Dear Friends,

This last week saw the verdict delivered in the case of the death of the former Aston Villa footballer, Dalian Atkinson. And whilst we should always have respect for the police, and appreciate that they often have to deal with many difficult situations and dangerous individuals, the facts of the case appeared to speak for themselves. But I mention this, not because of the issues raised in the aftermath of the proceedings, notwithstanding their seriousness, and the urgent need to address them, but for a wholly different reason. I was listening to a report of the sentencing of the one found guilty of Atkinson’s manslaughter when reference was made to the judge, Mr Justice Melbourne Inman Q.C. I don’t imagine for a moment that this means a thing to any of you. But it did to me. 46 years ago, he and I were students together, graduating at the same time as part of ‘the class of ’78.’ We were more than just fellow students. We were friends. We played in the same college football team. Yet after leaving university we lost touch completely, so completely that it wasn’t until I heard that press report that I even remembered who he was. To say that each of us went our own separate way would be an understatement. I sense that circumstances were such that our paths were unlikely ever to cross again…Anyway, it got me thinking about other people. Those I went to school with. Some of them I am in touch with – and social media has proved invaluable in re establishing contact with more than a few – but the majority have slipped off the radar, so to speak. I am of an age that occasionally I get a message to tell me that so and so has died – sadly, I‘ve reached that time in life when it’s more likely to be bad news than good news. But what I have tended to find is that one gathers a circle of friends around oneself according to the time and the place one finds oneself in. School was school, college was college, and so on. It seems to me that it takes a special bond to be able to sustain a friendship beyond the particular context that gave rise to it in the first place…And then there is the question of ‘professional distance.’ E.g., doctors and patients; solicitors and clients. Something I have wrestled with throughout my ministry. I have always understood the relationship that necessarily exists between a minister and the members of their congregation is just that; it can never be described as a friendship. Although I recently said this to someone and they suggested I should think of myself more as a friend of ‘everyone’ rather than as a friend to ‘no one’, and that is food for thought…John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus said to the disciples the evening prior to his arrest, trial and crucifixion, that ‘greater love has no one than this, than one lays down one’s life for one’s friends…and you are my friends.’ The measure of friendship is how willing are we to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of those whom we would call our friends. And then Paul describes the rationale underpinning everything God is seeking to accomplish in and through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as ‘God reconciling the world to God’, in other words, God making friends with strangers.’ Perhaps I should send the judge an e/mail, it may be that we’ve been strangers for too long?

The measure of friendship