Christmas Eve 2014 - Bishop Nigel’s reflections in the Courier
Bishop Nigel's recent article in the Courier, a widely read daily Scottish newspaper published in Dundee
In late December 1914 Dundee soldier Jack Peters wrote home from the Western Front about his experience of the remarkable Christmas Day truce when German, British and French soldiers sang carols in the icy trenches, shouting greetings to one another. Eventually, trusting in military honour, they downed rifles and filled no-man’s land with much hand-shaking and sharing of meagre but welcome seasonal rations. An impromptu football game got going.
It’s not hard to see why Sainsbury’s Supermarkets and the Royal British Legion seized on the First World War truce as a topical Christmas marketing opportunity. The heart-warming image of the chocolate-sharing soldiers captures our imagination because it points more deeply to how, a century on, much better the world should be and might become.
A truce is essentially a suspension of hostilities, a respite, but the word also carries the character of sincerity, faithfulness and truth. These qualities have never been more important in the world around us. Looking back over the past year there are undoubtedly moments to celebrate but also considerable political and social uncertainties, global and local, spilling over into the next.
The rise of Islamic State and harsh influence of the Taleban, characterised by hostage taking, horrific beheadings and murdering schoolchildren, are deeply disturbing. Militant Islamic terrorism is now a global threat from which no country is immune. Instability throughout the Middle East, the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities and the displacement of millions of people are serious political and humanitarian challenges felt throughout the world.
Wherever we look, for example in Israel - Palestine or Russia-Ukraine, it seems that conflicts old and new beset us. Amidst this the figure of the young Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzi epitomises the rights of children to education and of women generally and the importance of forging avenues out of danger, poverty and ignorance. Similarly we salute the remarkable heroism of those volunteering to tackle the spread of the frightening Ebola epidemic which has gripped some West African countries this year and giving support to the people most affected by it.
A successful Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup apart, Scotland in 2014 will principally be remembered for the Referendum – the longest running political race in my lifetime. Was it a good experience for the people of Scotland? Witnessing 16-18 year olds keenly engaging with politics was certainly encouraging. However the Referendum damaged some relationships, generated further grievance by producing a paradoxical result: a clear win for Better Together which the Nationalists have brushed aside, claiming victory for an enlarged devolution, triggering demands for devolution elsewhere in the UK.
Consequently the UK General Election in 2015 lies wide open, ‘rumbled up’ as Alex Salmond puts it by the SNP, in addition to the UKIP and the possible in/out of Europe referendum. Research indicates that more people than ever are considering two or even three parties for their vote. It seems that public life is crying out for more convincing mainstream politicians who have the integrity, compassion and competence to provide leadership and direction in uncertain times. Responsible wealth creation, meaningful employment and living wages probably hold the key to national wellbeing but the slow recovery in Britain still seems precarious. Challenging narrow secularism and intolerant religion alike, and valuing our teachers and youngsters, our risk-taking entrepreneurs and the growing number of elderly more highly would I believe also make a difference to community cohesion and our quality of life.
This year Dundee was named as the UK’s first UNESCO City of Design, a worthy accolade for our particular ability to combine the talents of both Abertay and Dundee Universities, of local industry, commerce and the media, encouraged by our civic leadership. But what of the Dundee V&A? The project has gone quiet and in 2015 we would appreciate assurances about funding and the timetable which has slipped considerably. Are we in danger of creating a well-reimagined waterfront setting with no iconic Kengo Kuma architectural focus? Visit Scotland has designated 2015 a Year of Food and Drink which will help showcase Courier Country’s produce – our outstanding fruit and tatties, our meat and game, our baking and cheese-making, our jam and Smokies.
The true meaning of Christmas - the birth of Jesus long ago in Bethlehem, and the good news he brought for reconciling humanity – is an invitation to peace and freedom. Bringing joy and hope to the world is the transformational message of our Christmas carols and cards. Whatever faith or philosophy of life we follow, honesty and forgiveness – the sentiments of truce - fundamentally improve the quality of our relationships and each of us can do better for sure. New Year is a time for such resolutions and it’s a shame that many are broken within twenty-four hours.
In her poignant First World War reflection The Christmas Truce the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy pinpoints how the human spirit prevails: “I showed him a picture of my wife. He thought her beautiful, he said. And all that marvellous festive day and night, they came and went, the officers, the rank and file, their fallen comrades side by side beneath the makeshift crosses of midwinter graves… beneath the shivering, shy stars and the pinned moon and the yawn of history; the high, bright bullets which each man later only aimed at the sky.”
So may your Christmas be peaceful, happy and blessed; and at the year’s turning my hope and prayer is that 2015 will unfold in ways that enrich your life and the lives of those with whom you live and work.
This article appeared in the Courier on Wednesday, 24 December 2014.