The sacrament of the teapot: resolving conflict in York

By Jill Segger
June 2, 2013

“I'll get you a nice cup of tea.” There can be few people in these islands – particularly in England – who have not heard these words at a time of distress. In shock or bereavement many of us will have smiled through our tears at being gently offered the national sacrament of solidarity.

If a sacrament is understood as an outward sign of an inward quality, the action taken by the mosque in York last week was a powerful sign of the graces of hospitality, non-violence, dialogue and peacemaking.

In the aftermath of the horrifying murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich on 22 May, far-right groups have been seeking to divide us by demonstration and hate-filled rhetoric. Too many who oppose them have displayed similar tendencies and the result has been an ugly and frightening polarisation.

So when the English Defence League turned up at the Bull Lane Mosque last Sunday, the situation would not have appeared promising.

But against all the odds, a space was created in which dialogue could take place and the utensils of grace were a teapot and a plate of biscuits. The offering of hospitality, in being an element of the unexpected, removed that instinctive hostility which feeds upon the expected response.

Mohamed El-Gomati , an Elder of the Mosque said, “We realised that we did not fully understand the EDL stance in York and, from what we could make out, that they did not fully understand us either. Assumptions are dangerous, untested assumptions can be lethal. They were surprised, and they understood. The day ended in a game of football.”

While rejoicing in the vision and willingness to take the risk of reaching out which was shown by the mosque, it is also important to acknowledge that the EDL members - who had come with hostile intent - responded with grace. The outstretched hand – perhaps because it was bearing a teacup - was accepted and each party was left pleasantly surprised at the response of the other.

Tea is of course, not a native crop in the UK. This most 'English' of refreshments has been absorbed into our culture from the Indian sub-continent and China. It is a reminder of the diversity of languages, foods, customs and skills which have become part of our national life. The division which seemed to be on the edge of erupting into disorder and confrontation in Bull Lane was turned into hope by tea and sealed in football. You really can't get much more 'English' than that.

Maybe faith groups, civic organisations and anti-racist activists will reflect on what was done in York. If we would learn from one another and seek a way forward in listening and sharing, the sacrament of the teapot might be just the symbol of hope that we need.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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