Sermon on Luke 20.27-40 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

Two weeks ago we did a participatory Bible study. You read the gospel, thought about it for a while, and shared your reflections and questions with those next to you and then with all of us.

This week I want to reverse that and go into greater detail about what I think is going on and throw it over to you to think about it. But also, I am going to go back a step to examine both the story in this morning’s gospel text, from St Luke Chapter 20: 27-40, and the one that came directly before in verses 20-26.

The passage just before today’s reading is, I think, much more familiar than the other; in fact, probably almost everyone knows it, and probably all think they know what it is about. The other, which I just read, is equally prone to misunderstanding.

I am going to begin with the really famous one, which comes first.

Jesus’ words ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’ are words which have sunk deeply into the English language. And they are generally taken to mean that there is a distinct political sphere in life and then there is a religious one.  The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, went very close to saying just this recently when he insisted his religious beliefs didn’t interfere with his political convictions.

There is always a danger in taking words out of context, so we do need to take a step back.

Both these passages report incidents where people are trying to catch Jesus out. They are not asking straight questions but, in one case, setting a political trap – and a very dangerous one.  And in the other, they are trying to make Jesus look foolish.

Back to the question about tax. St Luke is clear about what he thinks is going on. He later tells us that, at his trial Jesus, was still accused of forbidding the payment of tax to the Emperor – Caesar Tiberius. But here we witness Jesus being more nuanced, although we can easily imagine how hostile witnesses might be able to misrepresent him.

We only need to go back 25 years to 7 AD to see how controversial paying tribute to Rome was. It was another Galilean called Judas who led a revolt because of an Imperial tax levy. For the Jewish population, there was additional offence caused by what was written on Roman coinage: Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.

This was a political and religious hot potato. The denarius was a coin signifying being occupied by an imperial power, and making what for Jewish people was a blasphemous claim: that the debauched man ruling now not from Rome, but from the decadent island of Capri, was some sort of god!

So, Jesus’ refusal to answer their closed question trap – ‘Are we or are we not permitted to pay tax to Caesar?’ – was shrewd for a number of reasons: first, because by asking them to show him such a coin, he was demonstrating that they had already made their minds up that it was okay, so were not entirely neutral about the matter; and second, he sidestepped the treacherous political territory by treating the coinage as mere property and nothing more.

His twist, at the end, is to contrast the trivial matter of what is owed to Caesar – especially when it comes wrapped up in the form of an insincere and malicious question – with what is owed to God. Pay to God what belongs to God, is something else. Righteousness, truthfulness, integrity and what the divine is really all about – those are more important considerations.

And this priority is underlined in the very next incident – the one from the gospel for today. The Sadducees were the Jerusalem aristocracy, and we would today call them traditionalists. There is little trace of the idea of life after death in the Hebrew Scriptures. Incidentally, this is why the belief of Freud and others is so blatantly wrong. If religion is a comforting illusion to evade the reality of death, how come there is no afterlife in the oldest religious scriptures?

So, the questioners are again not totally sincere. They don’t believe the premise of their own question, as they don’t believe there is life after death; so who might marry who in such a state is not of real interest.

Again, Jesus avoids the yes or no response and reframes the conversation. He does say that after the resurrection there is no marriage; to imagine otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of life after death. But once again he raises the stakes.

Much more important than the mechanics of the afterlife is the nature of God. God who is the God of the living and the dead.; of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Here is Jesus’ focus.

This does reflect on what I said earlier about life after death. Historians of religions have argued that the idea that life continues but in a new form after death developed not because people were fearful of death but because they could not believe that their relationship with God and God’s concern for them ended at the graveside. Jesus had the knack of frequently answering questions by saying, in effect, ‘That question is not big enough or serious enough.’ Here is a much more important question. What do you owe to God? What difference does it make if a woman has been widowed and remarried several times if you believe that God has as much care for her – and for you – as he has had for all people long dead, and if you believe that love endures for ever?

Sermon on Luke 20.27-40 from Rev’d Ian Tattum Read More »

St Francis Part 2: Sermon for the week of 9 October 2022 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

The first pilgrimage that I went on was in 1983 and it was to Assisi in Italy. It was a journey organised by a church in Brighton which I had got to know in the 1970’s and where I had made a number of friends. As on all good pilgrimages, those of us travelling were a motley crew: a teacher in her 50s; a couple of teenagers, one the brilliant daughter of an eminent professor and the other a school-leaver with few qualifications and a moody disposition; a trainee accountant; a music teacher; a wood turner; and a cook-cum-gardener and odd job person (that was me). There was also a young priest who hated discomfort of any kind, which was a bit unfortunate, as we were packed in a mini bus and spent every night on a different campsite, including one in Florence – our last stop before Assisi – where the rain was so heavy that all our tents were washed away during the night and we had to stake them out to dry before completing the final stage to our destination.

My fascination with St Francis had begun a few years earlier and was formed by biographies and novels. Later, when I was studying Medieval History, I had to look at him and the movement in a different way – one purporting to be objective; but the stories I had come across earlier undoubtedly had more impact.

In last week’s sermon I reflected on some of his ideas that might help to enrich our understanding of nature and provide an alternative to some prominent contemporary notions which see the world as both empty of God and devoid of any spiritual values and merely the arena for individual self-assertion.

This week I don’t want to give you much more information about St Francis’ life or try to boil down his view of things to make it accessible, but to tell some of the stories told about him which grew up in the years following his death, which were quite clearly told and re-told because they provided different windows on what he meant. One of the criticisms made about St Francis at the time and since is that he didn’t have a coherent philosophy of life. So much was this the case that, indeed, he was sometimes, and still is, regarded as mad. In some of the villages he visited to preach peace and seek charity he was pelted with rotten vegetables and worse by the inhabitants. More charitably, he has been labelled a holy fool.

I find it helpful to remember that before his conversion to his life of poverty, Francis was a troubadour, a singer of songs, and the one of the last and the most famous things he wrote was a song: the canticle to the creatures, on which the hymn ‘All creatures of our God and King’ is based. Singers and song writers don’t always make rational sense but they do connect with and give a voice to our emotions and our convictions. Stories do the same.

Here is one you might not have heard before.

St Francis had become virtually blind towards the end of his life, but one of his favourite places was the lake of Piediluco. He loved talking to the fishermen there, and they and the lake itself reminded him of the Sea of Galilee and the first disciples who had followed the same trade.

One day he was out in a fishing boat with some friends when one of the fishermen offered St Francis a fish that he had just netted. The saint took the fish and thanked the fisherman, greeted ‘brother fish’, and then gently placed it back in the water. It swam off. Those with him were angry that they had lost their dinner. Francis explained that all creatures were connected and were brothers and sisters to people. Then everyone noticed that the fish was swimming behind the boat and it wouldn’t go away until Francis ordered it to return to its usual life.

And here is a better known one.

There was a town in Italy called Gubbio. One day a wolf came down from the mountains and attacked and killed a lamb. A lot of the forest had been cut down, and where it live was being turned into farm land and grazing land. People were frightened, so someone was told to go and guard the sheep and chase the wolf off if it came near. That person was never seen again.

So the people of the town asked three soldiers to go and hunt the wolf and kill it.

Next day one soldier came back alone and told everyone that the wolf had come and attacked them all and carried off the other two soldiers.

So the people of the town had a meeting to discuss what to do. And someone stood up and said, ‘Let’s ask Francis to come and help. He has a way with animals and has been known to chat to the birds.’ So they did this.

And a few days later Francis came, wearing a brown robe and leaning on a stick. When they went to meet him they saw the wolf had also come to town and was running straight at Francis, growling and showing all its teeth. Francis held up his hand and made the sign of the cross and blessed the wolf and wished it peace – he did this to everyone when he was walking anywhere.

The wolf stopped and, as gently as a pet dog or cat, came and sat at Francis’ feet. Francis told the wolf that the things it had been doing were verry bad and it should stop. ‘I know you are starving, so I am going to ask the people here to feed you, and you must make peace with them.’

The wolf bowed its head.

Francis asked the people of the town if they would make peace too by giving the wolf food to eat, and they agreed. So, he turned to the wolf and asked it to promise not to harm anyone ever again if they cared for it. It put its paw in Francis’ hand, and everyone watching clapped with joy.

From then onwards the wolf lived in the town. Even sleeping sometimes in people’s homes. It lived for another two years and never hurt another living creature again. When it died everyone in the village was devastated.

I won’t re-tell the story about Francis preaching to the birds, because that is too well known, or possibly too well misunderstood. But if you would like to ask me about it anytime, please do.

St Francis Part 2: Sermon for the week of 9 October 2022 from Rev’d Ian Tattum Read More »

St Francis Part 1: Sermon for the week of 2 October 2022 from Rev’d Ian Tattum

Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet, started his time with the Jesuits in Roehampton, at what is now Whitelands College. He hated his middle name and never used it himself. He associated it with his father and the Victorian take on masculinity.

He was saved from an existential crisis by the medieval philosopher who gave us the word ‘dunce’. His psychological dilemma was caused by the tension between his intense and passionate love of nature and the teaching he was getting from the church to the effect that such love of material things should be shaken off if he ever wanted to love God, who transcended all existing things and was the source of all spiritual ones. The philosopher/theologian in question was Duns Scotus, who lived in the thirteenth century and was ridiculed by later philosophers who saw him as an obscurantist and mocked him for being slow-thinking – hence a ‘dunce’. All of which is totally unfair and anachronistic.

The reason Duns Scotus was such a help to Gerard Hopkins, as we now know he liked to be called, was that Hopkins didn’t believe that God was outside, holding the universe in being, but inside things too, communicating through the unique character of sentient creatures and inanimate ones. He invented the word ‘inscape’ to help get at this idea. But you only have to read some of his most famous poems to see how his thinking went. The poems are often seen as heroically innovative tumbles of words striving to articulate the beauty of the world; but much more than this, they are hymns rejoicing in a creative God who indwells all things, and gives them meaning and beauty, without reducing their uniqueness or intrinsic value – from tiny pebble to human being.

‘As kingfishers catch fire’ is a perfect example:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Gerard Hopkins, was famously a Jesuit, but Duns Scotus was a Franciscan.

We are remembering St Francis of Assisi today.  And as I was reading about that saint again – while thinking about how Gerard Hopkin’s dilemma was assuaged by Duns Scotus and also observing some of our contemporary environmental and social ills – I was reminded why Francis has always been an attractive and compelling saint.

In case you have forgotten when he lived, he was born in 1181 and died on the 3rd October 1226. He was not a priest and emphatically not a monk either. This is significant. Italy was one of the many places in Europe at the time where economies were growing again after the very lean years that had gone before, and with more commerce there was a greater need for literacy in society as a whole. The scale wasn’t huge, but it meant that more people than before who were not in religious orders could read and write. One consequence of that was that Christianity ran a bit wild. The time was also the great age of heresy, and Francis was himself an outlier in a new-found confidence amongst those who were not priests or monks that the Gospels belonged to them too. It is a terrible oversimplification, but serious religion had so long been associated with the cloister that it had stifled the spiritual imaginations of the majority of people, who worked in the fields or in the industries of the growing cities. Francis was not the first to ask a question that we all have to ask ourselves.

If we read the Gospels and attend to what Jesus says and does what difference will it make, what should we do and how should we live?

By renouncing wealth and possessions, St Francis sought not only to be Christ-like but also to be vulnerable and hyper-ordinary.

You might see how Duns Scotus and, much more recently, Gerard Hopkins were following in St Francis’ footsteps.

Yes, God, could be encountered in the liturgies of the church, which then mainly meant in monasteries, but the divine was not confined to them. And Christianity wasn’t a religion for the spiritual elite but for every person to discover and pursue for themselves.

For St Francis, God in Christ would be met in nature, in the world, and in any traveller who might be met with on the road. The Franciscan tradition of greeting every stranger with a sign of peace, and the shocking behaviour of St Francis himself of kissing people who suffered from leprosy, were both out-workings of this belief.

This is going to be a two-part reflection, as St Francis’ legacy is so rich. I intend to look at some of his own words and the stories told about him next week, but I want to finish with a contrast. St Francis saw the world as ablaze with the glory of God – absolutely all things in existence – and embraced poverty in a way that underlined his need of God and the inter-dependence of people.

Ayn Rand has been in the news lately again because of her influential role in shaping the outlook of some prominent government ministers and figures around Donald Trump. If you don’t know who she was she is worth looking up. A philosopher-cum-novelist who escaped from Russia to Chicago in the early years of the Soviet regime, she advocated free market capitalis – not a de-regulated system but a totally unregulated one. That said, she did condemn what we would now call crony capitalism and believed that you must always tell the truth. But she also brought with her from Russia a thoroughgoing materialism and a devotion to the ideas of Nietzsche.  As a consequence, she rejected any role for God or religion, asserted that only reason mattered, and that reason’s main purpose is to serve the self-interest and acquisitive goals of the individual. Nothing deemed irrational had any usefulness or reality. Faith, hope, love and poetry don’t figure highly in her system.

I find the vision of St Francis and Duns Scotus filtered through Gerard Manley Hopkins so much more compelling, and timely.

St Francis Part 1: Sermon for the week of 2 October 2022 from Rev’d Ian Tattum Read More »

Sermon on nature writing for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, from Ian Tattum

You might have seen the latest images from the James Webb telescope showing, with never-before-seen precision, galaxies across the universe, and which also allow us to look back into unimaginable depths of time. Those visual images sprung into my mind during last week when I was dipping into an earlier moment of scientific revolution.

I was in the Linnaean Society Library, which is near the entrance to the Royal Academy, where the librarian had very kindly allowed me to read two late-seventeenth-century books by the pioneer scientist John Ray. You have heard me talk about John Ray before. He was the person who developed the systematic study of plants, inventing the word ‘botany’, and made similar strides in ornithology. At the beginning of his book, The Wisdom of God, which I had in my hand, he laid out the principles of what became known as natural theology, explaining why he thought the only alternative theories of the time as to the immensely rich variety of life (the title is taken from Psalm 104) were not as good as the one that saw God as the artificer/creative engineer of life.

Aristotle had argued that the universe had always been there and all of its creatures, while the Roman Epicurean Lucretius had come up with a theory of chaotic atomic interactions. Imagine infinitesimally small ball bearings bashing into each other and randomly bringing everything into existence. For Ray there was too much beauty and complexity in the world for these theories to satisfy. The words of the psalm seemed to Ray to fit perfectly with what scientific discovery was revealing:

How manifold are thy works, O Lord? In Wisdom hast thou made them all’

I was quite surprised by what Ray wrote. He observed that already, thanks to the telescope, stars that the human eye could not see unaided were beginning to be discovered, and he suggested that, in the future, many more, even an infinite number, would be discovered. He also speculated that, as in our solar system, many of those stars would have planets of their own and that (remember this was 1671) each planet would have unimaginable life forms.

For Ray, the whole universe, from the tiniest plant directly beneath his feet to a far distant alien world, was a wondrous place, revealing God’s purpose and glory and open to human discovery and understanding. Although Ray was a reticent sort of man you can feel his focussed excitement about all these new discoveries.

Recently, I wrote another article for Church Times – this time on nature writing and spirituality. As the book I was basing my reflections on started with Gilbert White, I began with him too, but this morning, in deciding to share some of the ideas I wrote about, I opted to start with John Ray, as he propounded the principles that White followed a century later when he wrote a natural history of Selborne. The book is Modern British Nature Writing, 1789- 2020, and reading it I was cheered that, in its attempt to trace the legacy of Gilbert White down to today, it acknowledges the theological, or at least spiritual outlook, of many writers who have had a huge influence on the way we have come to think about the natural world.

So, to begin with Gilbert White himself.

The religious sensibility of White has often been downplayed, and the poetry he wrote to give it voice is usually overlooked. In ‘On The Rainbow’, for example, he contrasted romantic and superstitious reactions to seeing a rainbow with the attitude of ‘the sage’, who reflects on its creator and its symbolic meaning and begins to pray:

‘Thou mad’st the cloud,
Maker omnipotent, and thou the bow;
And by that covenant graciously has sworn
Never to drown the world again.’

Charlotte Smith (1749- 1806) is a writer who is becoming, very justifiably, better known. Like White, she too wrote in depth about the patch she lived in (in her case, around Brighton in Sussex), but very unlike that of the bachelor cleric, her life could never be characterised as one of tranquil rural retreat. Forced into marriage at fifteen to an irresponsible and violent husband, Charlotte had twelve children, and she wrote partly to stave off penury. She produced poetry, fiction and educational books, such as A Natural History of Birds, Intended chiefly for Young Persons (1807). But she broadly shared White’s theological outlook, seeing observation of ‘Nature’ as providing a glimpse of God’s Laws, which she believed would always remain beyond the reach of human understanding.

The startling progress made by the sciences from the beginning of the nineteenth century eroded such confidence, and we find later writers, formally Christian or otherwise, trying to prevent the unravelling of mystery. One such was Charles Kingsley (1819-75), now best remembered as the author of The Water-Babies, for his Broad Church theology and commitment to social reform. New scientific discoveries and the industrialisation which accompanied them were perceived by many, including Kingsley’s close friend John Ruskin, as leading to reductionism and materialism. Kingsley, however, welcomed the new discoveries; he was one of the first notable champions of Darwin, but suggested that the new sciences opened an avenue to see beyond what he termed ‘carnal’ attitudes to nature. Kingsley argued that nature and landscape could aesthetically and spiritually uplift the human soul. His book Glaucus: Wonders of the Shore ( 1855), is a perfect example of this and helped to inspire the Victorian craze for seashore life.

Richard Jefferies (1848- 1887) shared similar concerns about the reductionist nature of forms of knowledge, which he feared leaned too much towards documenting and controlling the non-human world, but he embraced a form of mystical paganism.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd (1893- 1981) has captivated people, including the hugely influential Robert Macfarlane, who have fallen in love with wild places at a time when they are disappearing from around the world. Shepherd was influenced by Theosophy and Buddhism, and her writing displays a deep ecology, where rock, soil, air, animal and human have an inescapable connection and a shared but diverse consciousness, which is more metaphysical than aesthetic.

In 2016 Charles Foster published Being a Beast, about his attempt to experience the life of other animals by adopting their lifestyles. He decided to get closer to the lives of wild creatures by spending time living in a hole in the ground and eating slugs like a badger and raiding city bins in the dead of night like a city fox. He described this as a kind of ‘literary shamanism’. His experiment in thwarted empathy was a means to expose the gap between animal and human perception and ways of living! In his more recent book about swifts, The Screaming Sky, Foster plunged deeply into the gulf between human experience and these remarkable birds, and quotes R. S. Thomas favourably for the humility of his point of view:

‘I am learning to bring
Only my wonder to the contemplation
Of the geometry of their dark wings’

It seems to me that it is inescapable that caring for the natural world and being anxious about ecological collapse demands much more than a political response. For John Ray and Gilbert White, everything began with wonder and praise at the unimaginable creativity of God, and the realisation that humans are part of a majestic universe worthy of attention and love. Many of the nature writers and science writers who are around today do seem to be committed to a re-enchantment of the world. They leave little space between facts and a sense of ‘wow’. Very few put this down to the glory of God, but there is an unacknowledged and unspoken sense of what we might call holiness and sacredness in much of the books I read.

Sermon on nature writing for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, from Ian Tattum Read More »

Sermon on Luke 13.10-17: the God of Surprises

Can any of you recall a moment when your life has changed in a big way that was completely unexpected? It might have been the moment you met someone who became central to your life. Or when you discovered a new interest or work opportunity, not through your own search but because someone made a recommendation.

Such incidents might help us think our way into the experience of the woman Jesus heals in the Gospel story today. She has been crippled for eighteen years, and we get quite a detailed description of how bad her situation was. She was bent over and unable to stand. It is not difficult to imagine how tough life would have been for her. Her view of the world around her would have been as restricted as her movement and her ability to lead a normal life. As in many of these types of stories in the Gospels, it seems assumed that she would have had to live by begging, so had none of the personal autonomy that we so value. In fact, this is underlined, I think, by the way St Luke tells the story. She wasn’t brought to Jesus for healing by friends, and neither was she crying out for help. She was just there, outside one of the synagogues he was teaching in. He found her there – possibly being carried there by someone to be as close to the place of prayer as possible. And there is no pre-amble, just this:

And seeing her, Jesus called her to him and said to her, ‘Madam, you have been liberated from your infirmity.’

Then he raised her to her feet, and she began to praise God.

Then the synagogue administrator expressed disapproval, because the healing happened on the Sabbath.

But I began where I did this morning because this story does not seem to be entirely about what we might first think and what earlier commentators have often assumed. Although it is a healing story, the emphasis is not on the miraculous cure, and although there is a strong difference of opinion between Jesus and the synagogue leader about timing, it is all too tempting to suggest that the conflict is between a rules-based Judaism and a love-and-grace-based Christianity.

Neither of these interpretations quite works, though, if we cast our attention to the sayings of Jesus that come just before and immediately after the incident. The story is more about what the late spiritual writer, Gerard Hughes, called the God of Surprises, although the sense of jeopardy and urgency leads me to sometimes conceive God rather as a God of ambushes – the God who, if given the chance, transforms and brings new life and new possibilities.

The healing story is sandwiched between two botanical parables: the parable of the fig tree and the parable of the mustard seed. In the first, Jesus tells the story of the fig tree and the grouchy farmer. The owner of the land visits the fig tree three years in a row and never finds any fruit on it. He declares that it is no more than a waste of soil, but the vinedresser asks him to leave it for another year and let him fertilise it and give it a chance. The threat remains that it will be cut down eventually, but it is given a second chance, or even a third chance – how many is left unsaid.

The mustard seed parable is much more succinct, and Jesus spoke it in response to a positive reception to his healing and teaching, around the woman in the story.

Jesus asks, what is the Kingdom of God like? and immediately answers his own question:

It is like a seed of mustard, which a man took and cast into his garden and it grew and became like a tree, and the birds of the sky took up lodging in it.

Something insignificant but of amazing potential.

Writing this sermon, I decided I needed to go back to Gerard Hughes’s book, The God of Surprises, as I had not re-examined it for decades. Some of you will know it, and more are likely to have no idea what I am talking about, as it was a book that almost every reflective Christian read back in the 1980’s. There are elements in the book which are very much of their time. It is heavily based in depth psychology, for example, and constantly refers to the threat of nuclear war, but its essential insights remain helpful.

Central to its argument is that human beings are essentially spiritual beings. Hughes was arguing against any dualistic thinking that saw people as souls inhabiting bodies. What he meant was that we are all complex, multi-dimensional creatures. Our bodies, our experiences, our memories and our decisions are part of a whole, and together defy the comprehension of our conscious minds, which are usually focused so much on securing basic needs and creating a persona that who we really are is easily and often damagingly left out of the equation.

Hughes insisted that God is within us and wants, out of love, to unlock our inner labyrinths and let our true selves, which shine forth with his glory, out into the light. There is treasure within all of us, he argues, that God wants us to find.

The woman in the parable discovers that she can move again, that the person she was before her illness can start afresh and that she can praise God. The leader of the synagogue who thinks that compassion can take a rest one day of the week begins to see new possibilities. The Fig Tree which has led the farmer to despair still has the potential to bear fruit. The Kingdom of God, which is also usually described in the Gospels as something inside people, can turn from being only a tiny seed to a tree, which can give home and sanctuary to a multitude of birds.

This is a realistic and hopeful message that might help to sustain us when we feel despondent about ourselves and our worth, and when we look at the hatred and threats that surround us and might overwhelm us any moment.

It does not have to be like this.

Hughes quotes a line of poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins from ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ which draws on the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. It can be our prayer:

Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness in us, be a crimson- cresseted east.

Sermon on Luke 13.10-17: the God of Surprises Read More »

Sermon celebrating Olaudah Equiano, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, from Rev’d Ian Tattum

Very recently Sir Mo Farah revealed to the world that that was not his real name and that he had been born Hussein Abdi Kahin. Contrary to what he had let be known previously, he hadn’t fled from Somalia with his parents as a child, but had been trafficked by people who wanted to use him as a modern day child slave, looking after their children and doing all kinds of domestic tasks. Before this revelation he was a well-respected figure, known for his cheerfulness, who many of us had cheered to Olympic gold medals. Since the truth came out there has been extra focus on modern slavery, and many other people have come forward who were silent before to tell their story and get help.

This is a powerful example of what is sometimes called changing the narrative. People can be wary of such things and express great skepticism about what they call ‘revisionism’, and they don’t mean it as a compliment. This point of view goes very close to saying that what has always been assumed to be true is true and should never be looked at again. I have regularly called this the Ladybird book interpretation of history. Everything about the past can be regarded as already known and settled and is only fit for repetition, not revisiting.

Mo Farah’s story is one example of why this isn’t quite good enough, and the brilliant TV drama Sherwood is another. The miners’ strike is one of those contentious moments in the past which is also, for many, a defining political moment, whether we were around at the time or not; but in my view, that series, like all the best dramas, invites us to reconsider and reflect on the experiences and dilemmas of people with a multitude of perspectives, which can challenge and enrich our own and, like the best parables of Jesus, encourage empathy and compassion.

Yesterday was the day in the church’s calendar set aside to give thanks for the lives of the leading figures in the abolition of slavery. At one point, not that long ago, the main focus would have been on William Wilberforce, so well known for steering the abolition of the slave trade act through Parliament in 1807, but now two other major characters are named: Thomas Clarkson and Olaudah Equiano.

You might have heard of Equiano, but probably don’t know his full history.

His campaigning in the wake of the Zong affair was the spur to the foundation of the first anti-slavery committee set up by the Quakers in 1783. The fore-mentioned Thomas Clarkson was to be a prominent leader of this group and was one of those who subsequently contributed to persuading Wilberforce that joining the campaign was his sacred Christian duty.

The Zong incident is one of those things that culture warriors don’t like to hear about. It was centred on an insurance claim. In 1783 Captain Collingwood brought and won an insurance claim for cargo he had jettisoned at sea in order to save his ship The Zong and its remaining cargo.

That cargo, of course, was African slaves. As was common practice, Collingwood had packed his slave ship with living cargo, and many people had died or fallen ill. Knowing that he could claim on the insurance if he could show some of his cargo needed to be sacrificed to save the voyage, he argued falsely that there was not enough water on board to keep everyone alive and threw 132 people to their deaths.

Equiano, on reading about the case, lobbied anti-slavery lawyer Granville Sharp to make a case for the incident to be looked into again, but this time as a murder trial. The attempt failed but the publicity – the act of changing the narrative – worked.

But who was Equiano, and why was he listened too?

His story is an astonishing one of survival and achievement. He was born in Nigeria, around 1745. He was enslaved and transported to Barbados and then on to the British Colony of Virginia. Purchased by an English Naval Officer, he was re-named Gustavus Vassa and taken to London, where he was used as part servant part luxury pet. But he was taught to read and write.

He accompanied Pascal on voyages to Canada during the Seven Years’ War with France and undertook seafaring duties. He was swindled of his wages and at age 18 was sold again and taken to work on Montserrat, where his education saved him from working on a plantation but didn’t stop him observing what went on there.

Bought again, by a Quaker, Robert King, he was allowed to take up sea-faring again and was able to save up and buy his freedom.

Coming to England he found employment as a hairdresser in the Haymarket. A year later he went to work for an entrepreneurial scientist, who had developed ways to turn sea water into fresh, and travelled with him on expeditions to the Arctic.

All the time he had been observing the furtive and vulnerable lives of ex slaves in London, always living in fear of being re-captured by their ex masters. He became an advocate for such people and began to make contacts with legal experts who would cooperate with him – all when still in his twenties. He went on to organise a network of lobbying ex-slaves, called the Sons of Africa, and wrote a best-selling autobiography, his Interesting Narrative, which changed even more hearts and minds.

Famously, the inspirer of Methodism and great hymn writer, John Wesley, read Equiano’s book on his deathbed in 1791 and promptly dashed off a letter to Wilberforce pleading with him to do all he could to end the slave trade.

Sermon celebrating Olaudah Equiano, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, from Rev’d Ian Tattum Read More »

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