It all began with the war over the break-up of Yugoslavia. I didn't go anywhere near the conflict, I was working in Geneva at the time. Some of my parishioners had jobs in humanitarian organisations actively involved in the region. We saw the arrival in the city of refugees, and tried to help some of them. The gossip was about Balkan politicians and their entourages who came to negotiate, shopping in the town's smart boutiques, when not betraying some of their fellow citizens. I watched TV reports, read articles, and listened to people who had been on duty out in the field. We discussed, shared a sense of outrage and helplessness, that's all. Learning about the conflict at close second hand nevertheless had a profound impact on me, more than any other conflict since current affairs became part of my daily prayers. .
News of mass rape and slaughter, assaults on UN peace keepers, destruction without military purpose hit me hard. Nothing made sense. What was the point of the vandalism of Olympic ski installations on Mount Igman, the shelling of Mostar's mediaeval bridge, the universal plague of anti-personnel mines sown on fruitful farm land? The desire to gain power seemed to be accompanied by the desire to annihilate opposition. There seemed to be an endemic despair and cynicism in people caught up in the conflict no matter where they stood politically.
We watched the revival and exploitation of ancient hatreds between Muslims, Serbs and Croats, and the destruction of the experiment of a multi-faith, multi-cultural society in Bosnia. News of similar brutal wars in third world countries was equally distressing, but on the surface at least easier to understand, given continued disastrous relationships between post colonial states and global political and economic powers. This war bewildered me. It struck at the heart of my idealism, my liberal, internationalist, ecumenical convictions, all I had identified with in twenty five years of ordained ministry. Moreover, it was happening in the south-western corner of the European Community, only two hours by 'plane from where I lived.
From October 1993, I conducted a weekly half hour of prayers for peace on Thursday lunch times at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Geneva's city centre. I thought of it as praying the news. A small handful of faithful regulars sought to lift up all the world's places of pain in intercession. It was no easy task. The regular healing prayer group with its focus on individual needs was much better attended, more immediate in its appeal. To understand what was happening in the world, let alone pray constructively in the face of unrelenting bad news was a struggle. The Bosnian war shook the faith I had sought to live by and teach to others for half my life. It challenged my belief that reconciliation was both necessary and possible, it scorned my optimism that anyone could learn to live together peacefully with their differences.
Two of the three parties in this conflict had ancient European Christian histories. Atheistic Communism had been a poisonous and debilitating influence. In the name of social equality discrimination, injustice and ancient resentment had been pushed under the surface rather than rooted out. Religious identity subsisted in the different cultures, but it seemed that Christ's teachings played little or no part in motivating or regulating the behaviour of those whose deeds shaped public affairs. Outward signs of religious allegiance never seemed far away, but the sight of Bosnian mosques and churches desecrated by shell and mortar fire was a dumbfounding comment on modern religion.
Our so-called 'information age' is full of contradictions. We have more facts at our disposal to understand the world and our part within it, yet, it seems, less possibility to interpret how all things relate in meaning and purpose. The greater the ability the world has to communicate and to resolve major human problems, the more people resort to violence as a means to an end. Is there any alternative? How can we understand what has gone so terribly wrong?
This war, together with different experiences of division, conflict and sub-Christian behaviour in the life of the church close to home and far away, compelled me to re-visit the sources of faith in Jesus Christ. Challenges and questions about faith from the curious or even the hostile make any pastor's daily life rich and stimulating. It is a different matter when the hardest questions come from within. I was compelled to examine how I could retain and continue to teach the beliefs which had upheld my life and given me purpose and direction since my teens. My inner turmoil did not stop enquirers and searchers after faith from approaching me wanting to learn more about Christian discipleship, but what sort of answers could I give them?
The traditional Christian world-view adapted itself with discomfort to the era in which reason, science and technology emerged to dominate. Its influence did not succeed in unifying or bringing peace to the world. Life over the past century, particularly its unending succession of wars and acts of genocide, raised many stumbling blocks for advocates of faith. Many of my Christian contemporaries in the swinging sixties opted for limited involvement in the church and pursued social careers in work, education or third world development rather than ordained ministry. I believed that a new vision of the world in the light of the Gospel was needed for our era, that would commend itself universally, be taken to heart, and put into action. I took the path to priesthood at a time when vocations were in decline, convinced that only a spiritual renaissance would enable the vision of unity and peace to become a reality.
When I was a young parish priest in the inner city area of St Paul's, Bristol in 1980, I was witness to what was regarded as the first serious insurrection against civil authority to occur in Britain in a hundred and fifty years. I had for some time shared the growing concerns of other community leaders that such an outburst might happen. What has since become commonplace in urban areas across Europe came as a shock to the general public and was widely reported in news broadcasts around the world. To those of us who lived and worked among the poor and deprived, it was a disaster waiting to happen. These events left me with a sense that Britain, perhaps the Western world, had passed a point of no return in the erosion of common social and moral values.
Housing and public amenities in the St Paul's area were deplorable, an offence against the people in the community I served. The link between poverty, unemployment, desperation and crime was self-evident. Different ethnic groups made a valiant effort to live alongside each other, to raise their families honourably in a strange land, and to work together to improve conditions. But, no matter how hard community leaders and politicians worked, there seemed to be a gulf in comprehension between them and the city's leadership. It resulted in actions, or lack of them, that rarely went to the heart of the real concerns of our neighbourhood.
As a parish priest, one of the few professionals living in the community I served, it was inevitable that in the aftermath of the riot the news media should pick up and publish remarks I made about institutional racism, social deprivation and injustice breeding violence. A 'Daily Telegraph' editorial denounced me as crypto-marxist : "Pity his poor parishioners being fed stones instead of bread.", it said. The Reverend T.W. Harvey, Victorian founding father of St Agnes Parish Church where I was Rector, had helped local workers to establish Trades Unions and battled for improved social conditions. In his footsteps, I joined the middle-of-the-road local Labour Party, which had an admirable record of service to its constituents. Atheistic materialism could not have been more distant from my outlook. From time to time I had found myself at odds with 'revolutionary' activists in the inner city, out to exploit the miseries of my parishioners for their own purposes. I was stung by the criticism, indignant at being misrepresented.
I felt it was essential to name the evils of injustice, to speak concretely about God's unconditional love and concern for all people. No matter whether I was heard, taken seriously or not, telling unpalatable truths was necessary, despite the risk of being misunderstood. Telling the story of Jesus Christ, living his Gospel and its consequences as a member and minister of the church was more than just a job to me, it was the driving force which shaped and motivated my life. The way I had learned to understand Christian tradition was deeply rooted in the richness of ordinary human relationships, not in abstract theories or political ideology. Fifteen years after the St Paul's experience, one way I could find out if this still held true was by re-telling the story of Christ and the church as I had received it, in the light of new experience.
Each generation must give its own account of how it is inspired and motivated by faith. What I absorbed from preceding generations is re-expressed in the light of what has happened to me, growing up with a sense of being an inhabitant of the 'global village', exposed to different cultures, lifestyles, religions and expressions of faith. I am still challenged to consider how I might give to those asking me about vital matters of faith in a changing world bread instead of stones.