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How nations deliver justice (or not)

In recent days our nation has been reacting with horror and disgust after 26 year old backpacker Grace Millane went missing in New Zealand. In writing about this today, I am very conscious that this is an ongoing investigation in which events may still move fast. But as things stand today, a body (believed to be Grace) has been found but not yet formally identified and a man has appeared in court charged with murder.

Grace was on a year-long round-the-world trip when she arrived in New Zealand on the 20th of November this year. On Saturday 1 December, she was seen in the city centre of Auckland visiting Sky City, a complex of hotels, restaurants, bars and a casino. Later that evening, she was seen in the company of a male and, by the following day – her birthday, she was missing.

Grace Millane graduation photograph

No question that this is a terrible tragedy and my heart goes out to her family especially. But one of the things that has been very noticeable to me is the reaction of the New Zealand government and people. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, issued a heartfelt apology to Grace’s family and called the murder a source of “national shame”.

“From the Kiwis I have spoken to, there is this overwhelming sense of hurt and shame that this has happened in our country, a place that prides itself on our hospitality.”

Recognising that, ordinarily, the Prime Minister would not get involved in apologising for individual acts of violence, she said she felt compelled to do so because many New Zealanders were taking the case personally. They felt this abduction and, it seems, murder reflected on them somehow.

The reason that this struck such a particular chord with me is because of a different case which involved another young British woman in another country; a situation with which I have a great deal of personal familiarity.

A photo of Lauren
Lauren

In October 2013, I was asked to visit the home of Alison Patterson, a lady who lived in my parish. When I sat down with Alison, I discovered that she was mother to three children in their teens and twenties, and she had sadly lost her husband, the children’s father, in a tragic accident five years previous. The reason for our meeting was that Alison was in the awful position of needing to arrange a funeral for her daughter, Lauren who had died on the 12th of October that year in Doha, Qatar. She was 24 years old.

Lauren was studying to become a teacher when, in 2012, she took an opportunity to visit Qatar and take a job teaching a Reception class in a school in Doha. Things went well and Lauren was very happy living and working in the country, making friends in the ex-pat community and in the May of 2013, she decided to extend her contract for a second year.

Not long after term had begun in that second academic year, on Saturday the 12th of October, Lauren went for a night out with friends. At the end of the evening, she left the La Cigale nightclub with one of her female friends and two Qatari men. The men dropped the friend home first with Lauren to be taken home second.

It gives me no pleasure to describe to you how Lauren died. However, I believe it is important to rehearse it here so that you understand the severity of what took place. I have, at least, made this text white so that you have to highlight over it to read it. It gives you the choice as to whether you want to read the details of what happened next or not. It’s not pleasant, so I understand if you choose not to highlight the text and you choose to skip over to the following paragraph.

Lauren was not returned home that night. The two men abducted her. One of them raped her and then he stabbed her to death. To try to conceal their crime, the two of them took her body out into the desert where they dug a fire pit and set Lauren’s corpse on fire. When Alison flew out to Qatar to identify Lauren’s body, there was considerable difficulty in doing so because what was left of Lauren weighed only 7.5 kilos. All that was left was part of her head and neck, her upper jaw teeth with her brace still intact, and part of her chest where the knife was still embedded. Her feet were the only part of her body clearly untouched because they had hung over the edge of the fire pit when she was burnt. The red nail polish she loved was still visible on her toes.

A photo of Lauren

On the 21st of November at St Mary’s Church in West Malling; one of the churches I lead and the parish where the Patterson family lived, we conducted Lauren’s funeral. It was a day I will never forget. The church was packed with people; most of them teenagers and adults – Lauren’s friends. In my remarks on the day, I decided to say that Lauren did not die with love surrounding her, but we would make sure that on that day of her funeral she would be buried with love. As we laid her to rest in the churchyard, hundreds of people filed past the open grave, each holding a flower. Each flower was thrown into the grave until, by the time everyone had taken part, you could not see the coffin for the sea of flowers that her friends and family gave to her in one last act of love.

Over the next few years, Alison became a friend and a regular at St Mary’s alongside other members of her family and friends, including her remaining son and daughter. It has been my privilege as her parish priest to accompany them all. I do so still, and I do what I can to walk with the family as they rebuild their lives.

It hasn’t all been misery and tragedy in my pastoral support of the family. Alison found love with her second husband, Kevin, and it was my privilege to marry them at St Mary’s in a day full of joy and celebration. But it was also a day when Lauren was not forgotten. We included a little act of remembrance in the marriage service with Lauren’s photo given pride of place in our Lady Chapel, candles were lit and prayers said. Immediately after the marriage service had concluded, Kevin and Alison took a few moments with me to be at Lauren’s grave and, once again, to pray.

But, unfortunately, as part of that journey since Lauren’s death, Alison and her family have also been involved in what has seemed like a never-ending fight for justice. It is here that the contrast between New Zealand’s reaction for Grace Millane and Qatar’s response to Lauren could not be more different – to New Zealand’s credit and to Qatar’s great shame.

A photo of Badr Hashim Al-Jabar

The murderer was quickly identified as Badr Hashim Khamis Abdallah Al Jabr – a Qatari national (pictured left). He was found guilty the following March and sentenced to death. Qatar still has the death penalty. Mohamed Abdallah Hassan Abdul Aziz, Al Jabr’s accomplice, was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for helping to dispose of Lauren’s body and tampering with evidence. One might wonder about why Abdul Aziz only got three years. It is indicative of the wider situation I want to write about today, but that’s not the focus of my attention.

Where I want to focus is that, in the five years since Lauren died, Alison has had to fly to Qatar over thirty times in the hunt for justice. Think for a moment of the financial implications of more than thirty round-trip flights to Qatar.

After the harrowing trial and the initial conviction of Al Jabr, Qatar’s Court of Appeal upheld the conviction a year later. Then, in 2016, Qatar’s highest court threw out that verdict and ordered a new re-trial for Al Jabr.

At this point, when you have the benefit of the British legal system, it’s quite difficult to fathom exactly how Qatar’s judiciary operates. The re-trial was ordered after Al Jabar’s lawyer argued that the Court of Appeal’s decision was “erroneous and not based on a sound legal foundation.” At the re-trial, there was no new evidence introduced. The panel were instead given leave to evaluate what was previously entered into the record to see if any errors were made. The mind boggles as to why such checking and double checking was required, other than in search of some kind of loophole so that Al Jabr could get off.

The retrial took place in 2017 and, thankfully, Al Jabr was found guilty once again. The original sentence, which was to be carried out by firing squad or hanging, was reimposed. The courts dismissed Al Jabr’s defence, admonishing his lawyers in the process who had, at various points over the various trials, claimed that he had acted in self-defence, he was mentally incapable, and even that Lauren had killed herself. Clearly, Al Jabr didn’t have a legal leg to stand on.

And yet, despite this incredible litany of legal activity and re-trial after re-trial after hearing after trial, a further hearing came about this Autumn (2018) because of a technicality in which Al Jabr’s lawyers claimed he had not received the paperwork inviting him to attend the 2017 sentencing hearing.

So Al Jabr had to be sentenced again. It gives me no pleasure to tell you that this apparent ‘re-sentencing’ took place on the 26th of November this year and Lauren’s murderer’s sentence was reduced much to the family’s great surprise, shock and anger. Al Jabr’s sentence was set at ten years. Given time already served since 2013, he will be out in five.

Where New Zealand has, as a nation, effectively covered themselves in sackcloth and ashes and expressed a profound sense of regret and shame that a vibrant, travelling young British woman should ever have come to harm on their shores, Qatar does not. While New Zealand promises justice for a family hurting deeply and grieving for the loss of a young woman who had her whole life ahead of her, Qatar instead continues to prolong the suffering of Alison and her family.

Constant appeals and re-trials only convey to Lauren’s family and watching friends that Qatar’s over-riding priority in this case is not to see justice served, but rather to preserve their national reputation. It seems there is a pervading reluctance to accept that a Qatari could ever act so heinously. Entertaining the repeated legal shenanigans of Al Jabr’s lawyers convey a sense that they would rather expunge the record of such a crime ever having taken place instead of have to admit that a Qatari man actually did this.

One wonders what sort of justice would have been served if the man who violated Lauren had not been Qatari? Amongst the ex-pat community, the Qatari legal system is reputed to often have one rule for nationals and another for those who come from overseas. If Al Jabr had come from the Yemen or Oman, and had done this in Qatar, I very much doubt Al Jabr would still be breathing.

Don’t get me wrong. I am no fan of the death penalty. I am glad to live in a country that long ago ended such cruelty. But I am a fan of justice being served. In anyone’s book, ten years in prison for such a brutal murder is no justice at all. Lauren never got to explore her teaching career. She never got to marry or have children, or grow old in the company of family and friends and with grandchildren to make her smile. A lifetime was stolen by Al Jabr that night. Is ten years the right price for such a theft?

And what prospect is there that this dangerous man, whose misogyny and violent sexual hatred apparently knows no bounds, will be safe if he is released from prison sometime around 2023? What message does it send to other Qatari men with a similar appetite for sexual violence? What message does it send to Al Jabr? Will he have other victims in the future?

For Lauren’s family, for me, for her many family and friends, the fight for justice continues, and there is hope. I think that Qatar’s concern for its own national reputation is something that can be used as we all seek true justice for Lauren.

Let me explain what I mean.

Qatar, if you are reading, do you not see that your reputation as a nation, as a country, is damaged far more by your collective unwillingness to let justice be done and your obfuscation of the clear facts of this case, than any damage done to your reputation by the actions of this one man?

A photo of Lauren and Alison
Lauren and her mum, Alison.

We understand that all Qataris are not wicked, evil rapists and murderers like Al Jabr. We like to trust and believe in your neighbourliness and we see your desire to be seen as a respectable nation on a world stage. With the FIFA World Cup on its way in 2022, we recognise also that you are becoming a player at international level with a passion to be taken seriously as a global force for good.

We can understand that one person can be guilty of unimaginable cruelty, and while such things are lamentable, we also understand that such actions do not need to define a whole country. We do not think of New Zealand as a nation of misogynists and murderers because of what happened to Grace Millane. Their reaction to the death of Grace Millane proves it. It gives us hope that the people of that nation, like the people of Britain, truly want to see justice done for that young woman.

But every time you deny the Patterson family justice, every time you prolong their agony, every time Alison has to get on another plane to Doha… and now when you have given a risible sentence to a man guilty of truly awful crimes, it becomes that much harder for us to see you in the same light as the people of New Zealand.

The choice is yours really. You can either reassure us all, and the international community, that this case was just one man acting from his own evil intent. You can punish him properly for his crime of unimaginable barbarism.

Or you can continue on your current path where, day-by-day, it gets easier and easier to see your nation as a place that one should not visit, let alone allow our sons or daughters to visit. Why would we come when it seems racism and misogyny are alive and well in your legal system, Qataris are protected simply because of their race and place of birth, and violent, predatory men do not face proper justice.

So, your choice. Who are you really? Which nation will you choose to be?

Lessons in leadership with Sir Alex

Or… ‘what the Church can teach Manchester United about choosing their leaders’

And so Easter Sunday passed this year with a hostile crowd and a vaunted leader sacrificed, but it wasn’t at Calvary and it may take a lot longer than three days to sort out (h/t David Keen). The inevitable finally took place as David Moyes was sacked as manager of Manchester United.

Regular readers will know that I’m not a fan of Manchester United so I have no football axe to grind here.

A comparison of Moyes & Ferguson's first 30 games in charge.

I am tempted to write about the fact that he wasn’t given enough time (see the photo right for all you need to know about the need to be patient).

I’m also tempted to write about how Moyes was set-up to fail because he inherited an ageing squad well past its best. A squad that had been propped up last year by world-class players in the twilight of their careers (Scholes & Giggs, and to a certain degree also Van Persie). Fergie hadn’t left him very much.

But what I’d like to write about is how I could see all this coming a mile off because it looked very, very familiar to me from the world of the Church. Specifically, what happens when one Vicar leaves and their replacement is chosen. So, here are a couple of quick lessons on what the Church could have taught Manchester United.

The Vicar has no voice in choosing their replacement

When a Vicar leaves a parish (whether by retirement or by moving on to a new role), they have absolutely no say in who replaces them. Once they have left, there is always an ‘interregnum‘ (space between two reigns) and then the people of the parish are asked what they would like to see in their new leader. The comments of people like the Bishop and other overseers are also fed in, in case they are aware of some strategic things that may not be known at local level. But the one person who gets absolutely no say in the matter is the outgoing Vicar.

What does this guard against? Well, firstly, it’s very hard to be objective about your parishes when you leave. You may be tempted to try and justify your work or even cover up mistakes or failures. You may not have a good sense of what they need now, and (of course) it’s hard to be honest about your weaknesses and allow space for a new leader who may be gifted in those areas. There is also that temptation in human beings to choose their successor by finding someone not quite as good as we are, so that it makes us look all the better when they fail.

What you definitely don’t want is for the outgoing Vicar to choose a carbon-copy of themselves as their pre-anointed successor. That pays no attention to the way in which the parish has changed and grown in the intervening years since that outgoing Vicar was first appointed. The people have changed, society has changed, the local culture will have grown and evolved. You need an appointment now that reflects the Church as it is, now how it used to be.

It also means the new Vicar has slightly more freedom to be his own man or woman. If you’ve been chosen to be a carbon-copy of the last leader, what chance do you have to be yourself? If you divert from their well-established model, people aren’t going to like it and you’re going to get unnecessary flack.

The outgoing Vicar is not seen or heard from again

Now this is a tricky bit because it doesn’t always work out this way. But there is an unwritten rule amongst Clergy that you never, ever go back and that when you leave a Parish, you very definitely stay out of the new Vicar’s way. For many Clergy keeping this unwritten rule is easy. Their new parish or retirement residence may be some considerable distance away from the old parish. Indeed, there is an unwritten understanding that (if you are retiring) you put some serious geographical distance between you and the parish in which you served (although there are sometimes very good reasons for wanting to be more local).

Why? Because anytime you turn up, it has the potential to undermine the new Vicar. They may be very talented, very strong as a leader. They may not mind your presence at all (although they might). But if anyone has a grievance or a problem with the new leadership, seeing the old Vicar in the congregation can be an opportunity for the aggrieved to stick the boot in. If a new initiative is announced, some may look at the old Vicar and see if he or she is in agreement. It never works. It always undermines.

Now, of course the Church makes mistakes. There’s plenty of bad decisions out there with the wrong people in the wrong places. But these ways of doing things in Church circles are used because, over the years, considerable wisdom has built up through countless situations. Many, many times we’ve learnt that its far better to move on and not look back. It’s the new Vicar’s ship now, not yours. You need to butt out for the good of their leadership, for the good of the community you led and also for your own good too. Move on.

QED

So perhaps you can see why I thought this was always doomed. One working-class Glaswegian with red hair anoints another working-class Glaswegian with red hair. It seems that the fans, the players, the Board don’t have much of a chance to comment or consider what Man United need in the 21st century. The Board give Sir Alex far too much latitude in making the choice. The old Manager joins the board and goes to watch every game. Every time a goal is conceded, the television cameras don’t cut to the new manager, they cut to the old one.

Sir Alex, if you truly care about Manchester United, you need to disappear. Don’t get involved in the choice of the next manager. Don’t comment on who you would like to see replace David Moyes. Become a sleeping member of the Board (or better still resign your membership). Don’t turn up to games and very definitely don’t comment publicly on anything to do with the club. Only then can you give the new Manager a fighting chance to lead.

Easter Parable: The Beam of Light

Happy Easter everyone!

With thanks to the children of St Mary’s & St Michael’s Church who helped me put together this Space Ranger parable entitled ‘The Beam of Light’. It was told on Easter Sunday 2014 at both churches for an all-age audience in place of a sermon. If you like it and it’s useful to you for future years at Easter time, feel free to use or adapt, because I’m sure you can improve it! The good bits are the kids’ work, the bits you can improve are obviously mine.

An artist's impression of a Beam of Light shooting into the sky

This morning I would like to tell you a story.

This is the story of a Space Ranger whose name is Captain Steve. He has a spaceship called the Eternal Sunrise that can travel the universe. He shoots from planet to planet, and quest to quest, a hero to the galaxy and a friend to all.

One day, as Captain Steve was journeying a thousand million light years from planet Earth, he noticed Read more

Trendy Vicars look like Neo!

A photo of Keanu Reeves as Neo in the Matrix

The Daily Mail isn’t prone to running ridiculous stories about Trendy Vicars, at least not since they last did it a month ago. It does slightly boggle the mind, however, to think that the Daily Mail thought the best way to greet Christmas was with a ridiculous story about Trendy Vicars and what they choose to wear in church.

“Never mind the Cassocks” they say, “vicars could soon be conducting services in shell-suits, shorts or even football shirts under radical plans to overturn centuries of Church tradition.”

“The Horror” says the nation. “Typical” says Mr Angry of Tunbridge Wells. “Pile of garbage, Daily Mail” says anyone with an ounce of common sense.

Read more

Remembering that this isn’t a game

A photo of two red dice rolling.

In all that follows, I want to underline and emphasise what is always true of posts on this blog. These opinions are my own personal opinions, and do not represent the views of my Bishop, diocese or other colleagues. Any alignment with their own views is purely coincidental.

In the last couple of days, I have been trying very hard to process devastating news.

Since 2011 when I arrived in my current parish, I have been championing Kings Hill’s need for an extra primary school. Kings Hill very obviously needed the extra school places and local people felt that the Local Authority wasn’t listening. Just as I arrived, a Free School bid had been unsuccessful but the pressure in the community was beginning to mount. Read more

The Genesis of a Non-Story

A screen grab of the headline from the Mail on Sunday

The other day I received an email from the Comms Unit at Church House. A journalist from the Mail on Sunday had been to church (at All Souls, Langham Place for a family event) and was intrigued to see the church used projector screens and also had flat screens on pillars. She wanted to write an article about its use in church.

The journalist spoke to the Comms Unit. The Comms Unit spoke to Publishing. Spotting the chance for a bit of free promotion, the staff at CHP talked about the days of Visual Liturgy, their current work and the (relatively less complex) development of a couple of new iPad apps to help clergy with the lectionary. Finally, they said, if she wanted to know about projection, she really needed to talk to me. Read more

A contemporary Advent parable

A photo of Paddy and the girls from ITV show Take Me Out

The girls were ready, Paddy had the TV studio audience to their usual fever pitch but as the lift descended, some of the girls were already making up their mind.

No pounding dance track, no rappers promising steamy nights of passion or singing of male bravado. Instead, the haunting voice of Enya singing ‘O Come o come Emmanuel.’

The audience were momentarily silenced, not quite sure what to make of it all. Read more

The discrepancy between Diocesan and General Synods

Fairness

The list of who voted yes and no in the debate on women bishops (opens PDF) has now been published. Electronic voting systems have their plus points and their negatives, I guess.

The Head of Communications for the CofE has encouraged everyone to “love your enemies” as they look through the list.

I certainly think it is important that people don’t vilify or criticise those who chose to vote ‘no’. That doesn’t help anyone.

I would, however, like to use it to illustrate something of the Read more

Where did it go wrong? Structural issues have done us

A photo of tears, frustration and disappointment at General Synod today

I appreciate that, in the rarified bubble that clergy can sometimes inhabit, it probably feels like the entire world will have noticed tonight that the Church of England has failed at the final hurdle to pass legislation to enable women to enter the ranks of Bishops.

I’m sure the reality is that lots of people aren’t paying the blindest bit of notice.

I’m not going to comment on the why’s and wherefore’s of those in favour and those against. My task now, like all of us in the church, is to Read more

Bringing the cloud of witnesses close (cloud christianity)

A word cloud of famous Christian leaders and saints

Tomorrow is All Saints Day, a day to remember and honour all those who put their faith in Christ and have gone before us into glory.

As a result, it seems the perfect time to develop some ideas that I first put forward at the recent Christian New Media Conference. The more I think about the Communion of the Saints, the more I think that the Internet is opening up new dimensions theologically for that Communion. Check this out from Hebrews… Read more