It’s a grey, blustery, rainy day in Coventry, but we are looking forward to the week ahead! Bishop Peter Price, former Bishop of Bath and Wells, was due to deliver the youth gathering opening talk this afternoon, and very sadly he’s now not able to be with us today. His shortened text is below however, and you can read the full text here.
This morning I watched as the wind blew the remaining petals from one of the ‘Peace” roses in my garden. Close by another was in full bloom, and still more in bud, waiting to break forth and offer blossom and scent – symbolising for me the birthing, blooming and dying of acts of peace in our world today.
My first conscious act of peacemaking occurred when a gang of teenage boys burst in on a youth club I was helping to organise in South London. Their leader quickly identified one of the weakest looking boys and tried to pick a fight. Almost without thinking I stepped between the two and after a short conversation, offered to let them hit me instead of their intended victim. “We couldn’t do that, “ the leader said, “You’re a decent sort of bloke.” “So is he, “ I replied, “ and so are you.” The atmosphere lightened. The gang went off. I saw the boy to his home. The next day I encountered the gang on the street. They greeted me like a long lost friend, and we had no more trouble.
Many of us have been in situations where we either have been, or could be peacemakers. Most movements for peace in conflict begin at the local level. They begin with simple acts – sometimes something as ordinary as a smile, a kind word, or a question: ‘How are you today?’ Or as one community builder put it: ‘If I was asked to give one piece of advice to young people today it would be, ‘Get to know your neighbours.’
Like many in my teens I was struggling with matters of faith and belief. I sensed that any God I would believe in, would have to be one who understood what it was like to be human, as well as one who was concerned with the realities of the world as it is, not simply One who was using human experience as a conveyor belt for heaven. I had been taught in Sunday school that ‘God became human.’ The challenge for me was could God in Jesus genuinely become human; and if so what kind of human being? And if the kind of human being Jesus was, then what kind of human being was I to be?
One clue lay in a remark of Jesus: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be recognised as children of God.’ This statement revealed two truths: all humanity is equal before God, but to be recognised as a child of God, one needs to be a peacemaker. In 1967 I married a woman from Ireland. It was at the beginning of the conflict known as the ‘Irish Troubles.’ Over the next nearly forty years civil war raged. Early on we had to make a decision. Were we to try and be peacemakers, or were we to leave that to other people? For the next four decades we spent time on the streets, in people’s homes, at centres for reconciliation, along with others seeking to find the things that make for peace. It was challenging, exciting, depressing and hopeful almost all at the same time. We still contribute now, even though for many people the conflict is over.
Peace loving, is not the same as peace making. We all love the idea of peace. But peace making is costly in any society. To use Jesus’s language it involves a ‘laying down of life’ for the welfare of others, friends, enemies. One of my friends building peace in Ireland used to say:
When we choose to act for peace, paradoxically we will meet hostility and enmity. Peace threatens power. You have only to look at the lives of Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Dag Hammarskjöld, and many others to realise the truth that this happens.
Today we are in Coventry Cathedral. I first came here in 1961 as the new cathedral was being dedicated. What moved me then, and still does, is walking through the ruins of the old cathedral destroyed in the blitz of 1940. Looking over the smouldering ruins the next morning the then Provost Richard Howard preached forgiveness in his destroyed cathedral. He vowed to rebuild it as a sign of reconciliation and of hope. It was message that was not appreciated in Coventry at the time. But today it is the centre of a world wide ministry that is gathering people from all over the world to consider the things that make for peace.
I was privileged to receive the Coventry Cross of Nails in Jerusalem in 1999, along with people who had suffered greatly for their commitment to peace. I felt honoured, and something of a fraud alongside such courageous people. I have been in churches in Germany, South Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere where the Coventry Cross of Nails is displayed as a symbol of their commitment to the ending of conflict and the making of peace. Each symbolises a truth: you don’t reconcile with friends you reconcile with enemies.
As I look again at the ‘Peace’ rose outside my window, I see petals fall, symbolising others who have gone before, even people like myself in the later years of life. I see flowers in bloom, people, mostly hidden and apparently insignificant praying peace, thinking peace, speaking peace and acting peace. I see too unopened buds – symbols of peace makers in the making – perhaps you. I hope so.
I am sorry not to have been with you, but you have been in my thoughts and prayers and will remain so. I hope these next few days will be ones in which you respond to the call to be recognised as children of God – no longer peace lovers, but peace makers.
29th July 2018