Dressing up

I loved being in Infant School.  The school was just around the corner from where we lived in Wigston, on the outskirts of Leicester.  The school, infant and primary, was called Waterleys, though it was no where near water!  Going to school at that stage in your life is such an adventure of discovery, learning to read and write and count, learning about the world and relationships, learning about yourself.  We had, of course, a corner in the classroom where there was a Wendy House and we could act out home life and I can’t remember we boys not being allowed to play whatever role that we wanted to adopt, and I’m sure, knowing myself, I would have been happy playing with the dolls like I did at home with my sister.


What we didn’t have, as far as I can remember, was a dressing-up box.  Now I see children with their parents in the supermarket dressed as Spider-Man or a princess, or a character from ‘Frozen’ or another Disney film, having chosen that ‘costume’ as their preferred clothing and perhaps acting out in their head the character that they have chosen to be.

At home we were allowed to put on mum’s coat and shoes and shuffle around in high-heels and fall over and laugh and it was all very natural.  So I was delighted with the news last week that in Church of England Schools children can choose from the dressing-up box exactly what they want to wear, cowboy outfit or princess, it doesn’t matter.  I simply don’t see it as about gender neutrality or creating gender confusion, as some have suggested, some negative challenge to who we fundamentally are but more about that fantastic journey of discovery that growing up should be – and putting on clothes is part of that.

There used to be a lovely children’s programme on the BBC called ‘Mr Ben’.  The eponymous hero had a penchant for ‘dressing up’.  So each episode began with the bowler-hatted, black-suited city gent, Mr Ben, leaving his house at 52 Festive Road and arriving at the costume shop where the moustachioed owner would lead him to the changing room where a costume would await him.  Then Mr Ben emerged as a different character and had an adventure.  What was going on I do not know – but this was 1971!

As a catholic, of course, I love dressing up.  So on the day that the CofE announced that tiaras were ok for boys we had a special service in the Cathedral in which new vestments were blessed by the Bishop and after he had blessed them we got dressed up.  The members of our Guild of Broderers (the posh name for embroiderers) had been working since 2012 on this set of Jubilee Vestments, for the diocese to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  It had taken so long because of the amount of embroidery involved and because, as volunteers, they only come to the Cathedral one day a week.  But the final set of Eucharistic vestments were complete – the chasuble and dalmatics – and that was what was blessed. You can see lots of photos of the event here.


The Bishop of Southwark wearing the Jubilee cope


The things that we wear in church are of course ‘gender-neutral’ it doesn’t matter who the deacon, the priest, the bishop is, the vestments are the same because they are not about pointing to the person wearing them, precisely not so, but pointing to Christ. But we begin this process of dressing up, not in the rich priestly vestments but in the simple baptismal robe, the vestment of the people of God and that is truly gender-neutral, as St Paul points out to the Christians in Galatia.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.27-28)

In the Old Testament we are given details of how Aaron is dressed for his priestly ministry – the details about what he wore were important to the people of God then as what we wear is important to the people of God now, whether or not people like to wear formal vestments.  Dress becomes a defining characteristic of how we understand ourselves, not as people, but as church.  George Herbert reflects on this in his poem ‘Aaron’

Holiness on the head,
Light and perfections on the breast,
Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest:
Thus are true Aarons drest.

Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest:
Poor priest, thus am I drest.

Only another head
I have, another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In him I am well drest.

Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me ev’n dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new-drest.

So, holy in my head,
Perfect and light in my dear breast,
My doctrine tun’d by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come people; Aaron’s drest.

Learning to inhabit the costume, to wear the clothes, to live the adventure, that is what growing up is about, that is what growing up in Christ is about – and perhaps it all starts in that dressing-up box at the corner of the classroom and reaching out to choose … well, whatever you choose to choose.

Clothe us, Christ,
in the livery of life
and make us wear well
the clothes you place upon us
and the clothes we choose to wear.


The red and the white

This has been a big weekend in London.  On Saturday the 690th Lord Mayor of the City of London, following his election, went on parade through the Square Mile.  It’s one of the fun events of the year, marking the transition between the occupants of the Mansion House.  I must pay tribute to Dr Andrew Parmley and his wife Wendy who have been the Lord and Lady Mayoress for the past year.  I suspect that there has been no other church organist filling the shoes of Dick Whittington.  Andrew and Wendy have been gracious and generous occupants of this ancient and honourable role.  We look forward to working with the new Lord Mayor, Charles Bowman.

As part of the Lord Mayor’s Parade, adding to the pageantry, are the ancient Guilds of the City of London, the Livery, parading in their finest.  Amongst them, I suspect, will have been the Barbers.  These rank 17th in the City hierarchy, and for 205 years of their history were called the Barber-Surgeons.  That name ceased to be the Company name, but remained the name of their hall, when the professionalization of the surgeons led to the establishment of their Royal College.  But the ancient name recognised the fact that for a very long time you went to your barber not just to have your hair cut and your chin shaved but for surgery as well and a bit of blood-letting.  That is why, in England, the poles outside of traditional barbers are coloured in red and white.  It’s a reminder that the cloths used to soak up the blood were hung on these poles to dry out after washing and, in the wind, twirled themselves around the pole.  The colours are called ‘blood and bandages’ – a long way from a trip to Vidal Sassoon!


They grow together


I was thinking of this, not because I have been to the barbers recently (my hair doesn’t need much attention as I don’t have that much to give attention to) but because of a debate that we had at Southwark Cathedral around the Remembrance weekend that we are keeping in this busy weekend.

One of the things that I like to do is to be able to respond to what the congregation at the Cathedral are asking.  That isn’t always possible, given the competing demands placed upon us, but often we can find a way of satisfying various needs.  One of the congregation asked us whether this year, in addition to selling the traditional red poppies, we would also be prepared to sell the white alternatives.

There are some things that I am happy to make a decision about on my own, but there are other things that really do require much more thorough discussion.  This was certainly one of them.

Would we be prepared to do this? What would be the reaction? What were our feelings about the red poppy anyway?  How did we feel about this whole business of remembrance? The debate became deep and wide ranging.  Start talking about it and it brings to the fore deeply held emotions and important principles.  I don’t need to go into all the things we talked about in that Chapter meeting but what I can say is that at the end we decided that we could sell both without compromising what anyone felt about the importance of the red poppy as being deeply symbolic, whilst recognising that the white poppy said something important about our commitment to peace and our desire that there be non-violent solutions to international problems.

So that is what we have been doing over these past few weeks.  The red poppies have been selling as well as ever, in support of the work of the Royal British Legion, and the white poppies have also been selling and some people have been wearing both, the red and the white, like a barbers’ pole.

When I was a young priest back in the early ’80’s there seemed to be little enthusiasm around Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.  It felt as though the energy had gone out of it and that keeping either or both would disappear in a few years’ time.  Perhaps the festival would continue in the Royal Albert Hall, perhaps The Queen would still attend the Cenotaph in Whitehall but for most people it would be a thing of the past.  But we couldn’t have been more wrong.

I think it has been a mixture of things.  Instead of our troops being engaged solely or mainly with the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland we became involved in wars and conflicts overseas and the body count began to rise and the stories of PTSD and the pictures of injured servicewomen and men became a feature of life.  The young princes became more actively part of the Armed Forces than their predecessors and Prince Harry, through the Invictus Games and other initiatives especially in relation to mental health, has heightened our awareness of the reality of life for many in the Armed Forces.  The rise of alternative charities, like ‘Help for Heroes’ has raised public awareness of the needs of returning servicemen and women.  The development of Armed Forces Day and then the four year commemoration of the centenary of the First World War, the sea of poppies around the Tower, the restoration of war memorials, even the works financed on our cathedral buildings as part of the preparing for 2018, have all meant that acts of Remembrance have become more important, not less.

In this last week I have officiated at an Act of Remembrance in our local council offices to mark the end of Passchendaele, one hundred years ago, officiated at Mayor Sadiq’s Service of Remembrance in City Hall and on Remembrance Sunday itself at the war memorial in the Cathedral parish with the Mayor and all the civic representatives.


Peter lashes out


But I still need to hold on to that white poppy as well as the red.  Jesus is constantly calling us to live for peace and I am reminded of that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest.  In the heat of the moment headstrong Peter reaches for his sword and attacks.  He lashes out and injures Malchus, the servant of the High Priest, cutting off his ear. And in the midst of the turmoil Jesus speaks

Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’ (Matthew 26.52)

In that place of violence Jesus speaks calm truth.  Yes, I can see, if you apply the Just War theory, that there are times when there is no other option but to take up arms, but it has to be the very last resort and not our first instinct.  Peter lashed out in the heat of the moment and was rebuked; there are those who are in leadership positions that still want to lash out.  The red and the white reminds us of both the human cost and the call to peace.

Ellis Evans was a Welsh poet called up at the age of 17 and sent to Passchendaele to fight.  He died there.  His nick name is ‘Hedd Wyn’ which means ‘Blessed Peace’. His poem ‘War’ begins like this

Woe that I live in bitter days,
As God is setting like a sun
And in his place, as lord and slave,
Man raises forth his heinous throne.

We cannot let God nor Blessed Peace to set like the sun.

God, as we remember the dead of war
may we never forget your call to peace.

Where am I?

Well, I’m in India.  In fact I’m on holiday and there is no better time to go than during the Feast of Diwali, with its lights and hopes and prayers for the New Year.  This is a holiday so I won’t be blogging but I hope to bring you some news and stories when I get back.  Please keep me and my travelling companions in your prayers.


Diwali lights


God of our travels,
keep us safe wherever we go
and bring us back to our homes,
renewed, refreshed
and ready for all that lies ahead.

A priest for ever

Back in 1994, when the first women were ordained priest, a new catholic society within the Church of England came into existence.  The first members were admitted in the Diocese of Southwark on the Feast of the Holy Cross, 14 September, into the Society of Catholic Priests – the red cross brigade.  The bright red crosses on lapels and dresses can be seen in General Synod and at many gatherings.  I became a member when I came to Southwark in 1995.  It has always been a great source of support for me in my priestly ministry and being in a truly inclusive society within the catholic tradition has been a great encouragement.

Last Thursday I ceased to be Rector General after almost 9 years of serving the Society in that way.  A new Provincial Rector, Fr Kevin Maddy, was elected and we wish him well as he leads the Society which now has members in Australia and North America as well as in Europe (despite Brexit the British parts of SCP will remain in the European Chapter).

This is the text of the sermon I preached at the final Mass at which I was to preside as Rector General.  I thought you might be interested in reading what I had to say.  The lections for the Mass were Hebrews 5.1-11 and Luke 22.14-20.


The SCP cross


George Herbert, that saintly priest and poet begins his handbook for clergy called ‘The Country Parson’ with this simple but rather startling definition about what it is that we are called to do

A Pastor is the Deputy of Christ for the reducing of Man to the Obedience of God.

I’m not sure that untranslated those few words would be entirely understood by many, or many of those who share with us in the sacred ministry of the priest in the Church of God. I’m delighted that when I was at Mirfield we were constantly being told that we were being ‘formed for the priesthood’ and not, as some other places of learning are concerned, ‘trained for ministry’. This isn’t intended to be an old git homily but it seems to me that so often those who are ordained are lumped by the wider and, I suppose, wiser church into this catch all category of ‘ministry’. It’s an inclusive word and so I should rejoice in that – but you see, I was called to be a priest – it was specific, it was as we now say , intentional, not on my part, but I believe on God’s.

As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says, and that person knows a thing or two about priesthood,

One does not presume to take this honour, but takes it only when called by God.

We did not have the audacity to choose ourselves for this, or the arrogance to choose this for ourselves. I suspect that each of us here is a priest out of obedience, women and men for whom the call to the priestly life was undeniable and unavoidable, which was tested and affirmed by the church and confirmed through the laying-on-of-hands within that apostolic succession which gives us the authority which God alone can give.

Herbert defines our life as Dignity and Duty

The Dignity, in that a Priest may do that which Christ did, and by his authority, and as his Vicegerent. The Duty, in that a Priest is to do that which Christ did, and after his manner, both for Doctrine and Life.

This idea that we are the Deputy, the Vicegerent – the earthly representative of God – is daunting. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews admits, we’re subject to weakness, we’re part of that fallen humanity which, through the grace of the sacraments that we administer, we seek to raise to the true status that we have lost.

That word ‘vicegerent’ really means ‘holding on behalf of’. As priests, we hold Christ on behalf of the people and the people on behalf of Christ. Whether we’re holding the host before people hungry for God, or holding the hand of someone hungry for heaven, we’re holding, on behalf of the one who holds us, Jesus Christ our Eternal High Priest.

We will all have been traumatised by the events that have affected us so far this year. Terrorist attacks at home, Westminster Bridge, London Bridge, Finsbury Park; the disaster of Grenfell Tower; the natural disasters in the Caribbean and northern India and Bangladesh; ongoing war; ongoing crises; the madness that leads a lone gunman to mow down concert goers in Las Vegas; and the political disasters from which it will take generations to recover – this is the context in which we do, not ministry, not leadership, not all the words that others seek to apply to what we do, but we do our priestly ministry – breaking open the word, breaking the bread, sharing the love, sharing the cup, witnessing to the dignity and the duty that is our calling.

I hope you’ll excuse me if I’m a little self-indulgent as we all have stories we can tell and as clergy we tell them – but I’m the one preaching!

The evening of the 3 June was one of the most devastating of my priesthood. Some of you may have already read what I’ve written about it or have heard me speak. But that evening I was at the Deanery with friends. We’d enjoyed a barbeque in our garden and had gone up to the drawing room for more drinks. We had a house full including the person who was to be our new deacon, arrived that day to move into his flat.

And then a text arrived which said that something was kicking off on London Bridge. So I did what you would do – I put on my dog collar and grabbed my bunch of keys. My first instinct was to open the church and provide a refuge for those caught up in whatever was going on – after all that is what we’ve done at the south end of London Bridge for the last 1400 years!

But I couldn’t get very close. Finding my way as best I could I got near to the market only to be met with a huge number of heavily armed police officers, with their machine guns and night sights trained on me. I was forced back onto Southwark Street. What I saw there I’ll never forget – a road full of ambulances, of flashing lights, pavements full of injured and traumatised people being attended to by paramedics and friends.

I’d love to be able to tell you that I was the Good Samaritan, binding up the wounds of those on the roadside – but I wasn’t, I followed the directions of the police and found my way home. The house was full, a young Muslim guy, who chairs our residents forum, texted me – he couldn’t get home and so he stayed with us, with the helicopters whirring around over heads, with the world around us going mad. I have to tell you that that night I was physically sick.

I just didn’t know what to do and whether I was up to doing it.

But the dawn broke and we began, step by step, bit by bit, holding people for Christ. The Cathedral was closed for a week as we were at the heart of what’d happened. All I and my colleagues could do was be the church, be priests out there, but doing what priests do, the dignity and the duty, saying Mass where we could, saying our prayers and being there with people in their pain and distress – be they Christian, Muslim, of other faiths or none.

And the community needed the church. It was we who were able to articulate on behalf of others what we were all feeling, it was we who could offer liturgy which held the stages of mourning, the stages of rebuilding or re-hallowing. I presided over the removal of the flowers that had gathered on London Bridge, with incense and holy water we walked the path of the attackers and reclaimed the area for Christ and the community and we kept bringing it all to the altar.

And I didn’t know what to do from one moment to the next – but that priesthood to which you and I are called is so much more than we can begin to understand – for it’s not our priesthood but Christ’s, it’s Jesus who ministers through us and it’s Jesus who holds our hand as we hold the hand of others.


The cover of George Herbert’s handbook for Parsons


The church has many agendas and some of them are good and right but some of them well out of a place of misunderstanding or even a refusal to understand. What we’ve been ordained to is not something of the moment but something of eternity, for as the psalmist says

You are a priest for ever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.

Initiatives will come and go, the church will grow and diminish, it will reform when needed and change when called to by God. But one thing is for ever and that’s the priesthood of which we are the most unworthy of members. We’re an instant in an eternal history which will only be brought to its fulfilment when we stand in that place ‘when sacraments shall cease’ as a great Eucharistic hymn describes it.

Until then we hold Christ to the world and the world to Christ, break the bread and share the cup, offer the church’s welcome and farewell, bind and heal, forgive and befriend, in persona Christi, in the place of Christ, in the person of Christ, who has called us to share his priesthood for ever.

Father, we thank you
that you have called us to your service,
to feed your people
by word and sacrament.
By the power of your Spirit,
keep us faithful to you
and to those in our care.
Keep united in the bonds of peace and love
the members of the Society of Catholic Priests,
that by sharing in Christ’s priesthood here on earth,
they may come to share in the joys of his eternal kingdom,
where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
for ever and ever. Amen.

The Gift of the Gab

It’s strange in life what you end up with discovering you have some kind of talent for.  I have to put this in context.  I was a monumentally shy boy; well; not uncontrollably shy but shy enough to stop me doing lots of things that ordinarily one would enjoy doing.  But I suspect that inside the wallflower there was always a little bit of me that loved performing.  I remember when I was only seven or so being given a book of poetry by my one of my grandmas.  One of the poems – I wish I could put my hand on the book – had a poem called ‘Mr Nobody’ by Walter de la Mare and for some reason I dragged my sister, who was also shy, into performing this with me for the assembled wider family.  So I was shy but there was a bit of another person who liked the spotlight struggling to get out.


‘Please speak into the microphone!’


Now, most weeks, I’m having to speak.  Last week I was talking about the number of sermons I was having to write.  This week is no different.  I woke up on Thursday morning and suddenly realised that I had to have written four in the next few days.  But sermons are one things – it’s the ‘could you just say a few words’ or the after-dinner speeches that I’m thinking about.  Most weeks, on many occasions, I find that I have to make some kind of speech that is outside of the liturgical setting, outside of the safety of the priestly role and the fortress of the pulpit.

Or I’m listening to other people having to make a speech.  That can be equally nerve-wracking, especially if you know that the person doing so, hates it or is terrified, or isn’t very good at it.  So I was feeling particular sympathy for the Prime Minister this week at the Conservative Party Conference, watching a ‘car crash’ of a speech.  Like many people outside that hall, I suspect, I have little idea what she said or what she was attempting to say.  All I can remember and all that we will all remember were those three elements – the P45, the falling F and the cough.  We will watch that in the ‘Review of the Year’ and in countless editions of ‘It’ll be alright on the night’ and other blooper shows for generations to come.  And Theresa May knows that, just as any of us know that our worst moments are played back to us, in our own heads, or by other people.  So I may not share her views, but I can’t help but share with her the experience.

Public speaking puts us out there.  Not only do people listen to our words, but they also listen to how we say things.  We are meant to be amusing – and that can be disastrous, we are meant to be memorable – and that can be even worse.  I have listened with no little envy to great after-dinner speakers – people like Victor Stock, the former Dean of Guildford – who can have people at one moment crying with laughter and then moved to tears.  It is a real gift.  But the fact is that we all, at sometime have to get up and say something, gifted or not, eloquent or not, and we all hope that when we do the F doesn’t fall off!

I find encouragement in the scriptures and with those great leaders in the Old Testament, Moses and Aaron.  You will know the Moses story well – the baby in the bulrushes, the Egyptian prince by adoption, the burning bush, the plagues, etc, etc.  It’s a fantastic story.  Moses was the leader par excellence, leading his people on, staff in hand, across the wilderness, with a firm vision and goal before him – The Promised Land.  Like many leaders he had clay feet – he lost his temper, smashed things, was capricious, and never got to share in what lay at the end of his long leadership.  But towards the beginning of the story is something that is fascinating.

Moses said in the Lord’s presence, ‘Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. (Exodus 6.30 – 7.2)

Moses was a fine leader but a useless public speaker.  He knew that and he knew that without eloquence he would never be listened to by Pharaoh.  He just didn’t have, as we might say ‘The Gift of the Gab’. But Aaron, his brother, did.  Aaron could do it, he could be, as God says, his prophet.  Moses could be the leader, Aaron could be the spokesman.  And that was how it worked.  Mostly it worked well, this collaborative style, until, of course, Moses was too long up the mountain talking to God, the people got restless and in order to pacify them Aaron capitulated and gave them the Golden Calf to worship. Aaron really had to stick to what he knew how to do – talking and not leading!  But this great collaboration brought them through the wilderness and to the vision that lay ahead, the Promised Land.  Knowing what we can do and what we can’t is a sign of true wisdom.


Moses and Aaron in collaboration


Of course, Moses could speak, he could speak to God and, so we are told,

Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. (Exodus 33.11)

Discovering what gifts we have and using them, acknowledging what gifts we don’t have and having the humility to turn to others who do, well, that’s the ideal in life.  But sometimes there is only you who can stand on that podium and then all you can pray is that the F doesn’t fall off!

when I have to speak,
speak through me,
and when I need to listen
may I hear your voice.

Living God Living Word

So, what went wrong? Why no blog at the normal time? Well, it was all very simple really.  I had three sermons to write before the end of the week and I’m also working on a retreat I’m leading later this month.  That and all the other things I was doing last week, including travelling up to Derby to support Stephen Hance at his installation as Dean of Derby on Saturday, meant that I just didn’t have time to sit down and write this blog.  But thank you to all those who contacted me concerned that something was seriously wrong and telling me how much you miss the blog – that is very kind of you.

Having to do so much sermon preparation this week though has made me think about how important the sermon is or I wouldn’t have spent so much time doing it!  I was fascinated to read reports about the recent ‘Festival of Preaching’ held in Oxford.  There were some wonderful preachers featured in it and as it says on the website

The Festival of Preaching aims to inspire, nurture and celebrate all who are called to proclaim the gospel today.

That inspiring, nurturing and celebrating of preachers is something that is so important.  I count myself fortunate to have been at the College of the Resurrection to train for priesthood when Jack Nicholls (later on Bishop of Sheffield) was on the staff and in the Community were some fantastic preachers.  It was a treat to hear well constructed and intelligent sermons, preaching which stirred the heart, fanned the flames of faith, retuned the soul to God.  I learnt so much about the importance of the sermon and the centrality of preaching just by listening.  But, and here I’m being honest, my experience of preaching outside of the College and Community, has not always been fantastic.  Some sermons are frankly dull, some are badly constructed, some are simply wrong and some are uninspired and uninspiring.  And then, like the sun breaking through the clouds, you hear something that does all the things that you want a sermon to do – and it restores your faith not only in God but also in preaching.

Last week we celebrated Lancelot Andrewes.  As you may know, he is buried in Southwark Cathedral alongside the High Altar.  He died in Winchester Palace on what is now Clink Street and was buried, not in his Cathedral but in his parish church.  His friend and biographer, Henry Isaacson, described him as ‘an angel in the pulpit’ and the poet T S Eliot, a great admirer of Andrewes poetic prose, wrote of him

He takes a word and delivers the world from it. Squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning, which we should never have supposed any word to possess.

In his essay on Andrewes published in 1928 Eliot admits that

His sermons are too well built to be readily quotable; they stick too closely to the point to be entertaining.

But he then goes on to quote and draw from them in his own poetry.  That is why in the lovely Benjamin Finn window in the Garry Weston Library in Southwark Cathedral the central panel is of Bishop Andrewes and the words are all Eliot quoting him. It’s a powerful combination.

Andrewes window

The Andrewes window from Southwark Cathedral


Southwark has seen its fair share of memorable preachers.  Opposite the pulpit and just to reassure the preacher is a large memorial tablet to Sir Richard How and his family.  Sir Richard, who it says was always the MP for the constituency, was also a Warden at the Parish Church.  But in 1664 he was so incensed at the sermon he was hearing that he got into the pulpit, dragged the preacher out of it and beat him up in front of everyone.  I don’t know the name of the unfortunate cleric or what the sermon was about but it must have been a corker!

We do know the name of the Revd Henry Sacheverell, who in 1709 was appointed Chaplain at St Saviour’s Southwark.  He was a notorious preacher, political, provocative, an incendiary in the pulpit.  Copies of his sermons sold in their thousands and caused riots in the country and debate in Parliament.  It is suggested that one of his sermons was the cause of the fall of the Whig Government and that Queen Anne was so delighted with that outcome that she granted her arms to the Parish Church as it then was.  Those arms hang with pride above the Dean’s stall!

Now with a maximum concentration span of 12 minutes for the average congregation you are unlikely to work them into a frenzy that will spark riots in the streets but hopefully you can spark something within people that will make a difference.


On the road to Emmaus


What I hold in mind as I do my preparation, whenever I am preaching, are those words from the Emmaus Gospel.  The two friends are reflecting back on their experience of Jesus on the evening of the day of resurrection when the unknown, then the known guest becomes the host as bread is broken.  Jesus disappears from their sight and then they turn to each other and say

‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ (Luke 24.32)

Hearts burning as they encounter the Living God in the Living Word is what any preacher would want their listeners to experience – anything less is not the Emmaus experience.

Living God,
bless those who preach
and those who listen
that our hearts may burn within us
and that your Living Word
may transform our lives.

No entry

I apologise there is no Living God blog as you’d expect today. When I get a moment at my desk I’ll explain. 

Lord, when we are just too busy to get everything done may we not forget you in the process, for we know you never forget us. Amen. 

The island

I think it was around 1992.  I was asked if I would go out to the Ascension Island in the South Atlantic to provide cover whilst the Vicar of the island and Chaplain to the RAF base (the same person) and his wife went off on a much needed holiday.  It was the chance of a lifetime – so of course I said yes.  The RAF flew me out from Brize Norton and I arrived, linen jacket and panama hat at the ready to be the Padre of my imagination.  At that stage the island was the place where planes heading for the Falkland Islands had to refuel.  The place was very busy with all that activity, with the US Airforce base, the BBC, GCHQ and a few others.  The island is the product of relatively recent volcanic activity, a series of cones on this new piece of land much of it black clinker, much of it barren, but with a strange beauty.

In the main town, the only real town, the capital of the island, Georgetown, stands the lovely little Anglican church of St Mary, next to the parade ground and the ex-pats club with its 1950’s portrait of the Queen.  It was a place of history where you could easily feel close to another, older, past Britain that existed in this kind of style.

The highest mountain on which the Governor has a residence, is Green Mountain.  From there you get the most amazing views as you do from all of the peaks.  I have never been anywhere from which you can see the edges of the land all around you and know that there is nothing for hundreds and thousands of miles in each direction. This really was an island, a place of fantasy and imagination, away from it all.


An old view of Britain


As I was listening to the Prime Minister speaking in Florence on Friday about Brexit she was talking at one stage about our geographical position, our place as an island on the western edge of continental Europe as one of the justifications for our direction of travel.  As I listened I was reminded of that wonderful poem by John Donne.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Donne was writing so many centuries ago, almost 400 years ago, and yet his words ring true for us, the bell tolls as clearly now as it did then.  The ‘little islander’ mentality does not serve us well.  We can imagine, as on the Ascension Island as it was then, that we are living in a little British colonial world or we can wake up and live in the real world.

What amazes me when I read the Acts of the Apostles was the global perspective that Paul, in particular, had.  Island hopping, moving from city to city, understanding the world beyond national boundaries, but looking instead to a universal vision for humankind, this was what drove Paul in his missionary journeys that stitched the church into Europe and Asia Minor.

The church is woven into the fabric of Europe and the fabric of the world.  There are no islands ‘entire of itself’ for Christians.

may I live on the mainland of life
and not escape to my imaginary island.

The tempest

I remember the Great Storm of 1987, a violent extra-tropical cyclone that occurred on the night of 15–16 October, with hurricane-force winds.  I was staying with a friend who lived in the Guildford area.  We’d had a good meal that evening before making our way to bed.  I slept well, so well, that I managed to sleep through the Great Storm and woke up in the morning to find that trees around the house were no longer as they were when I went to bed.  A lots of them were on the ground! It was no longer the leafy Surrey that I knew.


The crashing waves


No one was sleeping through the storm that hit Barbuda.  95% of the buildings have been destroyed by Hurricane Irma. The beautiful tropical paradise is well nigh deserted as much of the population has been evacuated to neighbouring Antigua. Watching that storm approaching, making its amazingly slow progress towards the island was frightening.  The pictures from space showed with such great clarity the eye of the storm.  Like watching an inevitable car crash or other disaster, knowing that there is nothing you can do to stop it, we watched, as they watched, helpless.

I was delighted to receive a phone call from the High Commission of Antigua and Barbuda, through my good friend and Ecumenical Canon of Southwark, Les Isaac, founder of Street Pastors and himself Antiguan, enquiring whether we would host a service for those from those islands living in the UK.  They wanted a service to thank God for deliverance.  It seems that these are islands full of faith and whilst the Barbudans had seen the destruction of property only one life had been lost.  Carl Francis Jr was only two years old and lost his life in that tempest.  May he rest in peace and rise in glory.  But it was a miracle that more lives were not lost.

So, last Thursday the nave of Southwark Cathedral was full as we gave thanks to God for the mighty hand that saved, that delivered.  The choir sang Herbert Sumsion’s wonderful anthem ‘They that go down to the sea in ships’, a rumbustious setting of verses from Psalm 107.  The passage includes these words

So when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble : he delivereth them out of their distress.
For he maketh the storm to cease : so that the waves thereof are still.
(Psalm 107.28-29)

The High Commissioner wanted us to sing a version of the 23rd Psalm.  ‘That would be great’, I said.  ‘The Caribbean version’ she added.  So we sang it, to the tune of the ‘Happy Wanderer’.  It was wonderful!

The part I played in the service was to offer a welcome and an opening prayer.  This is part of what I said.


Disasters come upon is in many ways. Some, like the terrorist attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market in June, are the work of our fellow human beings; some like the disaster at Grenfell tower, are the product of so many decisions we make for so many reasons, but some come as natural disasters, the force of nature, uncontrollable even by we who think we can control most things.

But whether it is of human origin or natural we can end up at the eye of the storm.

The most famous resident of this parish was William Shakespeare and it was here that he wrote his final play ‘The Tempest’. Out of the storm the characters in the play are washed up on an island and Miranda, considering what they’ve been going through and the fact that they’ve survived, nevertheless says to Prospero

O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer.

We watched with horror as the storm with its all too clear eye moved across the seas and Barbuda was there, waiting, to be hit by such a tempest. We suffered with those we saw suffer, we suffer with those we now see suffering the aftermath of that hurricane. We give them human names, Irma, but they have inhuman force and inhumane effects.

Today is the Feast of the Holy Cross, the day on which Christians, far away from the events of Good Friday in terms of the calendar, look at the cross. The God who in Jesus embraces the cross shares our sufferings, shares our death and destruction so that we can share his resurrection. Homes and communities can, over time, rise, rebuilt and lives too, when we have the faith to see. But we carry the cross, in whatever shape or form that cross comes to us, through human wickedness, through human thoughtlessness or greed, or through that unleashing of the forces of nature that makes us most vulnerable.

But God is alongside us, even in the eye of the storm and it’s that which we remember this evening, in word and prayer and song. And we’re invited to respond, generously, to the Rebuild Barbuda Appeal Fund for which a collection will be made during that mighty hymn ‘Almighty Father, strong to save’.


The flag of Antigua and Barbuda


To all who will take part in this act of praise and thanksgiving, thank you, and to you who have come, thank you for standing in solidarity ‘with those that we saw suffer’.


But there was one other amazing thing.  The priest who influenced me most in my discernment that God was calling me to be a priest and who guided me to go to the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield to train, as he had done, was Canon Irving Richards.  He is from Antigua and when I mentioned his name to those in the High Commission their faces lit up.  It was an amazing reconnection with my past and an unexpected reminder to me of my own thankfulness for the people of those islands.  If you can, please give via the link in this blog to the rebuilding fund.  And pray for the people as we prayed for them on Thursday night.

Loving God, heavenly Father,
when all seems lost
your love remains steadfast;
when disaster strikes
your mercy is still seen.
As we gather to worship you
and as we hold our brothers and sisters
in Antigua and Barbuda
and in every place devastated in this hurricane season
may we hear your still, small voice
in the midst of the storm
and know your peace
which passes all understanding.
This we ask in the name of our crucified and risen Lord,
Jesus Christ.

Open doors

In all honesty I can’t say that I’ve ever lived in a place, at a time, when you could leave the door of your house open and you wouldn’t come back to find the place robbed.  But I know that there were communities where this was possible and I believe that there are places where it still is.  What did impress me, a year ago, when I was spending six weeks of my three months sabbatical in Jerusalem, was to see something that I simply could not imagine happening here.

I was walking through the souk.  It was a Friday, around midday and people were heading into the Old City towards Haram al Sharif, what we call the Temple Mount, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque stands.  The people were all off for Friday prayers.  But so were those who have shops in the souk.  But instead of pulling down the shutters, as happens at night, they simply turned the lights off and put something, like a broom handle, across the open front.  Then they left it! I could have walked in and grabbed something, but, of course, I didn’t and nor did anyone else.  It was unimaginable in the kind of society that we live in – a very sobering experience, of trust and openness.


The invitation of an open door


I’ve been thinking all about this, about keeping places open, in recent days and weeks.  When the first of the present series of horrendous hurricanes struck the USA there was a story in the news that the successful pastor of a very successful megachurch in Houston, locked the doors of his very successful church and was reported as saying something along the lines that his church ‘was a place of worship not a refuge’. Of course, he rightly changed his opinion about that and the church did open and much needed help was given.  But it was his first instinct that disturbed me.  Then over in the UK we have had reports that some churches which should be open are being kept locked.

It was the Victorian Society who was complaining about this. Christopher Costelloe, its director, said: “These churches are an important part of our heritage. They should be open both for visitors to appreciate their architecture, history and beauty, and for people who want to pop in and pray.” The churches being identified were ones which have been planted on the HTB lines – places like the deeply wonderful St Augustine’s, Queens Gate in Kensington.

St Augustine’s I remember well when a friend of mine was the Parish Priest.  It was designed by William Butterfield who was also the architect for Keble College Oxford.  It is a jewel box of high Victorian art inside, the most amazing murals, telling stories from the Bible, a place built for liturgy, a masterpiece of the Gothic Revival movement.

In reports about this the Diocese of London was quoted from its own website as saying

“A locked door is a universal symbol of exclusion, while an open church expresses God’s welcome, His presence, His creativity, His justice, His healing and His forgiveness.”

I thought it was a great statement of the principle that we should be embodying.  It is the kind of understanding of what church is that we saw in the neighbourhood of Grenfell Tower in which the parish church of St Clement’s, Notting Dale under the leadership of Fr Alan Everett became the community hub, for prayer, yes, of course, but also for all the other things that churches do.  And we do those things not as an afterthought, not because we have lost confidence in the gospel in someway, but because this is the gospel.

The Acts of the Apostles is a great book for helping us to understand some of the difficulties and dilemmas that confront us even now, even after we have had two thousand years of trying to work out how to be the church that God wants us to be.  In Acts 6 we are given this insight into a problem that has a modern resonance.

The Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ (Acts 6.1-4)


To serve the word and the people


The Apostles knew that they were called to prayer and ‘serving the word’ but they also knew that the church needed to make a practical and just response and serve the needs of the body.  That was why they chose seven men to be the first deacons.  These included Stephen. And from that initial solution the church has always understood that its calling is to serve the word and serve the people and that this is as much the task of our buildings as the ministers themselves.

I had three lovely churches in Leeds but we couldn’t keep them open all the time. I have huge sympathy with those who want to have their church open and cannot do so for reasons of security , or lack of volunteers, or whatever.  But the principle of being open and accessible, being a place to serve the word and serve the people, being the repository for community history as well as the community at worship, being the place of refuge, physical and spiritual, being a place of feeding at the altar and the table, being a place of warmth for the body and the soul, is what we shall all be ascribing to.

T S Eliot in his beautiful poem, ‘Little Gidding’ one of his ‘Four Quartets’, muses in part on the experience of entering that small church in the middle of the fields. At one point he says

‘If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same’

We do not always know why we wander into a church in springtime, at night, broken, not knowing why we came, but when there is an open door we can enter and find the home and refuge we sought all along.

you open your doors to us,
you open your life to us,
may we close neither.

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