Churches Together in Farnham

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
January 2016

Farnham United Service on Sunday 24th January 2016

Churches Together in Farnham’s annual United Service was held this year at St.Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church, Farnham.  It was hosted and led by Parish Priest Fr.Niven Richardson.

Hundreds of Christians from churches and denominations throughout the area greeted Canon Dr.Andrew White - the celebrated “Vicar of Baghdad” - with prolonged applause when he spoke.

Canon White told the congregation that:

“We even pray for Daesh, for the terrorists who killed our brothers and sisters”

Canon White had flown on from the Netherlands that day to speak at the service.  He has been deeply involved in the work of reconciliation in the Middle East since 1998.  Since he was appointed Vicar of St.George’s, Baghdad in 2005, over a thousand members of his congregation had been martyred for their Christian faith.  He himself continued his ministry in Iraq under constant threat of kidnap or death until, late in 2014, the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered his withdrawal due to extreme security risk.

Canon White spoke of how, when a vicar in the UK, his experience had been that ecumenical work could at times be mundane ... that is until he was called to ‘cross over the river’, out of his comfort zone, into Iraq to engage in reconciliation work with Sunni, Shia, Yazidi and Christian communities.

A key aspect of his work has always been loving enemies, and “generally, the enemies are not very nice”.  So he has tended to adopt the policy that, when meeting with them, to build up bonds of fellowship first by inviting his enemies to share in a meal with him.  This approach worked well until he issued an invitation to the last set of enemies - ISIS - who, he reported, replied “we’ll gladly come, but chop off your head as well”.

Consequently, much of Canon White’s work is now based out of Jordan, amongst refugees and former congregants who have fled from Iraq.  “Suddenly, loving our enemy became something new.  Our enemy had killed our people.”

In a cryptic reference, he revealed that “many of my people fled back to Nineveh (Mosul).” This, the country’s second city, fell under ISIL control in June 2014.  The cultural hub had previously sustained a large Christian community since Biblical times.  As he put it:  “It is the place where the miserable evangelist (Jonah) went by submarine” along with Doubting Thomas.  Though ‘miserable‘, Iraq’s “greatest revered saints remain Thomas and Jonah”.  The tradition of the fast of Jonah, where Christians abstain from both food and water for three days, as Jonah did while in the whale, continues to this day.

Canon White informed the congregation that, in Jordan, “I have a school - all the children are given a cross from Bethlehem” made by a carpenter friend from Jerusalem.  “Most are called Joseph or, if a girl, Maria.  All the children carry their cross every day.  Last week I was in Belfast, this morning in Amsterdam.  I told the children I would be going around the world telling your story.  What do you want me to tell them?”

The reply came from a small boy Joseph, (his father murdered by ISIS):  “Tell them that Jesus loves them and give them my cross.”  In a symbolic gesture, Canon White presented the boy’s cross to Fr. Niven.

In Jordan, Canon White is no longer known as the English vicar, but simply as ‘Abouna - Daddy’ in Arabic (‘Our Father’).  “When you are persecuted, you forget which flavour you are.  You become one flavour.”  Whether Latin or Syrian Orthodox, Presbyterian, Pentecostal or Anglican, they “all love Jesus and follow Him”.

The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME), the umbrella charity founded by Canon White, besides running the school, gives out food and runs a health clinic in Jordan for refugees.

“But what we really give them is a love of each other”; he comments.  “We have nothing, but we have everything because we have Messiah.”

Everyone wears black knotted bracelets with a cross, made by refugees who are not allowed to work, to symbolise the number of their fellow brothers and sisters who have been killed, and where their ultimate trust resides.

Canon White finished with a quote from a girl called Marion:  “Thank them.  Tell everyone [we know] they love us.  We are all one family.  We even pray for Daesh, for the terrorists who killed our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.  But we love them.”

Members of various denominations led prayers or gave readings during a stirring and inspirational service to mark the international Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2016.

Clergy present included Canon Dr.Anne Gell (Rural Dean), United Reformed Church Minister the Revd.Michael Hopkins, the Revd.John Edwards of The Holy Family Church Heath End and Canon Andrew Tuck (former Rector of Farnham, now retired).  Fr.Niven extended a very warm welcome to everyone who came.

Before leaving for a third engagement in Portsmouth that evening, Canon White chatted with visitors and signed copies of his latest books in the St.Joan’s Centre, where volunteers had laid on a generous spread of cake, tea and coffee refreshments.

A retiring collection raised over £1,500 for the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East.

In addition to the United Service, prayer meetings were held daily throughout the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at either St.Joan’s Centre or Farnham Pentecostal Church, establishing strong bonds of fellowship between those who took part.  Members of many different denominations joined in readings, prayers and reflections hased on the 2016 Unity Week theme of ‘Salt of the Earth’.  Each meeting concluded with refreshments.

Report by Benedict Parsons and Mary Clarke

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