It’s a strange thing about islands; they are often seem a challenge to visit, but throughout history their dividing waters have tempted travellers, their separation from a greater land-mass clearly intimating that something especially precious and rare is to be found after the journey has been made to reach them.
At the end of the last Ice Age, human beings began to venture northwards as the ice receded. About nine-and-a-half thousand B.C., what is now the North Sea was continuous land, joining our land-mass with that of Northern Europe. Groups came first to explore and hunt. Then they went back for their families and settled here. In the time that followed we became detached from the mainland and our island existence began.
Yet the seas when they arrived were not a major barrier. Celts came, Romans came, Saxons came, and Normans. We know that from an early date there was significant trade with the Mediterranean world and beyond. The monastery of Jarrow-Wearmouth, the home of the Venerable Bede, had collected from around the then known world the largest group of early manuscripts outside the Vatican, many in Greek. We might have become an island, but we were by no means isolated.
Trade and travel were strong in the Middle Ages and by then we had a small but significant Jewish population, migrant through eastern Europe. The widening of our ethnic range and our cultural contacts accelerated, though, as we became an increasingly-seafaring nation, with trade across the world, colonies and the naval strength to protect and extend such ventures.
By the nineteenth-century London had received many new arrivals. Huguenots from France had come long before, following the St.Barthlomew’s Day Massacre, bringing silk-weaving skills and the silk worms and mulberry trees necessary to sustain their trade. One such original tree still stands in Bethnal Green.
Near to London Docks it would have been impossible to miss the Chinese small traders and the distinctively-dressed Lascars. Spitalfields became the sanctuary for several waves of Jews taking refuge from the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe long before Hitler was born. Almost as a cosmopolitan symbol, a shop selling foreign wild animals was opened in the East End by a German named Jamrach. You could buy a tiger there, or a gigantic snake.
If we move forward to our own times, the great influx after WWII was from the West Indies, followed then by large numbers of emigrants from the Indian sub-continent. It was then with our membership of the EU, utilising its rule of free movement, that Europeans began to come here in large numbers, drawn by a higher standard of living, better security, and the knowledge that the British working population had become very discriminating about the kind of work it wished to do.
Then, last year, a referendum took place, the result of which is set to change a great deal. It appears that we shall once more have borders, our own national regulations governed by British law, and the capacity to legislate for taxation and duties independently of any other nation.
It seems clear that few believed the vote would reveal such a widespread desire to leave the EU. In the days following the voting sociologists, politicians, economists and journalists attempted to research the pattern of what had happened. The task proved difficult, but most enquirers believed that the desire to re-establish sovereignty and the controlling of immigration were very high on the list of Brexiteers’ hopes.
Although there are calls from opposition parties for constant accountability during the present process of negotiation, in reality those outside Westminster and Whitehall are unlikely to play a large part in what happens. Most people see the future outcome in respect of trade, and in connection with our relationship with the EU and the nations of the EU, as a matter for pragmatic assessment as long as essential matters of sovereignty are upheld.
What, though, about our view of ‘the stranger’, the immigrant, the migrant worker? Our Lord talked willingly to the Samaritan woman at the well and told the story of the Good Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans normally did not speak to each other. St Paul sees division between people as the result of sin and inner separation from God and his truth. Thus unity, including a new kind of unity for those who have previously been either Jew or Gentile, is a priority in his thought.
Yet what the New Testament has to say about ‘the other’ is always expressed in terms of faith and a moral perspective born of faith. There is very little hint that ‘the stranger’ can be integrated on a purely secular basis. Yet it is also axiomatic that Christian people should always act in love and in hope and in the knowledge that fresh blood and diversity has in many respects through the centuries served us well in these islands.
If we look at history with broad vision, it becomes clear that, in various ways, grouping gives way to separation and then to new grouping again. We are now at a moment in Europe and North America when withdrawal from the greater unit, reversion to our own rules and a concern with identity and self-protection are all in the ascendant. Isolation is not a high human ideal; xenophobia, racial discrimination, persecution and ethnic cleansing much less so. We only have to observe what has been happening in some parts of Africa or the Middle East to see what horrors come with rejection of ‘the other’.
As we proceed we clearly need to have a share in the generosity of God; yet Jerusalem cannot be built with nothing but worldly stones. Perhaps, rather than tormenting our minds and consciences this is one of those relatively unusual situations where our primary duty to pray as against act becomes a particularly powerful priority.