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Archbishop Sentamu Takes a World View

Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu.

Saturday 22nd December 2007

Read the Archbishop's article written in the Daily Telegraph...

Archbishop Sentamu's plan for world change

According to recent research carried out by Operation Research Business, 40% of us will go to a Church Carol or Christmas service this year. Such are the numbers attending Cathedral services that extra services are being laid on to cater for the numbers wanting to attend. For those attending on Christmas Day one of the readings will include an account of the very first Carol concert as described by St. Luke. The account is of a performance which took place in an open air venue, up above a hill near Bethlehem to an audience of some shepherds and some sheep.

In this age of reformed bands and super concerts, one can only wonder what the assembled choirs of angels thought about their divine gig to the shepherds. Having been booked to sing in this one night only affair, their innate angelic sat. nav. took them not to the assembled crowds on planet earth of the Roman Colloseum or the masses in Jerusalem but rather to some men, minding both their sheep and their own business, who seemed rather bewildered by the whole experience. Who sends a choir full of the heavenly host to sing their hearts out for God's glory and His desire for peace on earth to the sheep-tending poorest of the poor ?

And what about the reaction of the crowd ? The Shepherds could, of course, have dismissed the whole thing as some shared group delusion brought on by the cold or tiredness. They could have simply dismissed the whole thing as being irrelevant to them - its impact upon their jobs was nil - or simply say "it's got nothing to do with me". But they went and found the Child they were told about, and having found Him, they told others what had happened. That's the nature of good news, it bears retelling.

Telling the Christmas story reminds us not only of our heritage as a country but reminds us once again of God's agenda. His agenda for the poor and the marginalised, the excluded and the disadvantaged. In the birth of Christ, God not only intervenes in human history but enters into it, not in a palace as a prince but in a stable as a child, born into poverty in a land under occupation. Yet there are those who will tell you such ideas are a delusion or irrelevance, and others still who campaign to eradicate from our public life altogether the place of faith.

Despite the welter of books and articles from those attempting to prove a negative in the non-existence of God, the critique of a god who can be defined around our own conceptions and ideologies is not a new idea. For years sociologists and others have lampooned faith as being a prehistoric necessity of prehistoric man which has no place in the modern world, where man's own achievements have rendered any sort of conception of God obsolete. Faith for people such as these, belongs in the category of superstitious fairytales where the works of Augustine and Aquinas are placed alongside the works of Aesop and Hans Christian Anderson.

Yet the relegation of religious thought and of religious motivation to the lowest form of knowledge, robs society as a whole not only of some of its champions of social justice but also from the essential values of human worth which underpin the meaning of life itself. The Christian faith and the value it places on human worth and dignity has given birth to some of our finest and most valuable social institutions and organisations: the Hospice movement, Amnesty International, Shelter, the Samaritans, Alcoholics Anonymous, Jubilee 2000, the Trade Justice Movement, the Children's Society, National Children's Homes, these are just a few of the thousands of British charities that exist today only through the Christian beliefs of those who have founded them as organisations. Whilst Christians can in no way claim to have a monopoly in the field of social justice, their contribution has been incalculable.

This year we have commemorated the bi-centerary of the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The vision and example of Wilberforce and his companions, should inspire and prompt us to expose and denounce all forms of oppression today. For slavery still persists. It is reckoned that there may be 27,000,000 people enslaved today. For them freedom is barely a hope and certainly not a reality.

Slavery continues in our society in its most brutal and exploitative fashion through sex-trafficking. It is a sad fact that the UK is the leading destination in Europe for trafficked and vulnerable people. The appetite for sex without responsibility betrays a corrupted form of thinking which views human beings as commodities to be used and disposed of to gratify sexual desire in exchange for money. Such thinking has clear resonances to that of the slave owning classes from centuries past and suggests not so much the progression of our society through reason but its regression through consumerism. For those who buy sex, the financial ability to do something has bypassed the moral choice as to whether it should be done. The consequence is the wrecked lives of those women and children who have become slaves to the unfettered and unchecked desires of others.

The legislative process that might herald an end to sex-trafficking may have begun earlier this week, with the announcement of the government's root-and-branch review of prostitution laws, which will examine the prosecuting of men for buying sex. I am hopeful that the announcement of these proposals, taken together with the new guidance from the Newspaper Society next month to stop the advertising of brothels where women are often trafficked, will mark the beginning of a process to end sex trafficking and sex slavery that may yet be commemorated in the years to come.

In some countries today people have sold themselves and their children in payment for debt. In Haiti it is reckoned that 200,000 children are domestic slaves in Port au Prince. The number of bonded labourers in Pakistan may be as high as 1m. In Niger, slavery was only criminalised in 2003.

For the young people in this country slavery can take more subtle forms. When a youngster joins a gang, he gives up his freedom – he sells himself, loses his identity, hands over his conscience to the group. It's a bit like an addict, who will do anything for a fix. He needs to be liberated, now, in the 21st Century

It's not just boys who lose their individuality. 45% of 13-18 year old girls are eating less calories than they should. 77% said they felt fat, ugly and depressed after seeing pictures of physically perfect models and celebrities. The current uninformed stigmatisation that all those who are cuddly or curvaceous are obese does not help.

I want children and young people to be free of these phoney influences and over-generalizations. I want them to grow up confident with their own personalities and bodies. I want their heroes to be saints, not pop stars or gang leaders. I want them to change the world, not to give in to it. That is why over the coming year I have committed myself to raising £1.5m for a new Academy in East Hull. My hope is that it will be more than just a school. Its students will come from the locality and be shown that what they can do for their neighbourhood is at least as important as what they can do for themselves. They will be taught that character matters more than celebrity. The Academy's ethos will be Christian. That is: open to all and for the benefit of all. I pray that every boy and girl who benefits from a place there will have written on their heart the biblical texts, "If Christ shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. Do to others as you would have them do to you."

My hope is that this will be an Academy with a difference. We will get the Academy ready to receive pupils and not the usual failed expectation of getting pupils ready for the school. It will be a centre of excellence and life long learning - an Academy for the whole community. As we Africans say, and now as an African- Yorkshire-man, "It takes the whole village to raise, nurture and educate a child."

Our society has a valuable lesson to teach each child - that God created each as a unique individual, so start living like one. Each has their own particular gifts and abilities. By learning to use them rather than dreaming about the lives of others, they can throw away the celebrity magazines and the longing to be someone else. Their own life is much more precious, much more exciting if only they choose to use it, to utilise it. God made each of us a unique person down to our fingertips. So stop trying to be someone else and start being who you are.

The latest survey on National Kids Day is encouraging. Fame and riches just don't cut it for youngsters as much as they used to, it seems. Being happy is the most important thing in the world for under-tens, a survey shows. That is a change from previous years – in 2005, being rich was seen as the best thing in the world, while the top answer last year was being wealthy. This time around, happiness was followed by fame, health and wealth in the poll.

We need to encourgae our children to recognise that there is more to life than being famous. There is more to life than being on TV, to winning a talent show or being in the papers. God created you to do much more than that. And lest anyone is confused, when I talk about God I don't mean Simon Cowell.

Imagine a judge in a talent contest who sees within you and sees not only all the good that there is, but all the possibilities for good that there can be. There is no humiliation to be feared in audition, no boot camp to fail, but only the recognition of your individual talents and gifts, many and varied as they are. Just ask your family, ask your friends, and ask God. He gave you your talents and came in the person of Jesus of Nazareth so that you could live to use them.

The world we live in is our inheritance, so value it. Demonstrate about issues of ecology, boycott businesses who support corrupt regimes, campaign for justice for those denied it, befriend the lonely, visit the sick, feed the hungry and transform the world.

The Christmas message does not set up two alternative worlds – it does not ask us to leave the real, immediate, compromised and uncomfortable world, and enter some sort of 'spiritual' alternative. The movement of God is precisely in the opposite direction, for in Jesus, born for us, God says an emphatic 'Yes!' to the world, and invites us to join Him in transforming both it and ourselves. God trusts and believes in us implicitly. His love affair with us is such that he longs to transform us into those people we were made to be, with each of us as a sacred stand-in for God. Have a blessed Christmas.

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