Nigel Uden, Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly, sees liberation in a new light, on a visit to the Channel Islands
My father’s caution about me becoming a minister was that I would be bored. If one is not part of the Church, that is perhaps an unsurprising concern. But in this case, my father’s concern was not justified. Long before he died, I think he recognised how stimulating ministry is. He wouldn’t have used this language, but what could be more stimulating than to be caught up in the Body of Christ, with its vocation to help the world know what God has given it in Jesus Christ? Apart from anything else, I have never stopped learning, never ceased to have new experiences, and never finished encountering different people and their cultures.
A recent new experience of mine was going to the Channel Islands to visit the United Reformed churches on both Guernsey and Jersey. My only previous trip had been a fleeting preaching engagement ten years ago at the Sion Church in the St John’s parish on Jersey.
Serendipitously, I was visiting the islands as they were marking the 74th anniversary of their liberation from the German occupation throughout much of the Second World War. Of course, I had learned about the war in history lessons, but there is nothing like being in a place where it is remembered by people who suffered it, survived it or continue to be shaped by it. In St Helier, Jersey, I saw parades and processions, singing and speeches, formal finery and battle fatigues.
From my advantageous seat – courtesy of an ecumenical colleague I met by representing the URC at the Methodist Council – I listened to the Bailiff (the Chief Justice and legislative president of the bailiwick) exhort us to understand liberation and freedom as more than history. Liberation is a contemporary imperative too. I joined the heartfelt ‘hear our prayer’ as the Roman Catholic Dean of Jersey prayed for the Channel Islands and for their former enemies. I was arrested by the speech in the States Assembly by Deputy Carolyn Labey, the island’s Assistant Minister for Economic Development. She urged her compatriots to recognise that, as citizens of the only part of Britain ever to have received humanitarian aid, there is a role for them in today’s world, where still too many depend upon aid.
In a moment of extraordinary intensity, I heard the people in front of me speaking German. I greeted them, and we had a deeply moving conversation. They told a story of the liberation we had been remembering over the previous 90 minutes, and of the way we best relate to each other across Europe today.
I left those people to seek their return sailing for France, en route to Munich, and mused upon it all over lunch in a well-known coffee shop. At first, as I sat down, I was chuckling, after having been teased by a holidaying Scot who, as I paid and proffered my Costa loyalty card, said: ‘Ah, so you’re an habitué!’ But then I became more reflective. I began to ponder the Church’s contribution in today’s febrile world of inhumanity, division and a suffering that requires humanitarian aid – just as did the 1940s Channel Islands. I recalled two books I’ve read recently: David Nott’s War Doctor (Picador, 2019) and Aehem Ahmad’s The Pianist of Yarmouk (Michael Joseph, 2019), where the inexpressible tragedy of contemporary Syria is described with a compassion and wisdom made all the more insightful by their respective backgrounds in medicine and music. Both authors are driven to far-reaching humanitarian responses to our inhumanity with each other. One cannot help but feel urged into a solidarity with them. Maybe a donation? Or a campaigning letter?
I called to mind Stanley Hauerwas’ emphasis upon ‘the eschatological character of the Gospel’. There’s a long-term end game, when God’s purposes will be fulfilled in Christ. In Liberation Square, we were retrospective. Something three quarters of a century ago cast our minds back. In the speeches, we were brought up to date: as we celebrate yesterday’s liberation, let’s strive for today’s freedom. The Church’s perspective, though, is simultaneously tri-focal. At one and the same time, we remember, and we are alive to the here and now; and we are invited to trust God’s future, believing that, ‘in the fullness of time, God will renew and gather in one all things in heaven and on earth through Christ, and be perfectly honoured and adored.’ (URC Alternative Statement of Faith, 1997) We are people for whom liberation is indeed yesterday, today and tomorrow.
I came home with much to keep pondering, and with a renewed imperative to pray for liberation wherever it is denied. None of that is boring,
Nigel Uden, May 2019