Sanctuary Sunday – rationale and resources

Where does the idea of sanctuary come from? And why Sanctuary Sunday?

The Bible contains the command to “love your neighbour as yourself.” Yet this commandment is stated only once in Hebrew Scriptures (Leviticus 19:18).

On the other hand there is an oft-repeated requirement in Hebrew Scriptures to “love the stranger”. There is no other command repeated so often.

The concept of ‘sanctuary’ can be placed in this context and is thousands of years old and rooted in the Bible.

Sanctuary Sunday is a new initiative supported by Refugee Week and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. Churches and other communities are invited to mark Sanctuary Sunday on the Sunday at the end of Refugee Week annually, beginning on 24 June 2018. This is a way of holding those seeking sanctuary in prayer, and taking action to intentionally provide sanctuary and safety to people who have lost the protection of their own country.

You can find resources to assist you, including bible study and worship material prepared by Rev Inderjit Bhogal. Birmingham Cathedral are holding a Sanctuary Sunday service at 1pm on Sunday 24 June. You can preview the order of service.

The Hebrews enshrined sanctuary into the legal codes of their new society when six cities of fefuge were established according to the legislation set out in the Book of Numbers 35:6-34 (also Joshua 20:1-9Deuteronomy 4:41-43).

These cities were to give refuge or sanctuary to anyone, including a foreigner, who was accused of manslaughter, to prevent the automatic use of revenge as a rough, ready and unfair route to justice “until there is a trial before the congregation” (Numbers 35:12).

Cities of refuge were about giving protection to vulnerable people whose lives were in danger.

The growing City of Sanctuary movement in Britain and Ireland is a contemporary expression of the City of Refuge idea. Churches can engage by supporting City of Sanctuary and by exploring what it is to be a church of sanctuary.

This is not a new concept in Britain and Ireland. Sanctuary was available around a thousand years ago in churches including Battle, Beverley, Colchester, Durham, Hexham, Norwich, Ripon, Southampton, Wells, Winchester, Westminster and York. They offered protection to debtors and criminals.

In Ireland there is the ancient idea of tearmann, a Gaelic word literally meaning sanctuary, and practically every monastery contained a space for sanctuary. The sanctuary cross in Glendalough, County Wicklow is well known. People seeking safety touched the rock to claim sanctuary. A tearmann sanctuary was a place free of political and religious feuds. There are still villages called An Tearmann in Ireland.

Durham Cathedral has a Sanctuary Knocker which those seeking sanctuary held and rattled to gain entrance. Other churches have sanctuary chairs dating back hundreds of years.

The concept of sanctuary began to re-emerge in the twentieth century, first in El Salvador as a form of protection from the activities of ‘death squads’. From there it was taken up in the USA when churches gave sanctuary to Guatemalans and Salvadorians refused refuge. And there have been sanctuaries in churches in Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden as well as in the UK.

In the contemporary expression of cities of refuge, City of Sanctuary moves the idea towards a vision where local communities and organisations work together to counter and challenge hostility, and create cultures of welcome and hospitality and safety for all residents, but especially the most vulnerable residents.

It’s an idea you might like to take to your city, town, village, district, school or church.

How can we help all people to be at home, be welcome, have hospitality, be safe and have sanctuary right where they are?

Today over 65 million people worldwide are uprooted and displaced in their own countries or are seeking refuge and sanctuary elsewhere.

Most displaced people are still in their own country. Others have taken journeyed out and are in refugee camps built in some of the poorest countries of the world. So there are …

  • Somalis in Kenya;
  • Zimbabweans in South Africa;
  • Afghanis in Pakistan;
  • Burmese Karen people in Thailand;
  • Rohingya in Bangladesh and India.

There are refugees who take longer and more difficult journeys, risking life and costing huge amounts of money. We know stories of people holding the undersides of planes to make their journey. Many travel on crowded and creaking old boats. Others travel in air tight containers on trucks. Many thousands tragically perish on the way.

Women and children, in particular, get trapped in the scandalous human trafficking trade. Some disappear, enslaved in the sex trade.

Migration is a crucial issue of this century.

The next 20 or 30 years will see huge movements of people as a result of environmental degradation, climate change, famine, war and persecution.

How we relate to each other, and in particular to people seeking sanctuary and safety will be central to humanity. How we treat those who are in greatest need for safety will be the measure by which we shall judge personal, national and international morality and spirituality.

When people are deprived of their homes, their families and familiar surroundings, they will be grateful for welcome, hospitality and compassionate concern in their new environments.

Consider working to make your city, town, village, church, school, university, club, place of work a Sanctuary committed to building cultures of welcome and hospitality, especially for those in greatest need and danger.