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Being Accountable

By the Revd Preb Julian Ould

Within the Marriage Rite Preface we are told that Marriage ‘enriches society and strengthens community’. When I interview couples and go through this preface I jokingly suggest that this is perhaps a political statement in that every now and then one of our parties speaks out about family values and the like. However, to be serious this comment speaks clearly about commitment. In this instance commitment to one another, but generally I feel that this statement is one that we would all do well to consider in a much wider context.

When I was younger and had few responsibilities or concerns, I used to be keen to try all kinds of new ventures; to visit new places, try new sports, consider new directions in my work – and somewhere within all of these, particularly if there was an element of risk involved, someone would invariably say, “well, on your head be it!” And were basically saying, if you are going to do that, commit yourself to it, then you must be prepared to take the consequences – you are accountable for what you do. That was fair enough, but it usually meant that they thought I was being foolhardy, and at the time provided that the only person who was likely to suffer would be me – well, so be it!

Now I am a little older, and I do have commitments and responsibilities of family and work, and therefore I do endeavour to think a little more carefully before I act in a particular way, well at least I try to! For my accountability is that much greater – the implications of what I now do obviously affect more people than myself! And to a lesser or greater degree this is true for all of us. However, I like to think I am still prepared to act, to commit myself to things and am prepared to launch out into new ventures, even if I have got responsibilities and am accountable to others. And I like to think this because I have a great fear that our society, our country, our world, is turning into a planet of inactivity. People generally are not willing to commit themselves to things; they have a reluctance to show an enthusiasm and a belief in a course of action. 

Certainly, technology is leaping on, and industry and world economy still tick over, but the days of pioneers with real dreams and vision are disappearing. To give but one example, is that of the YMCA – the Young Mens’ Christian Association, which today is a worldwide organisation with many strands that range from bringing young people together, to helping them in need, to working with them in helping other people.

This organisation was formed just over 150 years ago by George Williams, the son of a humble Somerset farmer, who sought to address the spiritual and moral welfare of young men in the drapers’ trade, which he had entered. True, today this may seem something of a pious and even odd course of action but times have changed, and indeed the Association has changed with it. But at that time, George Williams saw a need and addressed it. He had no resources of his own, and could easily have protested, “what can I do?” and hence done nothing. But he didn’t, he stuck his neck out, and at the risk of personal ruin, of being accountable, he started something that literally thousands of people today can claim to have been helped by.

And to bring this up to date, I would like to tell the story of a young girl who was a resident within a YMCA that I worked with when I was in Peterborough. This girl, aged 17, had been homeless in Peterborough and the YMCA had been able to offer her one of its flats. Partly out of gratitude, and partly because she needed the money, she applied and was successful in gaining a job as one of the YMCA staff.

She worked hard for the YMCA and during the course of her first year attended the National Assembly for all YMCAs across the country, and whilst at this assembly attended a talk and discussion on the plight of the homeless, particularly amongst young people. She was obviously able to make a valuable contribution with first hand experience, and when she returned to Peterborough expressed a wish to do something to help the homeless young in Peterborough.

In discussion with all those involved with this YMCA, her ideas seemed good, in that she didn’t just want to set up a hostel with a bed for the night and out the next morning but wanted to help people make a new start. She spoke of a short stay centre that was structured in such a way that all the relevant support agencies and benefit departments could come together whilst the person was their, and hopefully provide a means to enable the users to start again, going on to permanent accommodation. It was a brilliant idea, but where were we going to find the money to build such a centre, let alone encourage the various agencies to work with this.

But this young lady was determined; she wrote scores of letters and stirred the interested of many important people. She was asked to go and speak to Councils, company boards, and a whole host of organisations. She by her own admission was terrified, but nevertheless was still determined. It took a lot of effort and work from us all, and indeed all those who responded positively to her requests. But in the end, we succeeded, and three years later ‘Time Stop’ was opened. It was called this, because it was literally holding a person in limbo for a time, which hopefully allowed things to be sorted, and so start time again with a new beginning.

So successful was this centre, that it attracted the attention of North Housing Association, one of the largest housing associations in the country, and now such centres are being planned and have become realities in other places, and all because of the willingness of a young person to act and be prepared to make a commitment and to be accountable.

We do need to act responsibly and perhaps not to take unnecessary risks. But we do need to act, and sometimes be prepared to make a stand, to commit ourselves when we know something is right or needs to be done.