On the streets

When I was in Leeds, particularly when I was a priest in the Parish of Richmond Hill, there were always occasions coming along when we would escape the walls of the churches and get out onto the streets.  There were two principle occasions each year at St Hilda’s, Cross Green, apart from the Palm Sunday Procession and the Walk of Witness on Good Friday, of course.  The first was the May Procession held on the day on which we had the crowning of the May Queen and the other was the Feast of the Assumption when we held a big festival.  There was a massive Roman Catholic Church in the parish, Mount St Mary’s, like ‘a city set on a hill’ and they had a portable statue of Our Lady and so, in a spirit of practical ecumenism, we used to borrow that.

Blessing of Illuminated River 1

Blessing of Illuminated River

Mary was decked out in a variety of plastic flowers and would be carried aloft by some willing volunteers and escorted by servers with their candles and incense, by clergy and by a mixed bag of laity.  It was fantastic.  If you ever saw that great film ‘East is East’ with Jimi Mistry, then the opening scenes of the procession through the streets of Salford where completely reminiscent of us walking through the streets of back-to-backs in east Leeds.  We didn’t just have the pious to accompany us but kids on bikes, babies in push chairs and, of course, dogs who thought we should be well out of their territory and were doing their best to make sure that happened!

Jesus was an itinerant preacher, had a peripatetic ministry, walking the roads and the paths of Galilee, always on the move, taking religion and teaching and prayer out of the confines of the Temple, outside of the formality of the synagogue and into the street where anything could happen.

‘As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.’ (Mark 10.46)

It happened all the time, those chance encounters on the road that were life and faith transforming for those who were there at the right time in the right place, sitting, standing, waiting by the roadside for God to go past.

We do a great deal of this ‘taking religion out of the church’ at Southwark Cathedral, whether its Apple Day in Borough Market, or Lammas Day with Bread Ahead, our local baker, or Blessing the River in Epiphany, we are there on the streets beyond the confines of thick, protective stone walls.

Blessing of Illuminated River 2

Setting off!

This weekend has been a great opportunity for that.  On Friday evening, much to the amazement of local drinkers in the pubs around the Cathedral and the Borough Market, a procession left Cathedral Square at 9.30pm!  We were not a huge crowd but, despite a bit of drizzle (always a threat to outdoor religion) we were enthusiastic.  The occasion was blessing the Illuminated River Project.  This is a ten year art installation along the Thames in which the bridges will be individually lit but visually connected through the work of the American artist, Leo Villareal.  Last Wednesday the first part of the project, the illumination of London Bridge, Cannon Street Bridge , Southwark Bridge and the Millennium Bridge was launched and on Friday I was asked to bless the work.  So with cross and lights and me in a cope we walked up onto London Bridge and asked Gods blessing on the work.

God bless those who cross the bridges.
God bless those who walk the edges.
God bless those who sail the waters.
God bless those who steer the vessels.
God bless those who care for fishes.
God bless those who light the bridges.
God bless this illumination
light and joy, colour, imagination.
May it bring this river to life
even on the darkest night.

We read from the Book of Revelation about the city and the river, we read extracts from poems by Dunbar and Kipling and Eliot and we prayed, there on the bridge as the buses passed and the party boats sailed beneath us and the walkers nudged past.  And some people ignored us and a few jeered and some made the sign of the cross and many more said hello and smiled.  It was great.


Blessing the Graveyard

Sunday sees us walk, as we do each year around the Feast of Mary Magdalene, from the Cathedral to the Crossbones Graveyard, the unconsecrated ground where early on, the medieval sex workers and their babies were buried and later on paupers were buried and with cross and lights and smoke, with prayers and reading and singing, and, I hope, in the sunshine, we will remember those women and those children and those people used and abused and excluded by our society.

May this be a holy place in our community,
set apart for the past, the present and the future
and a place where the dead and living may know your peace.

Being out there, being on the streets, getting religion out of church, beyond the walls, where we might sit beautifully oddly alongside everything else that is going on, that must be a mission initiative in anybody’s book!

Lord, give us the courage
to walk the streets
and encounter you
as others encounter us
and you.


Poverty, chastity, obedience

The church that I was brought up in, All Saints Wigston Magna, had for quite a few years produced a number of vocations to the religious life.  This meant that every so often during the year there would be a nun in church on Sunday who was on leave and had come back to stay with her family.  As a boy and a teenager I was in the choir and the stalls where we sat had lovely fretwork at the front.  During communion we all had to kneel down and being little I was able to peek through the designs carved into the woodwork and see these nuns walking past – and especially their feet.  This is a long time ago, so nuns dressed ‘properly’ – wimple, veil, habit and sandals, without socks! So I got to know nuns’ feet very well.


A selection of members of Anglican communities

The other side of life was that the church day out every year was to visit one of the convents that one of the nuns from the parish was living in.  So one year we went to Clewer, another to Wantage, another to East Hanningfield.  What I remember about Clewer where Sister Pamela was was simply how vast the corridors seemed to be.  At Wantage we were visiting Sister Mary Columba – how could you have a boy’ and a girl’s name I wondered?  There I remember the lovely statue of Our Lady in the chapel carved by Mother Maribel.  Then at East Hanningfield where the Sisters of the Community of the Sacred Passion were I can remember being fascinated and appalled to see prosthetic limbs being made in huts in the garden for those suffering from the effects of leprosy!

The reason I am telling you all of this is because of something that happened at the meeting of General Synod last week that I didn’t really talk about in my Synod blog.  A bit of history was made.  For the first time since the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries the Church of England has formally, in her Canons, recognised the existence and importance of religious communities in our life.  A number of representatives from our religious communities are elected onto the Synod, so that they can share their particular perspective on the life of the whole church.  But there was nothing in the Canons and therefore nothing to provide legal structure and regulation for communities which is something that is needed and especially with the rise of new forms of monasticism, such as at Lambeth Palace and elsewhere.

So that was put right and the legislation went through its final stages in this Group of Sessions.  A couple of the religious stood to speak and then nobody else did.  I was going to stand and missed my chance, and I am really sorry about that.  I wanted to say, thank you.  Thank you to the members of the communities who, I believe, give so much to the church and to the Church of England.  As was pointed out in the short debate they aren’t ‘better’ Christians but they are living the Christian life in such a distinctive way, a way that gives encouragement to the rest of us.

Those nuns feet and those days out from Wigston helped me to know that training for priesthood alongside the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield would be perfect for me, and that particular community and its members have helped me, and help me, to be the Christian and the priest that I seek to be.

The passage that has been attributed as inspiring many to enter a religious, consecrated life, people like Benedict and Francis, is from St Mark’s Gospel.

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10.17-22)


‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him.’

Poverty, chastity, obedience – possessions, intimate love, freedom – however you define these vows that others seek to live by I’m afraid they are beyond me.  Like the rich man I turn away, unable to give so much up.  My only consolation is that Jesus will look on me and love me; my only hope is that some of my sisters and brothers have the courage to live without these things and to show me that it is possible.

Lord, bless those you call into community
and give me the courage to learn from them
the things that truly matter.

Where’s Living God

If you’re wondering where my weekly blog is, well, I’m at General Synod in York. But, if you’re interested you can catch my thoughts and reflections on my General Synod blog. I’ll be back next week. Keep us in your prayers, please.

Washed up

As I look out across the river from the Deanery towards the splendour of St Paul’s, if the tide is out there are often mudlarks combing the exposed foreshore.  The great days of mudlarking in London were the 18th and 19th centuries when a living could be made, normally by the very young or the very elderly, from what could be found in the mud when the waters receded.  The river still gives up its treasures, pilgrim badges from those returning from Canterbury, clay pipes, pottery, the discarded and lost detritus of life.


Mudlarks on the Thames foreshore

There were two photographs in the evening paper last week that made me think.  The first, on the inside pages, was of a stretch of the Thames shore near Westminster Bridge.  What it showed was a large number of bicycles thrown into the river.  These were no ordinary bikes but the ones that you nowadays find in the streets, brightly coloured, available to hire through an app that compete with what we use to call ‘Boris Bikes’. Some helpful and amusing individuals (!) had thought it fun to chuck them in the river and there they were, washed up on the shore, like so much litter.

But on the front of the paper was an image that grabbed the world’s attention.  It was the photograph of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria washed up, holding each other in death as in life, human treasure on the shore of the Rio Grande, like so much rubbish.  It took me back to that other dreadful picture of little Aylan Kurdi, who was found, dead, on a Mediterranean beach back in September 2015.  He, like Oscar and Valeria, was an innocent victim of the refugee crisis that is affecting lives across the world.  People flee for many reasons – to escape war, to escape persecution, to escape poverty.  Who would not? No one wants to leave their home and community and extended family for something unknown, strange and unpredictable but sometimes the circumstances force them to and at tremendous risk and tremendous cost.  And they are washed up like the rubbish that is discarded.

I was very interested in what President Putin said in that interview that he gave to the FT and particularly his comments about liberalism being obsolete, a spent force politically.  As a proud liberal I found that enormously depressing and disturbing.  Has the tide really turned?  Are the attitudes that some of us have been working for and preaching about and trying to live out really dead in the water?  Inclusion, diversity, openness, tolerance, understanding, acceptance, love … these are good words and good things to aspire to.  It was 50 years on Friday since the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, 50 years that have seen the transformation of LGBT rights in so many places around the world because of the liberal agenda.  On the same day as those riots were being commemorated it was announced that Rose Hudson Wilkin would be the new Bishop of Dover, a black woman priest born in a former colonial territory taking her place on the mostly white, mostly male bench of bishops because of the liberal agenda.

But if Putin is correct what is the alternative? Well, we are seeing it already in the rise of populism.  It isn’t all the fault of Donald Trump, but he is an indication of what is happening and elements of the campaign we are witnessing to get through the door of 10 Downing Street has elements of it as well.  Authoritarianism, fear and then hatred of the other, because of their gender, because of their colour, their ethnicity, their sexuality, their ability, all of this is the alternative, dystopia rather than utopia.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (of Hiawatha fame) wrote a poem perhaps not read as much now as it once was, ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ and towards the end it says

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the billows fall and rise.

Is liberalism like this maiden to be found washed up as well?

The Wreck of the Hesperus


St Paul is quite clear that the kingdom moves us from the principles of law to the principles of grace.

‘You are not under law but under grace.’ (Romans 6.14)

But this was not a change to lawlessness to that libertarianism that some confuse with liberalism.  The demands of the kingdom are demanding.  As Paul writes to the Christians in Galatia

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger,quarrels,dissensions,factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5.19-23)

This is the law by which we seek to live, a law that gives life, even to those who do not know Christ and especially those who live on the vulnerable margins.  It is on those margins that we find Jesus whose life-affirming agenda put him at odds with the law-bound authorities.  But to him, those he found on every shore, those he finds on every shore, are the true treasure.

Loving God,
give me the courage
to search the shore
and find the lost
and to treat each person
as your treasure.


When I was a young lad my sister and I always used to look forward to Thursday.  Life does often seem to go full circle and before ever there were on-line deliveries and looking out for the Tesco van arriving or whoever you use, there used to be grocery delivery boys.  I would be asked by my mum to slip the grocery order book under the door of our local Co-op on the way to school.  Then at tea time a boy would arrive with a big box, somehow balancing on the front of his bike, containing the things that mum had ordered and the next day she would call into the shop and pay what she owed and get her ‘divi’.  What we loved was the box that the groceries arrived in.  We would play with that box for hours – make it into a boat, make it into a car, and if it was big enough, make it into a house.

Children often create ‘dens’, at the back of the garden, on a piece of waste ground, even under a table at home.  That I suppose was what was so appealing about that lovely book we read as children ‘Stig of the Dump’ by Clive King.  Barney enters the dump to find an old dilapidated hut and in it, a caveman.  But whether in the dump or the back garden we have the instinct for creating a space in which to dwell, with a box, or with twigs.

We have worked with the artist Angela Wright at Southwark Cathedral on four occasions.  Angela is an artist weaver and has used wool in the past for her installations.  Wool has hung from the great screen, woven its way around the restored bells as they waited to blessed and reinstalled in the tower, hung along the Link for ‘Wool Week’.  But in her latest piece of work for us she has left wool behind and chosen branches and twigs as the material with which she would work.  As part of the London Festival of Architecture she has created ‘The Garden Cocoon’ in the Herb Garden, which is the eastern most part of the church yard which stands closest to London Bridge.

Cocoon 1

‘The Garden Cocoon’ by Angela Wright

It’s a beautiful bit of garden.  You can see the remains of the medieval chapel that once stood there, demolished to make way for Rennie’s London Bridge and now filled with herbs to remind us of the founding of St Thomas’ Hospital there by the Augustinian Friars of the Priory of St Mary Overie.  There are birds and urban foxes and the hum of the traffic and the rumble of the trains but also a strange  and unexpected peacefulness among the plants.  Into that space Angela has built this structure.

She took hazel and has woven it, beautifully, but also allowed each branch, each twig to find its own place in the structure. She was telling me that it is amazing working with that material and allowing each piece to find its natural partner and to click into place.  The result is a gentle arched space, a room, an almost Gothic room reflecting the architecture that stands close to it, into which you are invited to enter.

There are wonderful detailed sections in the Book of Exodus about how the Tabernacle was to be constructed.  Looking at the ‘Cocoon’ in the Herb Garden reminded me so much of what we read in Exodus 26

You shall make upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle. Ten cubits shall be the length of a frame, and a cubit and a half the width of each frame. There shall be two pegs in each frame to fit the frames together; you shall make these for all the frames of the tabernacle. (Exodus 26.15-17)

Cocoon 2

Beautiful and simple

And the instructions are there for every element as the people created a dwelling for the divine in their midst, a place that God could call home.  Later, for the building of the Temple there would be more instructions.  But they were for a permanent house.  Instead this first Tabernacle was to be put up and taken down, it would travel with them as they travelled, the Lord would camp with them as they camped and this would be the divine ‘den’.

Yet can we really build a place for God to inhabit? Some birds build elaborate and beautiful nests in the hope that they can attract a mate with their sumptuous bower and their love never appears.  This is something of what R S Thomas means in his poem ‘The Empty Church’.

They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more

to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illuminated walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

We can build something really beautiful but we cannot guarantee that it will be holy, the inhabited place, the tabernacle of God.  In 1 Samuel a boy is given a strange name

She named the child Ichabod, meaning, ‘The glory has departed from Israel’. (1 Samuel 4.21)

And then I notice in a street on my way to the Cathedral that someone has taken a box and is living in it.  A person, living on the street for a reason, I do not know why, has taken a box as I did when I was a little boy and made it into a den, a home, a shelter, a cocoon.  And because I know that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1.14) I know that this might be the strange tabernacle in which God chooses to dwell, now.

Loving God,
dwell among us,
tabernacle alongside us,
cocoon with us,
that we might be at home with you.

The church at sea

Clergy come in many shapes and sizes, with many skills, many differing opportunities for mission and ministry.  There are no two priests alike of course, we are all very different. So it was interesting to spend most of last week with a particular group of clergy.  I had been asked some time ago to lead the reflective sessions at the annual conference of Royal Naval Chaplains.  So I headed down to the place where the chaplaincies for all three of the services in our armed forces are presently based, Amport House.

The present house, built in Elizabethan style in 1857, has the most beautiful grounds.  These were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll. There are beautiful areas of clipped box and yew, formal and less formal gardens and fountains and the longest pleached avenue of lime trees in the UK (so I was told).  The house is now up for sale however, as the Ministry of Defence moves the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre (AFCC) to new and presumably less expensive premises.  So if anyone wants a beautiful house and has many millions to spend on it, this is the place for you.

My five sessions were focused on the place that the ‘sea’ has in the story of our faith.  It seems to me fascinating that for a basically land-based people, the Israelites, who had limited access to the coast because it was the territory of other quite powerful people, and who used land routes for trading and fought their battles on land, the sea is enormously significant.

Jesus leaves the hills of Nazareth and the carpenters shop and heads down to the Sea of Galilee.  He calls in the main, fishermen, people of the water, to follow him.  He gathers people at the lakeside to teach them, he uses Simon’s boat as a makeshift pulpit.  He calms the storm, rebukes the wind and reveals a majesty over creation, the power of calm over chaos.  He visits lakeside communities, he heals and raises and inspires people who hear the lapping of waves on a shore.  Then his followers take to the waters and not least Paul whose journeys by water are told in the most wonderful detail in the Acts of the Apostles.  I read the whole of Acts 27 to the group at one point and said to them that as someone who knows nothing about ships and boats it all sounded plausible and the details sounded as though someone who knew what they were talking about had written them. They assured me that I was right.

Jonah icon

The beautiful icon of Jonah on display at Southwark Cathedral

Paul’s experience of shipwreck and peril on the sea mirrored, of course, the experience of Jonah.  It is a dangerous thing to head out in to the deep waters.  There be dragons and whales waiting!

Then, as a reminded them, and perhaps not such good news for those involved in the navy, John ends the Book of Revelation by telling us

‘and the sea was no more.’ (Revelation 21.1)

As a young man I was deeply fascinated by the life and the writings of the Trappist, Thomas Merton.  The first volume of his journals is called ‘The Sign of Jonas’ and in the prologue to that book he writes this

‘The sign Jesus promised to this generation that did not understand him, was ‘the sign of Jonas the prophet’ – that is, the sign of his resurrection.  The life of every monk, of every priest, of every Christian, is signed with the sign of Jonas, because we all live by the power of his resurrection.’

The man at peril on the sea, three days in the belly of the fish, becomes the sign of hope that we see in Jesus. We are all people of the sea.

I began by saying that clergy are all different.  I was deeply impressed by these priests.  They can be deployed alongside the ship’s crew for long periods of time, be away from land for ages and face the perils of the sea.  And into those places they witness as the sign of Jonas.  They appeared to have a strength of character as a group and as individuals to see them through this kind of experience which even the most lonely landlubber priest never has to face, professional isolation. In an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world in which our Navy is stationed everywhere for humanitarian as well as defensive purposes, they do a task on our behalf so often unseen and uncelebrated.

Amport House

Amport House and one of its gardens

At the final Eucharist they would celebrate as a group at Amport House before they move to their new home we sang that great hymn with the line, ‘for those in peril on the sea’. It was deeply moving, these priests knew the reality of that in a way I never could, they took the experience of Peter and Paul and Jonah and Jesus with them.  On our own seas, in our own perils those words resonate

O Trinity of love and power!
Our brethren’s shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe’er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

The prayer I wrote for these few days with them I share with you.

Creator God,
you bring order out of chaos,
hope out of despair,
calm out of the storm,
you challenge our comfort
and comfort our challenge,
bless us now
and those with whom
we navigate the waters of life.

For whom the bell tolls

There were many poignant moments on Monday as we commemorated the second anniversary of the London Bridge and Borough Market attacks.  In the congregation at Southwark Cathedral, which was at the heart of so much of what happened on that evening of the 3 June 2017, were families and friends of those who were killed, people who had been caught up directly in the attack, members of the emergency services, members of the local community as well as some of our civic leaders, including Sadiq Khan, Mayor of Southwark.


After the service in the Cathedral we processed into the churchyard and to the Tree of Healing where the act of commemoration was to take place.  The names were read, the great tenor bell of the Cathedral tolled and the Lay Clerks sang a setting of words from the Book of Wisdom.

‘The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.’ (Wisdom 3.1)

That was the really poignant moment for me, the names, the words and the bell.  ‘For whom the bell tolls’ as John Donne wrote, it tolled for them and for us.

Earlier in the service I preached and this is the text of that sermon.  Please continue to pray for us as the inquest into what happened continues. The readings for the service were Micah 6.6-8 and Matthew 5.38-48.

Jesus is talking to his disciples and says to them something which is as powerful now as it must have been then.

‘You will know the truth,’ he says, ‘and the truth will make you free.’

As we’re only too well aware, this Second Anniversary of the events of the evening of the 3 June 2017 falls in the middle of the inquest into what happened that’s been taking place across the river at the Old Bailey.  Many of you who are here this evening have been involved in that one way or another, some of you have made statements and given your own evidence to the coroner, some of you may still have to do so.  Others of us here have been looking on, listening, watching, reading as the reports have come out, every evening, every morning.

My grandma always had a jigsaw on the go.  It was a very popular pastime years ago, even more so than now, I suspect.  She’d spread the pieces out across the dining room table and if we were round at her house we’d be allowed to help.

‘Find the edge bits first’ she’d say.  So we found all the bits with a straight edge and little by little the frame to the picture would be created.  Then would begin the painstaking business of filling it all in.  I remember one jigsaw, a painting of Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford-Upon-Avon, and there were phlox and roses in the foreground and thatch in the mid ground and blue sky in the background.  And gradually as we found the right pieces the picture emerged.  Then there was always an argument though about who’d have the privilege of putting the last piece in place so that the complete picture could be seen.

It seems to me, reading the accounts of that dreadful night that so much has emerged that none of us ever knew about.  I was only on the edge of things, arriving on the fringes of the market as the attack ended, being sent back by the police, emerging into a scene of terror and carnage in Southwark Street.  I only saw what I saw.  And in the following days and weeks and months I only heard what I heard from the people who saw what they saw.  None of us sees the whole picture.  But the pieces, in this process of inquest, are being put together.

Inevitably, and in a painful way for many of you, the memories are being re-examined, the wounds re-opened, the horror and the pain and the grief re-kindled.  Yet we want to know the full story, we want to hear the evidence, we want to know the truth because the truth will set us free – eventually.

Of course, there will always be things that could have been done better, swifter, more effectively.  Of course, there will be lessons to be learnt, lessons have already been learnt and not just by those who seek to protect our freedoms and our lives.  Those of us here, in this Bankside community, have been learning the lessons – and what we’ve learnt is that we are stronger than we ever knew.

To be honest, what has made me weep again over the past few weeks have been the heroic stories, the willingness of some to go to the help of others, the unselfish response to strangers, who became sisters and brothers.  Our Second Lesson spoke a bit about this, about ‘going the second mile’, doing more than could be expected, doing more than could be demanded.  It’s going the second mile, the extra mile, that is the heroic, selfless act and it’s going the second mile that we saw in those few devastating minutes of the attack.

The prophet Micah speaks powerful words to us about what it is that God requires of each of us

‘to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?’

Doing the right thing, loving the kind thing, embracing the humble thing, this is what God asks of us and as the pieces of the jigsaw are put together in the final days of the inquest this is, I am sure what we will see.

But it’s no good just telling people what to do, we have to show people what to do.  And that is where Jesus, for me, is so strong.  He lives what he taught, right there to the cross and beyond.  He showed us the way of love even in the face of evil, he showed us what the light is like even in places of darkness.  And the heroes of London Bridge and Borough Market have done the same – and telling all the stories, putting the pieces together makes us realise in a new way just how much we owe to those who died as much as to those of us who survived.

I said the truth will set us free, eventually.  The memories have been revived, the wounds have been reopened, and healing must continue but now we can see a bigger picture, a hard and painful one to look at, but the God who walks every step with us, every mile with us, the God who goes to hell and back for us is there with us, holding us in our pain and loving us, loving you, to the end.

That is the truth that will set us free.

Lord Jesus, your scars bore witness to your suffering
as you stood before your friends.
Bless those whose scars have been reopened,
whose memories have been stirred,
whose pain has been revealed,
whose selfless acts recalled,
whose heroic actions told,
whose stories have been shared,
whose tears have been shed,
as testimonies are heard
in the London Bridge Inquest.
Hold us with your wounded hands
and bring us your peace.

‘Let us pray’

Those three words ‘Let us pray’ create a variety of responses.  You have to be careful when you’re presiding or officiating at a service how you use them.  If you say the words and then pause in a particular way people fall to their knees or sit down.  Men adopt the ‘Le penseur’ position, woman a more gentle bow, children fidget.  But sometimes you don’t want them to do any of those things, such as when you are about to pray the Collect.  So you have to say the words in a way that suggests that they shouldn’t move at that moment.  Don’t ask me how, you just learn how to do it – like people learn how to command their pet dog (not that I would possibly compare a congregation to a poodle though I have met some rottweilers in my time!).

The disciples ask Jesus a seemingly straightforward question

‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ (Luke 11.1)

The thing Jesus doesn’t seem to do was to teach them to put their hands together and close their eyes.  That is what I was certainly taught.  Instead, Jesus gives them the words to pray, he gives them what we call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, the most often used prayer in the world.  And as part of that prayer there are the words that we are focusing in on in these ten days between the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost – ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.  For the disciples these days became a time devoted to prayer.  As we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, the eleven

‘were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.’ (Acts 1.14)

The crucible in which the church was formed was a crucible of prayer.


Searching for God, Almighty Hands

On Ascension Day we welcomed into Southwark Cathedral a sculpture that is accompanying us through these ten days.  ‘Searching for God, Almighty Hands’ is a monumental work by Nic Fiddian Green.  Nic was our Lent artist back in 2013 when he brought ‘Christ Rests’ to the Cathedral, a beautiful thorn-crowned head of Christ.

‘Searching for God, Almighty Hands’ measures 10 ft in height x 4.9 ft wide and is hand-beaten in sheet lead. The image of hands at prayer is a familiar one to us, either from our own life experience when someone told us to ‘put your hands together and close your eyes’ as we learnt to pray, or from works such as the engraving of praying hands by Albrecht Dürer.  The sheer scale of Nic’s work means, however, that we cannot ignore these hands, this call to prayer, this invitation to engage with the God who, in Jesus, engages with us.


Nic at work

They may be made of beaten lead sheets but whilst metallic they have a softness, a gentleness about them.  The hands are together, in that attitude of prayer recognised world-wide by so many people.  ‘Put your hands together and close your eyes’ said mum to us when she was teaching us to pray.  ‘Put your hands together and close your eyes’ said the teacher when we were sat cross-legged on the floor of the school hall for assembly.  ‘Put your hands together and close your eyes’ we tell ourselves as we attempt to block out the distractions around and concentrate on praying.

But looking at these giant hands reminded me of something else.  In some cultures the joined hands lifted towards the head is a humble greeting, that wonderfully polite way in which we are on occasions welcomed.  Perhaps for some entering the Cathedral whilst this installation is in place what they see will not speak so much of prayer but of welcome.  That is the beauty of art; for one it will take them into prayer, for another make them feel welcomed and at home. Both responses can only but be welcomed.

Almighty God,
our hands reach up in prayer
our hands reach out to you.
With healing,
holding hands
embrace us,
embrace me.

A very personal journey

Readers of this blog over the years will have picked up various snippets about my backstory.  I have given quite a lot away over time because that, I suppose, is how I do my theological reflection, thinking about where I have been and how the things of God have affected me, sometimes perfected me – and maybe, just maybe, it rings a bell for some of those who read what I write.

This weekend we have held at Southwark Cathedral a study morning with Canon Paula Gooder and Professor Esther Mombo of Kenya, a Canon Theologian of Southwark Cathedral and a service to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women as priests.  It coincides with the exhibition that opened last week in the OXO Tower gallery called ‘Here am I’.  The photographer Jim Grover followed twelve priests in the diocese who are women, photographing them as they went about their ministries in very different and varying situations.  The result is a wonderful exhibition and telling of the story of some remarkable lives. The photos in this blog are some of the ones in the exhibition, some of my amazing sisters.

From: 'Here Am I'. A photo-story celebrating the 25th anniversar

Canon Joyce Forbes (picture Jim Grover)

But these women are only the tip of the iceberg, for each of those twelve there are so many other women, as well, of course, as men, doing amazing things in response to the call of God to them.  The title of the exhibition is, of course drawn, from the response of Isaiah to the call of God. Isaiah cannot believe what he is hearing God say but finally he responds

‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ (Isaiah 6.8)

It took him a long time – Isaiah knew what he was like, someone lost, a man with ‘unclean lips’.  But the Lord convinces him – amazingly it is him that he wants, him that he needs, him that he calls.  It reminds us of the wonderful story of the calling of the boy Samuel which is picked up in the popular worship song ‘I the Lord of Sea and Sky’ by Dan Schutte with its chorus

Here I am, Lord. Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

I was born in Leicester in 1957.  As children our mum took us to the church she worshiped in and in which she had been baptised, confirmed and married – All Saints, Wigston Magna.  It was a lovely medieval building which members of the Oxford Movement had got hold of.  It was old fashioned for my tastes now, but that was then and there were few options around in terms of liturgy and it might not have been as old fashioned as I now remember it.  We went to the National at Walsingham each year, went off to visit women from the congregation who had joined religious communities.  There were vocations, men to ordination, women to the religious life.  But that was how things were.

It was there that I realised my own call to priesthood.  I had quickly escaped Sunday School and joined the choir.  There, siting the other side of the Rood Screen, I could enjoy every moment of the liturgy, the candles, the smoke, the bells, the vestments.  The Diocese of Leicester was good to be part of.  There was a Diocesan Youth Group that I was part of and a Diocesan Vocations Group.  Bishop Ronald Williams was the first bishop of Leicester I really knew, our bishop from 1953-1979 and so through the period of my exploration of vocation he was the one I related to.  He was followed by the ‘knitting bishop’, Richard Rutt, who was in post when I finally went off to Mirfield, to the College of the Resurrection, to be formed for priestly ministry.

As I arrived at the College the ASB was published.  Things were changing.  And other things were changing too.  I knew there were deaconesses, of course, but, apart from a few wives there were no women at the College and we were set at the heart of a male religious community. But there was talk of the ordination of women! Women deacons, women priests! I didn’t like that.  What about Rome, what about my upbringing, what about all that in persona Christi stuff we were being taught? So, I was ordained opposed to the ordination of women.  But there were a lot of people like me, some more vociferous, some fearful of change, some, frankly, misogynist, some confused.  But as I was ordained in the Diocese of Ripon for a parish in Leeds there were women being admitted to the order of deaconess alongside me.  We were in what we then called ‘Potty Training’ (post-ordination training) together, learning about ministry together.  There were some great women who were my contemporaries – Elizabeth, Julie, Catherine – to name but three, women who were ready to challenge my thinking, confront my views and they did.

One in particular though began to change my life.  I was sitting in the vicar’s lounge in Holbeck where our Potty Training sessions happened.  The door opened and a diminutive young women with big glasses and bright stationary came in and plonked herself beside me on the sofa.  We became instant friends and little did I know it then that this person was sent to change my attitudes, to expand my thinking, to challenge my view of priesthood.

Changing your views on the ordination of women was not an easy thing to do to be honest.  There was a great deal of peer pressure to remain in the true fold.  The churches that I was ministering to were generally of a particular tradition and their congregations generally opposed.  My friends shared my views and as the temperature in the CofE hotted up the implications for a change of heart became clearer.  You might gain some friends but you might lose some on the way.

Of course, I read the books and the pamphlets that were published, arguments this way and that.  They were good books – but to be honest I am more than a heart than a head man and it wasn’t going to be books and academic arguments that would change my mind.  Instead it would be my friend on the sofa with the big glasses.

She said she felt called to be a deacon and I could see that call in her.  But many people could just about cope with the deaconate.  But she also said she felt called to priesthood and …. I could see that too.  And it was seeing it, recognising it that changed my heart and my head.

So, 25 years ago I came to Southwark Cathedral.  Two friends were being ordained to the priesthood, Julie for the Woolwich Episcopal Area and Alex for the Kingston Episcopal Area.  The diocese had decided that there would be three services on the same day in the Cathedral, one for each Area and all the women would be ordained that day.  So I was invited to two of the three services.  I had seen Southwark Cathedral from the railway line, going in and out of London Bridge station on various occasions.  But I had never been in.  So I arrived to be warmly welcomed and took my place as history was made – and it was joyous.

It was a big day for those women, ordained as priest, the same priesthood as I was living, but it was also a big day for me personally.  Not only had my views completely changed but I had also been asked to ring the office of the then Bishop of Southwark.  Bishop Roy Williamson was looking for a new chaplain and my name had been mentioned to him as a possibility.  I had rung Bishop’s House.  Bishop Roy suggested we meet.  ‘I’m coming down for two of the ordinations’ I said. ‘Let’s meet in between them’ he said.  And so in the old Provost’s Study in what I call the ‘old new buildings’ at the Cathedral I met Bishop Roy for the first time and a few months later I was appointed as Bishop’s Chaplain and made the move from Leeds to London in 1995.  But immediately after the ordinations I caught a flight to New Jersey in the USA to begin a long placement in a parish in a place called Camden.  Those three months there would change the rest of my life, my attitudes, my circle of friendships, my confidence, even my daily life.  It was the most momentous weekend and as I write this I can hardly believe it all happened like that against the background of the church responding to the call of God to ordain women as priests.

Whilst I was still in Leeds I was meeting with a group of like-minded catholic priests.  We held our meetings in the converted porch of the lovely church of St Wilfrid, Halton.  So we called ourselves for want of anything better ‘The Porch People’.  It was great.  So, when I finally moved to Southwark in January 1995 I was introduced to something similar that had been set up here on the Feast of the Holy Cross 1994.  The Society of Catholic Priests (SCP) had been formed by men from the catholic tradition who believed in the ordination of all people regardless of gender, ability, sexuality, ethnicity to each of the three orders of ministry.  I was among friends.  The eight years I was to serve as Rector General of the Society seeing the expansion of SCP into North America and Australia was a real privilege.  From that platform I was able to play a small part in seeing women ordained as bishops.  It was only a small part but nevertheless it was joyous to be involved.

I had stood for election to the General Synod in 2005 and was elected.  I am still on the Synod, in my third quinquennium, but now as one of the five deans.  It was being on the Synod, however, that enabled me to stand for election to the Crown Nominations Commission – the body that nominates diocesan bishops to the crown.  I was elected twice and the greatest privilege was to be a member of the Commission that nominated the first bishop who was a women to a diocese, Rachel Treweek to Gloucester.

Being a member of the Chapter at Southwark Cathedral since 1999 and Dean since 2012 has meant that I have now worked with a huge number of talented and extra-ordinary ordained women and I am a better priest and a better person for it.  But it was Julie, big glasses, colourful stationery that set me on the path.  It is she, along with all my other ordained sisters, who I give thanks for this weekend.


Mother Mae Christie (photo Jim Grover)

I don’t know how I used to read the Easter Day gospel when I believed differently about women, how I understood quite what Jesus was doing in the dew soaked garden as the sun rose and he called Mary Magdalene by name and said to her

‘Go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ (John 20.17)

But now I know that Mary was the Apostle to the Apostles.  So for every person in ministry I give thanks, but for the women I give particular thanks.  It has been a long journey and a very personal one for me, but I’m glad that it was this road that I travelled and I am glad that I travelled it with sisters.

Lord Jesus,
as you called Mary by name
and sent her to make your resurrection known
may we hear your voice today
and go where you send us

whoever we are.

A safe place

There have been a number of famous citizens of Leicester over the centuries – Simon de Montfort, who helped create our parliamentary system; Daniel Lambert, the fattest man in Britain (those as old as me may remember Joan Noakes and Peter Purvis both getting into a single pair of his trousers on ‘Blue Peter’); Joe Orton, the playwright; Sue Townsend, the creator of  ‘Adrian Mole’; Gary Lineker, footballer, broadcaster and crisp fanatic; me, of course – but the person I have been thinking about was Joseph (John) Merrick who was immortalised in the film ‘The Elephant Man’.  Merrick was born in Leicester but as those who have seen the film will know became part of a freak show.


Joseph Merrick – a man not a freak

The film was incredibly moving.  Merrick was presented as a gentle, sophisticated man who others were simply treating as an animal, an object of fun, someone to be ridiculed or abused.  The final scenes were heart-rending.

I have never watched ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’, or at least never watched a whole programme.  The bits I have seen have wanted to make me pick up the remote very quickly.  But that show, as so many have commented last week, after the tragic death of one of the participants, is not the only example of this kind of cruel reality TV.  But it did play into some hideous trends in society, not least a desire for Warhol’s ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ and also the desperate situations of the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society.  People, it seems, will do anything when they need money, or when they desire fame – or when they imagine that one might lead to the other.

When all the talk was going on about the show being axed by ITV I was also thinking about this whole business of creating not a public space but a safe place for people to make their confessions, a safe place to unburden themselves.  Why would you confess your sins, in public, on TV?  I simply do not get it.  But I’m delighted that there is a place in church where we can, and do, open up in a much safer place.

The Church of England has been thinking for the last few years about the place of sacramental Confession in our lives, what is properly called the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  I have been delighted to have been helping with that thinking not least around what is called the ‘Seal of the Confessional’ and how this works with the needs to create a safe church, how this works with the very real demands of safeguarding that have to be at the forefront of our minds, collectively and individually.

Many people do not realise that in fact if you are a member of the Church of England you can make your confession, one-to-one with a priest.  The common misconception is that this is something reserved for Roman Catholics, that we ‘got rid of’ at the Reformation.  But that is simply not the case.  The ‘Seal’ is there as part of our Canon Law and the practice of making a confession included, though not prominently, in the Book of Common Prayer.

But as Anglicans we have always used the old adage about it ‘All can, none must, some should’. Making a confession might not be what every one wants to do, for one reason or another.  But for some it is just the thing that can help them be reconciled with God and their neighbour and themselves.  The church offers this safe place, not a safe place in which a priest can collude with a perpetrator, not a safe place in which wrongs that need to be dealt with elsewhere can be hidden, but a safe place in which each of us can know that we are loved, in which each of us can hear that we are forgiven, in which each of us can know that burdens can be laid down and that there is freedom and new life in Christ.

We don’t need to go on TV, undergo a lie detector, be ridiculed for who we are or what we have done, we don’t need to play this out in public.  There is a better way and a safer way. For the church, of course, we have to think about how best to make this sacrament available and how best to make the church a safe place for all to be.  Through thorough training – I will be co-leading on more of this in the Diocese of Southwark this week alongside the Diocesan Safeguarding Advisor – through systems of advice and care for confessors as well as penitents, I believe that we can make the best use of what Jesus gives to the church, as pure gift.

It was on the evening of Easter Day, and Jesus was with the disciples. They had chosen a safe place to be and Jesus enters that safe place with the promise of new life, new starts for all who truly repent of their sins.

[Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20.22-23)

It is a huge responsibility, a huge gift that has been entrusted to us.  Using it safely, using it well, that is the challenge we face.

Father, forgive us.

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017


Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

Led by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark