Martin Warner on his recent visit to South Africa and why and how we ought to share our experience of faith with others
What really catches the attention on the high street today is the stuff in estate agents’ windows: ‘property porn’ is what it’s being called. Forget Miss Selfridge or Topman, and even the special offers on mobile phones, iPads and their imitators. What we’re interested in is the price of housing in our area.
And this makes me wonder about the cash value of the house in Nazareth that was the home of the Holy Family, with its modern replica in the Anglican Shrine – not that we’re thinking of selling up! But would a house that size really do for a family, even allowing for the fact that they wouldn’t have to accommodate an altar by Sir Ninian Comper and several prickett stands?
The answer is that something that size does represent home for many of the millions of our brothers and sisters who live in poverty today, as a group of us from the Diocese of York discovered on a recent visit to South Africa.
We had gone to renew the link between the Dioceses of Cape Town and York, first established by David Hope, when he was Archbishop. Among many of our remarkable experiences was a visit to Khayelitsha, a township of over a million people, most of whom live in shacks smaller than the Holy House. And one of the most remarkable people we met was Gertrude, whose home, built of chipboard and corrugated iron, along with 1,500 other similar shacks, had recently been destroyed by fire.
The most impressive thing about Gertrude was not the scale of her poverty: it was depth of her faith. ‘I give thanks to God and rejoice in him; I still have my family, and I have my church and my faith,’ she told us. The people from her church, who themselves had little enough, had rebuilt her shack, given her clothes, a few pieces of furniture, food, a microwave and a kettle, and some blankets to cover the tin walls.
Lack of food
For us, this was a new and challenging environment to be in. Here was a society living by the radical code of gospel generosity. Their widow’s mite made our western affluence look very thin indeed.
Talking a little later to Siphokazi, who runs a church-sponsored community project in Khayelitsha, I asked what the most pressing need was for people in the townships and informal settlements. Her response was simple and eloquent: ‘They are hungry.’ This was not emotional, spiritual, political or intellectual hunger: it was about the lack of food to provide meals for all seven of the days in a week.
When Mary, several months pregnant, arrives in the home of her kinswoman Elizabeth, I could imagine locating their encounter in the township of Khayelitsha today. And when Mary proclaims that God remembers his promises, that he feeds the hungry with good things, she is affirming a truth to which the Magnificat still urgently calls us. We are evangelized by a gospel that demands attention to poverty as a matter of urgency.
Following Mary’s example
Mary’s outpouring tells us about her understanding of the dignity of being human as God intends. Human life is marred, not made by hunger, malnutrition, disease and homelessness. As a woman and a mother Mary knew the danger of all these ills. If we are to be what the publicity states in its description of this year’s National Pilgrimage, Alive with the Memory, then, like Mary, we also must seek to inhale the Holy Spirit, so that the works of God, in feeding the dispossessed who are the people of God, become a reality to us as the lesson that models our own behaviour, locally – and globally, using the resources that modern technology puts at our disposal for food production and distribution. If we are so minded.
He will re-mind you – yes, remind us that the material hunger of the earth’s poor is a violation of God’swill, remind us that when Mary asserts that God lifts up the powerless, she also models for us a statement about the politics of poverty wherever it exits. And the truth is that one of the most effective ways of breaking the destructive cycle of vicious poverty is the empowerment of women, which also enables them to exercise and enjoy the gifts and abilities that distinguish women as being equal in dignity to men. But as the primary carers women in the developing nations have the greatest effect on improving the health and education of children and sustaining family life, over against the worst effects of war and disease.
By contrast, if you want an account of this that is closer to home, watch the film Made in Dagenham. It’s about the strike in 1968 by 187 women machinists that halted production of the Ford Cortina and led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. There are tears and laughter, and Barbara Castle is outed for shopping in C&A – not really fashionable even in those days. But above all it asserts something primal and fundamental about the nature of human dignity in woman and in men, particularly in relation to human labour – also an area in which Christians should be heard to speak for dignity in the context of a global marketplace in which the most vulnerable are most easily exploited.
In the Sixties and Seventies Archbishop Michael Ramsey undertook, with singular wisdom and insight, to steer the Church of England through rapidly changing times. At the same time Pope Paul VI was similarly engaged with guiding the Roman Catholic Church to embrace the complexity of the modern world and all its potential. In our own time, Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (‘Charity in Truth’) has taken us back to the era of the Sixties in order to reassess where we might be today in our understanding of human progress.
Importance of the spiritual
The recognition of a greater pace of change than might have been expected fifty years ago is what runs through Pope Benedict’s letter. The demands for a global response to issues such as human dignity and poverty remain loud and clear. What emerges with greater urgency, however, is the awareness that human progress, of itself, does not lead us to the kingdom of heaven. ‘Authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension,’ wrote Paul VI, pointing us to the importance of the spiritual as a fundamental part of our character. ‘Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space,’ echoes Benedict.
As Catholics in the Church of England, one of the contributions that we have to make to our Church is an enthusiasm for the connectedness of this kind of engagement and its authority in discerning the unchanging God in the changing circumstances of this life. This is an engagement that has the confidence to consume the modern world but not digest its poisons, that comfortably allows image and sacred gesture to play their ancient part in communicating what words cannot say about the revelation of eternal life.
It was something of this potential and quality that Archbishop Robert Runcie discerned in Walsingham when he came to preach at the National Pilgrimage in 1980. He described places, ‘where the more verbal and frankly suburban version of Christianity normally presented as ‘Church of England’ fails. [But] Walsingham …has something to give the whole Church …A strong catholic evangelism.’
This year, Walsingham’s Youth Pilgrimage, in August, has a description similar to today’s National Pilgrimage. It’s Alive with the Vision. I don’t think that the idea is they are looking forward and we are looking back! Rather, that we are both engaged in the same process of being re-minded, given the past in order to see the future – heaven – and share the experience. That begins to describe ‘a strong, catholic evangelism’.
On my recent trip to South Africa what communicated the vitality of the Church in that place was the capacity of ordinary people like Gertrude and Siphokazi to talk about their experience of faith. It was as natural as breathing. It was refreshing as air – it was of the Holy Spirit.
When you get the opportunity to share your faith with other people, please be like those women. Please don’t mention the General Synod, or the parish share. Please speak about God. Talk about Mary and about homes as sacred places; about the sacraments and meeting Jesus who is God and has lived as one like us. Speak about hearts that are made for love, and the heart of God who loves us for our individual uniqueness. Speak of human dignity and freedom, of eternal life and what it means to you. And do this for love of him, and love of those who do not yet know him.
Do it also because you know that in this land we are coming out of a terrible intellectual and cultural famine that has led to widespread spiritual hunger, illness, pain and loss. Do it, perhaps because you might have remembered hearing of a Christian woman in South Africa who simply said: ‘They are hungry.’
So share your faith: feed them. Amen.
This sermon was originally preached
at the National Pilgrimage to Walsingham:
950 Years since the building
of the first Holy House ND