Renewal from Rubble

Great Britain

'The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners.'

Isaiah 61:1

To mark Tearfund’s 50th birthday The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke at a special service in Coventry Cathedral – a building that was almost totally destroyed in World War Two and then rebuilt. This is a slightly shortened version of his address on that day.

Justin Welby preaching at Coventry Cathedral
The Archbishop, preaching at Coventry Cathedral

Aid agencies and NGOs are going through a torrid time. We hear of the news of staff that fail, of governments that steal, of wars that destroy, of power-seeking that disregards the poor.     

And so it is no surprise that this passage from Isaiah 61 appears sometimes to be mere building of castles in the air. The pragmatist, the critic of aid spending, says, ‘No, concentrate on here, on us, on me, on our needs, on the struggles of my community at home, for we cannot change what happens elsewhere.'

So, equally, were some of the comments of those who heard the words of Isaiah 61 for the first time in the slave labour camps of Babylon, or the second time in their greatest proclamation in Jesus’ mouth in Luke 4, for in the opening declaration of his ministry, he was clearly proclaiming the Year of Jubilee.

You can hear his listeners thinking, ‘Who’s this anyway? It’s all very well, but look at the realities.’ For there is nothing new about the real day-to-day struggles of everyone’s lives obscuring the long term, or the real local needs overwhelming the cries of the distant poor. It is a conundrum that is as old as time. Yet its great fault is that it leaves God out of the equation.

'Tearfund works on the basis of putting God back into the calculation.'

Justin Welby

Tearfund works on the basis of putting God back into the calculation. For Tearfund calls us to the response that amplifies the distant voices and takes all human beings to a different level of relationship in which those distant voices are heard clearly in our ears.       

Isaiah 61 was taken up by Jesus at the very start of his ministry and we are here to celebrate that through 50 years, you have lived it. In what you do, you demonstrate that the reductionist and rationalist materialism which inserts the measure of distance and familiarity into the calculation of benefit and says that the far away and unfamiliar don’t count for much, that calculation that sees the world in terms of exchange and scarcity, leads to disaster.       

I am so pleased that we are here in this cathedral, for its very stones speak of that good news of God’s recalculation of our miscalculations.     

Stone by stone
But in practice, all of us know that that recalculation means hard, discouraging and dangerous work. It means doing a million small things that, together, usher in the kingdom of God. When that Cathedral burned, and you look at the photos of the next day, the rubble is feet high above people’s reach. Where did they start? They began to clear the rubble one piece at a time. They picked up nails that had fallen from the burning beams and, to remind themselves what hope was, they made crosses from them. They imagined the new.      

Winston Churchill visits the ruins of the cathedral shortly after bombing
Churchill visits the site of the bombed cathedral during World War Two.

Basil Spence, the architect here, was caught in a fox hole under fire in the Second World War after the Normandy landings, and the person sharing his foxhole said, words to the effect of, 'If we survive this, what will you do after the war?' And Basil Spence said, 'I will build a cathedral.' Well that was a bit brave. There hadn’t been one built since the 17th Century.

He tells how he stood in those ruins when the competition for the design started, and the image of what we now see just dropped into his mind. Clearing the rubble, imagining the new with the gift of the Spirit of God, building it stone by stone, piece by piece, glass window by glass window.

How do we do that? ‘Oh yes, we are not going to give up,’ says Emmanuel – God with us – ‘until poverty is abolished.’ And the cynic whose voice I took in the early bits of this address says, ‘Oh yeah, great, that’s a lifetime’s occupation, and your grandchildren’s too!’

Relationship Jubilee
How do we do it? It always begins, as Tearfund knows so well, with our relationship with God. Reconciliation of relationships with God is not an add-on; it is the only source of life, energy and vision.

And the clearing of the rubble, the building of our new world continues with recognising that relationship with God draws us into relationship with all God’s people. It means that the smallest and the least in the eyes of the world, in the power of the Spirit, are part of God’s action. This is how Tearfund works: in partnership with local Christians and local churches.

Justin Welby preaches, arms outstretched

'Let us remember that action to release the poor also releases those captive to wealth... Jubilee blesses all.'

Justin Welby

The year of Jubilee was the 49th year when all land returns to its original owners, when all debts are wiped, when the slate is wiped clean and an entire nation has got the chance to start again. Jubilee was about the entire nation, but in Jesus’ mouth, it becomes about the entire world. The Spirit of God is upon me and it is in the power of the Spirit that we bring jubilee to the whole world.

Two sets of prisoners
Jubilee therefore is about freedom and release. It is freedom for all captives whether to the sinful structures of slavery, of debt, poverty and injustice. But let us remember that action to release the poor also releases those captive to wealth, to power, to their own want and need for money and security. Jubilee blesses all. It can as easily transform the powerful and rich as the weak and poor. Of course, one problem is that the rich and powerful do not always, or even often, welcome liberation from their golden chains.

That is why we celebrate the gift of Tearfund to church and to world. You bring gifts and inspiration, you go on proclaiming the Year of Jubilee. You transform our vision of God, of his creation, of the restoration of all things in right and just relationships. May God grant you the next 50 years with resources and vision to match the last.

On Sunday 27 May, we're uniting Christians and churches around the world to lift their voices in prayer to end extreme poverty, and pray a prayer written especially by Justin Welby. Please join us!