Saturday, July 11, 2009

Donald Reeves: 'A Very Dangerous Man'

'Imagination is the word that Reeves uses with most enthusiasm to summarise his work and belief, “the view that there is always something new waiting to be born” — whether in a London parish or a Bosnian town. “And imagination for me is the entry into religion,” he adds, an imagination that combines clarity about where society is and a vision of change.' - From The Times, July 10, 2009

Cross-posted at Antimedius and The Peace Tree.

In The Times (UK) - a Murdoch paper! - yesterday, there's a profile of Donald Reeves, former vicar at the landmark St James's Church - designed by Christopher Wren - in London's West End, promoting his new book, Memoirs of a Very Dangerous Man. I was a member of SJP for a year in 1999; although Reeves was no longer vicar, his mark on the parish was evident in its inclusiveness in celebrating other faith traditions and in its social justice ministries to the marginalised in greater London. St James's, Piccadilly continues to do good work with asylum seekers. In 1999, we were actively assisting Albanian and Bosnian refugees to adjust to life in a strange city and battling with the increasingly hostile UK authorities to prevent their deportations. One Sunday evening, I joined fellow SJP friends to hear Reeves give a talk at Westminster Abbey about his work, just starting to take root in the Balkans.

So, this post is an appreciation of Donald Reeve's life and work.

(I learned some facts about his earlier life in yesterday's article, too.)

Excerpts from the Times's Turbulent priest who now builds bridges in the Balkans
When Donald Reeves, then Rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, was told that Margaret Thatcher had described him as “a very dangerous man”, he remembers being “rather pleased . . . it felt like a natural title”. With it he became part of the prominent Anglican tradition of “troublesome priests”, apt to turn their critical fire not only on the world around them but also on the Church that employs them.

And yet the man who enjoyed excoriating Thatcherite political views and episcopal complacency in the 1980s, emphasises his role these days as peacemaker rather than as trouble- maker. Through the Soul of Europe project that he co-directs, Reeves spends much time in the Balkans, attempting to build durable trust between communities only nominally at peace after terrible conflicts.

He is currently most engaged in Kosovo, talking to local Serbs and Albanians, seeking to “dismantle the fear each has of the other” and to break down the isolation of minorities — in this case the Serbs, and their ancient religious institutions, living under armed guard.
Before his work in Kosovo, he was in Bosnia:
Progress was uneven and inconclusive, as Reeves and his colleagues experienced how deeply rooted was the mutual suspicion and resentment of communities where, within such recent memory, co-existence had been replaced more or less overnight by murderous hatred. They had to listen patiently to “raw memories” and accept that there could be “no short cuts, no quick fixes”.

But persuading anyone from the various communities to engage at all was an achievement in itself, a crucial first step in peace-building that others had failed to try. He is scathing about the official peacekeepers, the cynical UN and EU bureaucrats “with their expat salaries and weekends in Vienna” who feel two years in Bosnia is good for their CV.
Reeves's work to enliven a nearly-dead London parish:
But it was his next appointment, to be vicar of St James’s Church in Piccadilly in 1980, that would really make his name. It was not, at first, an auspicious place, known for society weddings but with little evidence of a congregation rooted in the community: “On my arrival,” he said, “I could see no justification for keeping the church open.”

But gradually he turned it into a thriving institution, closely linked to locals, rich and poor, and, above all, a place for the exploration of ideas.

“Jesus wasn’t exactly into garden parties, He was regarded as a nuisance,” Reeves says. “The churches shouldn’t be creating little managers of sectarian communities but should be places of dissent.” His own dissenting challenge to Thatcherism was overt. He sparked lively debate by preaching against the invasion of the Falklands, and he helped the miners’ wives during their husbands’ bitter strike. But debate across boundaries was encouraged — invited speakers included Norman Tebbit as well as Tony Benn, non-believers as well as believers. And, in anticipation of later work in the Balkans, he began to explore the idea of peace-building, inviting Chinese and Russian visitors. Bishop Trevor Huddleston, a veteran campaigner against apartheid, who lived in the St James’s vicarage for many years, was another significant influence.

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