Christians should be known for their compassion, but according to Trystan Owain Hughes, statistics reveal an unfortunate truth. Christians aren't as compassionate as their atheist and agnostic friends. This, coupled with the pastor's own experience of suffering in both his own and others lives, has prompted a new book The Compassion Quest.
You wrote about suffering six years ago, what made you write about compassion?
"I wrote a book about how we can find hope and meaning in suffering after I was diagnosed with quite a serious back injury. A degenerate spinal condition. The emphasis was how we connect with God in the present moment.
"That was all about our suffering; but what about other peoples’ suffering? So The Compassion Quest is taking it one step further and saying: 'How do we react when we see other people suffering?'
Is it based on your experiences of ministering to those who are suffering?
"Definitely. I was a lecturer before I was ordained. When I put myself forward for ordination and felt God call my life to ministry. It all changed because then you have to put that theology into action. That’s very different from having to study theology in books.
"I went to Oxford and part of my training was in chaplaincy in an asylum seekers deportation centre, so I saw a lot of suffering there. I also worked in a chaplaincy in one of the colleges at Oxford, and there you come across students going through all kinds of horrible things including tragedy. We had a suicide there.
"Then I went over to Washington DC for a time working with the homeless, which was eye-opening. Visiting hospitals and hospices and trying to stand along side people - those kind of instances and events in my life made me start considering 'what is compassion all about?'
Compassion is such a key theme in Christianity. How good are we at putting it into practice?
"I’d like to think most Christians would put it into practice but one of the sad things is, recently, psychological and sociological research shows Christians are less compassionate than our agnostic and atheist neighbours.
"That’s not putting blame on anyone, it’s just one of those things that I personally feel quite embarrassed and ashamed about. Having said that, I see many fellow Christian friends putting compassion across in a wonderful way.
"The word 'compassion' is from the Latin meaning 'to suffer with'. Not just being charitable or pity, it’s getting back to what Jesus meant himself and how he acted when you truly feel for someone and suffer with people who are going through terrible things.
Can you still be optimistic about the church and the future of Christianity when, statistically, Christians are less compassionate than atheists?
"Even though the statistics may not be quite there at the moment, and some of us have got it a bit skewed in the relationship between belief and action, Christians have made a huge difference in the world for hundreds and hundreds of years, and have put compassion into action in places where there was no compassion.
How can Christians become more compassionate?
"It’s a case of us getting our discipleship right in our lives and recognising part of our discipleship is acting like Jesus; it’s not just believing the right thing. Obviously faith and belief is important, but so is living out our faith. Matthew 25 teaches us to see Christ in other people.
"Individual Christians and churches have taken a stance on slavery, the civil rights movement in America in the 60s and South Africa in the 80s. If we can put true discipleship in our lives, I think it makes a huge difference to our faith and the presence of Christ in our lives.
You’ve been involved in interfaith work. How has that influenced your view of compassion?
"All the mainstream religions talk about God as compassion. If you look at the list of names Muslims give for Allah 'the compassionate one' is right there at the top.
"In the Jewish faith - in Exodus, God reveals himself as merciful and compassionate. In Christianity we have that one step further; we have compassion in action in the person of Christ.
"It’s not just saying 'God is compassion', but a blueprint of how we can also be compassionate. It’s not just words on a piece of paper, it’s a relationship with God himself through Christ.
With the recent decisions on women bishops, many are sceptical of the Anglican church and it's place in society. How would you respond?
"A lot of students are saying to me: 'You’ve gone and dismissed women bishops.' But that’s the Church of England. The Church in Wales is separate. We’re voting and I don’t know what's going to happen, but it’s very different.
"The Episcopal Church in America has had women bishops for many years. Within the Anglican communion there are many kinds of traditions. Within each of those traditions there are very lively, wonderful, compassion filled churches that are doing so much for their communities and bringing the love of Christ.
Do low attendance figures mean the Church is dying?
"There are, unfortunately, churches low in number and morale that feel like they’ve been abandoned.
"For me it’s just as important if I’m asked to speak at a congregation of six or seven ladies in their 80s - and bringing Christ and seeing Christ in them, as it is speaking in a church that has 250 or more in their Sunday services.
"We should value both of them even though I can see the worry of people becaue of the low number in so many churches.
What’s the best Christian book you’ve read?
"Phillip Yancy’s book, Where is God When it Hurts? - which is a brilliant book, looking at the idea of suffering. For me, I didn’t need to write that again, which is why my book Hope and Meaning in Suffering is about how we find hope and meaning now we’ve dealt with the theodicy.
"Also, Anthony De Mello’s, Awareness. It’s from a completely different tradition; he was an Indian Jesuit writer. He’s been very influential across the board as far as Christianity is concerned from Catholicism to Evangelicals.
"At the moment the work that Tony Campolo is doing with Shane Claiborne on Red Letter Christianity is wonderful; it’s a chat between two great minds. It doesn’t read like that, it reads like they’ve planned it for decades.
What has God been teaching you recently?
"I’ve seen a lot of people struggling at the university. We have both Christians and non Christians come to us who are going through all sort of problems and just want to talk.
"I had a conversation with one of them and the student said: ‘How can I talk about these things to you? It feels like the weight is going off my back and I’m putting it on you. How can you go home and actually live when you hear these things in your ministry?’
"God recently has been talking to me about letting things go. As ministers, it’s as if we give that to Christ. And if a Christian comes to us, we help them to understand they can give it to Christ themselves.
"A friend of mine - when I was training for ministry, he used to say to me: ‘Let go, let God’. Let God be in charge of your life. Don’t try and be in charge of it yourself, just trust and have faith.
February 1st, 2013 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes