Holocaust Memorial Day

Forgetfulness can lead us to disaster. The things we refuse to forget, the things we resolutely remember, can work upon us for good. That is at the heart of faith. The constant reading and rereading of biblical texts is, in part, about remembering that we are rooted in a story with a past. We certainly must listen afresh to God’s word in our contexts; seeking for the Spirit’s word today within the many words. But we also want to anchor all we are and all we do in the faithfulness of God that spans all time rather than being the private possession of our little present moments. For me, that reality often comes home most fully as we gather around the simple meal of bread and wine. Here we remember an upper room in ancient Jerusalem, fearful and confused followers, an impending death upon a cross. We retell an old, often retold story. But we also locate ourselves within that story, confessing that the Son of God gave his life for us too, rose again for us too, lives amongst us too. These are things I never want to forget.

Holocaust Memorial Day each year on 27th January invites us to further remembering. It is difficult remembering. We remember things that pass beyond the capacity most of us have to imagine. It is not easy to enter in to the evil and abominable hatred that seeks to eradicate an entire population. It is not easy to picture six million collected from across Europe to be put to death for being Jews. It is not easy to imagine a host of others (Roma, gay, those deemed deficient mentally or physically) also going to be gassed and incinerated. And the remembering becomes, perhaps, a little harder as the years bear away the last of the generation who came out of the Nazi terror to tell their stories and give life to the dying. But, surely, that is why observing the international Holocaust Memorial Day becomes increasingly important? Forgetfulness can lead us into disaster.

I was stopped short by the findings of the survey carried out ahead of this year’s observance by its organisers, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. They polled 2,006 UK adults. The found that 5% were sure the Holocaust was a myth; that it never happened at all. That scales up to 2.6 million across the entire UK population. A further 8% said the numbers killed were nowhere near the actual reality of six million, whilst two thirds of respondents said they had no idea how many died. This distancing from the truth, this forgetfulness, might be fertile ground for other sorts of seeds to thrive. The Community Security Trust is now recording over 100 anti-Semitic incidents across Britain every month, including acts of extreme violence. Our current political discourse has become increasingly harsh and divisive, unleashing forces of hatred and public scorn. All sorts of groups feel far less safe in the UK of 2019 than they have for many years. And, across the Europe that is so scarred by the marks of Holocaust history, extreme voices and policies gain increasing support in terrible echoes of the 1930s. Forgetfulness can lead us into disaster.

 

Holocaust Memorial Day forces us to deliberately remember. And it allows us to wonder where the forces come from that can turn neighbours against neighbours and, in the briefest of times, collapse communities into cauldrons of violence. Part of the horror of genocide is that so many involved in it can be such ordinary human beings; people like me. Part of the horror of the attack upon Europe’s Jews is the way in which elements of Christian faith and practice and theological interpretation justified, over centuries, abuse of Jews. The Church, my home, helped hatred happen. And it has happened again and again. We remember other names and peoples: in Cambodia; in Bosnia; in Rwanda; in Darfur.

We must remember. In part we do so as one tiny way to offer dignity and humanity to those who have been slaughtered; we refuse to forget them. Recently, for the first time ever, the ashes and bone fragments of some killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau were buried in a Jewish cemetery in Hertfordshire. That was, in part, an act of dignifying the dead. We say their lives mattered. In part we stop to give ourselves thinking space to wonder at the world and at our place within its worst stories. This remembering, by rooting us in past events, then orientates us towards the future. It requires of us a response and a recommitment to playing our part to the full in refusing to deny or belittle the scale of past horror. It sets us, once again, upon the journey towards others, towards deeper relationships with those we do not know, to building friendships and communities that can withstand the efforts to divide and to abuse. We remember, so that those who died might help us to live better.

 

Neil

Goodbye to 2018


2018 draws to a close with much for us to look back upon with joy and gratitude at Westminster.

With the college campus complete we’re settling in to the new possibilities for collaboration and shared programmes that the proximity of six elements of the Cambridge Theological Federation on this site brings. It is a staggering and wonderful transformation to now have entirely revamped or newly built accommodation for Westminster itself, the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide, the Eastern Region Ministry Course, the central administrative offices of the Federation, the Woolf Institute promoting dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims and the Faraday Institute for Scince and Religion. Just as the CTF is one of the world’s most diverse and  broad theological education and formational communities, Westminster is now one of the great hubs for the Federation. I can only continue to pay huge tribute to everyone who has made this possible and whose work continues to ensure that all these endeavours flourish. It is a superb bringing into reality of the vision of the United Reformed Church, back in 2006, to redesignate us from being a theological college to being a much more all-embracing Resource Centre for Learning, serving the whole people of God and the wider world.

Alongside our central teaching through our three university partners (Cambridge, Durham and Anglia Ruskin) we have enjoyed running a series of courses and events for a diverse range of individuals and groups. We’ve welcomed URC lay preachers and Elders, helped people explore creativity and prayer, guided groups discovering new ways of working and ministering together and walked with individuals as they’ve joined us to discover some particular aspects of faith that have been important for them and the contexts within which they serve. We’ve been blessed to have a number of friends joining us from the world church family throughout the year, and are actively looking at ways in which this international sharing might grow and develop in the future. A significant recent highlight this November was welcoming the Board and other central committees of the Council for World Mission, the URC’s closest international Christian family, who spent a week with us. All of this will continue into 2019 and will grow. We’ll be welcoming groups of ministers from several URC Synods as they come to be refreshed and to learn more about how they might best serve in the rapidly changing situations they encounter. We’ll see networks of URC people making use of the college and will be running several events in collaboration with partners like the Faraday Institute.

Alongside all of this the conferencing and event aspect of the college continues to develop and we continue to treasure the gift of hospitality we can offer. Our B&B operation sees a very wide range of people enjoying Westminster as a base from which to explore Cambridge. None of this can happen without the hard work of the team who ensure that guests find everything they need when they come to stay with us, and I’m very grateful for the dedication and professionalism of everyone who makes it happen.

As I end these brief comments I want to particularly offer a word of welcome to some of those who have joined us this year. Dr Jane McLartey took over as our part time Tutor in New Testament to cover that aspect of our teaching and supervising for the year. Nick Lomax joined us as our new Business Development Manager. Nick will continue to help us build and develop our conference and events work. And Sarah Toyer has joined us in Reception. In a rather wonderful way these three represent the tip of the iceberg of the college with the work they do in welcoming our guests and students, planning and delivering wider events and ensuring Westminster’s academic programmes remain of high quality and deeply engaged with the context of today.

I wish you all a blessed Christmas and a very happy new year.

Neil

 

There But Not There- Remembrance 2018

There But Not There is the 2018 Armistice project for the charity Remembered.

In 2014 the major art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London marked one hundred years since the first full day of Britain’s involvement in the First World War. There But Not There is a nationwide installation for the fallen, timed to conclude on Armistice Day (11th November) 2018. It will mark the centenary of Armistice Day 1918.

Gradually, in public sites throughout the UK, Perspex or metal images of a ‘Tommy’ are appearing. ‘Tommy’ was the colloquial name for a foot soldier in the First World War (WW1). The new ‘Tommies’ are reminders of the people whose absence has had a lingering and profound effect on their home communities. We know, however, that the ‘Tommy’ also represents many more people than the millions of fathers, brothers, sons, friends and colleagues who served in the four years of the First World War. Westminster College’s chapel is a war memorial and we are contributing to the national commemoration by remembering those who were part of the college’s history; a story in which former students from England and Germany died in WW1 and WW2. Here are some of their stories.


I am William Black Noble. I am a Lieutenant in the 6th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers. In the second Battle of Ypres I was killed on 26th April 1915 when we were defending the village of St Julien, Belgium. You’ll find my name is mentioned on the Menin Gate. My parents, Sir William and Lady Margaret Noble, commissioned this chapel in my memory. I am There But Not There.

I am Alexander F. Johnston. I am a Second Lieutenant in the London Regiment (Finsbury Rifles). I was killed on 10th September 1916. I wrote to a friend saying ‘To come back is to enter on the new heritage. To die will not have been in vain.’ You will find my name is on the Thiepval Memorial on The Somme. I am There But Not There.

I am Theodor Hesse. I am a Lance Corporal in the German Army and I died at Brest/Bug in Belarus on 5th February 1942. I am There But Not There.

I am Hermann Hartmann. I am a soldier on the Eastern front. I died on 27th August 1941, two kilometres outside Punewo on the Dunea/Divina (contemporary Latvia). I am There But Not There.

I am Arthur Bawtry. I am a Volunteer Reserve Chaplain (Squadron Leader) in the RAF. While serving in India I contracted enteric fever and died on 5TH July 1943. I am buried in the Bhowanipore Cemetery in Calcutta.  I am There But Not There.

I am Geoffrey Vellacott. I am a Lance Corporal in the Australian Army Medical Corps (13th Medical Hospital). I died on 19th December 1943 and am buried at Kanchanburai, the Bridge on the River Kwai, Thailand. I am There But Not There.

I am Harold Rogan. I am an RAF pilot. When on secondment in Italy my plane crashed north of Foggia. I died on 15th April 1944 and am buried in the War Cemetery in Bari. I am There But Not There.

I am Thomas W.D. James. I am Secretary to the Foreign Missions Committee and am one of two people who died on 9th February 1945 when a V2 rocket hit our offices at Church House in London. I am There But Not There.

I am William T. Elmslie. I am the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church of England where I have been serving since 1935. I also died as a result of the bombing on 9th February 1945. I am There But Not There.

 …neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8. 38,39)

Intrepid Adventures In The Desert – Collection Newly Online


Imagine trekking through the desert in Egypt, towards St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. It’s 35ºC, you’re riding a camel… and as it’s 1892, you’re wearing – like any other Edwardian lady – boots, a corset, and a very large hat!

‘Mrs Gibson 1892 on camel’. With permission of Westminster College, Cambridge.

Our Sisters of Sinai, the benefactresses of the College, made no fewer than nine trips to Egypt, Greece, and the Holy Land between 1868 and 1906; and just like more modern tourists, they took plenty of photographs of their travels.

 Following a project to digitise our collection of their travel photographs, high-quality digital images have just been made available via the Digital Library at CUL. There are almost 300 photographs of landscapes and people taken by the Sisters on their visits to sites of Biblical interest – mountains and monasteries, tombs and temples – across Egypt, including Sinai and the Nitrian Desert, and also to Jerusalem, modern-day Syria and Jordan, and Greece.

And they show the people the Sisters travelled with – academics, cooks, monks at St Catherine’s – and provide fascinating glimpses into what travelling in Middle East was like for intrepid ladies in the 1890s.

 

St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai; and a temple in Egypt. Reproduced with permission of Westminster College, Cambridge.
St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai; and a temple in Egypt. Reproduced with permission of Westminster College, Cambridge.

The originals are lantern slides, which the Sisters used to illustrate their books and talks – just over 3 inches square, they are two pieces of glass sandwiching a photographic image. As well as the travel photographs, Westminster also holds a further collection of over 250 lantern slide images, and 22 albums, of the Sisters’ photographs of manuscripts.

View the whole collection online here.