Suffering, endurance, hope

Thank God for Oscar Wilde who bequeathed us so many epigrams in his plays and writings.  In that wonderful play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ he writes

‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’

What can be said of truth can be said of life, it is neither pure nor simple. If it were simply grim then we couldn’t bear it, but it isn’t. But these have been some grim weeks for those of us in London and these have been a grim few months for us as a nation as a whole. For some what is grim for others has been life-changing and life-destroying.  For the injured and the bereaved, Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge mean that life will never be the same again. For the residents of Grenfell Tower the horror that they have gone through is unimaginable, the real stuff of nightmares. The loss of life, the injuries, the stress, the implications for ongoing life when your home, your things, your papers and documents, the stuff that holds your memories are all taken from you in an instant must be beyond description.  I was with someone the other day who had been through a devastating fire herself.  The pictures from Kensington brought it all back.  ‘I can still smell the smoke’ she said and she always will.  The smell lingers in the memory as much as physical scars which are always reminders of horrendous experiences.

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Prince Harry with Paul in the Borough Market

 

This past week has been one of trying to begin to get back to some kind of normality, a new normality, in the community around Southwark Cathedral. The church was the first of the major places to reopen. The Borough Market opened on Wednesday and in between the bars and restaurants gradually opened.  Just before the Market bell was rung by one of the traders at 10.00am on Wednesday morning to announce the commencement of trading, the Bishop of Southwark with some of the Cathedral clergy and servers went out with holy water and incense to cleanse and re-hallow the area after the horror of what had happened.  The procession then arrived in the Market as it reopened.

I was talking to Paul, the trader who rang the bell, who was visited, amongst other by Prince Harry on Thursday.  He runs a fruit and veg stall in the market, a proper east-end market trader. And he told me that not only was he reopening and supporting the market in that, but he was organising his fellow traders to send food over to Kensington for the people now made homeless.  It’s acts like that which relieve the grim reality and reveal that deep-seated goodness that is a true part of human nature.

On Friday we hosted at Southwark Cathedral a ‘Service of Hope’ at which were survivors of the attack, families of the injured and those who lost loved ones gathered with first responders in an act of solidarity and hope.  The stories of bravery and the acts of goodness that I’ve hard in the past two weeks, the tremendous images of community acting together around the base of that burnt out tower are humbling.  Good people are everywhere.

I was reminded of a passage from the Letter of St Paul to the Romans.

‘Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.’ (Romans 5.3-5)

Hope

Suffering, endurance, hope, an experience of community – and every part of that needs to be recognised for what it is, along with the acts of goodness, generosity and love that are woven through it.  The grim reality remains in broken lives, destroyed homes, shattered dreams but into that is shot the transcendent love of God that is revealed in broken humanity and transformed in divine and everlasting life.

God, take our suffering,
build our endurance,
crown it with hope
and may all be suffused
with your love.
Amen.

‘I am with you always’

This is the text of the sermon I preached at Southwark Cathedral on Trinity Sunday 2017 the day on which we were able to reopen the Cathedral following the terrorist attack on our community a week before.

Saturday night last week was like a living nightmare. It’s the kind of experience that only happens to other people, not to you, not on your own doorstep. But it happened to us, it happened on our own doorstep, literally; it happened in our own community that we love and that we’ve served in Christ’s name for over 1400 years. Those years have seen their share of war and pestilence and fire but I doubt that ever before has the church been inaccessible to worshippers for a week, inaccessible as the place of peace and contemplation that people expect and need, inaccessible as the place of welcome and embracing, radical hospitality and love that we seek to be. But it happened.

Flowers

When I first heard that something was happening in the London Bridge area I put on my dog collar and headed down Bankside to try and open up the Cathedral so that we could be a place of refuge. But initially I didn’t get far.

So I went through the back alleys and got as far as Park Street and Neal’s Yard Dairy and the Market Porter. But heavily armed police barred my way and forced me back. ‘Run, run’ was all they shouted. I was directed on to Southwark Street and there saw people lying on the pavement being cared for by the emergency services. ‘Run, run’ was all I could hear through the sound of sirens and helicopters and I was forced on and on until I got back to the Deanery and shut the door behind me on the living nightmare.

Around midnight I received a text from Amir Eden, a young man who lives on Park Street, a lawyer who was a pupil at Cathedral School, a practising Muslim who’s the chair of the Bankside Residents Forum. ‘Could I come to yours? I can’t really go anywhere.’ was his text. I texted back ‘Of course’ and so he arrived and with 8 other people spent the night in our house.

The rest I suppose you know about. 8 brutally killed, 48 horribly injured. The Cathedral was forcibly entered by the police searching for more attackers, doors broken down, glass smashed in a desperate effort to stop more bloodshed. It happened on our doorstep, on the threshold of God’s house.

And now we’re here on this Trinity Sunday, back in this sacred place, which is still sacred. The risen body of Jesus bears the marks of the nails and the spear and Jesus shows his hands and his side to his disciples. The Sacristy door shows the marks of the baton rounds fired at it to break open the door and allow the police access. We bear on our body the marks of suffering that so many bear in their flesh and in their soul and spirit.

St Matthew places the final encounter of the disciples with the risen Jesus not on the Mount of Olives, just outside the city of Jerusalem, but back in Galilee, the place where they started, the place of call and from that place of call he sends them out to the nations, to take the Good News, to baptise and teach. But then, before he leaves them he makes a promise, a promise to them and a promise to us.

Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. (Matthew 28.20)

In the horror of the moment it’s all too easy to imagine that you’re on your own, that you’re abandoned to the nightmare, lost in the terror, but Jesus says ‘No; remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.

God was not absent on that Saturday night; God is never absent. The Psalmist knows it to be true when they say

Where can I go then from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. (Psalm 139.7-8)

We are not abandoned by the Sprit, we are not abandoned by the Father, we are not abandoned by the Son for we have this promise ‘I am with you always.’

On Friday I was invited to go to our local mosque by the Imam. I went with other clergy from here and we were welcomed with open arms. I’d been invited to speak to a packed congregation. The Imam preached about our shared humanity and our shared heritage through Adam and I was able to respond to that, taking your greetings to our brothers and sisters, telling them that we do not hold the Muslim community to blame, telling them that we recognise that we share so much, praying, peace upon you, greeting them as Paul greets the Christians in the multi-cultural, multi-faith, complex and exciting city of Corinth

‘Live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you’. ( 2 Corinthians 13.11)

That is what we have to do. What we share is what God has given, a shared heritage, a shared humanity, not just with the Muslim community but with all people, all men and women, regardless of anything that others might identify as difference. Difference does not mean division unless we chose to make it so, and we chose to make difference a blessing and an enrichment to our community which is why we celebrate who you are, who we are, male and female, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight – and I will say that again and again and again from this pulpit until it is deep in all our hearts, to the very core of our being.

The great metaphysical poet and Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, famously wrote a poem, so well known.

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.

‘Any man’s death diminishes me’ which is what the Quran teaches, that killing one life is killing all life. We have all been scarred by what happened last Saturday on our doorstep and we will bear those scars. But they will not make us bitter but make us stronger.

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ said Edmund Burke. We will not do nothing. We will rebuild with the community what good things we have, we will rebuild the joy and diversity, the confidence, the acceptance, the inclusive, radically beautiful nature of this community that has been built over centuries and millennia. The roots go deep and cannot be destroyed by evil men and we will not allow it but will confront that evil with love.

wounds of crucifixion

We bear on our body the marks of Jesus

The Feast of the Holy Trinity is the feast of relationship, that beautiful relationship of diversity in the very Godhead, the Perichoresis, the divine dance into which we’re drawn. And we’re drawn and invited to this altar, through the Spirit, by the Father, to share in what the Son gives to us. With scarred hands he gives his broken body to us, gives his shed blood to us, and he asks us to eat and drink so that through his death we may have life. He is always with us, always, at the altar, in the world, walking through the dangerous places and showing his scarred self to a scarred world and making it, ultimately, beautiful.

Loving God,
when terror came to our doorstep
and stalked our streets
you were there with us in the fear and agony.
Remain with us
and with all those caught up
in the horror of these events
the injured and distressed
those who died
and all who seek your peace
which passes understanding.
Amen.

Reformation

I had to vote last week – in the General Election. When the snap election was announced and the date was set I realised that for once in my life I was not going to be in the country on election day.  So I sent off the form for my postal vote, duly received the papers and had the weird experience of standing in the kitchen with my pen – I wish the envelope had contained one of those stumpy pencils obviously only manufactured for UK elections – and made my cross in the box.  On the radio the arguments between the parties were continuing.  The campaign hadn’t ended but I had to make my choice, one way or the other, or the other, or the other ….

1529MartinLuther

Martin Luther

 

The reason that I won’t be here on Thursday is that that will be Day 4 of our Cathedral pilgrimage in the steps of Martin Luther.  Monday sees over forty of us from the Cathedral and its wider community flying off to Frankfurt to begin tracing the life of someone who had an amazing effect upon the life and shape and beliefs of Western Europe and, indeed the world.  To be honest I knew very little about Luther or indeed Lutheranism.  Southwark Cathedral has had a very long link with the Norwegian Lutheran Cathedral in Bergen and has an even longer association with the work of the Norwegian Church in Rotherhithe. But, as I have discovered, Lutherans are even more complicated than Anglicans (though as yet I don’t think they consecrate curates as bishops!) and knowing the churches of Porvoo doesn’t mean that you know or understand Lutherans.  My formation as a priest at Mirfield prepared me for lots of things that would be vital in my priesthood but Martin Luther was not one of them.  I do remember one lecture by Fr Norman Blamires CR, now long since gone to his rest, in which he seemed to suggest that Luther had his best ideas on the loo.  But just as people often only remember the most insignificant part of a sermon I can’t remember much more than that, or the point he was trying to make.

So I’m looking forward to travelling around Germany, with an expert guide and learning a great deal more about some hammer blows in a door that became hammer blows on a church. Of course, we shouldn’t talk about reformation but reformations because it wasn’t one movement but a whole series of movements that manifested itself differently in different communities, in different churches at different times.  No expression of church in the west remained the same, we all reformed in one way or anther, to one degree or another. Neither is it a process that has ended.

In preparation for this year of commemoration the Lutherans and Roman Catholics produced a joint document entitled ‘From Conflict to Communion’ and at the end of that there are a series of ‘Five Ecumenical Imperatives’ the second of which is this

Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.

It’s that process of continuous transformation that should excite us.  The church, as we understand it, is never static, it changes, develops, but never loses its essential character as the Body of Christ.

Pentecost-2012

Transforming Spirit

 

We travel to Germany the day after the Feast of Pentecost, the great day of transformation for the church as locked in, frightened men were emboldened to become witnesses, as wind and fire brought energy and life, not just into them but into those who heard them. The crowds who heard the hubbub, people from every nation, hearing in their own language, asked one question

‘All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ (Acts 2.12)

That gave the opportunity for Peter, with a new found voice and confidence to stand up and preach the first sermon.  Thousands of lives were re-formed, transformed as a consequence.  I hope that as we travel around Germany we can experience some of that transformation that continuous process of change through encounter.

You can follow the journey by reading the blog here.

This is the prayer we will be using throughout the pilgrimage.

O God, our refuge and our strength: you raised up your servant Martin Luther to reform and renew your Church in the light of your word. Defend and purify the Church in our own day and grant that, through faith, we may boldly proclaim the riches of your grace which you have made known in Jesus Christ our Saviour, who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A night of terror

Thank you to all who have been sending such messages of solidarity, hope and care.  Your prayers are so appreciated.  At the moment we don’t know when we will be able to get into the Cathedral.  Until then, on this Day of Pentecost, I am praying this prayer.

Loving God, when terror came to our doorstep
and stalked our streets
you were there with us
in the fear and agony.
Remain with us
and with all those caught up
in the horror of these events,
the injured and distressed
those who died
and all who seek your peace
which passes understanding.
Amen.

The waiting game

It used to be the case – and I’m talking some years ago now – that during the Eucharist for Ascension Day a server would solemnly approach the Paschal Candle with a long candle snuffer and put it out.  That could have been during the reading of the account of the ascension from the Acts of the Apostles or after the Gospel or when in the Creed we said ‘and ascended into heaven.’ But wherever it happened in this dramatic act, the point was made that Jesus was gone.

The Paschal Candle, first lit from the new fire at the Easter Vigil, inscribed with the year, marked with the symbols of the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega, and ‘wounded’ in five places, becomes from that point onwards a representation of the presence of the Risen Lord, who in his incarnation enters time – the year; as Christ encompasses time – the Alpha and Omega; bears the marks of his passion – the wounds; and yet is alive as the flame denotes.  But in fact Ascension Day, the fortieth day after the resurrection, if you follow St Luke’s chronology, is not about the absence of Jesus from that point onwards but his continuing presence.  So the flame is not extinguished but continues to burn until the fiftieth day, the Day of Pentecost, when that one flame is then ignited as a myriad of flames, on the heads, in the hearts of the disciples, the apostles, the church, us.

So the candle stays and the server has no job to do!

Before Jesus is taken from their sight on that holy mountain he says to his friends gathered around him,

‘stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ (Luke 24.49)

and in the Acts of the Apostles we hear how they responded to this command

‘When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, … constantly devoting themselves to prayer.’ (Acts 1.13, 14)

Like so many things that Jesus asks of them, asks of us, it was a tough call.  They were already outside of the city which had proved to be a hostile and dangerous place.  Ok, they had some friends there but lots of enemies, people who had a vested interest in making sure that the story about Jesus did not get out. They were already on the road that led them back to Galilee and their homes and their families and their nets and their seat of custom. After all, it was via this mountain that they had first arrived to triumphant shouts and much excitement just 48 days before.  They could leave and have a life! But Jesus asks them to go back, through those walls, through those gates and into that room, to stay, to play the waiting game.

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Parson James

 

There’s just this waiting game
And I don’t know how to play
It’s enough of a fight staying alive anyway
Yes, there’s this waiting game
And I don’t know how to play
It’s enough of a fight staying alive anyway.

Those are lyrics by the American singer-songwriter, Parson James, and they speak of a young gay man from an inter-racial background wanting to escape but knowing he has to wait.

Staying with it, staying there, not knowing how to play it, not sure if you have the ‘fight’ in you, it’s a tough call.  But this is what Jesus asks of those eleven and his mother, Mary. ‘Stay here in the city’. And that room that they went back to was packed full of emotion and memory.  It may well have been the room they used for the Last Supper, the room they retreated to after the crucifixion, the room Mary Magdalene left early in the morning to go to the tomb, the room she came back to with unbelievable news, the room in which Jesus appeared, without and then with Thomas.  Now it became the church, the first church of the Church, where the body of Christ gathered in prayer. It would be the room into which wind and flame would break, from which they would be expelled and from where they would be sent to live out their apostleship, their ‘sentness’.

Last week was another that began and ended with horror.  The events in Manchester were a manifestation of unbelievable evil and distorted religion and there is no other way to describe it. The images we woke to on Tuesday morning and since have been heart-rending.  Then on Friday the news from Egypt of twenty eight Coptic Christians slaughtered and another thirty-odd injured, on a pilgrimage to a monastery, was another tragedy being faced by the members of that ancient and holy church.

Manchester

Staying in the city

 

But alongside the terrible images were ones that I found strengthening. The crowds out in the centre of Manchester, lighting the flame, standing in solidarity, being brave, being united, in the city, was my encouragement.  ‘Stay in the city’ says Jesus to us, keep the flame burning and don’t extinguish it, for as St Matthew tells us in his account of the Ascension

‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28.20)

The Alpha and Omega God, who bears the wounds, who is the light in the darkness, even when the clouds obscure our sight, doesn’t send us back to the city alone but is there with us, in the square, in the arena, on that bus, in that crowd, with the dying, with the wounded, with the compassionate, holding the afraid and wiping every tear from our eyes. Jesus knows he is asking a huge thing when he sends us back to play the waiting game, when he asks us to stay, but in asking he doesn’t leave us but stays with us – and that is why we never extinguish the flame.

Stay with us Lord,
as we stay with you,
in Manchester,
in Egypt,
in every place of pain,
of terror, of distress,
for we know that even in the darkness
your flame of life
gives light.
Amen.

The life-long journey

Today at Southwark Cathedral is one of our ‘baptism Sundays’. We have about five a year, when perhaps three or four children are brought by parents and godparents and the rest of their family and friends to the Cathedral for the Choral Eucharist during which baptisms take place.  You’d imagine that, taking a lead from the Acts of the Apostles which we always read during the Easter season, there would be universal rejoicing that ‘the Lord is adding to our number’. But as with many churches the fact that the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, the two dominical sacraments amongst the seven, are celebrated together, is not met with unalloyed joy.  Some people are displaced from their ‘normal’ seat; there are a lot of people who ‘don’t know what they are doing’ and of course the babies tend to cry during the quieter parts of the service.  It’s all very disruptive!

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A well behaved baby!

 

Of course, when I was a curate, those unreformed days, we did baptisms on a Sunday afternoon, the church packed with people and the congregation conveniently at home enjoying their Sunday lunch whilst new members of the Body of Christ were being welcomed by the harassed curate.

Last week I went to Ireland to meet members of the Society of Catholic Priests working there, both north and south of the border. It was great to meet other members of the Society working in a very different church environment and facing different issues to those of us in the Church of England including how they will work as one church in a post-Brexit environment when the border between north and south may be very real.  After the meeting had finished my host drove me out to see one of the more ancient churches in the area.  St Doulagh’s Church – Clochar Dúiligh – stands just outside the town of Malahide.  This was part of the Norwegian Kingdom in Ireland and there was thought at one time that St Doulagh never existed but was a manifestation of Olave.  But now it’s thought that the saint did exist, a hermit, maybe living in a cell on this site. The small medieval church dates from the 12th century and is the only church with a solid stone roof still to be in use in Ireland.  It is beautiful.  Alongside the ancient church is a Victorian nave and sanctuary constructed by the father of ‘Woodbine Willie’, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, whose Great-Granddaughter was visiting the church at the same time as I was (what a small world it is).

St D's

The baptistery at St Doulagh’s

 

However, what was most fascinating was that in the grounds around the church is a separate baptistery.  It’s the only one in Ireland.  The sunken octagonal structure covers a water channel into which those to be baptised were taken.  A pool by the side may have been for baptism by total immersion.  As a result of various bits of work to the land and the nearby road the water source has been diverted and the baptistery is now dry.  But it is a deeply wonderful, evocative place.  The main baptistery is dedicated to St Doulagh, the small pool to St Catherine.  It is said that St Patrick operated in this area, that a small community lived here.  It is certainly a place of deep and resonant history.

In between the ‘font’ and the pool a hawthorn grows.  My guide suggested that it was the descendent of a pagan hawthorn on the spot that the Christians ‘baptised’, adopted in the way that the early missionaries did, to take the local pagan population with them.  Whatever the truth it was amazing to see.  It took me to other places were baptisteries are separate and not least to northern Syria, to the complex of church and monastic buildings from the 5th century dedicated to St Simon Stylites that is a few miles northwest of Aleppo.  There too is an octagonal baptistery at the end of what would have been a triumphal processional route that the newly baptised would take into the church.  The baptistery and route to the church outside of Malahide are more modest but the principal is the same.

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The baptistery of St Simon near Aleppo

 

It reminded me of one of the texts in the Common Worship Baptismal Rite.  After the baptism, as part of the prayers, the priest can use these words

In baptism God invites you on a life-long journey.
Together with all God’s people
you must explore the way of Jesus.

The early builders in Ireland and Syria knew this to be true.  The deep and flowing waters through which the child, the adult, was brought was a kind of Red Sea experience.  Then the journey began, from the baptistery into the church, from that Sacrament into the Christian life, ‘exploring the way of Jesus’. Perhaps we should build some more external baptisteries!

This prayer is also from Common Worship.

Eternal God, our beginning and our end,
preserve in your people the new life of baptism;
as Christ receives us on earth,
so may he guide us through the trials of this world,
and enfold us in the joy of heaven,
where you live and reign,
one God for ever and ever.
Amen.

Under attack

The saying goes, and I apologise for the gender exclusive language, that ”An Englishman’s home is his castle’. It appears that the saying goes back to Sir Edward Coke, in The Institutes of the Laws of England, 1628 where he wrote

“For a man’s house is his castle, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium [and each man’s home is his safest refuge].”

Home

Makes you feel safe doesn’t it.  It reminds me of a TV commercial for an insurance company, way back, way back, in which the father figure, providing security for his family, through the said insurance company, draws them into some crenelated walls.  They were safe, secure, no one could attack them.

I have one of those phones, smart they call them, ok it’s an iPhone, that now controls my life.  I can control the TV, the heating, my music, my banking, my life, as well as my diary, social media contacts, friendships and everything else from it and it also, occasionally, can get a signal to effectively call someone.  If I temporarily mislay it I’m lost, it contains everything; if I were to lose it, well, that would be a crisis.  And I only give it access to everything about me because I have to believe that it is as secure as my home, a little castle in my pocket.

So the cyber attack on Friday that so affected the NHS, but so many other places, in so many countries, is a wake-up call to me and I suppose to others. The castle is easily breached and we are in a world in which we can be open to attack in new and very damaging ways.

At the same time Jeremy Corbyn was speaking about his own attitude to military intervention, seeking to assure others that he isn’t a pacifist and would use a military response in a crisis as a last resort. As someone who is essentially a pacifist I can appreciate his position. My problem is that, in reality, I’m just not sure what the last resort is. When do you decide that all other options have been exhausted? And what is an attack like nowadays, and how does this cyber warfare fit into our other concepts of war and aggression.

If the loss or hacking of my phone would devastate the running of every aspect of my life what can it do on a national scale? Well, we have seen something of what it means – hospitals unable to respond to patients needs, people being sent home, appointments cancelled, data inaccessible.  We are totally dependent on the digital world in which we now exist.

My Sunday treat is to go along to the local pizza restaurant with some friends.  Until a couple of weeks ago the waiters took your order on a pad of paper with a pen.  Now they have an electronic gizmo that enables them to do it, well, I suppose in theory more efficiently.  But last week in the end the guy looking after us resorted to his pad and pen – it was quicker.

But the thing that all this has made me aware of again is our vulnerability.  We like to imagine otherwise, that the castle is secure, that we have systems in place to protect us, but it is a fantasy that we construct to make ourselves feel ok.  And God enters into this vulnerability in which we live and, in Jesus, gives himself to it.  All the power language that we might use in relation to God, those big titles, those huge descriptors – omniscient, omnipotent – as well as the usual ‘Almighty’ so beloved in Anglican liturgy, is as nothing when we look at the cross.

Was the cross the last resort, the ultimate intervention in the war in which humankind was engaged, the conflict of good and evil, of love and hate, of dark and light.  In many ways it was.  Had God run out of options and the only final option was to be at the most vulnerable, to be not the God we had supposed God to be.  Surprisingly, that truth makes me feel more secure.

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The vulnerable God

 

The painting by Hieronymus Bosch ‘Christ crowned with thorns’ shows Jesus under of attack from a variety of fiendish individuals.  But he looks at us from the midst of it with an enigmatic gaze that reminds me that nothing can defeat him.

Though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2.6-8)

The kenosis, self-emptying of Christ, is the amazing response to the conflict that humanity was caught up in. Wherever the attacks come from, whatever form they take, the God who embraces our vulnerability stands in solidarity with us.

Vulnerable God,
whose weakness makes me strong,
whose death brings me to life
save me from the fear of what might be
with the knowledge that you are
in Jesus
victorious.
Amen.

Post-Easter

You may be familiar with the out of office message or the recording that you hear on the ‘phone ‘The Vicar is on their post-Easter break.’ Frustrating I know if you want an answer there and then, book a wedding, arrange a baptism, use the hall but we all need a break. That’s what I’ve been doing this week. So I hope you’ll excuse there being no proper Living God post today. All I’ll say is that the break was great and I look forward to being back. And I always give thanks that Jesus gave us a good model of taking time out. 

Jesus rests


Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. (Mark 6.31)

He and the disciples needed a break, to eat, to rest. So do we. Normal service will be resumed as there is a great deal going on to reflect on.

Living God, bless our working, bless our resting. Amen. 

More tea, Vicar?

Whilst ‘Asparagus-gate’ continued to rattle on in Worcester Cathedral I was getting ready to bless in Southwark Cathedral the First Flush Darjeeling tea for one of the stall holders in the Borough Market.  Would I face the same criticism? I read the reports of the service held in Worcester.  It seemed that the objection was to the ‘pantomime’ of having someone in the procession dressed as an asparagus shoot.  I’ve actually seen more bizarre forms of dress in Cathedral processions than that but, well, there you go! But I was ok.  It seemed that it wasn’t the fact that asparagus was being blessed, or God was being thanked for (though someone asked about a similar liturgy for Sprouts) but that it looked as though God, through the liturgy, was being ridiculed. I breathed a sigh of relief.  No one was going to be dressed as a tea leaf or a teabag and the liturgy that I had written for the occasion was as orthodox as I could make it.

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‘More tea, Vicar?’

 

Obviously the challenge was the reading – the Bible is light on hot drinks – but it is clear that we are to bring the first fruits of the harvest to God, to make an offering and to give thanks. So we read this.

The Lord said to Aaron, ‘All the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the choice produce that they give to the LORD, I have given to you. The first fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring to the LORD, shall be yours; everyone who is clean in your house may eat of it. Every devoted thing in Israel shall be yours.’ (Numbers 18.12-14)

It was a lovely occasion and Ratan, the stallholder of Tea2You in the Borough Market, who had been out into the hills where tea grows in northern India to select the best of the harvest spoke eloquently about it.  I quoted another cleric, the Revd Sydney Smith, who wrote in his memoir in the early years of the 19th century

“Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.”

Hear, hear, Reverend Sir! Lots to give thanks for and especially for we clerics who get plied with gallons of the hot brown liquid as we make our pastoral visits, or at least that was the case when I was in the parish.  Developing a strong bladder to see you through an afternoon’s pastoral visiting, which is what we did every day when I was first ordained, was a necessary stage in proper clerical formation. ‘Never refuse a cup of tea’, I was told ‘and never ask to use the bathroom in someone’s house!’ Conceding to both rules was a physical impossibility for me.  But as Oscar Wilde says in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

‘Tea is the only simple pleasure left to us.’

And so when I was presented with the newly harvested tea in the Cathedral I prayed that all who drank it might be

‘calmed, strengthened
and comforted.’

A simple prayer for a simple pleasure.

Whilst all of this was going on we had been hosting the annual residential meeting of the Deans’ Conference. This gathering of the English Anglican Deans moves around the country year-on-year and this time it was the privilege of St Paul’s and Southwark to co-host it.  Moving around gives us the opportunity to see what ministry in our different cathedrals looks like.  This is important always but especially when the ministry and especially the governance and finances of all the English Cathedrals are under some measure of scrutiny and consideration as the Archbishops’ Working Party begins its deliberations. Some in the press put 2 and 2 together and, with a display of worse numerical dexterity than some Deans are being accused of, came up with 5! The Deans were holding a crisis meeting to talk about failing finances. It couldn’t have been further from the truth.  Of course, the Working Party and the issues around it were discussed but not in some febrile atmosphere. Instead we all look forward to seeing what positive findings the members of the Working Party come up with.

So most of our time was spent looking at the world in which St Paul’s and Southwark seek to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and minister to all his people – London, north and south of the river. To do that we visited what we called the ‘Five Estates’ taken from the famous ‘three estates’ of France’s Ancien Régime. We began with finance by visiting Canary Wharf and the offices of J P Morgan.  That involved a fascinating visit to the trading floor as well as a conversation about Brexit, the markets and the ethics of global finance.  Then to the Corporation of the City of London that ancient and unique local authority.  We had a session with a team from the London Borough of Southwark including both the Chief Executive and Leader of the Council to talk about physical and social regeneration and wellbeing as part of that.  Then we moved to the offices of NewsUK located alongside Southwark Cathedral and spent a fascinating time with members of the editorial, reporting and commentating team of the Times.  What is news? What is truth? What is fact? were our topics of conversation.  And in all of that we talked about how our two cathedrals respond in this fast-paced, fast changing world.

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London

 

The Dean of St Paul’s invited me to preach at the final Eucharist of the Conference celebrated at the high altar in St Paul’s.  It was the (transferred) Feast of St Mellitus, the first Bishop of London.  I concluded my sermon in this way, speaking of what I see the role of the Dean to be, pondering on the question suggested by the readings for the Mass as to whether we were to be builders or shepherds.

‘We have to be what the time and the place need, what Jesus needs of us. And he needs us first and foremost to be disciples, he needs us first and foremost to be priests. It’s our discipleship which helps us to walk with others, it’s our priesthood that enables our ministry to others. What will make a difference is not how high the tower gets but what happens in the pulpit and what happens at the altar, that’s what’ll make a difference, the difference, a place buzzing with theology, a people encountering God in the most sublime worship, a community meeting the risen Jesus in broken bread.

That’s the real Christian project and I believe Cathedrals have to be flagships of that, champions, exemplars of that in a church crying out for confident, radical, inclusive Christian commitment that’s life changing, faith enhancing. We can build it and shepherd it but it will be in people’s lives that we see our real priestly work bearing fruit, fruit that will last.

Whatever we take away from this time we’ve had together in London and Southwark I hope and pray that we’ll take away a renewed commitment and confidence in the task, wherever we are and whatever that particular task is, but knowing that we can only build on one set of foundations, those of Jesus Christ and shepherd only one flock, his.’

That may include blessing asparagus or tea; it may involve walking the City trading floors, debating truth with journalists or looking to the wellbeing of communities undergoing regeneration.  It will involve being the Body of Christ, visibly and passionately and welcoming the faithful and the yet to be faithful, through ever open doors.

God of the Church,
bless our cathedrals
and the communities
they serve,
welcome,
and bless
in your name.
Amen.

Running the race

I may have admitted this before, but if not, I was terrible at PE.  There, I’ve admitted it to the world; I was appalling. When teams were being chosen in a PE lesson I was always the last to be selected, it was like a constant re-run of those heart-rending scenes from Ken Loache’s film, ‘Kes’. So looking out from the Deanery every day, walking to and from the Cathedral, every day, I’m passed by so many runners, in their Lycra, putting themselves through their paces and I’m reminded of my physical inadequacies.  Many of those runners at this time of the year will be getting themselves race-ready for the London Marathon.  All  credit to them.

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The memory is all too real!

 

In fact, however, I was happier doing a long distance run when I was at school than playing a team sport.  The prescribed route took us from the playing fields at the rear of our school, across the railway bridge, along a length of the Grand Union Canal and then back through a housing estate to the school.  I’ve always assumed that as we disappeared over the horizon the staff went and had a coffee and awaited our return.  That was the premise I worked on which allowed me to walk the rest of the route until we were back in sight of the school.  That was why I enjoyed it.  So no Marathon for me!

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, however, is keen on running as a metaphor for the Christian life.

‘Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’ (Hebrews 12.1-2)

and St Paul uses similar ideas in his First Letter to the Corinthians

‘Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.’ (1 Corinthians 9.24-17)

But with every race there’s a start and finishing line just as there is in the Christian life, something to which we look, a place from which we start, a leader who sets the pace.  Which is what made the announcement by the Prime Minister on Tuesday such a surprise.  We were all expecting an easing back into the parliamentary summer term as they, like our schools, returned after the Easter break. We were assuming that all energy and concentration would be on the urgent negotiations following the triggering of Article 50.  And anyway, there was a Fixed Term Parliament Act in place so that politics could not be manoeuvred and engineered at the whim of a PM! We should never assume anything. So the starting pistol was fired (even before the debate the following day in the Commons) and the race was on towards the finishing line on 8 June.

Though Brenda from Bristol (the surprise star of social media since her honest and disbelieving response to the news of another election) may represent the views of many of us, in fact many people seeming to be saying ‘bring it on’. Politicians need to be able to respond with freedom to the events of the last two years in this country and we all need to register our feelings on a number of issues, not just Brexit.

Christians need to be there, in the race, standing for election and engaging with the issues.  The care of the elderly, the NHS, prisons, the farming community, the rural and urban poor, the environment, overseas aid, defence, schools, immigration, you name it, people of faith have a view on it because God has a view on it.  Mary makes that clear when she sings the Magnificat to her cousin Elizabeth; Jesus makes that clear when he reads Isaiah to his family and neighbours; Paul makes that clear when he tells the Council of Jerusalem that he’ll concentrate on the poor.

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A preacher of Gospel justice

 

One of the heroes of the modern church and a saint of our time, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, got it exactly right when he said

‘I am puzzled by which Bible people are reading when they suggest that religion and politics don’t mix.’

And speaking about the Millennium Development Goals back in 2006 he said

‘I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, “Now is that political or social?” He said, “I feed you.” Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.’

Tutu is a marathon runner for Gospel justice. As Paul said to the Christians in Corinth, who knew all about the Games, ‘Run in such a way that you may win it.’ Witness to that in the race that is set before us – even I will be running and that’s saying something!

God of justice,
God of peace,
God of the poor
and of the rich,
empower and inspire us
in the race set before us
and keep our eye on the goal
of your kingdom.
Amen.

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

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A good city for all

A good city for all

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Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015

LIVING GOD

Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

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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