Chaos in the kitchen

I was invited to preach at St Mary Lewisham for their Patronal Festival when they celebrate Our Lady of Lewisham. Those who know the area will know that the church is very close to Ladywell, a popular place to live and the site of a mediaeval holy well dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s a great spot to visit. So, I thought I’d share the sermon I preached there. The readings they gave me where these – Ecclesiasticus 24,1-4,8-12,19-2; Galatians 4: 4-7; John 2: 1-11.

Often, when you’re invited to a party, the best place to hang out is in the kitchen. For some reason it’s where many of the guests gravitate to. Perhaps it’s because that’s from where all the food is emerging and those in the room get first choice of what’s produced. Perhaps it’s because that’s where all the drinks might be kept – the big bottles of Coke, the cans of beer, the bottles of wine – it’s much easier to help yourself to another drink when you’re there in the kitchen. But sometimes for the host it’s the worst place – if something goes wrong, something burns, something’s spilt, the dirty pots pile up, it’s the very place where you don’t want all the guests to be – seeing behind the scenes, witnessing the chaos that you’re busy creating in the kitchen.

John doesn’t tell us about the layout of the place where the wedding in Cana was happening. It was perhaps a big tent into which people were crowded; or it may have been a more permanent structure. But whatever it was actually like, there would’ve been a corner from where the servants appeared with more food and more wine. The steward who’d be overseeing it all, would be making sure the guests were all happy and that, above all, the bride and groom were happy with all the arrangements.

Then disaster happens. Someone beckons for the Steward to step into the kitchen. Rather than a place of festivity it’s a place of anxiety and no little chaos. The wine had all run out and the party was still in full swing. Someone had made a mistake on the ordering front, or the guests were more thirsty than usual, or the party was better than would normally have been the case – but for whatever the reason the worst thing had happened – no more wine and there’d be red faces all round.

John tells a wonderful story at the beginning of his gospel, the first of the signs that he highlights which reveal just who Jesus is. But who’d have expected the first sign of divine nature to take place in a kitchen, to be given at a wedding party, to be about wine when the guests were already drunk? There’s something remarkable about this whole story – and for me that remarkableness makes it even more special.

Mary, Jesus and the disciples had all been invited. They hadn’t come far, just over the hill from Nazareth on the road that’d lead eventually to the Sea of Galilee and the great city of Capernaum, the place that Jesus used as his base. Mary, like the good mother that she was, that she is, was noticing everything going on and must have seen the Steward, the president of the feast dashing off, ashen faced towards the kitchen. Mary hears what’s being said and she goes to tell Jesus – ‘They have no wine’. Even to Jesus at that moment it seems like something that he needn’t get involved in – ‘What’s it to do with me’, ‘What do you want from me’ is his initial response. But Mary knows there’s more to Jesus, she knows there’s more to God, than this. ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

The resulting miracle is spectacular and outrageous. Those stone water jars standing around, used so that all the guests could purify themselves for the feast, were refilled with water, right to the brim, just as Jesus told them to do, just as Our Lady said they should do – ‘do whatever he tells you’ – and when the Steward drew from the jars, there was wine, good wine, the best wine and in a mind boggling quantity – as much as 180 gallons of wine, more than any party could ever need, more than any host could ever imagine, more than the bridegroom could have wished. And this, says John, is only the first of the signs – there is much more yet to come!

Into the chaos of the world, God sent his Son, says Paul to the Galatians, ‘born of a woman, born a subject of the Law’. Into the poverty and darkness of so much life, a star shines in the night sky and a young woman gives birth to a child in a stable. And Mary says ‘Do whatever he tells you’.

The best place at that party was certainly the kitchen, for as the jars were filled and then the wine drawn out those there witnessed something of the life changing generosity, the overflowing love of God who makes sure, as the First Reading at this Mass says that

They who eat me will hunger for more, they who drink me will thirst for more.

that we will be constantly surprised and satisfied by the overflowing, overwhelming love of God, yet always wanting more, hungering for more, thirsting for more of this kingdom reality. Mary knew that it was true, she’d already experienced it in her own self and out of that deep down knowledge she says to us ‘do whatever he tells you’, this God who is made flesh in the turmoil, not just of the kitchen but of the world.

I know that you’ve been using this month as one of ‘Thanksgiving and Generosity’ and you’ve been finding that all around you in creation. At a time when we’re all anxious about the cost of living, the cost of heating, about how this new Government will begin to effectively address the fundamental issues and challenges that are facing our society and our way of living, we need to look across the chaos and the uncertainty to Jesus – and it’s for this reason that he gave us this sign and gave us this sign in this both mundane and slightly frivolous place.

Jesus represents in himself the generous love of God. ‘God so loved the world’ as John will say in verses that follow this Gospel reading today, ‘that he gave his only Son’. It’s all free gift, all abundant free gift. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, God steps into the frantic chaos in the kitchen and produces the new wine of the kingdom and in abundance.

There’s a name for this God, a name the children of Israel used – Jehovah-Jireh – which simply means ‘The Lord will provide’. It was the name Abraham gave to God when God provided a ram for the slaughter and saved Abraham’s only son. And then God gave his only son, provided for us, in abundance. Jehovah-Jireh – the Lord will provide.

‘Do whatever he tells you’ says Our Lady to us today. The Lord will provide and God’s generosity inspires our generosity. This Mass is the daily miracle of feeding. Each of us, hungry and thirsty, exhausted by the chaos, the change, the emotion, the utter uncertainty of what we’re going through, comes to the altar with empty hands, to simply receive, always hungry for more, always thirsty for more and the Lord provides even more than we need.

This is how the priest poet Malcolm Guite begins his poem commemorating, celebrating this miracle

Here’s an epiphany to have and hold,
A truth that you can taste upon the tongue,
No distant shrines and canopies of gold
Or ladders to be clambered rung by rung,
But here and now, amidst your daily living,
Where you can taste and touch and feel and see,
The spring of love, the fount of all forgiving,
Flows when you need it, rich, abundant, free.

This is a party worth being at, where bread and wine are enough for all, and where love never runs out, a spring of love ‘rich, abundant, free’, given for you, given for me.

God of generous love, satisfy my hunger, quench my thirst and draw me deeper into your life-giving kingdom. Amen.

The Queue

It’s perhaps one of the things we are best known for as a people, our ability to queue and our patience in doing so. Not for us the mad scramble to get on a bus that you can experience elsewhere, nor the sharp elbows often experienced as pilgrims battle with each other on the precarious steps down into the Grotto of the Nativity at Bethlehem. However long the queue is we are willing to join it and respect each others place in it. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, is memorable for the openly expressed grief on the streets, the mountains of flowers, the vigils outside Kensington Palace. We will probably remember the queue when we look back on the ten days of mourning for Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. As someone who embodied so much of what it means to be British it is perhaps fitting that such a British part of life should characterise our mourning.

Thursday morning

Let me say up front that I haven’t joined the queue. Having had the privilege of meeting the Queen in life and having opportunities to show my respect and express my gratitude in so many ways, at the altar and from the pulpit as well as in front of a variety of microphones, I haven’t felt the need to take a place in the line that someone else could take. Instead I have witnessed this phenomenon from the Deanery and the Cathedral. The queue makes its way past both and has become a feature of our life from Wednesday onwards.

As the Queen’s coffin made its way from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall we wondered when the queue would reach the Cathedral. It arrived by tea time and at first was quite slow in lengthening. But in subsequent days it has got longer and longer, stretching down to Southwark Park until capacity was reached and the queue time was estimated at a staggering 24 hours.

Friday morning

Opening my curtains each morning has been deeply moving, a slow flow of people alongside the gently flowing Thames, people who had been out all night, facing the cold, the agony that comes with standing, the self imposed privations. Looking out and walking alongside the queue and stopping to talk to people as I have gone backwards and forwards along Bankside this is not a single demographic that is making up the queue, not simply older people with time on their hands and long memories. There really is a representative group of people in line, young as well as old, children, people from numerous ethnic backgrounds, people from around the world. Some folk you talk to have just come from another pat of London but others have travelled from the far reaches of the country to be here, to be in the queue, to pay their respects. There isn’t a feeling, not a sense, of grief, though may people have expressed their sadness. Instead what people seem to be describing is thankfulness, gratitude and a desire to somehow express all of that.

Saturday morning

I’m not the first to describe this queue as in many ways a pilgrimage. People are there not just for the goal, Westminster Hall, and the sight of the catafalque and the coffin, the order, the dignity, the simple grandeur of the place, but also for the journey. There is something about the cost of the journey that seems to match the offering that the Queen made over her long reign, that the asceticism is part of the offering. We are queuers but we are also pilgrims, by heart and nature, by desire and inclination, whether the goal of the journey is the sacred turf of Wembley or where the shrine stood in Canterbury. I don’t think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that the pathway alongside the Thames through Southwark has become something of a ‘Camino’, a way, almost a sacred way. Like all pilgrims, those who Chaucer chronicles in ‘Canterbury Tales’, the lone walkers on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela who find themselves with new companions, friendships are made and stories are shared, new community is established. In a place where so much pilgrimage has begun, where pilgrims have passed through for generations, it is good that Southwark has been able to play, once again, its historic and God-given role – after all, even on the arms of Southwark Borough Council there is the figure of a pilgrim. This is in our community DNA and this, the latest iteration of it.

Isaac Watts wrote a beautiful hymn which always gives me joy to sing ‘Give us the wings of faith’. The final verse is this.

Our glorious Leader claims our praise
for his own pattern given;
while the long cloud of witnesses
show the same path to heaven.

‘The long cloud of witnesses’, this queue which will live on in the lives and memories not just of those who have joined it, and waked the path, but of all of us who have, with respect and a sense of humility, witnessed it, is one of the greatest tributes ever made. I simply want to say thank you to those who with quiet dignity have shown us such a powerful way to bear witness and express in the sight of the world just what the Queen has meant to so many of us.

Loving God, bless us as we walk the path to heaven; bless those who have made any journey of thankfulness. Amen.

In paradisum

This is the homily I preached at the Requiem we celebrated for Her Late Majesty The Queen on Friday. The readings were Lamentations 3.22-26, 31-33; 2 Corinthians 4.16-5.4; John 6.35-40.

When Mrs Alexander wrote her much loved hymn, ‘All things bright and beautiful’ in 1848 it was a very different world. Queen Victoria was 11 years into her long reign, the purple headed mountains and the rivers running by, the tall trees and the greenwoods were as much the same then as they are now, but the way we live has changed beyond all recognition. Mrs Alexander included a verse which is no longer printed in our hymn books, we just couldn’t sing it

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Perhaps Mrs Alexander had forgotten a story that Jesus told that only St Luke, with all his inclusive passion, records for us, a story of a rich man, who we know as Dives – but to whom the gospel doesn’t give a name – and Lazarus, the poor man, who Luke does name, in that wonderful reversal of fortunes that the gospels recognise and the world doesn’t. We always know the name of the rich man, but the poor man, well, why should we know his name – but not so in God’s kingdom. Perhaps Mrs Alexander had forgotten the story or perhaps she’d been taught to understand it in a particular way that reinforced the standards and the norms of her day.

But in the texts of the Requiem Mass it’s the poor man who in many ways gets the last word. This Eucharist that we celebrate for the repose of the soul of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of such blessed and precious memory, whose death, so long expected yet at the end so sudden that it took our breath away, will conclude, as every Requiem should, with the most beautiful of texts. It’s called ‘In paradisum’ and it speaks of the paradise that we pray the departed soul will attain and at the end it says this

May the chorus of angels receive you and with Lazarus who once was poor may you have eternal rest.

At the conclusion of his address to the nation just a week ago, King Charles paid tribute to his mother, the Queen, saying: “May ‘flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’” He was quoting words from ‘Hamlet’ but the words also remind us of these words from the ‘In paradisum’, ‘May the chorus of angels receive you.’ But it’s Lazarus, the poor man, who’s most important.

Job, in his agonies, cries out ‘‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there.’ Despite all he had, in the end he had nothing, he was as he was born. ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’ share the same fate, we’re born and we die. We may live the life of a queen but death will gather us in just the same way as it will gather each one of us, naked before God, with only our good deeds to clothe us. And that’s what St Paul is speaking of in our Second Reading.

‘We wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed’ he says, clothed not with our poor rags or our royal robes, but with faith and hope and love, with mercy, pity, peace. These are the clothes and the garlands of paradise which we wear as children of God.

One of the phrases at the moment is ‘levelling up’ – but while it has taken on a new meaning in the circles of Government we understand it in quite a different way. The startling thing abut the church, in those early, Pauline days, was that it was the place where both slave and free, rich and poor, met equally. The ‘Bread of Life’ of which Jesus speaks in the gospel, the bread of angels given to mortals is shared equally, the cup is common, we drink alongside our sister, our brother in a way that we’d never do in other circumstances, the portions are the same, the food is the same, we come forward together, in the same way, at the same time.

‘Though we are many we are one body because we all share in one bread’.

It’s such a familiar experience to those of us who go to church and make our communion, who receive the Sacrament, that we can easily forget how powerful and how counter-cultural it all is – and Elizabeth, our sister in faith, shared the bread and the cup with us, for there’s only one Eucharistic sacrifice, only one offering and we share equally in it.

Watching the incredible ritual that’s surrounding Her Late Majesty’s death, witnessing the queue snaking its way past the Cathedral, is a reminder to all of us that death is not ‘Nothing at all’ as Henry Scott Holland’s so much loved and so misunderstood words suggest, but is rather the greatest something and the most unavoidable that there is. For those who’d like to believe in their own immortality, the mortality even of Our Sovereign Lady makes us stop and think about our own fragile hold on life, our own dependence on God whose love brought us naked into the world and who in love will receive us naked from it – but with poor Lazarus showing us the way.

In his powerful poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’ T S Eliot grapples with what the Magi experience, these old wise men who’d seen everything – until they encountered Jesus

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

There’s little difference between birth and death, for us. St Paul writing to the Corinthians at the end of the Second Reading makes the most amazing statement, that we will be

swallowed up by life.’

Death is our second birth, to life, the eternal life of which Jesus speaks in the gospel, to life to which the dead will be raised, Elizabeth and Lazarus, sister and brother with you and me. The assurance we have is that our Queen knew this, she lived this, this was her faith, so much lived, so much loved, the jewels in her crown, the garments she wore.

Angels will sing her to her rest, the chorus of angels will receive her and at the gate will be Lazarus, named and known, once poor, but now rich, as you will be, as we will be, ready to walk side by side towards the Lamb and that throne of grace to meet the one who, by his death gave us life.

May our Most Gracious Sovereign Lady, Elizabeth, rest in peace, and rise in glory. Amen.


It’s a fascinating detail in St John’s account of the crucifixion that after Jesus had been stripped and nailed to the cross the soldiers on duty turned their attention to the robe he had been wearing. Over their heads a man was writhing in agony on the cross, but they were rolling the dice, casting the lots, trying to get possession of the robe. John tells us why

When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. (John 19.23)

Most of his clothes, presumably ripped from his body, were divided between the four soldiers whose duty it was that day to crucify these criminals. It was a bit of a bonus for a rather gruesome task. But the tunic was different. It was seamless, it had been skillfully woven in one piece from the top throughout.

So they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.’ (John 19.24)

This was no ordinary piece of clothing that Jesus wore; it had been skillfully made, it was desirable, perhaps a gift from one of the wealthier people who were on the fringe of the disciples, perhaps a gift of one of the women, perhaps from Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward. We can only speculate but this was not something that you would pick up on the normal market stall. Its seamless quality made it a prized and valuable possession.

Last week was something very few of us had ever experienced, but in some ways no one has ever experienced it was such a powerful collision of events. In just a couple of days one Prime Minister stood down as another was appointed, Her Majesty The Queen died and His Majesty The King acceded to the throne. Even as I type that it is staggering. But what is even more staggering is that it all happened seamlessly, with no challenging of power, no contested rights, no pretender in the wings, no doubt that what was happening should have been happening. The clocks didn’t stop, the trains ran, the tills kept ringing, prayers were offered and the Thames ebbed and flowed.

Watching, as we were all able to do for the first time, the proceedings of the Accession Council I was struck again by the calm nature of the transfer of power, the timeless language, the solemnity which was just right, but not stifling of humanity, and the role of the Christian faith in all of this, a rock on which the whole structure is built and stands.

The evening before I had been officiating at Choral Evensong. Even as Dean I still find myself being given the privilege of singing the Office. But this was the first Choral Evensong since the death of Her Late Majesty and so it was the first time that we had sung the Preces and Responses. As you may know, one of the things that the Church of England does is commit itself to praying daily for the Monarch and formally at Matins and Evensong. It is part of our daily life and especially in our cathedrals. So we had been so used to singing ‘O Lord, save the Queen.’ Now we sang

O Lord, save the King.
And mercifully hear us when we call upon thee.

We concluded the service with a single verse of the National Anthem, ‘God save our gracious King’. It was so strange, so hard to form the words, to replace the muscle memory, and I know I will stumble over it in the days and weeks ahead. So many of us have known nothing else but the Queen, and now she is gone, and Charles is on the throne and it was seamless.

The soldiers looked with envy at the robe. ‘Let us not tear it’. I suppose what I have realised is what a treasure we have in our unwritten Constitution. Bizarre, antique, gold-braided, controlled, like scenes from a D’Oyly Carte opera, Dickensian, reminiscent of so many engravings by Tenniel for ‘Alice’ Adventures in Wonderland’ – all that may be true, but it works and it works so well, and God blesses it and others must look on with no little awe and wonder where power and leadership are fought over and jealously guarded.

The Seamless Robe on the arms of the Kingdom of Georgia

Like the seamless robe taken from the shoulders of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the one who reigns from cross and altar we must value what we have and not tear it.

This is the prayer I wrote for the Cathedrals of England to use at this time.

Majestic God,
whose throne is in heaven,
whose footstool is the earth;
we thank you for your servant, Elizabeth,
your faithful servant,
our beloved Queen.
As we mourn her death
we give thanks for her life
of devoted service,
unfailing wisdom,
compassionate generosity,
and faithful dedication
and pray that we may embrace her values
and build your kingdom
today and always.

Choose life

It’s god to be back from my holiday. Three weeks seems a long time. But on coming back I was thrown into the final preparation and then part of the delivery of our Diocesan Conference. So please excuse me sharing my sermon for today on this blog. It did come our of some of the reflections that were going on in the conference and as we sat beneath the Revd Cecile Schnyder’s wonderful triptych of Christ in community that dominated the hall where we met. The lections for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 30.15-20; Philemon 1-21 and Luke 14.25-33.

I’m having to think about how I live. I know that the various and related crises that we’re all going through at the moment are requiring us all to think about how we live – but my thinking is on top of that.

One of the blessings of being ordained in the Church of England is that you’re given a house to live in alongside the stipend that you’re paid. The truth is that the stipend would never allow most of us to live in the kind of houses that we’re provided with. That’s not a complaint, it’s just a matter of fact.

So, I began in Leeds with a nice semi in the suburbs, one of those three bedroomed houses in which the third room is a bit of a box room – but I’d never really had my own home before, so it was amazing. Then I went to a huge flat created out of the first floor of one of those vast Anglo-Catholic clergy houses, then to a four bedroomed more recently built vicarage. Then I moved to Southwark and was given a grand detached Edwardian four bedroomed house in north Croydon, then to St George’s Road where the Sub Dean lives – a nice Georgian townhouse on four floors with all that that offers. Finally I’m in the Deanery – five bedrooms, three bathrooms, a huge hall, garden etc. etc. etc.

My point is that I’ve become accustomed over almost 40 years to live in overlarge houses and to spread out my clutter, to acquire stuff, knowing that I had places to put it. But now, since I announced my retirement, we’re having to find somewhere to live – and that was partly what we did on our summer holiday. But we’re going through something of a reality check. Inevitably we will be downsizing – and that’s the only way in which we can possibly live in the future, smaller, lighter, gentler.

In the musical ‘Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ the brothers sing of the great days they’ve known in Canaan, when they had everything

Do you remember those wonderful parties?
The splendour of Canaan’s cuisine
Our extravagant, elegant soirées
The gayest the Bible has seen.

And then they sing

Those Canaan days
We used to know
Where have they gone?
Where did they go?
Eh bien, raise your berets
To those Canaan days.

My Canaan days are slipping past. I need to think how to live differently, maybe better, perhaps more honestly.

Moses is addressing the people in the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy that we heard in our First Reading. He’s setting before them the choice that they have.

‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.’

And then he says – and this always gives me a shiver down the spine, it’s so powerful

‘Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.’

Choose life. But contrast that with what Jesus says in the Gospel for today.

‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’

He was speaking to the crowds that’d followed him, to the people who were gathering wherever he went, he was speaking to those who’d left their nets and their families and their communities and their livelihood and their certainty, for the uncertainty of the road and the uncertainty of the future. And he asks them not just to leave all those things behind but to hate them. This is strong stuff – and it’s not just the relationship stuff that he highlights, those human ties that they were expected to reject, because he adds ‘yes, and even life itself’. ‘Hate your life’ says Jesus; ‘choose life’ says Moses.

We don’t often get to read the Letter to Philemon. It’s Paul’s shortest letter and his most specific. He’s writing to Philemon who with Apphia and Archippus leads one of the house churches that were springing up. Paul is writing to them about a friend of his, Onesimus, formerly a useless slave to Philemon, but now someone Paul describes as a son, a bond of love that’s been formed during Paul’s imprisonment. Now Paul wants to send Onesimus back, to give him his life back, but not the life of the slave that he was living, but the life that in freedom he can live, the freedom that we know in Christ,

‘No longer as a slave but as more than a slave,’ he writes, ‘a beloved brother.’

For some reason it’d all gone horribly wrong for Onesimus; but Paul has opened life to him, and as Jesus says in St John’s Gospel ‘life in all it’s fullness’.

‘Choose life’ says Moses to the people; ‘hate even your life’ says Jesus to us. But what I think is going on here is the same thing. Jesus is encouraging his listeners in a dramatic way to re-examine their priorities, their life, their choices, to cast aside the Canaan days if you like and embrace the radical, kingdom life that Jesus proclaims.

Yesterday we concluded the Diocesan Conference. We met for three days in Bacon’s College, a church secondary school just down the road from here, in Rotherhithe. The theme for those three days was ‘Christ centred: Outward focused.’ It was amazing. Each of the speakers challenged us, to choose life, and not just for ourselves but for all people, those living on the margins, those living in fear, our children, our young people, people of colour, people for whom poverty is already a daily, grinding reality.

We were challenged to think about how the church in this diocese can help to make the kingdom reality, the reality, to hate the life that leads to oppression, to injustice, to violence, to abuse, to prejudice, to homophobia, to sexism and all the other scourges of our time and choose the life ‘that really is life’.

That is also the challenge that we must insist that our leaders, our politicians, our opinion formers also address. Tomorrow we will learn who our new Prime Minister is to be. The week that faces them will be monumental. They will be moving into a new house which goes with their new job, but whoever they are, they need to have before them the desperate life situations that are not a matter of our sisters and brothers choices but a consequence of the choices that others of us who have choices have made. Choose life – not just for yourself but for every one of our sisters and brothers, our neighbours, and not just in this country but around the world.

I have to live differently, we have to live differently, we need to hate the choices we did make and embrace the more gentle life that Christ offers that made Onesimus, once a useless slave, now our brother.

It’s a dream, it’s a vision. W B Yeats in his poem ‘He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ says this

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Tread softly, on the dreams of your brothers, on the dreams of your sisters, live gently, dream and as you come to the altar today and hold those empty, emptied hands out, choose life, for it’s life, full life, life worth having, life worth living, that will be placed in them.

Loving God, may I choose you, as you in love choose me. Amen.

Out of office

I always find it deeply satisfying when I am at the point of making the ‘Out of Office’ option active on my email account at work. It really does feel as if my holiday is beginning. So this very short blog is the equivalent of that.

There isn’t a blog on Living God for the next three Sundays – normal service will be resumed, God willing, on Sunday 4 September after my holiday and the Southwark Diocesan Conference. I will miss you all, of course, but we all need a break – and I hope that however you achieve it, you get some time for relaxation before September arrives and things get back to normal. I won’t stop praying, of course, so you can still follow me and my daily prayers inspired by the psalms at Morning Prayer on Twitter at @deansouthwark

Lord Jesus, you stepped aside and found a place to rest and be at peace; bless us as we break from our routine, that we may return to the normality of our lives refreshed and renewed. Amen.

House and home

At the end of last week we welcomed a new installation into the Cathedral. The piece is called ‘The Small House’ by the artist Richard Woods. It was ironic that the construction encountered one or two challenges just as many domestic building projects do and some of the paint was still drying as a crowd of people gathered for the private view. But what an amazing piece of work it is, and provocative and engaging.

‘The Small House’ stands in the High Altar sanctuary and effectively shields the Great Screen from view. Our Lent art installations have always had something of the ‘veiling’ feel to them and this piece, purposefully delayed so that we were confident that Covid would not get in the way of people seeing and enjoying it, does something similar.

The title hides the fact of the scale of the work; as you enter the Cathedral you will be surprised by how strong and dominant its presence is. Initially you may not be taken by it, but trust me, as you look and look again, as you approach it, you will be captivated.

Ask a child to draw a house and they will probably draw something that is similar to the house that all of us have drawn. Our images of a house are iconic. But whilst we will draw such a house few of us live as comfortably, with a smoking chimney, a picket fence, outside space and roses round the door. ‘The Small House’ invites us to think about our concept and fantasy of house and home and to ask the serious questions about why so many live in sub-standard housing or on the street. Richard Woods’ ‘The Small House’ sits in the big house, the house of God, iconic in its own right – the abiding with us God, who opens the door of the divine house and invites us in to find a home.

There is also something about the divine and the domestic. ‘The Small House’ is the product of domestic architecture. It will provide the backdrop for the Eucharist in the Cathedral. As many will know, the main altar at Southwark is very much a wooden table, a place where a family gathers. There is something basically domestic about the Mass, the occasion when a family gathers around a table for a meal – and the house, the home is the context for that encounter. As we say Grace before we meet to eat in our own small house we point towards that heavenly banquet of which the Eucharist is a foretaste in the divine house, the big house, God’s house, where we are invited to find a home.

As Jacob wakes from his sleep he remembers his dreams and exclaims

‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ Genesis 28.17.

Whatever ‘The Small House’ brings to mind for you I hope that awe will be part of it – the ordinary within the grand, the domestic in the divine, complexity in simplicity, the familiar in the unfamiliar, the archetypal in the iconic.

This is the prayer I have written for those who will visit.

Jesus said, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (Luke 9.58)

who set your home among us,
a house for all people,
a shelter and a dwelling;
bless our homes and those we share them with;
bless those without a house who seek a place to call home;
bless those who open their doors to others;
bless this small house
and draw us into your mansion of many rooms
where we will dwell with you for ever.

Red lines

It’s interesting to think about where you draw the line. I went along to the Bridge Theatre last week, just as the bishops of the Anglican Communion were gathering in Canterbury for the Lambeth Conference. I had heard about the play that was being performed there and was quite keen to see it – ‘The Southbury Child’ by Stephen Beresford. The set was simple; a large table as in many vicarage kitchens, unmatching chairs, mugs in which to serve tea to guests, piles of paper to be dealt with. And in this humdrum and familiar setting – especially to clergy and their families – the drama is played it. I don’t want to give the story away but it centres on a child’s funeral and a request by the grieving mother that the church be decorated with balloons, because the child loved balloons and it would make the church look jolly and welcoming.

For the priest it was a red line he was unprepared to cross, whatever the cost. The play looks at the costs, the price, and who pays it, and, of course, the back story to the marriage and the family relationships all come out. There are reasons for the red lines we choose, reasons why we will defend, often the indefensible, that are hard for others to understand.

My predecessor had his red lines. I remember arriving back one day and being asked to see the Dean. I was then the Canon Precentor and I was told that the singing of ‘Jerusalem’ was banned in Southwark Cathedral and, by the way, anything by Graham Kendrick. Some of you may remember that episode in our lives. Colin had to go on the radio to defend his decision; I had to make it work as best I could given that most schools wanted to sing ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Shine Jesus shine’, whatever its theological virtues, or lacks, was enormously popular. But it was a red line.

I suppose I have them, but of course mine are entirely reasonable and easily explained, as far as I am concerned. I went into the vestry the other day. It had been very hot. The Head Verger told me that one of the diocesan dignitaries, we love these titles don’t we, had asked not to wear a chasuble for a service they were presiding at. The vergers told the person that that was a red line for the Dean. However much he would sweat full vestments had to be worn. If it was good enough for the early martyrs of the church it is good enough for us! As such a notorious liberal with seemingly no standards or principles – according to some – it was good to know that I have some red lines!

My blog last week went a bit viral. I thought it might, commenting as I did on the ‘Lambeth Calls’ document and the reference to Lambeth 1:10 from 1998. I was pleased therefore when the announcement came of some significant changes, particularly that bishops would be allowed to vote that they do not accept it. Since then, of course, there has been push back. We are being told that 75% of those present support Lambeth 1:10, there seem to move moves afoot to bring it back on the agenda. Even more disturbingly some of the bishops have now refused to take communion with those who have a same-sex partner, or who support equal marriage, or … well, the categories seem a bit blurred and include a lot of those there.

It is all very disturbing. What is the Communion about if we are not actually in communion, able to receive communion, one bread, one cup? Why is the Eucharist being weaponised in this way? Why, oh why, is sexuality the red line for the church, the ‘balloon’ issue for the Communion?

I am writing this, as I always do, on Saturday, ready for Sunday. It’s the commemoration today (30 July) of William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson, the three, among many, who we remember campaigned for the abolition of slavery. We know, because it is all part of the #BlackLivesMatter and contested heritage debates, all part of the Queen Anne’s Bounty discussions, all part of the history of USPG and so many other church bodies, all part of the history of Bristol and its cathedral, that the church was up to its neck and beyond in slavery and we know that bishops defended slavery with recourse to scripture. We know that it was a red line at that time, that there was huge resistance to what Wilberforce and his companions, and others in parliament were wanting. Yet, somehow the Holy Spirit spoke through the arguments and wisdom and right and justice prevailed and that red line disappeared.

Human dignity is a matter of justice, who I am, who you are, loved and created by God is a reality. Denying what God has done, out of love, drawing red lines across the lines of God’s grace is a scandal, as is refusing to take the bread and the cup that Jesus holds out to us, his friends, and even to the one who would betray him.

The play is well worth seeing; ok not all of it is true to life, true to the vicarage kitchen, but it points to the way in which the red lines we draw are destructive and divisive. It seems to me, and as you all know I never claim to be a biblical scholar, simply a child of God, that Paul, speaking to the Romans describes a love that knows no bounds, a divine love in which no lines are drawn.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8.35-39)

But I will still insist on full vestments – and isn’t that really the problem? I need to look at my own red lines as much as the next person.

God of boundless grace, draw us with your cords of love into the freedom of your kingdom and into that deeper and fuller communion with you, which is life in all its fullness. Amen.

Lambeth calling … London calling

Many of the bishops heading for the Lambeth Conference, which begins next week, are still in transit, looking forward to a few days together, and already we are experiencing the fallout. The Conference has been delayed from 2018 – firstly because it wasn’t the right time to bring the bishops together, it would not have been productive; then because of the global pandemic. In former times we would have been entertaining bishops in the dioceses across the country this weekend, establishing and re-establishing relationships and friendships. But the ‘pre-Lambeth hospitality programme’ was abandoned and, apart from a few exceptions where individual arrangements have been made, the bishops are heading straight to the campus outside of Canterbury that will be their base for the next couple of weeks. That was a real shame because the Communion, if it is about anything, must be about relationships. But that sad decision was made.

Another decision was made, however, and that was to issue a document in the last couple of days called ‘Lambeth Calls’, a kind of agenda for the Communion, for the bishops to consider. It has caught everyone, it seems, by surprise and the surprise has not been good. One specific call is already causing damage, hurt and pain and that is the call to reaffirm Lambeth 1.10. This was the declaration made at the 1998 Lambeth Conference which affirmed a traditional view of sexuality and relationships, of marriage and the views of the church about homosexuality in particular. We have been struggling to live with Lambeth 1.10 since then but out of those struggles has emerged much more understanding of different positions, different beliefs, different readings of scripture, we have been brought into a place of greater trust and mutual respect. At the same time, society, especially western society and not least of our own has moved on dramatically. As Dorothy in ‘Wizard of Oz’ would say ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’; we are not in 1998 anymore.

In the UK Civil Partnerships became possible in 2005; marriage to a person of the same gender in 2014. Both are now commonplace in our society. Clergy in the Church of England are allowed to enter a CP with their same-sex partner, at the moment they are not allowed to be married. Lay people can remain in good standing and in positions of leaderships and in authorised and licensed ministries if they enter into either of these. In general society it has all been celebrated, even on ‘Strictly’ same-sex couples dance and entertain the nation and families sit there encouraging John and Johannes and whoever it is. Wake up Lambeth Conference, wake up Church of England, wake up bishops, this is London calling and beyond London calling; this is not 1998 and this is not the world or the church you imagine it to be, nor should it be.

What really angers me is not the homophobia apparent in all of this, I am used to that, sadly. What gets me is the scandalous way the ‘church’, whoever, whatever that is, displays such a lack of openness, transparency and honesty with the rest of us who are the church. It is ok calling out the lies and the lack of integrity in Downing Street when just across the river in the offices that deal with the Lambeth Conference the same goes on.

We have just emerged from General Synod, not a word of this was mentioned, not even in the gossip in the bar and over coffee. We are still awaiting the Synod debate on the LLF process, ‘Living in Love and Faith’, the open conversations we have all been invited to have which will help us move on even further in our understanding of each other around the subjects of sexuality and committed relationships. That process is now holed below the waterline. ‘Lambeth Calls’ has sunk LLF and we need to recognise that.

What also annoys me is this is precisely why the office of Archbishop of Canterbury needed to be separated from the leadership of the Anglican Communion. Many of us were calling for a real root and branch examination of these conflicted roles as the debates about the shape of the Canterbury CNC were being had. But no; the status quo had to remain, except the Communion had to be given a stronger voice in the nomination of ++Justin’s successor. The Church of England has been stopped and will be stopped in moving forward in mission. Those who call the church to ban Pride, to ban celebrating our reality as human beings loved and created by our inclusive God are obviously supported by the Lambeth Conference even before it gathers. If I was a bishop of the Episcopal or Canadian Church I would get straight back on the plane and return home.

In the debate at General Synod which Canon Tim Goode, an Honorary Canon of Southwark Cathedral, led on the place of disabled people in the life of the church, he used the final sentence of the Introduction to the Common Worship Baptism Service, which he then used as a refrain throughout his speech:

‘In God we have a new dignity and God calls us to fullness of life.’

It is the Jesus I know and love, the Jesus who called me into the church and called me to be a priest, the Jesus who has enabled me to fulfil this ministry in the church for the last 39 years, who says to his disciples – and that includes us

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10.10)

Not Lambeth 1.10 but John 10.10 is the calling of the church and the witness of Jesus. This fullness of life is what each of us is called to and yet the church can so often seem to deny. I call on Lambeth to pull back and chose a better, life affirming way, whilst there is time.

Loving God, you create us beautiful; may we be allowed to flourish and be the people you want us to be. Amen.

Infinity and beyond

Amidst all that was happening last week as General Synod met in York and the Conservative Party began the process to find a new leader for them and a new Prime Minister for us, there was something that took us above and beyond all of that. The pictures that were released from NASA’s relatively new James Webb Space Telescope were beautiful and amazing and mind-boggling. The stars have always captured human imagination but these pictures took us to places that we never imagined we could see.

I was pretty poor at physics but one of the things that I do remember is that light travels at 186,000 miles per second. So when we were being told that what we were seeing in the images that the telescope sent back to earth was from the first beginnings of the universe I can’t begin to imagine how far that is away from this planet that we call home, how big the universe is, or anything about it. There seemed to be what looked like cliffs made of gases, pinpricks of light, stars being born, other stars dying, signs of countless planets. Buzz Lightyear made his first appearance on our screens in 1995 in the first of the ‘Toy Story’ films with his now very familiar catchphrase, ‘To infinity and beyond’. I thought about it as I looked in awe and wonder.

The nursery rhyme I was taught as a child seems to capture so much of what these new revelations invoke in me

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!

The youngest children who come along to Southwark Cathedral’s Learning Centre tend to begin with ‘awe and wonder’, the jaw dropping experience of entering a large space, the beauty of somewhere fresh and different. Even though as adults we may feel that we have seen it all before, we can also find ourselves in the same place as our five year old self, wondering what we are looking at, trying to make sense of the awesome reality of whatever it is that is confronting us. It is an amazing feeling, overwhelming and humbling.

I am nothing of a ‘Creationist’ but I have been thinking, since those photos emerged, about how I understand Genesis 1 and I have to admit that the more I know, the more we discover, the more that I am shown, the more I go back to those verses and find deep truth there. The writer seems to describe the process of creation in a way that science seems to confirm more and more. The amazing literary device of setting the whole story in the context of a working week helps me hold what is hard to grasp, consider what is beyond my imagining. The mistake comes in accepting those elements of the account which help to hold the story, as literal truth. But the myth is deep truth and for me, personally, I can understand what I am being shown in no other way. We look into infinity but the beyond is the divine, the ultimate movement of love which set the whole dynamic process into being.

That is why I am so looking forward to the installation of Gaia in the Cathedral in October. Although it has already been displayed in many churches and large spaces I haven’t yet seen it. I’m sure that the pictures I have seen do not do it justice, and standing beneath it, viewing it from all angles will help me in this evolutionary process of my understanding of things I simply cannot comprehend. The psalmist was similarly in awe of what they saw and in Psalm 8 writes this

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have ordained,
What are mortals, that you should be mindful of them;
mere human beings, that you should seek them out?
(Psalm 8.4-5)

The God who creates in the infinite and loves the finite in humanity, who at once inhabits all that is and is incarnate in human flesh, ‘whose hands flung stars into space’, as Graham Kendrick wrote and values each sparrow that falls to the ground, who counts the hairs on our head and the grains of sand on the seashore and ‘rides on the ancient heaven of heavens’ (Psalm 68.33), is the God we know and who we worship and adore. This truly is our awesome God.

Awesome God, for all you reveal of your self, of your love, of your life in the intricate beauty of creation, we give you thanks and praise. Amen.

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark