Concerning Coronavirus and Public Worship IV

19 June 2020

Dear Worshipper

Concerning Coronavirus (COVID-19) and re-opening for funerals and private prayer

I am sure you may be aware that the Government recently gave permission for churches to re-open their buildings for private prayer and for funeral services.

Anecdotally, it seems that about a third of churches and cathedrals have been able to do that already, while the rest remain closed.

Here in West Malling and Offham, I have been working with our Churchwardens and our PCC, the church council, to work out what is best to do here. We have carefully read the Government guidance when it was eventually published and we’ve also poured over a variety of documents published by the Church of England and the Diocese of Rochester.

We have put together a plan on what needs to happen and put together a risk assessment. I want to say thank you to the various people in the two churches who have been helping me to do that.

Re-opening our buildings at this time is not simply a matter of propping open the front doors and letting people come and go as they please. In order to re-open, the buildings must be cleaned and then cleared of all hymn books, prayer books and other items you might usually touch. We also need to cordon off some pews and cordon off parts of pews to maintain a 2m physical distance. Hand-washing stations need to be set-up, floor markings and notices put in place. Much like you might see in one of the local supermarkets.

But unlike the supermarkets, we don’t have lots of paid staff to do this. We are already underway with doing all that’s required and we should complete these preparations in the next two weeks at the latest. Thank you to those who have offered to help already, we will be contacting you soon if we haven’t already done so.

I am hoping that the buildings are ready by July the 5th.

But ready for what?

I have met with both West Malling and Offham PCCs this week to decide on our priorities. We have also polled our Electoral Roll for both churches to hear how those who attend our churches regularly were feeling.

Government have said we can only currently do funerals and private prayer. But those two things are not necessarily pulling in totally the same direction and they need different things.

In both churches, having discussed it with our leaders, we are agreed that our priority is to be able to re-open for funeral services in church. While we have had graveside burials regularly through the lockdown, the compassionate response for our wider community is to have the option ready for families of conducting a funeral in church.

As well as the various restrictions I’ve already described, we would have a maximum capacity that would still mean attendance is restricted. At Offham, we would only have room for five households. At West Malling, the number is fourteen households. But that’s still way off our usual capacities. But it’s a start.

Being able to handle a funeral safely is the first step on the road to other things and it’s a good first step. Not only does it offer compassion to grieving families, but generally people attending funerals know each other. They are often from the same households or bubbles. So there is less risk than opening in a way where lots of people from lots of disparate households come together like your average Sunday service.

If we can do funerals well, I anticipate weddings might be next. Although whether wedding couples want to change their plans and host small, restricted ceremonies will be up to them.

Gathering for Sunday worship still lies some way down the tracks and I’ll talk more about that and the challenges of that another day.

Being in church for worship is not the same as going to Marks and Spencer. You behave differently, you physically do different things, you touch and interact with the building and space in different ways, you’re there for different lengths of time. There are complexities. In that sense there are very good reasons why churches were allowed to re-open in the earliest phases of the lockdown being eased.

And that brings us to private prayer. Although the Government have said we can re-open for private prayer and that no supervision is necessary, I am personally uncomfortable with that. I have discussed it with the PCCs and, while we recognise it’s a loss to some of us, and we know there’s a wider community of people who do pop in, the majority view in both churches shared my level of discomfort. Indeed, when we asked you, between 70 and 80% of people on the Electoral Roll of both churches were not keen to re-open for private prayer at this stage.

Although Government have not required it, I think supervision for private prayer is absolutely necessary at the moment. There have been cases worldwide of people being infected after going to church and sitting in a seat or a pew where someone with covid-19 coronavirus, a few hours earlier in a different service of worship, had previously sat.

As you’ll know, opening for private prayer means people come and go as they wish. But when you come and go in that way, you have no idea who has sat where before you. The only solution is to have someone in the building who does know, who supervises, and when someone leaves, they quietly go over to that place and sanitise it… just as the supermarkets sanitise the shopping baskets after someone has used them.

Different churches may adopt different approaches. You may disagree with me that this is necessary. But, ultimately, the person responsible to decide in this instance for West Malling and Offham is me. And I’m not happy with opening if we don’t also supervise and take responsibility for keeping each pew sanitised.

Supervision means people to supervise and that limits what we can do. But it also cuts across the purpose of opening for private prayer in the sense that we don’t have the people to supervise all day every day. And if you can’t do that, people can’t just pop in when they want… and popping in when you want is kind of the point of having the buildings open in the way we normally do. You’d have to know when the church was open and then make the special trip.

So, having discussed it with the PCCs, we are not saying a total no to opening for private prayer but we’re going to do it a in very limited way and it’s not our priority. We’re going to suck it and see by perhaps opening one Sunday from mid-morning to mid-afternoon in a few weeks time and see whether people come. We’ll advertise it to you in due course when we’re ready to host such a time.

Public worship, Sunday services, remain some way away, I’m afraid. We will continue to offer online worship each Sunday and it’s been encouraging to see so many of you taking part in that. I’m also interested in coming days to talk with our church leaders about we can best supplement and improve what we are doing now.

As I said to you in March, there is a calling upon us during lockdown. We were to be people of prayer in our homes, to go deeper with God in study of his word, to take ownership and responsibility for nurturing our faith. And there’s also a calling to humbly serve those around us in our communities. To be the healing hands and feet of Jesus to a broken world.

Lockdown may be easing in some ways, but that calling for us as the Christian church has not changed.

May the Lord watch between us while we’re apart from each other.

Love God, love your neighbour.

I hope very much to see you soon.

Yours in Christ

Rev David Green

Concerning Coronavirus and Public Worship III


18 March 2020

Dear Worshipper

Further update regarding Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Public Worship

I am writing to let you know that, as of yesterday, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have taken the difficult and extraordinary decision to suspend the Church of England’s usual pattern of Sunday services, mid-week gatherings and all other regular church activities until further notice.

I have also received reports from a couple of local households that the virus may be present already amongst some people who regularly attend our two churches. There are possible symptoms locally but no confirmation that it is COVID-19 because those people have not been tested.

Clearly, the decision to suspend activity in all parishes is not a decision to be taken lightly and it does not mean the Church of England has shut up shop. As the challenge of Coronavirus (COVID-19) grips the whole world, and as the British Government asks every individual and every organisation to rethink its life, the Archbishops are now asking the Church of England in all its parishes, chaplaincies and ministries to serve the people of England in a new way.

Here in our Benefice, several things will be happening with immediate effect.

  1. Both churches will remain open during daylight hours for anyone to visit and offer their own private prayers. Please observe all current hygiene recommendations.
  2. At 9.05 a.m. in Offham and 5.05 p.m. in West Malling I will be in church, I will ring the bell to symbolically let the Parish know I am praying and then say Common Worship Daily Prayer. Please don’t attend. However you may want to join in with me by saying the offices from home at the same time. Daily Prayer is available online from the Church of England website, or a copy of the book can be purchased online. You don’t have to join in every day, or twice a day. Join in when you can.
  3. I am preparing resources to feed your faith and spiritual life while at home. I am also preparing a Booklet especially for those who have been told to stay in self-isolation. Each Sunday, I will publish material on this website. I will provide written prayers, notices, a recorded sermon from me, and links to hymns to sing.
  4. We will also be taking steps to link people pastorally together. In particular I want to make sure those who are more elderly or vulnerable have support from someone younger amongst the church community who may be willing to offer help with shopping, picking up prescriptions, phone contact, encouragement and friendship. Even if we’re in isolation, we don’t need to allow anyone to feel isolated.
    If you are under 70 years of age and could volunteer to help others, let me know or keep an eye on the website for how to sign-up to help. Likewise, if you are over 70, or if your immune system is compromised and you’ve been told to self-isolate, or you are unwell already, please let me know or use the website to let me know so that we can offer you assistance and help.
  5. Finally, in coming days, some of the ‘machinery’ of our parish’s life will need to continue. I will need to work on a plan with the Churchwardens and our PCCs to make sure we can continue in ministry and mission, decision-making, attending to the fabric of our buildings, and managing parish finances. Provided you still have an income in this extraordinary global situation and you have the means to do so, I would strongly encourage you to continue your giving to your parish church. If our churches see a sudden drop in income, it does present a significant risk in the medium to long-term. If you don’t already give by Standing Order, I would ask you to seriously consider setting up a regular gift with your bank. Even if you don’t want to leave it in place long-term, doing so while this situation continues would really help while we are all unable to put anything into the collection Sunday by Sunday.
  6. On the other side of that coin, can I also ask that if you are in financial difficulty as a result of the Coronavirus situation, please do let me know in confidence. We would like to help you as much as possible. There are places I can turn for help and I suspect our Churches Together Foodbank and our vestry charity Relief in Need may need to be very active in the days to come.

Theologically-speaking, the Church is the Body of Christ and that is true whether we are gathered together on a Sunday or dispersed in our daily life. Regardless of these times, we continue to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a broken world. For a while, being Christian and being Church together will simply look and feel different. We have a calling now to private prayer and to humbly serve those in. I would encourage you to play your full part in the days, weeks and months to come.

This will most likely be the last Pastoral Letter for a while since the situation is now clear and most likely won’t change until such time as we are given permission to worship together again. Perhaps, with such freedom taken from us from a while, we will gain a new appreciation for the blessing of our amazing buildings, and the blessing we find when we gather as a community to praise God and pray. What a day that will be when we can sing in worship together once again!

Please do keep in touch. Let’s keep doing community together and being church together. Pick up the phone, send an email, use the website, Facebook or Twitter, get creative where you can. Whether we are unwell or not, vulnerable or not, I suspect we will all need one another, let alone the Lord’s everlasting grace and love, in the days that lie ahead.

Please be assured of my prayers for you. Please pray for me too.

Yours in Christ

Rev David Green

Concerning Coronavirus and Public Worship II

13 March 2020

Dear Worshipper

Update regarding Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Public Worship

I am writing with a further update and instructions concerning our activities at St Mary’s in West Malling and St Michael’s in Offham given the current public health concerns.

Firstly in regard to our local communications, what has become very clear is that this is a fast-moving and fluid situation and sending letters is a relatively slow way in which to try and communicate with everyone, even if it does ensure everyone gets the information. Therefore, while I will continue to write if there are major changes in guidance, I would ask you to keep an eye on the church website for updates. If you do not have any Internet access, please phone me so I can add you to a list of people I know I need to communicate with in other ways.

The Church of England has now issued further advice to churches to both replace (in some cases) or supplement all that I shared with you before. The key new information is:

  • Do not attend church if you are unwell or asked to self-isolate.
    Please phone me if this is the case so that I am aware and together we can make suitable arrangements for your inclusion and pastoral care.
  • The administration of the Chalice at Holy Communion is suspended.
    Holy Communion will be offered in one kind only (the bread) and the Priest alone is to receive the wine.
  • Everyone should stand at the Communion Rail.
    Please do not kneel at the rail or touch the rail with your hands.
  • Shaking hands, or other direct physical contact is suspended.
    During the Peace, simply greet those in your immediate vicinity with a smile and the words “Peace be with you”. Don’t move around the church to greet others.
  • Priestly blessings or prayers with the laying on of hands are suspended.
    Prayers will be given in such circumstances without physical touch.
  • Refreshments are suspended.
    There will be no tea and coffee after services until further notice.
  • Passing around Collection Plates or Bags is suspended.
    There will be a collection plate at the back of church as you enter. Please place your offering in the plate as you come in (or if you don’t already do so, take this as an opportunity to start giving by standing order instead). There is an important side point here in that I would ask that you do make sure you continue to give, as best as you’re able and within your means. Our churches cannot easily withstand a massive drop in giving if people are not in church and therefore are not making any financial contribution.
  • Use of the Chasuble is suspended and other robes are to be regularly cleaned.
    Because I lack confidence that our historic and somewhat elderly Chasubles and Stoles would survive regular deep cleans, the only other option is not to use them. Clergy will be responsible for regular washing of their own cassock albs, cassocks, surplices, stoles and preaching scarves (as is always the case anyway).

Where it does not contradict what is written here, all of the previous advice I passed on to you still applies. The most key bit of advice remains that the best way of protecting everyone from the spread of a virus is for everyone to use universal good hygiene, – this means everyone, all the time, effectively disrupting the virus.

  • Catch it – sneeze into a tissue.
  • Bin it – bin the tissue.
  • Kill it – wash your hands.
  • Do not touch your face unless you’ve washed your hands.

Could church services and other church events be cancelled?

At this time there is no guidance to do that. Parishes have been asked to prepare a contingency plan should government advice change. I am now preparing that plan with our Churchwardens, other Clergy and Lay Ministers and PCC. Everything I said before about the benefits of meeting still applies and it is in times of adversity, that our community strength gives testimony to our faith in Christ, provides encouragement to all, and supports the weak, the vulnerable and the isolated. If the Government does ban public gatherings, the contingency plan will cover what happens next but, amongst other things, I intend to try and use our website to try and provide worship, prayer and a sermon each week for you to engage with from home.

Pastoral Visiting

Church of England guidance is now that those who are told to self isolate and/or are unwell, cannot receive pastoral visits. Instructions are for Clergy to do pastoral care over the phone in such circumstances. When I am visiting others who have decided not to attend church as a precaution, other ministers and I will continue to observe all sensible precautions in personal hygiene myself before and after such visits. Of course, if I or other Ministers get unwell, our contingency plan will need to cover that eventuality as well.

Keep talking!

It’s obviously vital that we keep a good flow of communication. Keep an eye on the website. I will write when appropriate. If you are one of our older members and decide to stop attending for a while, please let me know you’re doing that so we can support you. If your immune system is compromised for any reason, please let me know. If you become unwell and are told to self isolate, please let me know.

As we do each week, please join me in prayer for all those in authority, for our medical services and those on the front line, and for those who are unwell and their families.

Yours in Christ

Rev David Green

Concerning Coronavirus and Public Worship

5 March 2020

Dear Worshipper

You will be aware of the media coverage of the recent spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) disease and our own Government’s recent announcements aimed to limit the spread in the UK and mitigate the risks to public health.

It is always important to keep things in balance and not to feed unnecessary fear. More people will die around the world this year because of influenza, while many people who get Coronavirus may not even realise they have it. There is a sense in which this is primarily a moral panic. However, on the other hand, as fragile beings, we tend to be better off over-interpreting rather than under-interpreting danger and the disease does appear to present a particular risk to elderly people and those with pre-existing health conditions.

Therefore it seems timely, to write to everyone on the Electoral Roll and to provide a reminder of best practice in public worship. This is not just to combat Coronavirus but to avoid the spread of any infection. I think it is also important to stress that we need not avoid divine worship out of fear of infection, even as we balance the needs of fellow worshippers who are may be physically vulnerable and who may need extra support.

The following guidance is widely accepted in the Church of England as best practice and was recently re-endorsed by the Bishop of Rochester for all parishes in this Diocese. I would ask everyone to be mindful of the following:

Advice for Holy Communion

Washing hands: Myself and other ordained Priests presiding at the Eucharist, those handling the Chalice and servers will continue to follow proper hand washing and hand sanitizing techniques prior to the start of the service. We also use hand sanitizers immediately before the Preparation of the Table and the Eucharistic Prayer. We always do this anyway, and will continue to do so during the current scare. Congregations are also asked to follow general public health advice concerning washing your hands. Rather than sing “Happy Birthday” twice as you wash your hands, say the Lord’s Prayer instead! It takes about the same amount of time and will be of more spiritual benefit to you.

Intincting is not ideal: Intinction (dipping wafer into wine) is often felt to be preferable if you do have a stinking cold or other illness since it avoids the Communicant placing their lips on the Chalice and is sometimes seen as a courtesy to your fellow worshippers. However, it can be counter-productive if, by dipping, your fingers go in the wine! Those with gluten intolerance for whom traces of gluten can be hazardous are also at greater risk when other communicants have dipped their communion wafer into the wine.

The answer is to receive Holy Communion in one kind: If you feel unwell or are concerned about sharing the Chalice, the solution is not to to intinct (dip) but to remember that Anglican teaching and theology agrees that it is “valid” to receive the Sacrament in one kind since to do so is to receive the Sacrament in its entirety. If you do not wish to drink from the Chalice, simply receive the consecrated bread alone.

The Peace: In welcoming and greeting each other in church and as we exchange the Peace we will often shake hands. By washing hands thoroughly and by using clean tissues we can help to reduce the risk of infection significantly. It is perfectly fine not to shake hands with others if you are concerned about a spread of germs and simply to greet one another with the words ‘Peace be with you’, a smile and a wave. I have also asked our Churchwardens to ensure there is handwash available at the rear of church.

Advice for Pastoral Visiting

It is possible that we see a rise in the number of requests for Pastoral Visits at home and it is really important not to avoid any of our brethren who are unwell and in need of our love and support. Some may be ill themselves and told to self-isolate. Others, particularly those who are elderly or physically vulnerable in some way, may do so as a precaution and wish to avoid attending on Sunday for a period of time.

I want to reassure anyone in such circumstances that I will be very happy to conduct such pastoral visits and/or to do Home Communion with you. I will, of course, observe all sensible precautions in personal hygiene myself before and after such visits.

However, I will also need to call on the help of those who have been trained to operate in Pastoral Ministry as well and I would ask for your understanding if you are visited by someone from the Church but don’t get to see the Vicar. Particularly at this time when I am without administrative support, a rise in requests for visits will need to be carefully managed and fitted around my other commitments.

A final word…

Whether we are talking about Coronavirus or any other infectious illness, there is a balance to be struck in how we engage with the church community we call home when we, or people around us, are sick. I would encourage those who are not vulnerable to infection and are not unwell not to make decisions about their attendance at public worship on the basis of fear or panic. The Scriptures exhort us not to neglect to meet together, but to encourage one another (Heb 10.25) and faced with the panic of our society, the apostle John reminds us that there is no fear in love and God’s love casts out fear.

Furthermore, our Christian community gathering on Sundays for divine worship can be a helpful bulwark against difficulties and should, therefore, be embraced rather than avoided. Gathering for worship enables us to support one another, spot those who are missing for pastoral follow-up, organise ourselves to support the sick, and to pray.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any concerns about the contents of this letter, have questions about our practice within worship or wish to arrange for a home visit.

Yours in Christ

Rev David Green

Lent, repentance, fasting and the difference

Lent worldIt always seems to come around a little quicker than I would hope and with my preparation lacking, but we are once again in the season of Lent and I notice various people are giving up various things once again.

If you are still pondering what to do this Lent, I try not to tell people what they should or should not give up for Lent, but I think there are a couple of principles to bear in mind.

Firstly, Lent is about temporarily abstaining from something in order to create time and space to increase our focus on God and ultimately increase our well-being. But it’s not just about having more time for prayer (by doing less). It’s also about a sense of sacrifice. Sacrificing something for the duration of Lent is an opportunity to consider what I am allowing in my life to have mastery. 

In his first letter to the Corinthian Church, St Paul wrote (in chapters 6 and 10) about how all things are permissible, but not all are beneficial. He said “everything is permissible for me, but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor 6.12).

Lent is a good opportunity each year for that spiritual healthcheck that asks “what am I at risk of being mastered by?” “What do I need to ensure means less to me than God does?”

You won’t find many people venerating wooden idols these days, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t in danger of idolatry. Work, food, sex, relationships, a sport or a hobby, alcohol, gambling, anything really, even church or a particular way of worshipping can become an idol if it becomes more to us than our relationship with God. Lent gives us a chance to reset.

Second, abstaining or fasting from something in Lent is about giving up something neutral or good, as a sacrifice. You can’t really “fast” from anything that’s actually a sin. Giving up gossip or complaint or lying is good, but that is not fasting. That is repentance, and is something we should be doing all-year round anyway.

Think about it from the other end. You get to Easter and can stop fasting, so you celebrate our Lord’s passion and resurrection by resuming the gluttony, or lust, or pride? No. Doesn’t sound very appropriate does it? Those are not the things to ‘fast’ from. We just need to repent of those regularly and ask God’s help to live differently all year round.

It is true that we can start to drift, and sometimes our sins and our idols come together as one and Lent becomes a good reminder to repent and live life as God would ask of us. But repenting of sin in Lent is additional to any fast you undertake.

So! If you’re still wondering what to do, think about time you can set aside, think about something you’d be comfortable joyfully resuming at Easter, but which it might be useful to you to temporarily step back from and reevaluate your relationship with, and don’t confuse your Lenten sacrifice with our daily need to repent of our sins and live for Christ.

Rev David Green

It’s nearly here

Election vote cross in a boxIt’s nearly here. I’m sure you’re counting down the days, getting ready, listening to those same old ‘tunes’ on the radio, and girding yourself for the inevitable onslaught. Yes, it’s time for a General Election.

In some ways, it’s quite nice to be in Advent when our political life is in turmoil. Advent, perhaps uniquely amongst all the seasons, is a time for reflection and preparation, with a grounded and reasoned hope that, in Christ, there are better days ahead. Oh, that we could just find our way to that kind of outlook in our national life at the moment.

It’s not my place to tell you how to vote. I do hope, however, you will exercise your democratic right and ensure turnout is high. More people chose not to vote last time than voted for any one party! That’s a lot of power wasted. Please make the time.

What I would like you to do, however, is join me in using the power we have right now in our polling card to call upon all political parties to live to a higher standard.

I’m sure there will be things that have annoyed you. The truth is that if I listed all the things that have angered me, I’d fill several pages of Trio. But here’s a few:

The Conservative Party doctoring videos, setting up fake websites and social media accounts, in a deliberate attempt to mislead the public’s perception of their opponents.

The Labour Party’s seeming inability to win its internal war against anti-semitism. Even in the last day or two, the Chief Rabbi has made an unprecedented call to the nation to remember this and vote accordingly.

The Liberal Democrats seem to have a predilection for dodgy bar charts that seek to mislead and encourage people to vote yellow in seats where it’s less marginal than they want you to think.

I appreciate some of these things are worse than others, but the common thread concerns moral character, truth, honesty, integrity and ethical behaviour.

What I’d like to see is voters telling candidates – “when you act with integrity and honesty, when you choose to take the high road, when you don’t attack opponents but instead set out a positive case for your own candidacy, when you can admit your own problems and address them, when you answer a direct question with a direct answer, only then will I consider you worthy of my vote.”

We shouldn’t have to say that, I know. They should do it simply because it’s right. But if the public do reward integrity and honesty with votes, parties and candidates will begin to take moral fibre more seriously.

I’ll finish with some wise advice from John Wesley. I hope you can follow it in this election. In 1774, he wrote in his journal:

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them 1. to vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy, 2. to speak no evil of the person they voted against, and 3. to take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”

I hope you have a good Christmas and my prayers to you and yours for a happy 2020.

Rev David Green

Leaders must disillusion

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhöffer

When I arrived at the University of Sheffield in 1993, I did so as a student of German. A long story short, I ended up switching my Major to Biblical Studies and the rest, as they say, is history. But the German was always useful. Quite a few theological tomes and key texts were to be found in university and college libraries in German and, amongst the students, I pretty much had those books all to myself!

My German these days is very, very rusty, but I continue to turn to those wise old saints for inspiration and guidance when tough questions loom.

Lately, I have been thinking upon Dietrich Bonhöffer a great deal and what he might have said if he hadn’t been executed by the Nazi regime in 1945 and had lived to see more of our modern world.

In 1933, when he was just 26 years old, Dietrich gave a radio address called “The Führer Principle”. It was just two days after Adolf Hitler had been democratically elected as Germany’s new Chancellor.

The word “Führer” simply meant “Leader”. It hadn’t yet acquired the connotations we associate with the word today. 

Bonhöffer began by talking about why Germany wanted a Führer. The financial collapse of the economy had brought crises and a great deal of anger and powerlessness. The people wanted to be rescued from their troubles. But Dietrich warned that the fickle voice of the people was not necessarily the same as the voice of God, and that a real Leader always had to be aware, humbly, of the limitations to their power.

He said “If [the leader] understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his lack and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol – then the image of the leader (Führer) will transform into the image of the misleader (Verführer), and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself. The true leader must always be able to disillusion. It is just this that is his responsibility and his real object. He must lead his following away from the authority of his person to the recognitions of the real authority of orders and offices. He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he leads”.

The distinction between an Office of Power and the qualities of the person that holds that Office is still a dilemma with which we wrestle. But Bonhöffer is adamant that the exercise of power works both ways. The people need to take care that we don’t make a Leader into an idol, and we must resist turning elections into simple popularity contests, instead of discussing ideas and policies. But we also need leaders who will hold their power lightly and humbly. They must be ready to show their “lack” and be ready to “disillusion” those they lead. To fail in what we might describe as the “duty of failure”, for leaders to fail to assert that they are human and will make mistakes, is to claim ultimate authority. Dietrich would say that’s dangerous ground. That ground is for God alone.

Rev David Green

Age, mental health and isolation

In recent days I heard the tragic news that an elderly gentleman in my parish, someone I had the privilege to know, had killed himself.

Having lost his wife some years before and with little family to speak of, when I visited with him he would confide in me that he felt he had nothing left to live for.

While he had a clear Christian faith and understanding of life, he now considered himself nothing more than a burden on the taxpayer, he felt he had lasted too long, outlived those he loved, and, quoting St Paul, he said it would be best to “be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23).

In some ways, I sympathised with the predicament as he saw it. Modern medical science has run faster than our morality or the pace of our culture can maintain. Neither have we always handled deftly the unexpected outcomes of fundamentally good developments like longer life.

Such conversations are not that uncommon for me with very elderly people. But I never anticipated or expected that he was quietly making a plan to die. Given that many people knew him and cared for him, I don’t think anyone else saw it coming either.

I hope this doesn’t feel like I am betraying his confidence in saying this after his death, but when I sat and listened to him, my over-riding impression was that this man felt unbelievably isolated and alone.

He lived with others. There were people around him all the time. He was always happy to strike up a conversation. But nevertheless he felt alone.

Sensing his loneliness, I tried to engage him; the occasional visit, a chat in the churchyard and also writing letters or cards to know he wasn’t forgotten. I tried to invite him to attend various services or events St Mary’s hosted; mostly without success.

One thing I said to him several times was that I believe that we live and breathe and have our being by God’s design. “For such a time as this” are we called (Esther 4:14). So if we are here by God’s design, even if we would rather not be, it must mean the Lord has purposes for each of our lives. What is it he would have us contribute?

I do wish he could have seen that he had a contribution to make; that he wasn’t useless or a burden, and that there were many things that were worth living for.

I know too that, while suicide is not a mental health problem in itself, it is strongly linked with mental distress and 75% of the suicides in the UK last year were men. It seems that we blokes are particularly bad at expressing how we feel or seeking help when we are hurting.

As Easter approaches, I also know that while the night can feel very dark indeed, the sun will come in the morning. The Christian faith is hope made real, hope made flesh.

If you feel that you’ve nothing to live for, or that you are lonely, or that there is no purpose or joy for you in life, please don’t suffer in silence and don’t seek your death. Please come and talk to me or talk to someone you know who will listen carefully to you, phone the Samaritans on 116 123 for free or visit the Samaritans website. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I truly believe God loves you and he has good things for you.

Rev David Green

How nations deliver justice (or not)

This article was first published on Rev David’s personal blog and is reproduced here with permission. While the views expressed represent David’s personal opinions, Alison Patterson is a dear friend to all at St Mary’s Church and we want to help publicise this situation.

In recent days our nation has been reacting with horror and disgust after 26 year old backpacker Grace Millane went missing in New Zealand. In writing about this today, I am very conscious that this is an ongoing investigation in which events may still move fast. But as things stand today, a body (believed to be Grace) has been found but not yet formally identified and a man has appeared in court charged with murder.

Grace was on a year-long round-the-world trip when she arrived in New Zealand on the 20th of November this year. On Saturday 1 December, she was seen in the city centre of Auckland visiting Sky City, a complex of hotels, restaurants, bars and a casino. Later that evening, she was seen in the company of a male and, by the following day – her birthday, she was missing.

No question that this is a terrible tragedy and my heart goes out to her family especially. But one of the things that has been very noticeable to me is the reaction of the New Zealand government and people. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, issued a heartfelt apology to Grace’s family and called the murder a source of “national shame”.

“From the Kiwis I have spoken to, there is this overwhelming sense of hurt and shame that this has happened in our country, a place that prides itself on our hospitality.”

Recognising that, ordinarily, the Prime Minister would not get involved in apologising for individual acts of violence, she said she felt compelled to do so because many New Zealanders were taking the case personally. They felt this abduction and, it seems, murder reflected on them somehow.

The reason that this struck such a particular chord with me is because of a different case which involved another young British woman in another country; a situation with which I have a great deal of personal familiarity.

A photo of Lauren


In October 2013, I was asked to visit the home of Alison Patterson, a lady who lived in my parish. When I sat down with Alison, I discovered that she was mother to three children in their teens and twenties, and she had sadly lost her husband, the children’s father, in a tragic accident five years previous. The reason for our meeting was that Alison was in the awful position of needing to arrange a funeral for her daughter Lauren, who had died on the 12th of October that year in Doha, Qatar. She was 24 years old.

Lauren was studying to become a teacher when, in 2012, she took an opportunity to visit Qatar and take a job teaching a Reception class in a school in Doha. Things went well and Lauren was very happy living and working in the country, making friends in the ex-pat community and in the May of 2013, she decided to extend her contract for a second year.

Not long after term had begun in that second academic year, on Saturday the 12th of October, Lauren went for a night out with friends. At the end of the evening, she left the La Cigale nightclub with one of her female friends and two Qatari men. The men dropped the friend home first with Lauren to be taken home second.

It gives me no pleasure to describe to you how Lauren died. However, I believe it is important to rehearse it here so that you understand the severity of what took place. I have, at least, made this text white so that you have to highlight over it to read it. It gives you the choice as to whether you want to read the details of what happened next or not. It’s not pleasant, so I understand if you choose not to highlight the text and you choose to skip over to the following paragraph.

Lauren was not returned home that night. The two men abducted her. One of them raped her and then he stabbed her to death. To try to conceal their crime, the two of them took her body out into the desert where they dug a fire pit and set Lauren’s corpse on fire. When Alison flew out to Qatar to identify Lauren’s body, there was considerable difficulty in doing so because what was left of Lauren weighed only 7.5 kilos. All that was left was part of her head and neck, her upper jaw teeth with her brace still intact, and part of her chest where the knife was still embedded. Her feet were the only part of her body clearly untouched because they had hung over the edge of the fire pit when she was burnt. The red nail polish she loved was still visible on her toes.

A photo of LaurenOn the 21st of November at St Mary’s Church in West Malling; one of the churches I lead and the parish where the Patterson family lived, we conducted Lauren’s funeral. It was a day I will never forget. The church was packed with people; most of them teenagers and adults – Lauren’s friends. In my remarks on the day, I decided to say that Lauren did not die with love surrounding her, but we would make sure that on that day of her funeral she would be buried with love. As we laid her to rest in the churchyard, hundreds of people filed past the open grave, each holding a flower. Each flower was thrown into the grave until, by the time everyone had taken part, you could not see the coffin for the sea of flowers that her friends and family gave to her in one last act of love.

Over the next few years, Alison became a friend and a regular at St Mary’s alongside other members of her family and friends, including her remaining son and daughter. It has been my privilege as her parish priest to accompany them all. I do so still, and I do what I can to walk with the family as they rebuild their lives.

It hasn’t all been misery and tragedy in my pastoral support of the family. Alison found love with her second husband, Kevin, and it was my privilege to marry them at St Mary’s in a day full of joy and celebration. But it was also a day when Lauren was not forgotten. We included a little act of remembrance in the marriage service with Lauren’s photo given pride of place in our Lady Chapel, candles were lit and prayers said. Immediately after the marriage service had concluded, Kevin and Alison took a few moments with me to be at Lauren’s grave and, once again, to pray.

But, unfortunately, as part of that journey since Lauren’s death, Alison and her family have also been involved in what has seemed like a never-ending fight for justice. It is here that the contrast between New Zealand’s reaction for Grace Millane and Qatar’s response to Lauren could not be more different – to New Zealand’s credit and to Qatar’s great shame.

The murderer was quickly identified as Badr Hashim Khamis Abdallah Al Jabr – a Qatari national. He was found guilty the following March and sentenced to death. Qatar still has the death penalty. Mohamed Abdallah Hassan Abdul Aziz, Al Jabr’s accomplice, was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for helping to dispose of Lauren’s body and tampering with evidence. One might wonder about why Abdul Aziz only got three years. It is indicative of the wider situation I want to write about today, but that’s not the focus of my attention.

Where I want to focus is that, in the five years since Lauren died, Alison has had to fly to Qatar over thirty times in the hunt for justice. Think for a moment of the financial implications of more than thirty round-trip flights to Qatar.

After the harrowing trial and the initial conviction of Al Jabr, Qatar’s Court of Appeal upheld the conviction a year later. Then, in 2016, Qatar’s highest court threw out that verdict and ordered a new re-trial for Al Jabr.

At this point, when you have the benefit of the British legal system, it’s quite difficult to fathom exactly how Qatar’s judiciary operates. The re-trial was ordered after Al Jabar’s lawyer argued that the Court of Appeal’s decision was “erroneous and not based on a sound legal foundation.” At the re-trial, there was no new evidence introduced. The panel were instead given leave to evaluate what was previously entered into the record to see if any errors were made. The mind boggles as to why such checking and double checking was required, other than in search of some kind of loophole so that Al Jabr could get off.

The retrial took place in 2017 and, thankfully, Al Jabr was found guilty once again. The original sentence, which was to be carried out by firing squad or hanging, was reimposed. The courts dismissed Al Jabr’s defence, admonishing his lawyers in the process who had, at various points over the various trials, claimed that he had acted in self-defence, he was mentally incapable, and even that Lauren had killed herself. Clearly, Al Jabr didn’t have a legal leg to stand on.

And yet, despite this incredible litany of legal activity and re-trial after re-trial after hearing after trial, a further hearing came about this Autumn (2018) because of a technicality in which Al Jabr’s lawyers claimed he had not received the paperwork inviting him to attend the 2017 sentencing hearing.

So Al Jabr had to be sentenced again. It gives me no pleasure to tell you that this apparent ‘re-sentencing’ took place on the 26th of November this year and Lauren’s murderer’s sentence was reduced much to the family’s great surprise, shock and anger. Al Jabr’s sentence was set at ten years. Given time already served since 2013, he will be out in five.

Where New Zealand has, as a nation, effectively covered themselves in sackcloth and ashes and expressed a profound sense of regret and shame that a vibrant, travelling young British woman should ever have come to harm on their shores, Qatar does not. While New Zealand promises justice for a family hurting deeply and grieving for the loss of a young woman who had her whole life ahead of her, Qatar instead continues to prolong the suffering of Alison and her family.

Constant appeals and re-trials only convey to Lauren’s family and watching friends that Qatar’s over-riding priority in this case is not to see justice served, but rather to preserve their national reputation. It seems there is a pervading reluctance to accept that a Qatari could ever act so heinously. Entertaining the repeated legal shenanigans of Al Jabr’s lawyers convey a sense that they would rather expunge the record of such a crime ever having taken place instead of have to admit that a Qatari man actually did this.

One wonders what sort of justice would have been served if the man who violated Lauren had not been Qatari? Amongst the ex-pat community, the Qatari legal system is reputed to often have one rule for nationals and another for those who come from overseas. If Al Jabr had come from the Yemen or Oman, and had done this in Qatar, I very much doubt Al Jabr would still be breathing.

Don’t get me wrong. I am no fan of the death penalty. I am glad to live in a country that long ago ended such cruelty. But I am a fan of justice being served. In anyone’s book, ten years in prison for such a brutal murder is no justice at all. Lauren never got to explore her teaching career. She never got to marry or have children, or grow old in the company of family and friends and with grandchildren to make her smile. A lifetime was stolen by Al Jabr that night. Is ten years the right price for such a theft?

And what prospect is there that this dangerous man, whose misogyny and violent sexual hatred apparently knows no bounds, will be safe if he is released from prison sometime around 2023? What message does it send to other Qatari men with a similar appetite for sexual violence? What message does it send to Al Jabr? Will he have other victims in the future?

For Lauren’s family, for me, for her many family and friends, the fight for justice continues, and there is hope. I think that Qatar’s concern for its own national reputation is something that can be used as we all seek true justice for Lauren.

Let me explain what I mean.

Qatar, if you are reading, do you not see that your reputation as a nation, as a country, is damaged far more by your collective unwillingness to let justice be done and your obfuscation of the clear facts of this case, than any damage done to your reputation by the actions of this one man?

A photo of Lauren and Alison

Lauren and her mum, Alison.

We understand that all Qataris are not wicked, evil rapists and murderers like Al Jabr. We like to trust and believe in your neighbourliness and we see your desire to be seen as a respectable nation on a world stage. With the FIFA World Cup on its way in 2022, we recognise also that you are becoming a player at international level with a passion to be taken seriously as a global force for good.

We can understand that one person can be guilty of unimaginable cruelty, and while such things are lamentable, we also understand that such actions do not need to define a whole country. We do not think of New Zealand as a nation of misogynists and murderers because of what happened to Grace Millane. Their reaction to the death of Grace Millane proves it. It gives us hope that the people of that nation, like the people of Britain, truly want to see justice done for that young woman.

But every time you deny the Patterson family justice, every time you prolong their agony, every time Alison has to get on another plane to Doha… and now when you have given a risible sentence to a man guilty of truly awful crimes, it becomes that much harder for us to see you in the same light as the people of New Zealand.

The choice is yours really. You can either reassure us all, and the international community, that this case was just one man acting from his own evil intent. You can punish him properly for his crime of unimaginable barbarism.

Or you can continue on your current path where, day-by-day, it gets easier and easier to see your nation as a place that one should not visit, let alone allow our sons or daughters to visit. Why would we come when it seems racism and misogyny are alive and well in your legal system, Qataris are protected simply because of their race and place of birth, and violent, predatory men do not face proper justice.

So, your choice. Who are you really? Which nation will you choose to be?

Rev David Green