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Mind The Gap 2

‘Mind the Gap’ comes the cry from the station announcement on the London underground as well as many other railway stations. I began my sabbatical in May with a family visit on the train to the great capital and to visit some friends who live there. It’s always fascinating to take children somewhere, they see things and comment on their experience in ways we either don’t see, or take for granted. Whenever we entered another station they’d cry in readiness ‘Mind the Gap’.

And then when I travelled, even into Leeds on the train from Ilkley, I’d be reminded, and smile, ‘Mind the Gap’. Till I realised it was becoming a mantra of reflection for my sabbatical travels. I began to see gaps all around in our varied, stratified, and diverse nation. I read the phrase ‘there’s no black in the Union Jack’ and realised our red white and blue national flag not only has no black colour in its fabric, but neither does it represent in any way the history of centuries of black people living and working in the UK. The gap is emphasised by the right wing hi-jacking of the flag so that it becomes very hard to use it with integrity of those many British people who are black, and yet are as at home here as you or I. When I visited workplaces I became very conscious of the gap between rich and poor – I think I can confidently say that I went to work with such a variety of rich and poor that the highest salary I became of was over ten times bigger than the smallest salary I became aware of. With a new government that’s cracking down on “benefits fraud” I want to know when the tax arrangements of some of the wealthy are going to be scrutinised as much. But it’s the effects of those salaries on the communities of the people who earn them that is worth reflection – the aspirations, professionalism, and quality of life that I noticed.

I watched the British film ‘Naked’ in which the lead character, who’s a sometimes lovable rogue and fancies himself as an armchair philosopher, asks the question of a character very different from himself “What’s it like being you?” Wow, what a profound question, if we all took time to ask that question and listen to, or try and work out the answer, the world would go a lot slower and with more meaning. Watching the top 25 British films by the way reveals an enormous gap between British cinema and Hollywood. Our home grown films have so much more realism than the escapism cinema of Hollywood, they are deeply emotionally engaging, and many of them take themes that make so much more sense to us than the simply entertaining themes of Hollywood.

Gaps; gaps and difference – the two questions I found myself asking most as I went to work with people were ‘what do we do for lunch, shall I bring sandwiches?’ and ‘What’s the dress code?’ I observed the differences in lunch arrangements (for those that actually stop for lunch) and the very subtle gaps in the office between those who wear a tie and those who don’t.

The more I noticed and reflected, the more I liked the phrase ‘Mind the Gap’. It struck me as a very gracious and gentle phrase. To mind something is to be aware of it, to care for it, not necessarily to sort it out, but to be careful – this is what is meant when the station announces says it, don’t fall down it and hurt yourself. You can bridge a gap, you can stop a gap, you can fill a gap. But what of Christian Mission? What are the implications for us as we observe these gaps in society? We must be mindful of them.

To the south of Edinburgh is a glacial valley, there’s no water running through it, but to approach the city from the south you have to cross this big gap. A bridge was built, South Bridge it’s called, and the level roadway is about five storeys above the valley bottom. Over the centuries people built vaults underneath this bridge in which they worked leather, stored goods for trading, or hid smuggled treasure. Along the sides of the bridge shops were built on top of these vaults, and the shops now rise to four or five storeys above road level. If you walk or ride over the bridge, you are not conscious that you’re on a bridge at all, the valley has disappeared in your experience of a level road, but all around you is a community – a history of people living and working around the gap.

Is this a model for the mission of the church – mind the gap and develop there a community, a relevant real and living community of people all living in the gap, a community which grows as it meets the needs and opportunities of the gap? My time volunteering at St George’s Crypt in Leeds would suggest that yes, if we mind the gap and just stay there minding the gap, a community can develop with meaning, purpose, and the chance to make a difference to the world in which we live.

By the way, the only railway station where there was no gap to mind, the only station where the carriage doorway made a perfect fit to the platform edge in height and distance was the Docklands Light Railway station serving Canary Wharfe where the bankers work, the salaries are high, and the power is held. A lot of workers there wear ties. Makes you think doesn’t it.

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