Living in Bishop Auckland as I do there is the excitement of the transformation happening at Auckland Castle and around; the anticipation of Kynren, a new Spanish Art Gallery and Faith Museum. Then there was the chance to relatively quietly celebrate Her Majesty becoming our longest reigning monarch in September.
But three images are starker than the rest; the dead body of a small child being carried by a soldier on a Turkish beach and the scenes at Bataclan, Paris struck us all hard. The debris on the streets of Bujumbura, Burundi were more personal as they were in front of my own eyes not mediated by anyone else.
All of us have images from our own lives; our families and friends and events we have shared. Some captured on our phones and cameras, shared via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Whatsapp; others pure memories.
It is the refugee images that have unexpectedly affected my own life and work most this year. So this Christmas I find myself reflecting on the Christmas story afresh around this theme. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem by the political power of Rome. They surely would not have chosen to travel so late into Mary’s pregnancy. They wanted to be in their own home, surrounded by family and friends. Yes there were relatives in Bethlehem but it was a long distance away and those relatives may never have been met. A while after the birth they are forced to flee again. This time their young son’s life is under threat from the violent King Herod. They flee to Egypt as refugees.
Refugees have existed throughout human history and across the globe. Our nation has a proud history of welcoming those whose lives have been disrupted and threatened by brutal regimes and I do not believe now is the time to stop that good tradition. As a nation, and within that, we as a region, should play our part in welcoming asylum seeking refugees from Syria, and elsewhere, who have fled persecution, war and violence. Properly, care must be taken in assessing who is offered such support, but open doors and warm welcome are the proper responses. Expect such refugees to bring new gifts and joys into our communities, just as those who have come before have done.
The Christmas story calls us to recognise the reality of enforced people movement, the terror of being a refugee and the knowledge that God is active in the midst of it all, and is to be found in a new born babe, born in poor circumstances under enforced movement laws.
So as I look forward into 2016 I hope that the people of the North East who have not yet been asked to welcome refugees, some areas not for decades, will show the warmth of welcome that Rosemary and I have received since we moved here 2 years ago. Let us live up to our reputation for welcome and friendliness to all.
To what else do I look forward? Well at a personal level two of our children will marry in 2016. There will be great family joy. So I hope and pray for family joy in a host of ways across our region. I look forward to my ‘Prayer Walks’ in the Darlington and Stockton areas in May. I loved being in London for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics so I look forward to watching Rio 2016, and dare I hope for England success at the Euros? In June we will celebrate Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday. I am committed to being out and about around the Diocese meeting people in all walks of life. Likewise I remain committed to trying to serve the North East through my place in the House of Lords. I hope that more firms will create apprenticeships, our local governments will find wisdom in tough times, our MPs will serve us well and our emergency services will be as brilliant as ever. I hope too that our Health Service and our brilliant schools will flourish. 2016 will no doubt hold unexpected joys and sadnesses, but I trust God’s presence in them all.
So in praying for much joy and blessing this Christmas may each of us know the presence of the living, loving God who came to us as a vulnerable baby, experienced the tragedies of human life and who in his risen life offers us true hope. May we welcome him as he welcomes us.
Paul, Bishop of Durham