Are we all in it together?

IN his Christmas message for 2011, the Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Dr Alan Smith, asks whether we are becoming more selfish...

APPARENTLY we Brits are getting nastier, meaner and more judgmental. It’s bad for business if you are a bishop trying to encourage people to celebrate the season of peace and goodwill to all.

The recently published British Attitudes Survey shows that we wrote the poor off as undeserving far more than a decade ago. We are more likely to think that poverty is caused by laziness than we used to. Nowadays fewer people are happy about paying for the National Health Service or supporting green policies. The question put by the Chief Executive of the National Centre for Social Research is “are we really in it together, or just for ourselves?”

At the heart of the events of the first Christmas is the holy family who had to lodge in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn. No one was willing to offer hospitality to the young pregnant Galilean girl when she arrived in a strange place far from home.

I have just returned from a visit to our companion dioceses in the West Indies. While I was there we signed agreements to extend our links for a further five years. Wherever I went I was offered a warm welcome. It was humbling, not least because these countries are poorer than ours. Yet their hospitality was generous.

However, on several occasion during my stay I heard the same salutary story. In the 1950s many people came from the West Indies to Britain. As Anglicans they were excited and expectant as they set off to come here. Often their congregation would commission them with prayer and they would be given a letter of introduction from their priest which would be handed to the Anglican priest when they arrived here.

In many cases their hopes were quickly dashed. Oftentimes they received no welcome from the local parish church. Indeed, many were made to feel very unwelcome. This is a story which we have heard before about employers and landlords, but when Holy Scripture says to us in the Church “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, all are one in Christ Jesus,” then we really should feel chastened.

Hearing this story at any time would be hard enough, but as we approach the celebration of Christ’s birth, it leaves me wanting to say a heartfelt “sorry” to the people who we treated in that way. As it happens, there is a community of Vincentians, from the Caribbean Island of St Vincent, in Luton, which is part of the Diocese of St Albans. And St Vincent is where I was told this tale.

So I say sorry to the Vincentians in Luton. I know that some of them have found a spiritual home in Church of England churches in their locality and others know that they are warmly welcomed there when they visit.

Back to the British Attitudes Survey. Are we all in it together? The coming of Jesus Christ makes it possible. As we live out whatever the season of peace and goodwill means to us – and that’s something we can all join in with whether or not we have a faith – I hope we will remember the call this Christmas to be people of welcome and hospitality.

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