One of the issues dominating British politics for many years is immigration. Elections are won and lost on these matters, as we have seen over the last few weeks. Who should and who should not be allowed into Britain? There has been a lot of debate about allowing members of the EU into Britain. Are they going to swamp the country? Will they take away jobs from local people? What about those claiming refugee status? What about economic refugees? Who can be defined as political refugees? Who should be allowed in and under what circumstances?
None of these questions are new and it was the way in which England responded to them in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century that eventually led to the foundation of the French Hospital. The persecution of Protestants (later known as the Huguenots) in France, led to men and women seeking refuge in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Prussia, America and, of course, England. Many who came to this country were highly skilled and contributed towards British trade and industry, but some were not and had been damaged by the terror and traumas they faced during the persecutions of France. It was for these that the Foundation came into being. The response to the Huguenot refugees brought both material and spiritual wealth to Britain. It brought material wealth through the contribution made to the economy and culture of Britain. It brought spiritual wealth because the presence of those refugees who were struggling – les affligés – was able to elicit from such people as Jacques de Gastigny a response of generosity which led to the Foundation that we celebrate today. That was good news to those who were struggling, it was good news for the spiritual health of Jacques de Gastigny and it is good news to those connected with La Providence today.
Good news is at the heart of the Christian Gospel. The very first verse of the second reading speaks about the ‘beginning of the good news’ and the good news is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ himself is the good news. In today’s celebration and this afternoon’s service, we thank God for the good news that was brought to us all in Jesus Christ, for the good news brought to the struggling Huguenots who needed support when they came to England and discovered it in the foundation of the French Hospital and we thank God for the good news that came to those generous hearted and generous minded benefactors who provided the first hospital.
When we say thanks to God in worship, as we are this afternoon, it does not simply remain in the past. Saying thanks is gratefulness for the past, but it has implications for the present and the future. In this case, it means continuing to look to the welfare of those resident in La Providence ensuring that they are able to flourish. But it also means reflecting the generosity of heart of the founder, not just to the residents, but also to others who are refugees and are seeking asylum. Each day we open our newspapers, we see more and more people being forced from their homes. Look at the current disaster in Iraq, in Syria, let alone in a number of states in Africa. I lived and ministered in Zambia for some years and I remember a Zambian telling his fellow Zambians that they should never forget that every African is a potential refugee. Jesus himself was a refugee, when, as a child, Joseph and Mary fled with him to Egypt knowing that Jesus’ life was under threat.
As we engage with debates about immigration and refugees, it is important that we remember the generosity of the foundation of the French Hospital and the good news it has brought and continues to bring to so many. And as we thank God for the foundation, we need to ensure that our thankfulness issues in good news to those who, today, are in a similar position to the very first residents of the French Hospital all those years ago. Finally, just as it did for Jacques de Gastigny, so too, the way that we respond to the refugees knocking on our doors today will have an affect upon the spiritual health of the nation.
Rochester Cathedral: 14th June, 2014.
Readings: Exodus 34.1-10; Mark.1.1-13