the crowning glory of beauty and conflict

An event that took place in the Easter weekend this year in Sri Lanka which hit the world news platforms, had a stark difference to the news of Easter events which took place two years ago, when several churches were ambushed by suicide bombers. 

An event that took place in the Easter weekend this year in Sri Lanka which hit the world news platforms, had a stark difference to the news of Easter events which took place two years ago, when several churches were ambushed by suicide bombers.

This time the camera was on the glitz and glamour of a beauty pageant.

Beauty contests, even being a dated idea, have their place in society for those seeking fame and fortune and the desire to impress the world with their perfectly turned out bodies and killer outfits. The Mrs Sri Lanka 2021 contest held at the Easter weekend concluded with the reigning ‘Mrs World’ (2020) who happens to be Sri Lankan, crowning this year’s winner. Just as the cameras were zooming in on the beaming winning candidate, the reigning Mrs World returned to the stage and boldly announced that the winner was a divorcee and was not eligible to hold the crown! She then proceeded to remove the crown from this lady, who was deeply startled by the sudden turn of events, and announced the 1st runner up as the winner! What was most surprising was the gleeful acceptance of the crown by the 1st runner up who did not seem to have any compassion towards the lady from whom the crown was snatched. Unbelievable sequence of events which brought about a furore of opinions that hit the national and international press around the world.

I am not writing this to put any wrongs to right of this beauty pageant, neither am I writing to offer sympathy to any bruised egos nor defend any character assassinations. If not for this incident, most of us will not have even heard of this competition. The contest in question will have its rules and processes which will no doubt take its course.

I couldn’t help but jot down my thoughts as this was a perfect storm that highlighted a trait that permeates through every level of society, in the day to day life, in this multi-cultural, multi faith country even in the year 2021. Women in general have lower social recognition but added to that if women do not meet the cultural expectations that society demand of them, they can be ranked even lower.

A woman if she is single for whatever reason, unmarried, divorced, separated or widowed is deemed to have less value than a woman with a husband. An apparent quality in a patriarchal society that confers validity to a woman only if she is affiliated to a man. For a country that raised the first ever woman Prime Minister in the world, this can be an alarming fact to take in. This kind of caution also extends to women who are married but who don’t give birth for whatever reason. Women in such life situations have no respectful place at auspicious gatherings like weddings and coming of age ceremonies.

The ancient Indian practice of ‘Sati’ where a woman throws herself on a husband’s funeral pyre, a ritual which began as a voluntary heroic act of a woman’s desire to remain pure and separated only to her husband may be a dying trend in South Asia. Although this practice probably never occurred in Sri Lanka, the purity of a woman who has lost her husband and remains unmarried is usually met with suspicion. If one is divorced the woman becomes a social target. This rejection although at times subtle and nuanced, can be deeply cutting and debilitating for the woman concerned. It can sometimes take the form of overt physical and verbal insults or even assault.

How do I know this? 

I write with the pain of having faced the consequences of being a divorcee and a single mum in the last 20+ years. The value attributed to me and my family unit was certainly taken down to lowest levels which caused so much pain and distress. The length at which people went to discredit me and cast undue bad light on my character or criticise me as being a ‘social disgrace’ was deeply hurtful.  Especially so when it was directed by close family. I struggled to understand this when I put things in the context of our shared Christian faith.  Not my feelings towards the folk who rejected me, but what conceives otherwise reasonable human beings to act that way.

Witnessing the events of the beauty pageant in question allows me to be more aware of the reasons behind such acts as shame and honour defines the culture in question. Nonetheless, it also fuels the desire in me to push for change.  Not being a feminist for the sake of feminism but to see society honour, respect and cherish women in their own right irrespective of their marital status or the ability to bear children. This has to begin at grass roots level, in a family unit.

Here’s a story that illustrates cultural expectations that make people act in ways that seem harmless on the surface but yield unintended consequences.

When a younger relative is being married, an older female sibling who is already married usually performs various auspicious cultural acts at the wedding ceremony to bring forth good luck, prosperity and fertility etc. Even Christian families perform these rituals that seem harmless, to be culturally relevant. At a point in life when I was married and yet was without child, I was not permitted to take part in my due role at a ceremony because of my childlessness. It was instead given to a younger relative who was married and had a child.  

I think there is danger in making such a judgement call. I felt at that time, the honour that was mine as the elder relative was taken away from me. I got over the social and cultural humiliation directed at me, but what unravelled afterwards in my life and in the lives of the others involved gave me cause to pause and think of these actions and their consequences. Playing with culture without the covering of godly values can be dangerous.

It so happened, that despite all the cultural rituals being followed, this married couple was sadly not blessed with children.  He was the only male in that generation to carry the genealogy of the family name. It is sadly now not to be.  To cause a twist in the tale, a couple of years later, my perceived barrenness was proved wrong! The irony of it was too confusing to witness despite the joy of my being blessed with two sons.

What if… what if, I was given the place of honour despite my childlessness as the elder relative to perform my role, would this male relative be blessed with child?  We simply don’t know. When we profess a faith in the Almighty God, and play with culture without consideration of the other, demeaning the value of a person, we are playing with fire.  God honours culture only within his laws of love and consideration extended to the other. What the world perceives as wholesome can be quite the opposite in God’s economy. He loves the widow and the orphan. The social outcast is No. 1 in his sight.

I have pondered further on the reasons for this kind of judgement call, as I strongly believe that it is done out of sheer ignorance rather than malice.

The culture in which we operate, forms our values and opinions on how we do things and treat each other. 

My parental generation were the first young adults of the post-colonial era.  During the immediate post-colonial time the Sinhalese people felt the desire to re-align their cultural identity.  This identity is intrinsically entwined with the majority faith culture.  Customs and rituals handed down from a mainly patriarchal culture and subjugation and superstitions that society have layered on continue to remain and thrive if not addressed. Sinhalese Christians were and still are the minority in that country although they were the socially larger group comprising 80% of the population. In hindsight, I recognise that the Sinhala Christian identity has struggled to evolve. This concept is nothing new when you consider minority Christian groups around the world.  

In contrast, my life here in the UK as a divorced single mum belonging to a church family, gave me such comfort and value. I must state that this was in an intercultural setting rather than a language or ethnicity specific church group. I had the honour and privilege of being involved in two young couples’ marriages who were closely associated to me. My divorced status was not a hindrance in their sight as they had witnessed my life for many years prior to that.  What balm to my soul!  They had absolutely no idea of my story described above but I felt God restored my dignity in his family by their generosity of spirit.

Whoever does God’s will, will be my brother and sister and mother”. Mark 3:35

Cultural traits travel with people groups as they settle in other parts of the world, and perpetuate itself especially if they exist in their cultural silos.  We have a great opportunity of allowing migrant communities to share their positive cultural attributes in a worshipping community whilst allowing ourselves to unlearn negative values that we carry from our birth cultures.

We cannot do this in culturally segregated groups where we only mingle mono-culturally. There is a deep, deep necessity to shine a light on cultural blind spots, and this works both ways as we worship with the majority culture.

We can only hope that the players involved in the unfortunate incident of the beauty pageant, find their true worth and learn to honour each other as women, whatever their faith or status in life.

Beauty can bloom out of conflict, that which brings to light hidden values that need the refining fire of God.

paper lanterns

When you watch a movie that resounds reconciliation, peace, love and forgiveness without ever hearing the words being mentioned, it is pretty hard to know where to start to gather one’s thoughts to scribble about it.  I am writing this as a record for myself and if anyone else reads it – may you be blessed.

These are Covid times, the screening of Paper Lanterns organised by the Japanese Anglican community was on Zoom. 

I had a recent memory of watching the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima bombings on the news; how dignified, pristine and orderly the gathering was, commemorating a horrific incident that took place in their country at the end of WWII. This part of world history did not feature too extensively in my learning in school, so I was curious when Yuki, a fellow Anglican invited me to the screening.

When the ‘A bomb’ fell on Hiroshima at 8.15 on 6 August 1945, Shigeaki Mori was an eight year old. His life was saved whilst some of his close family perished in the nuclear cloud that enveloped that region.  He had just moved schools, and the one he just left was marooned with all teachers and children perishing in a flash. The carnage he witnessed as a child, now immortalised as paintings and drawings in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum formed part of the film. I have seen artwork of horror, but nothing can compare to these illustrations of human life melting away in the aftermath of the bomb. They were unapologetically gruesome, yet had huge artistic merit. The music composed by Chad Cannon was a fusion of Western and Japanese sounds and captured the sentiments that conjures up in you as a viewer.

Mr Mori was a gifted researcher and was more than curious of the history of this world event of which he was a part as a young boy. Along with the 140,000 Japanese people who perished in Hiroshima, there were 12 American POW’s who were captured by the Japanese army when their bomber Lonesome Lady crashed near Ikachi. Mr Mori was fuelled with compassion for the families of these 12 POW’s who he was convinced, knew nothing about the last moments of their loved ones’ lives ending in Hiroshima. This led him to delve into numerous historical records and copious amounts of letter writing scouring all 50 States in the US to find the next of kin of these 12 young men who lost their lives – it took him 40+ years!

There were two young men out of the 12 who survived the bombing, and were re-captured by the Japanese army. They were found to be extremely week and unwell. These men were taken to a doctor who tried to attend to them but they had all the signs and symptoms of nuclear radiation and died soon after. The men were given a proper burial, and in the film you see their families visiting the place where the hospital stood, now marked with a memorial plaque. The dignity offered to the enemy in such dire situations is palpable in the movie. Mr Mori’s efforts of finding the families of these POW’s have brought people together from across the United States who never knew each other before.

It was heart rending to hear them say that when they visited the village where the plane came down and met other Japanese people whose lives had been impacted by the bomb, there was absolutely no sense of anger or the expectation to hear the words of apology or repentance.  They only wanted acknowledgement that it happened and that it will not happen again and that both sides will not forget the effect nuclear war has on life.

The Director of the movie, Barry Frechette was present at the viewing, and was able to talk us through the making of the film, which he said was more fulfilling than seeing the finished product. The extraordinary people he met and visiting places that were once decimated, now flourishing with life gave hope for humanity.

The film captures the 2016 memorial service at Hiroshima when President Obama visited. Mr Mori is seen hugging the President after being honoured for his efforts in his memorial speech. A scene I recall on the news as it was only 4 years ago.  If only I knew then the depth of love, commitment and the reconciliatory spirit this human being had, I would have savoured the news item much more.

When there were celebrations of the end of the war, the families of US POW’s who were marked as ‘missing in action’ could not join in the celebrations not knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones. The efforts of one single man who was dedicated to helping total strangers, foreigners who were the oppressors, who lost loved ones in his country find closure, is a feat that needs shouting about; and Paper Lanterns depicted this so beautifully with no bias assigned to either side – just showing the people and the events as they were.

Now an octogenarian, one would imagine Mr Mori would want to put his feet up and relax after the fulfilment of a life long project – but no, his attention has moved to Nagasaki and the POWs who perished there…..! 

to the memory of the 12 POWs

Durden Looper
Joseph Dubinsky
James Ryan
Julius Molner
Hugh Atkinson
Charles Baumgartner
John Long
Raymond Porter
Burford Ellison
John Hantshell
Norman Brisette
Ralph Neal

follow the star

One of the unintended blessings of administration during Covid times is that you can be a fly on the wall on some great virtual teaching.

On one such occasion, I heard Revd Canon Miles Baker speak on Leadership in the context of vision casting and achieving targets. He used the story of the Magi in the Christmas story to illustrate his points. This reminded me of the fact that scripture is for all of life and how easily it could be forgotten when we try to manage the business side of our communities and individual lives. To be brought back to the centre of the Word in this way was so refreshing.

Let me try and recall what my small brain gathered from this talk. Miles (if I may address him so) was focusing on three points of 1. Objectives 2. Strategy and 3. Tactics in the context of practical input into vision casting.

So, what was the objective of the Magi in the Christmas story that is so familiar to us. Their question to King Herod in Matthew 2 might have a clue. It seemed whatever the hidden motives, King Herod too wanted to share in the Magi’s objective.

            “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?  We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” V2

They knew who flung stars in the sky and had come together with just one objective – to worship him.  They had the knowledge and the wisdom which is clear from this one verse in the text.  As the story unravels we know that they pursued their main objective.

What was their strategy? What tools and resources did they have? History has depicted them to be using camels as their mode of transport, although this is not mentioned in scripture.  (Just as Miles pointed, I too would be disappointed if I get to eternity and find that camels did not feature in the story of the Magi!).  The star was the sign they followed and was constant through their journey. Their strategy was to follow the star and they did so to the end, until they found the baby Jesus.  The ‘star’ is mentioned 4 times in that part of the story.  We saw it as mentioned above when they assigned the star to the King they were seeking. The star remained a constant focus in their journey until they achieved their objective.

            “……..and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped at the place where the child was.” V9

            “When they saw the star they were overjoyed”. V10

Finally, to the tactics. The story is full of twists and turns.  Tactics need to remain fluid and flexible whilst keeping focussed on the objective. In mission and ministry, when we are dealing with people and life situations a rigid plan can sometimes thwart a well-intended strategy.  Going back to the Magi, they would have had a great deal of planning to do to set off on a long journey from the east with a destination unknown. Packing gifts for a king and items for their own sustenance, an entourage! They seek Herod’s counsel but are guided by a dream not to return his way after worshipping the baby Jesus.  They were open to being guided by a dream and change their plans. They sat lightly on their tactics.

As much as it was a way of illustrating three key points of achieving great things in the service of the Kingdom, the objective that the Magi had set was so captivating that it grasped my attention. Whatever culture the Magi came from, they pursued and reached the ultimate objective of worshipping the King, the Lord of all nations.

e m b r a c e

I want you to see ‘why’ we are here….
We are here to make you see things differently.  
We are not here to take from you, although we would appreciate 
being allowed to live our lives as our means allow.  

I want you to see ‘why’ we are here…. 
We are not here to run the NHS or sweep the streets of London,
although we will do that with joy if that is our calling.
 
I want you to see ‘why’ we are here…. 
You brought the Gospel to us 
But you took away our indigenous spirit
Enforcing on us a culture so alien to us
Wrapped up in the beautiful message of the Cross.
 
I want you to see ‘why’ we are here…. 
We are here to give you a chance to say sorry for your past,
when you travelled to faraway lands and disturbed the tranquillity 
of other cultures enjoyed in their God given lands. 
 
I want you to see ‘why’ we are here…. 
Because we have forgiven you and embraced your
Culture – your music, dance, dress, your language......
 
I want you to see ‘why’ we are here…. 
We are here to announce ‘It is your moment 
dear friend, embrace us for who we are and
Let His Kingdom Come!'

guess who’s coming to dinner?

I was recently introduced to Ignatian spirituality and a weekly meditation session organised by the Jesuits in London.

At a recent meditation session we reflected on Luke 10 and the story of Martha and Mary with Jesus visiting their home. We used this picture by Dr He Qi to meditate and enter into the story, and I invite you to join me.

Both in the text and the picture I see two women- both devoted to Jesus.  One showing her devotion through preparing to treat Jesus when he visits with the best possible meal and care given in Bethany and the other falling at his feet in worship.

Martha would have painstakingly given full attention to seeing that everything was perfect for her Lord. The tea would be served at the right temperature, bread freshly baked and not allowed to get stale in the hot Middle Eastern climate.  Pomegranates freshly picked and washed and clean.  Tables dusted, linen fresh and the floor swept clean so that when Jesus walked in with his bare feet after leaving his sandals at the door after cleaning his feet, it felt clean to tread on.  Martha loves the Lord.  He is still her first love, she has pondered on it long and hard and had that assurance in her heart – and now it was her turn to show gratitude in an earthly sense.  Worship him with her time and meticulous care of hospitality that is world class yet personal. 

Mary on the other hand falls down in worship at the feet of Jesus and does not move.  She is oblivious to the hospitality that her older sister is so engrossed in providing for their special guest.  Mary is still so deeply moved by the gift of salvation she has received from Jesus.  Her sins forgiven and set free.  How can she give any attention anywhere else than to this man who has given her new life!  She loves her sister, but this moment is too precious, far too precious to be doing anything else. In any case, did Jesus not look after the earthly needs of his followers without them having to tarry so much – has Martha forgotten this?!

Martha is surprised of Mary’s lack of attention to making their guest feel comfortable and draws Jesus’ attention to this.  Martha must carry the burden of running the family home being the older female sibling.  Why does she not complain about Lazarus not helping? Is this cultural? Is it the responsibility of an older female child to attend to the practicalities of a household?  Martha in that sense was not abdicating her duty – is this admirable?

Martha, Martha”. Jesus calls out to her twice by her name.  Martha must have felt special although what followed would have taken her aback. “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

We are not told of Martha’s reaction in the text or what happened afterwards.  Did Martha feel rejected or was she reassured that whilst Jesus was appreciative of her efforts that he was giving Mary affirmation as she demonstrated her undivided devotion?  Did Jesus help Martha himself and get Mary to help eventually?  Was he saying to Martha that cultural expectations of an older sibling needs to be laid aside when it comes to worshiping the Saviour?

Enough of my rhetoric.  Let’s look at the picture.

Both women’s eyes are turned towards Jesus in a reverential pose, but Jesus is looking ahead.  Possibly looking at you, asking you what you think?  Are you going to take sides or are you going to go deeper into the spirituality of the two women and where they are at in this story? 

Whatever the Spirit reveals to you, I sense that Jesus was challenging the accepted cultural norms.  That of a female child being left to take responsibility for hospitality – but oh no, not when Jesus is the guest.  Sitting at the feet of the guru was usually reserved for disciples who were all male, but Mary is now doing just that. Eagerly waiting for the Master to teach her things of the Father and eternity. Jesus affirms Mary, giving value to women who are hungry and thirsty for the Lord to come alongside their male counterparts to receive from him.  Magnificent, isn’t it?

the elephant in the room

I love the English language.  I love how key words and phrases dance out into the public arena and become part of our daily vocabulary during unusual times. Social distancing, self-solation has become part of our daily conversations in these surreal times we find ourselves in, wherever we are in the world. A deadly microbe of a hitherto unknown nature is shutting down normal life.

It is my love of the language, and what pops in my crazy head when I hear something unusual, that made me write a social media status [Note: before the Govt orders became clearer] that read ‘I love the words herd immunity’, only to be pounced upon by folk who opposed the idea in its real sense of the phrase in the current context of social distancing.  I had to respond by pointing out that I only said that I loved the words….!  So, I reiterate, I am only exploring the words that give meaning to a hearer in this instance not a medical or social phenomenon that makes one form of behaviour acceptable over another. For someone whose mother tongue was not English in her formative years, an unusual phrase or word can arouse various ideas, images and such like that I feel needs to be put out there….for chewing over.

I can’t help but smile when I hear or read the words ‘herd immunity’.

It conjures up so many beautiful images in my head. It may be because I love elephants and having seen herds of them as a child, could not help but marry the two. These creatures (meaning elephants!) walk the wild so graciously and look invincible, yet not scary (if you watch them from a distance of course!). They look formidable yet gentle when moving in huddles protecting their young. The words herd immunity has such a sense of unity and purpose that excites me. It gives an impulsive ‘yes, let’s get this enemy together’ kind of idea in my head. In fact, it has transpired to somewhat of a universal collaborative effort to fight this common enemy we are faced with, even though the medical strategy was not practiced in the current pandemic.

It was just last Spring I jotted my thoughts on an enemy of another sort in my blog The Great Multitude. It was around this time of year, Easter Sunday to be specific, when Christians worshipping in Sri Lanka were attacked by terrorists in multiple churches simultaneously, killing hundreds.  I felt deeply for believers who were fearful of worshipping together after this incident.  I promised myself then, that I will never take gathered worship for granted.

A year later, we are now globally forced to worship away from our usual corporate worship spaces, in fear of a new threat. We are affected by a common enemy. The response to being unable to meet together has been rapid and extremely creative, thanks to modern technology and social media that we sometimes complain about. In one church, a morning service usually attended by a few hundred people, had six thousand take part in the virtual edition! There are hundreds more of such instances.

What IS God doing? Will we ever go back to our usual forms of worship and remain the same? Will we embrace each other’s differences and be curious of each other’s stories from now on?  Have we released our elephants in the room so we can together face the roaring lion outside? Something to ponder in our times of self-isolation and social distancing. 

Elephants are sociable creatures, and the commonly used phrase does not actually grant them justice. So, let’s get into the ‘herd’ mentality of these lovely creatures and face the real enemy together.  Until we meet again, stay safe and well….

a jungle of letters

Acronyms – love ‘em or hate ‘em – they have their place in our lives. The NHS being one of the most used in our day to day lives. In fact the medical profession’s sheer existence and participation depends on sound knowledge of the myriad of short forms used by the health service professionals and their patients – so much so that they have an Acronym Buster app!  Every other industry and trade will have their own list of short forms  – creating a peculiar language that evolves within a community that helps people navigate themselves through its processes. A secret code that sounds intriguing and cult-like to the outsider.

Well the church and Christian community are not exempt from this! We are a special breed within an even more special wider world that lends some of their expertise on acronyms for conducting our business – more accurately, God’s business.

You may wonder why such a preamble was necessary for what I am trying to even make sense to myself whilst writing this blog.  Something I observe does not sit right, smell right or look right to me. Yes, we may be getting stale around the edges and even allow it to eat into our core by being oblivious in using acronyms that do not describe God’s most precious creation – His people – in an authentic or God-honouring manner.  If we do not sit up and take note and act swiftly, we could go down the road to dishonouring his purposes. Well it may be a majority of one that believes so….but let me try and bust it!

Nothing makes me cringe more than to hear or read that my (or any other person of colour’s) presence in a group or a committee ticks the BAME box.  I am certain that whoever came up with this colourful acronym had very good intentions of inclusion.  However, by listing two people groups and generalising the rest with the latter two letters, one excludes most other minority groups and even poses the danger of assigning prominence to one group over the other.  On another note, what about the white minority groups who are significant in number in Britain presently?  Do they fall in the BAME category? The acronym does not point me in the right direction.

Research shows that London’s largest migrant community are the South Asians from the Indian sub-continent.  This people group is BIG (not an acronym!) on faith and culture.  Even though they have left their lands of birth, they will find ways of gathering under their umbrella of the faith community to which they belong.  The Hindus have several magnificent temples in NW London, the Buddhists have the London vihara and so many other shrines dotted around the country, the Jains, the Sikhs their Gurudwaras and our Muslim brothers and sisters have theirs, most notably the London Mosque in Regents Park. Most people in this group have their cultural identity wrapped up in their faith.  Just as Narendra Modi, the Indian PM is rigorously trying to instil the phenomenon that if you are Indian you have to be a Hindu, could apply in other contexts too.  So where does that leave the Christian South Asian?

Christian community needs to reconcile cultural unity especially in a time such as this when Global majority believers face marginalisation from their own communities. One might say that worshipping in a language group is important for some people. Just looking around in the neighbourhood I live, makes me believe that Christians are losing a great opportunity of modelling ‘Jesus culture’ to migrant communities as they increasingly become ghettoised.  If you are a South Asian Christian and are reading this, and you worship only in your language group, could I encourage you to try joining a larger community which is more multi culturally Christian.  You will be amazed at how much you can learn and also share of your own cultural riches with others, whilst witnessing to Christ.

Western Christians may you embrace your ‘other culture’ sister or brother in Christ and watch theirs and your faith grow.  I say this with personal experience.  Only a week into my arriving in London over 35 years ago, I attended my local church who totally embraced me and took me into their fold.  There were other minority group folk there but they were not segregated. We all shared the same bread and wine and took part in the same service. I am so, so thankful to the minister and his wife who are long standing friends of mine even to this day for the welcome and the love they showed me and others.

Therefore, I feel the reference to one’s colour and cultural origin culminating in one simple acronym when Britain is so magnificently multi-coloured and multi cultural could prove a difficult or even an impossible aim. BAME you have no meaning to me!

a medieval english abbess and a pandemic

It was around 2008/09 that I received an email from Noeline Sanders, inviting a group of Sri Lankans to join a forum on issues relating to the Sri Lankan civil war, and the effect it bears in the diaspora community in London and the UK. The venue advertised was St Ethelburga’s church in Bishopsgate, City of London.  I made the journey to Bishopsgate one evening not knowing then how much it would change my life.

The world is currently in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, which reminds me of the story of St Ethelburga that I have heard whilst visiting the church. Much like the current coronavirus pandemic, the Plague (c. 664 AD) killed thousands of people in the British Isles, targeting those in the south of the country. 

During this period, St Ethelburga was gifted land in Barking by her brother St Earconwald for the purposes of building a monastery.  (St Earconwald, who later became the Bishop of London, had his own monastery for male monks.) St Ethelburga became the first abbess of Barking Abbey who went on to dedicate her life to the poor and those affected by the dreadful plague.  The Venerable Bede is known to have said St Ethelburga was “upright in life and constantly planning for the needs of her community”.

It is known that the Abbess, at the time of the Plague, encouraged the nuns to step out of the monastery into the community to serve the sick and the dying, knowing the risks involved for themselves. The Plague took the life of the great Saint as well as others in the monastery. The ethos of putting values into action is one of the four key principles of the mission of St Ethelburga even today.

Founded c. 666 AD, the monastery was a place for prominent women in society to take up holy orders in the event they sought freedom from societal norms, such as arranged marriages or in some instances, their families bartering their lives for the release of English prisoners! A dowry for admission to the monastery would usually be paid by a wealthy benefactor.  A royal connection is known to have paid the admission dowry to the Abbey for Elizabeth Chaucer, the daughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. The list of nuns associated with the Abbey confirms a connection between the monastery, and royalty and gentry. A decision by the 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury, St Dunstan made Barking Abbey follow the Rule of St Benedict.  The Abbey was one of the richest in the country in that time and continued its monastic traditions for nearly 900 years. 

The medieval church of St Ethelburga is dedicated to the Abbess of Barking and dates back to 1250, while having survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz of WWII. The church was extensively damaged by an IRA bomb in 1993 but did not at that time have any insurance cover and closed for several years. It was under the leadership and vision of the then Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, that the church re-opened in 2002 as a Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. 

Once the largest building in Bishopsgate now stands small compared to the Gherkin and other skyscrapers in the financial centre of London. However small in size, the longevity of its legacy and the global reach of its work cannot be matched to the value of all the hedge funds and million-dollar deals that occur in its vicinity.

Everything about the church represents St Ethelburga as a saint; great foresight, leadership and above all, compassion. The church continued with this legacy and ‘achieved notoriety as one of the few churches in which divorced people could remarry, in defiance of the Bishop’s strictures’.

The Plague of c.664 AD lasted nearly 25 years. Let us hope and pray that the current pandemic will be over in a much shorter space of time. 

Getting to know some great like-minded Sri Lankan women of all faiths, sitting round in the Tent a decade ago, while discussing matters that affect our lives under the auspices of a female English medieval Saint has been a privilege.  (The Bedouin tent that sits at the back of the church is a must see if you are visiting the City of London). St Ethelburga’s legacy has made it possible for a plethora of fora such as our’s to meet. It is a place where attributes of other cultures are celebrated and valued.  Enjoying food, dance and music and poetry of other cultures and social mingling of people who would never otherwise have engaged with one another yet live in the same city is a jewel in the crown that St Ethelburga has facilitated.

I am thankful for the space St Ethleburga provides for those on the margins of society; the foreigner, the stranger, the refugee. It facilitates a space for dialogue  that which could destroy people and communities and helps to birth renewed vision and energy, and is a place that connects strangers and builds meaningful friendship across faith, culture and other social divides.

This long association with St Ethelburga pointed me to participate in one of the church’s collaborative project areas in 2019 The Journey of Hope Pilgrimage where I met some amazing people from around Britain. We travelled together and learned from the centres of reconciliation in mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. I am grateful for the original connections made by Noeline who also now serves as a Trustee of St Ethelburga community.

The Listening to each other: Listening to Earth programme responds to the urgent need for climate justice issues and sanctity of the earth and combines nurturing leadership of people of colour. Based in the country’s financial capital, St Ethelburga encourages financial institutions to take responsibility when navigating turbulent times. A guiding principle of the programmes is seeing crisis as opportunity whilst building community across differences and protecting the sacred.  More can be found here.

The work of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation is prophetic and relevant more so today than ever.