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Francis, Welby, Mandela, Jesus changed the world's music

JustinWelbyBishop450In his Christmas message, the Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, talks about figures who have changed the world’s music.

Time magazine has made Pope Francis its Person of the Year.  Last year Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was not a world figure at all.  It was a big surprise when he was elected as the Pope last March.  He wasn’t even mentioned as one of the front runners.  He was already 76 years old and had submitted his resignation as an archbishop.  Not many people take on the heaviest responsibility of their working lives when they are past retirement age.
Time honoured the Pope because of “the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up hope for the Church at all”.  By coincidence, the morning after the Pope’s election, Justin Welby made his first public appearance as Archbishop of Canterbury.  It was here in Norwich where he began his pilgrimage of prayer around England prior to his inauguration in Canterbury Cathedral.  A large crowd gathered outside the Forum.  Then he walked to the Cathedral for a day of activities, by the end of which he had met thousands of local people.  It was an exhilarating day, well covered by the local press.
Like Pope Francis, Archbishop Justin’s accessibility and easy turn of phrase connects with ordinary people.  He has spoken of needing to compete Wonga out of existence.  He didn’t simply condemn the huge charges made on pay day loans.  He challenged his Church and all of us to serve the poor better.  Archbishop Justin has captured public imagination too.  It was no surprise to see him and Pope Francis so evidently enjoying each other’s company when they met in Rome. 
Perhaps his directness is why when the Archbishop invited the leaders of the major energy companies to meet with him, more turned up than went to meet with the Prime Minister.  It couldn’t be because the Archbishop has much power.  But if you capture imagination your influence can be huge.
Pope Francis has been big on gestures and symbols.  Even his name is symbolic.  No pope has ever previously taken the name of Francis of Assisi, one of the most popular of saints who gave away all his wealth to serve the poor.  Just before Easter the Pope washed (and kissed) the feet of men and women alike, including prisoners and even a Muslim.  He hasn’t changed Catholic doctrine or yet altered very much at all.  Time magazine nevertheless said “he has done something remarkable: he has not changed the words, but he’s changed the music”.
Tone and temperament matter.  They did with Nelson Mandela.  It wasn’t always the words he used.  His grandchildren sometimes told Mandela his speeches were a bit boring.  They could get away with it.  But his character never bored anyone.  He knew how to love his enemies.  It changed them.  He treated every human being as someone to be honoured.  He altered the mood of South Africa.  He changed the music.  That’s what caused the words to be eventually rewritten.
I remember chanting as a child “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”.  I didn’t really believe it.  Words can hurt.  But you can win an argument without convincing your opponents or changing their minds.  Sometimes our political and public life seems to consist of unending arguments.  We grow tired of them.  We want our imagination to be captured in other ways.  Hope and love aren’t always kindled by words.
Christmas isn’t about an argument.  It’s about a birth.  There had been plenty of words – the Law and the Prophets – to convince people to love God and each other.  But somehow those words weren’t enough, good though they were.  At Christmas, Christians claim that God’s Son is born in this world as a baby, wordless and with no argument to make.  This is the biggest gesture of all.  The words about God don’t alter.  But in Jesus the music changed completely.  A new tone was created.  This isn’t a God of power.  It’s a God of love, of humility, living among us. 
For two thousand years people have tried to get their minds around all this.  Theologians have written countless books with millions of words.  But at Christmas it’s the familiar carols which often capture the mood best.  Millions of British people will sing them this Christmas.  They love the music as much as the words.  The music matters.  It changes us and I hope this Christmas it will make us a bit more merciful, tender and loving.  A very happy Christmas to you all.

Pictured above is the Bishop of Norwich with the Archbishop of Canterbury outside the Forum in Norwich earlier this year.

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