When God speaks with a Northern accent
Some thoughts from Percy Bysshe Shelley: You are now In London, that great sea, whose ebb and flow At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more Yet in its depth what treasures! Well, that’s us. For here we are this weekend on full-on grandparent duty, in Walworth near the Elephant and Castle, in the Borough of Southwark; the alleged birth place of Charlie Chaplin no less. I’m not sure I could live here but certainly we always enjoy treasuring its depths, discovering little gems in this vast megalopolis which is - according to the Institute for Urban Strategies in Tokyo - #1 in the Global Power City ranking system. Certainly London is different, very different: it feels as if it is a foreign country, a city state apart from the rest of England. Take the current debate on Brexit, Greater London in contrast to the rest of the country is strongly Remain: 59.9% as opposed to 40.1%. West Lancashire, in contrast, is the opposite way around, 44.7% to 55.3%. Later this morning we will take the bus to the River. We just go to the bus stop and catch the next bus – I will be surprised if we wait more than five minutes (just like I remember catching the bus when a child in Waterloo). In contrast, in rural Cheshire where another daughter lives, there are two buses services, to Nantwich on Thursday and Saturday and to Chester on Tuesdays! Even though public transport here is excellent, the bus will be full. I remember on catching the 12 bus last year, a young man stood to give me his seat. (I didn’t know whether to be hugely grateful or massively insulted!). And once you get on the bus you are in no doubt where you are. The passengers will be visibly international – a whole mix of ethnic groups and languages from all over the world. Totally different from Ormskirk. There is huge economic growth, visible here in the massive new housing development down the road on the Aylesbury estate. Moreover, incomes per head here are five times as high as in the Welsh valleys or Cornwall. No wonder the population is now fit for bursting, pulling in people not just from all over the globe but from the rest of the country. Over my years in parish ministry I have always had the sense that our ministry with young people was feeding the churches in the Home Counties. However, politically - London may effectively be a City State but most of the seats in the House of Commons are elsewhere, like Workington! No surprise then that a key feature in the coming Election the main political parties are seeking to redress the balance – the Northern Powerhouse, and the like, seeking an “irreversible” power shift from London to the north of England. But if we live in a country dominated by its capital city, spare a thought for the people of Israel during the time of Jesus. Jerusalem was not just the centre for the political and economic life of the nation. What set it apart completely was the Temple on Mount Zion, the only place on earth touched directly by heaven. This Temple was the principle marker for the covenant relationship between the one true God and his people. Mount Zion was where God met with his people. Jerusalem is where it all happened: Except it didn’t. No one knew much about Nazareth, not one mention in the Old Testament for example. One commentator observed that when, in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel (1:46), Nathanael exclaims on seeing Jesus: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there” the big surprise was that he had even heard of the place. And so when Jesus’ ministry gets going, the Jerusalem leadership sent Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law up north to find out what was happening. Not the other way around, no Dick Whittingham here. They weren’t impressed and the main reason was that this wasn’t happening where it should have been happening, in Jerusalem. No, here is Jesus operating in the far north where people spoke in a distinctive Galilean accent. Of course, a key theme for the Gospels, especially for the so-called synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) is how Jesus journeys to Jerusalem, proclaiming and demonstrating the coming of God Kingdom en route. But the point is that most of his ministry took place in the Galilee. To say the obvious, the apostle Paul when back-to-the wall, speaking to the mob at the Jerusalem temple, explains how the exalted Christ identified himself on the Damascus road: “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.” Nazareth! They wouldn’t have liked that. Moreover Jesus taught that the days for the temple (even though it was still being rebuilt) were numbered. Those great stones would within a generation be toppled. Jerusalem would be besieged and destroyed. This is how God works, in the margins, in the provinces, on the outside. We may, as the apostle Peter or the new Speaker of the House of Commons, speak with a strong northern accent. But there again, so does God himself. Something to remember as the number 12 takes us over Westminster bridge.