of what we find. It is monstrous. Eighty per cent of religiously motivated persecution of Christians is intolerable and unacceptable. It is a profoundly moral issue which demands our attention.”

Aggressive militant nationalism that insisted on uniformity was one of many things on the rise, he said. “It is steadily getting worse. China and India are now among the worst in the world for violence against minorities. The best way is to advocate freedom of religious and belief for everybody. We must never limit our understanding of who our neighbour is. Rhetoric must match reality.”

In a maiden speech, Canon Vaughan Roberts (Oxford) said: “It is time we woke up to the deep need, and I would strongly commend partnership.” He had been present at the third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelisation in 2010, where the prayer had been to “remove the persecution”, but also to learn from the example of persecuted people “to be followers of Jesus, whatever the cost”.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Guli Francis-Dehqani, brought personal reflections from the small Church of Iran, where her faith had been nurtured. She endorsed the encouragement of links, but warned dioceses to remember that situations in some parts of the Communion could be dangerous, particularly in places where the Church was seen as an agent of the West.

She also acknowledged the complexity for people who had come to the UK, especially converts from Islam, of finding a place of belonging, “a need to discover who they are in safe settings”. She asked: “If we truly respect our brothers and sisters, what can we learn about our present situation in the Church of England? Should we listen to the whisper of the persecuted Church to be faithful now — not to be fearful, but dwell faithfully and joyfully in the present?”

Caroline Herbert (Norwich) spoke of the power of prayer. She hoped that “each one of us as individuals is committed to pray, and, when we have opportunity, to lead intercessions and Bible-study groups.” Might there be an opportunity for Synod to do this after the vote, she asked.

The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin (Canterbury), who was chairing the session, assured Mrs Herbert that such prayer was planned.

The motion was carried unanimously: a counted vote of the whole Synod resulted in 329 in favour. It read: 

That this Synod request that:
(a) the Church of England not only pray for the persecuted church, but that its dioceses offer support to link dioceses where the church is facing persecution,
(b) organisations and dioceses consider joining the UK Freedom of Religion or Belief Forum to work with Christian and other groups in ad­­dress­ing the persecution of Christians and the global violation of Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB),
(c) churches consider using re­­sources such as the practical Everyday Faith ­— Hidden Church during the Thy Kingdom Come novena between Ascension and Pentecost, 26 May-6 June,
(d) in the run up to the Inter­national Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief (The Ministerial FoRB) Conference 5-6 July 2022 individuals and groups consider hosting information events, prayer groups and fringe events using the Toolkits for Places of Worship and Schools and Communities on the End The Persecution website,
(e) churches and individuals contact their MPs in advance of The Ministerial FoRB, asking them to raise awareness of the persecuted church, and other FoRB violations, suggesting some of the actions in the FoRB Toolkit,
(f) that Her Majesty’s Government implement in full the previously accepted 22 recommendations in the Bishop of Truro’s Independent Review for the Foreign Secretary of FCO Support for Persecuted Chris­tians, published in July 2019, by the third anniversary of the report in July 2022, as indicated within the report, and
(g) the next Lambeth Conference address the issue of the persecution of Christians.

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