Tabernacling with God

Over the more than 36 years as a priest I have presided at a great many Eucharists.  When I was in my parish in Leeds, it being a very good solid Anglo-Catholic bastion of a place, we used to have 14 masses a week.  That is a lot of ‘going to the altar of God’ as we would say in the sacristy.  Fortunately I wasn’t working on my own for most of the time, so it was a shared and wonderful ministry to be able to have.  However, though many of them have been significant and deeply powerful occasions – given that every Eucharistic celebration is that – I hadn’t presided at one like the one on Tuesday morning.

It was the morning after the Prime Minister’s speech which introduced the ‘lockdown’.  We knew that we were going to be unable to go into the Cathedral again for the foreseeable future.  In addition, there was a restriction imposed by the CofE on live streaming from churches.  So we decided not to live stream but for just three of us, distanced of course, to celebrate the Eucharist in the Cathedral for the last time before we ‘shut up shop’.  It was heart-breaking.

Although Southwark Cathedral has had a rather chequered ecclesiastical history – I suspect that 18th century religion there left something to be desired – yet for the most part, for most of its 1400 year history the Eucharist will have been celebrated on a daily basis.  There will have been gaps, of course, but nothing like now, nothing like the open-ended exclusion and isolation that we are facing.  So I said the Mass and we received our communion there for the last time until …

We had made the decision that worship would be offered from the Deanery.  Those who have been to the house may remember that we have a nice hall, spacious enough to become a chapel.  Like many clergy I have quite a few ecclesiastical ‘bits and pieces’ around the place – a spare prie-dieu, a large crucifix, a statue or two, candles (of course).  But I decided that what I would do would be to bring the Blessed Sacrament home with me.  So from the rather wonderful Pugin tabernacle in which the sacrament normally resides it is now in my ‘chapel’ and is the focus of our on-line prayers and devotions.

Tabernacle

The Deanery Chapel

 

It’s a new experience for me, tabernacling with the God, who tabernacles with us.  First thing in the morning, last thing at night, greeting Our Lord in the Sacrament, knowing his real presence in the place in an even more real way.  I always feel the presence of God but not always with this intensity.

I am reminded of a wonderful story from the Old Testament.  David has recovered the Ark of the Covenant from the Philistines but on the journey back to Jerusalem there is a bit of an accident with it and people became a little unsure of its power and whether it should be brought into the city. So

David did not take the ark into his care into the city of David; he took it instead to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. The ark of God remained with the household of Obed-edom in his house for three months, and the Lord blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that he had. (1 Chronicles 13.13-14)

The powerful presence of God in the household of Oded-edom over this three month period of isolation was a blessing.  David saw it and knew that it was safe to bring the Ark into the city where it would be a blessing in the midst of the people.  It is the same as people wanting Jesus to stay with them.  To Zacchaeus Jesus says

‘I must stay at your house today.’ (Luke 19.5)

and after the encounter with the woman at the well we are told

‘When the Samaritans came to Jesus, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word.’ (John 4.40-41)

With the most unlikely people Jesus stays, in the homes of those shunned by others, behind doors normally locked, Jesus tabernacles.  His presence is always a blessing, just as the presence of the Ark was to Obed-edom and his household.

We don’t, of course, need the sacrament in our house to know that Jesus is present with us – Jesus IS present with us, not isolating himself from us, not distancing himself from us, with us behind our closed doors as much as with us in the now empty streets.

This is the prayer I have written for use from our cathedrals during this lockdown.  I offer it to you. Take care.  Keep safe.

A prayer in lockdown

The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked. (John 20.19)

Ever present God,
be with us in our isolation,
be close to us in our distancing,
be healing in our sickness,
be joy in our sadness,
be light in our darkness,
be wisdom in our confusion,
be all that is familiar when all is unfamiliar,
that when the doors reopen
we may with the zeal of Pentecost
inhabit our communities
and speak of your goodness
to an emerging world.
For Jesus’ sake.
Amen.

A long Good Friday

This must have been one of the most difficult and demanding weeks that we have ever lived through.  The term ‘unprecedented’ has been used time and time again. But it is true, there is no precedent for any of what we have been, what we are, experiencing.  Normally you can turn to someone and ask them what they did when such and such happened.  But not on this occasion.  We can look to what has been done in China, what has happened in Italy but they are such different places with governments that have different levers to pull and people with different expectations about life.

Cathedral Eucharist

Worshipping behind locked doors

To be honest it has felt as though I have been making it up as I have been going along.  The decisions that you made yesterday have to be reconsidered if not remade today, especially after the Prime Minister has made his statement at 5pm from Downing Street and you discover that some new restriction has come into effect or some new help is being made available.

The Bishop of Southwark established a ‘Coronavirus Task Group’ which met most days last week.  The Bishop, the Diocesan Secretary, one of the Archdeacons, the Communications Director and me are the members.  The task has been to anticipate and respond to the latest guidelines emerging from Lambeth Palace or Downing Street.  There are so many questions to be answered – what to do about the calling of banns of marriage; how many is a few people at a funeral; who are key workers as far as schools are concerned; does a prayer walk constitute public worship?  This is just a snapshot of the questions that people – mostly clergy – have been asking and they are all good and relevant questions.  It is no good asking priests to be mobilised and proactive, imaginative and pastoral without them coming up with some wonderful but, on occasions, impractical ideas.  But what has impressed me are the amazing ways that so many people are responding, liturgically and pastorally, to the restrictions that are in place.

At Southwark Cathedral we have tried to satisfy the requirement to keep the church open so people can come in to say private prayers alongside the suspension of public worship.  On Friday we live-streamed Evensong for the first time.  We have lessons to learn, inevitably.  But it was great that so many people (476 in fact) ‘tuned in’ to listen and to watch.  But there is a huge amount to do and I feel at the moment as though we are just scratching at the surface.

The language of ‘social distancing’, which many have rightly rejected as a term in favour of ‘spatial distancing’, will have a huge effect upon people.  London has many many isolated and lonely people at the best of times.  But in these days, weeks, months that lie ahead of us, being shut into what are often small bedsits, studio flats ….. well, I can’t begin to imagine what the mental health consequences will be.  Social media is great of course for keeping in touch, but the lack of the real, physical touch, encounter, will be a hugely damaging loss.  Add to that uncertainty over work and income in a city where people have taken on mammoth mortgages and huge rents to be able to live and work in one of the best cities in the world and the stress that people will be under becomes unimaginable when you know that you are in a more privileged position, being paid a stipend, having a roof over your head and having something to do each day.

It is hard for me to describe what it has all felt like for me.  The only way I can talk of it is as a ‘Long Good Friday’.  I always find Good Friday disorienting.  I walk to the Cathedral via Borough Market which is always quiet early in the morning, buy some Hot Cross buns and ‘artisan’ butter and head for the sacristy.  The lights aren’t put on in the Cathedral for services, or anything else.  The place is stripped and feels deserted.  ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ (Psalm 22.1) the psalmist cries and the building seems to echo that cry.  I say my prayers, wander to my desk, unsure of what is next.  It is as though everything that would normally pin me to normality has been taken away.  I feel adrift in a familiar place taken over by unfamiliarity.  But Good Friday is just one day and Easter is on the horizon.  But this week has felt like one long Good Friday with no prospect of resurrection at dawn.  The usual routines have been abandoned, service times have been changed, I am unsure of what I am doing next, the nave is empty and the cross stands isolated in a vast space in which people can wander but not settle and I am worshipping behind locked doors in a kind of mad reversal of the miracle of Pentecost.

Yet, there are glimmers of God all around, signs of goodness in wonderful people, sparks of humanity in snatched and distant conversations, laughter whilst Facetiming someone, the giggling as we exchange the Peace in an unconventional way.  At the same time we see the worst of human nature as the ‘me’ mentality of so much of modern times means that people clear the shelves of our supermarkets with seemingly no regard to the needs of the people who will follow them.

This will pass, it will get better, we know that.  But at the moment it is, frankly, grim.  But my faith holds firm, my faith in the God who never abandons us, who is there alongside us in the bad times and the good, who is never distant from us, but draws us close and closer still until the dawn breaks and Jesus stands before us, scarred yet glorious.

Loving God,
hold us close
when others stand at a distance,
hold our nerve
when anxiety seems overwhelming,
hold our faith
when it feels so weak,
hold us now and for all eternity.
Amen.

Keep calm and carry on?

There are so many mugs and tea towels around with that declaration which so pithily describes much of the stoic British attitude – ‘Keep calm and carry on’.

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It didn’t quite feel like that when I got to Tesco in the afternoon after we had arrived back from our pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  In large sections the shelves were empty.  I had been prepared, of course, for this by seeing pictures of panic buying taking place as the effects of Coronavirus, Covid-19, began to be felt.  There were no toilet rolls to be bought (fortunately as a bit of a ‘wise virgin’ I have some at home and there is always newspaper that my grandma cut up in her day and hung on a peg in the outside loo) and there was no anti-bacterial soap.  It took a while to find a packet of Cheerios which some guests who were arriving had requested (obviously they must have an anti-viral quality of which I was unaware) but eventually I found the final packet.  It felt as though something frightening was happening.

Since arriving back we have been meeting often in the cathedral to put into effect the different bits of advice and the guidelines that have been coming through.  But it has not been easy to make that moderate and considered response that I believe we have to make.  Panic doesn’t make us effective.

Whilst we were in the Holy Land if began to feel as though we were keeping just one step ahead of the virus, like in some action thriller – ‘Earthquake’, or ‘Inferno’ – or one of those one-word entitled movie where the heroes are driving frantically whilst the disaster is bearing down on them in their rear view mirror! Day One began as normal, the view across the city and the walk down the Mount of Olives, St Peter in Gallicantu and Mass at Emmaus.  Day Two was Stations of the Cross – all very normal but quite quiet on the Via Dolorosa, Mass in Holy Redeemer Church, lunch and then Mount Sion.  Day Three – that is where it began to fall apart.  We were meant to be in the Shepherds’ Fields for the Eucharist and then in Bethlehem and all after we had visited L’Arche in Bethlehem and the Convent of the Comboni Sisters in Bethany.

A message came through – Bethlehem was closed.  There were cases of the Coronavirus there.  Then we heard the whole of the West Bank was closed.  Our plans needed to change.  It was a dreadful disappointment, not least for those for whom this was their first time in the Holy Land and who were looking forward to their visit to Bethlehem, obviously one of the high points of any pilgrimage.  But it was also deeply disappointing for those who were to visit L’Arche.  After the shocking revelations about the founder, Jean Vanier, which had emerged just a few weeks before, we were wanting to give our full support to the community there and, indeed, support of that particular L’Arche community is part of this year’s Bishop’s Lent Call to the Diocese of Southwark.

But the Comboni Sisters’ convent was actually, technically, in Jerusalem, it was on the Israel side of the Separation Wall and so we could go there.  So instead of 32 pilgrims descending on them they had 67 and they opened up their house to us and gave us the use of their chapel as well as a wonderful, warm welcome.  Instead of a Mass in the open air in the fields above which thronged angels sang we gathered in their chapel – and it was wonderful.  In fact the whole visit was wonderful.

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Sister Alicia explains their situation

Sister Alicia spoke to us after the service.  She took us onto the roof of the convent and showed us the view from up there.  The Israeli security wall surrounds the convent, you feel as though you could lean across and touch it and you can certainly do that in their grounds.  They live alongside this ugly, inhuman barrier and it has separated them from the community and the children to whom they were ministering. Their kindergarten, scarred by the effect of ‘Molotov Cocktails’ thrown across the wall into their grounds, has children’s friendly pictures painted, Banksy style, onto the cruel concrete. But the sisters represent that stoic attitude, they are there, they are calm, they carry on.  Children now have to travel 18 km to get to the kindergarten.  The ‘door’, more like a window in the wall, through which the children used to be passed from their hands of their mothers into the hands of the sisters has been closed by the Israeli government.  But the sisters stay calm and carry on.

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The kindergarten

Bethany was there before us, we couldn’t enter.  It was now not just the wall but the virus that was keeping us out.  Yet this was the place of hospitality, the town that Jesus called home when he was in Jerusalem, the place where his dear friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived.  This town, the name of which means ‘House of the Poor’, is now called in Arabic Al-Eizariya ‘The place of Lazarus’.  The one who Jesus brought back from the dead is the one who gives a name to the town, and we know that it too will have new life, at some time – and the sisters persistent, calm presence is testament to that.

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Bethany is the other side of the wall

When Jesus was in Bethany there was a great deal of frantic activity going on in the kitchen.  Pots were clanging as poor Martha tried to get dinner ready whilst her sister was sitting at Jesus feet, listening, as though there was nothing to be done.

‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10.41-42)

The sisters at the convent modeled this for me, the better part.  We waved goodbye at the end of our visit, better for it.  I had never been there before and in my quest for the ‘Hidden and Holy’ in the Holy Land, this was an amazing place to add to my list.

We were constantly adjusting the rest of the pilgrimage as places were closed down around us.  Our flight was cancelled and we had to leave earlier but that allowed me to get to the ransacked supermarket – so into all bad.  But as I was about to go to sleep on the final evening I looked out across the Sea of Galilee and the full moon shining across its still waters.

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Sister Moon

Beautiful.  Whatever tomorrow holds I will remember the sisters and that moon.

God,
in the midst of so much uncertainty,
anxiety
and fear,
help me to keep calm
and carry on.
Amen.

You’ll have to be patient

Patience is a virtue, so we are told. So could you be virtuous please and wait for me to get back from the pilgrimage to the Holy Land that I am on? I will then write a blog telling you all about it. Thanks. Until then pray for us as we will pray for you.

Southwark pilgrims on the Via Dolorosa

God of our pilgrimage, bless all our journeys and bring us at the last to our heavenly home where all our journeys end. Amen.

For all the saints

For the last ten years at Southwark Cathedral we have had an art installation for Lent. It is one of my favourite times in the year, the two days leading up to Ash Wednesday, when the artist arrives with their work and those who are going to assist with the installation begin the process.

The brief is comparatively simple. The tradition in the church is to either remove or veil the more splendid elements of the building. For us the focal point of attention is Bishop Fox’s Great Screen which stands behind the High Altar. In the niches are figures from the history of Southwark, from the earliest days until the time it became a cathedral in 1905. At the centre are the gilded figures which represent our dedication, St Saviour, Jesus seated in majesty and Our Lady, St Mary Overie, seated with the Christ child in her arms. So one thing that we want the art to do is in some way to provide a veil. But secondly we want something that will make us reflect and pray during the weeks of Lent, that can focus our attention on some aspect of the Christian life and journey.

This year’s installation ‘Pilgrimage’

Each artist who we commission approaches the work very differently. This year Michelle Rumney was asked to work with us and the building. This is a special year, a Year of Pilgrimage for all English Cathedrals. There is a Pilgrim Passport, for instance, now available so that people can record their own journey around all the cathedrals. The reason for this focus is, of course, that this is the 900th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Becket, the 850th anniversary of his martyrdom and the 800th anniversary of the translation of his remains into the great shrine in Canterbury Cathedral built to honour him and provide a focus for one of the great European pilgrimages.

At Southwark Cathedral we have had a great relationship with this particular pilgrimage. As Chaucer records, it was from the immediate environs of the Priory of St Mary Overie that the pilgrims set off on their journey to Canterbury and was the place to which they returned bearing their pilgrim badge of St Thomas. Chaucer tells us in the Prologue how ‘various sorts of people, by chance fallen in fellowship, and they were all pilgrims’ had gathered ‘in Southwark at the Tabard Inn’ where the narrator lay ‘in April with its sweet-smelling showers’.

Michelle has taken this whole notion of the pilgrimage, the journey but also the ‘saints’, the ‘various sorts of people’ who make the journey. Immediately before and just after Christmas Michelle was with us for two whole Sundays. She had rolls of twine with her and scissors and we were measured. We held the twine to our heads and she cut the length where it touched the floor. Then she carefully wound the length, our height, something of our nature and put it carefully in her basket. She did this with 850 worshippers, visitors, pilgrims. People were surprised and delighted to be measured.

‘For all the saints’

Some of these lengths of twine became the wick for human scale candles made specially for us by Farris’. They now stand like sentinels at the front of the art and when lit they come alive. The other lengths are joined together and veil the altar, a countless company of pilgrims, saints on a journey. Amongst the candles is one for St Thomas and another for Marion Marples, a parishioner, one of our Pastoral Assistants who died suddenly last year. She was a champion, with her husband, of the pilgrim route to Canterbury and it was she who introduced us to Michelle. Now her candle burns brightly before us. It is beautiful.

This whole business of making human scale candles is a mediaeval idea. It’s called ‘measuring to the saint’ and these candles were made and burnt as a witness to much pilgrim prayer in the holy places. It is such a powerful idea. As the candles were first lit I was deeply moved, unexpectedly moved, as the wax came to life and the flame flickered. It was as though the dead were praying with us on our journey.

Drawn towards the vanishing point

When you enter the cathedral however what first catches your eye are the huge theatrical flats at the sides of the sanctuary drawing our eye into the distant vanishing point, the goal of the journey, the goal of the pilgrimage and through the twine we glimpse those gold figures of Jesus and Mary. It is wonderful. The scale is tremendous. You must see it if you possibly can. It will be in place, candles gradually burning down, until Holy Saturday. Then, as St Matthew tells us,

the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.’ (Matthew 27.51)

and we saw the whole glory of God.

The prayer I have written to accompany the installation picks up on this whole idea of measuring ourselves. I hope you get as much out of this installation as I hope to get out of it as we make the journey, the pilgrimage to Holy Week and Easter.

God,
you formed me and love me.
Each hair on my head you know,
not a cubit to my height can I add,
every day of my life is counted.
You do not compare me to others
but hold before me the measure of holiness.
May I live up to the measure of your love
and burn as a light before your face
now and for ever.
Amen.

Points make prizes

One of the joys and privileges of my life is being involved in the Livery. Though no way restricted to ‘Londoners’ the fact that the Guilds of the City of London are physically located in the square mile and are so entwined in the governance of the City means that it can be quite London-centric. So, to be honest I knew nothing of the Livery before arriving in London. And it wasn’t until I came to the cathedral that I was invited to become a participant.

‘What do points make?’

I say that all the Liveries are located in the City. That is true but in a quirky kind of way in some instances. There is a Hall opposite Southwark Cathedral, which as people familiar with the geography of London will know, is not in the City. But the Hall is physically attached to the southern end of London Bridge, which is in the city in its entirety, and so a building attached to it must also be in the City!

In what is called Glaziers’ Hall are not just the Glaziers but also the Launderers and the Scientific Instrument Makers. They share the Hall and its facilities. When I arrived back in 1999 I was invited to consider being the Honorary Chaplain to the Launderers and twenty years ago I took up the responsibility. That company is ‘closed’ so it means that all the members are part of the industry or associated trades. I now know more than I could ever imagine about the laundry industry.

A few years ago I was invited to become the Chaplain to the Innholders. They were planning the celebration of a big anniversary – the 500th of being granted a Royal Charter – and it was great to be involved. The Innholders are the innkeepers, the hoteliers, the hospitality industry and on the top of the arms of the Company (for the Launders it is a cat licking herself clean) is the star that settled over the inn at Bethlehem, the innkeeper of the nativity story being a bit of a hero.

This though is an ‘open’ company and so you can be a member even if you aren’t working in the industry. But nevertheless many people, and many people associated with the Company, particularly through its ‘apprenticeship’ scheme, are working in hotels across the country.

There is some synergy between these two Companies to which I am Chaplain (for completeness I should add that I am also honorary in relation to the Glaziers, but I’m not their Chaplain) in that the Launderers wash and supply the bed linen and napery and the Innholders use it. But there is something else as well.

Last week the Government announced what the new immigration rules would look like. Though it is ‘what people voted for’ nevertheless it hasn’t landed well with many people. The ‘Australian’ point based system may work in some places but will it work for us? And is that how we want to welcome people into our country. But members of both of the Livery Companies of which I am part will feel the pinch, because both employ a lot of people who wouldn’t be covered by the proposals. The hospitality industry and the laundry industry rely on hard working, relatively low paid workers. They aren’t unskilled – being a waiter is a worthy profession and handling laundry is technical and demanding – but where will they come from, the people who do these jobs? We are told that there is an economically inactive group of people out there who will do the jobs. I wait to see.

But my other concern is at the other end of the scale. One of the many catchphrases made famous by the late great Sir Bruce Forsyth in the quiz show ‘Play your cards right’, was ‘What do points make?’ and the response from the audience was ‘Points make prizes.’ For those at the other end of the points scales – those with lucrative job offers, those with PhDs, those who we want, the points will make prizes. But isn’t this a way of just creaming off the best from other societies, other countries, where their skills will really be needed. Shouldn’t the brightest and the best be raising the economy and the standards of the places where they already live?

But this isn’t a political blog, no, really! I’ve always said that we should reflect and respond theologically to the issues that press upon us. For me that has to be about valuing people, whoever they are, and giving them equal value. Mrs Alexander in ‘All things bright and beautiful’ might have compared ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’ but that, I think, is a false reading of scripture.

The Letter of James is powerful stuff. Chapter 2 begins like this

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? (James 2.1)

James compares our treatment of the poor and the rich and challenges every act of discrimination but from the basis that God has an option for the poor, that in the Gospel it is the poor that get the points and win the prize of everlasting life. Counter cultural. Makes you think.

Jesus, you embraced our poverty so that we might share your riches. May we live that truth now. Amen.

On the fringe

It was in the immediate post-war years, in 1947, that the Fringe became part of the Edinburgh Festival.  The name of this alternative to the official arts festival was an invention, but the name stuck and has, over those years, become global and accepted.  We know what fringe events are, the things that happen on the edges.

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The fringe – the edge

I spent most of last week, as followers of this blog will know, at the meeting of the General Synod in Westminster.  If you haven’t seen my various reflections, once or twice a day, then you can find them here.  One of the things that I seldom comment about, however, is the Synod fringe.

As a Group of Sessions approaches we begin to get emails, or flyers, now helpfully bundled together in an official package by the Synod office, enticing and inviting us to different events that happen over breakfast, over lunch and before dinner.  These are alternatively opportunities for hobby horse riders and anorak wearers to invite other riders or sartorial dressers to come along and share their passion, or they are useful information sharing occasions.  Whichever they are they can be huge fun and really helpful.

I am a member of two Synod groups and I regularly try to attend other meetings whenever I can.  The first evening of any Synod is always the occasion when ACiS (Affirming Catholics in Synod – everything has an acronym) meets.  There are a number of ‘tribal’ gatherings, this is one of them.  Whether you are a conservative evangelical or catholic, an open evangelical or a progressive catholic, whether you are in a tribe that doesn’t like to think of itself as a tribe, there is a group for you.  So EGGS meets almost always when ACiS meets (EGGS is the Evangelical Group in General Synod) but being as no one would want to be at both of these that doesn’t matter.  There are the ‘Catholic Societies’ which doesn’t include members of ACiS because the latter is in support of the ordination of women (it’s basically Affirming Catholicism and the Society of Catholic Priests meeting together though not entirely or exclusively).  There’s the Open Synod Group which is none of the above and I understand that there was at this Synod the first meeting of an Evangelical Forum which represents those from the open end of that group.  WATCH (Women and the Church) has a meeting, and … well, you get the point.

At one level, of course there is always the danger of fragmentation but the CofE is already fragmented and tribal, we just have to be honest about this.  At their best these groups allow for letting off steam, for doing some theology, for preparing for debates, for talking through the issues.  I find the ACiS meeting invaluable.  If we are in Westminster we meet for a Mass in the lovely church of St Matthew just around the corner and then have supper and a romp through the agenda.  And that is where I catch up with my friends immediately, at the beginning of Synod.

Whilst the Cathedrals Measure has been on the Synod agenda we have been running fringe events to help members who are interested in cathedrals (we should never assume everyone is) to come along for some information sharing and an opportunity for questions to be answered.  So early on Tuesday we held a breakfast gathering just before the debate on the Measure happened.

And I always try to go to the Synod group meeting on sexuality.  This time, in the aftermath of the Bishops’ Statement, there was a fantastic and positive session on services of prayer, fitting the bishops’ guidelines and encouragement, that churches and cathedrals have offered to single-sex couples.  What was shared was so imaginative and inspiring and encouraged people in the room to think positively and creatively.

So thank God for the fringe.  Of course, it was there, on the fringe, that Jesus did so much of his best and life-changing work.  The fringe was where the excluded gathered and as Jesus walked through the communities, that was where he found people, on the fringe.  They were on the fringe of their society, on the edge of community, the marginalised and at the margin he brought them back to the centre, which in fact was the heart of the love of God.

The irony was that a woman on the fringe found healing by the fringe.

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ (Matthew 9.20-21)

Her plight was excluding her, the fringe brought her to the centre.  The edge can be a most creative place to be.

God, may those who live on the fringe
know your love as the centre.
Amen.

There’s a storm a’coming!

Nowadays we’re given a great deal of warning about storms.  The Great Storm of 1987, that occurred during the night of 15-16 October, passed me by completely with me noticing nothing.  That is a bit odd when I tell you that I was staying that night with a friend who was then living in Surrey.  We had had a nice evening and a few glasses of wine.  I went to bed and slept very well.  I woke early and looked out from my bedroom to see devastation around us.  We walked out, stepping over fallen trees.  18 people died as a result of that storm and since then weather forecasters have urged on the side of caution!  So we are bracing ourselves for the arrival of Storm Ciara and will see what it brings.

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Oh dear! This happened just down the road from where I was staying!

The greatest image of a storm must be in ‘The Wizard of Oz’.  Poor Dorothy caught up in the eye of the storm and deposited in another world, a parallel universe almost.  It could be metaphor for the other storm that could be brewing, the General Synod of the Church of England, which meets at Westminster this coming week – very often something of a parallel universe!  From Monday until Thursday we will be battening down the hatches and remembering the immortal words of screen legend Bette Davies in the 1950 classic ‘All about Eve’,

“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

I shared my opinions last week about the Bishop’s Pastoral Statement which rather trod on the toes of the Living in Love and Faith project, and exposed the thinking of the members of the House of Bishops (or some of them).  The publication of that Statement has provoked a large number of questions which will come to Synod on Monday.  There are 121 questions on the Order Paper and at least 15 of them are about the Statement.

But as with all Groups of Sessions what might not seem contentious can provoke a bit of storm.  One of those things may be The Channel Islands Measure, which I will have the privilege of chairing through all its stages in this Synod.  But the predictions of a bit of a squall might be exaggerated.  We wait to see.

Whatever actually happens, I hope that you will follow my Synod blog.  You can find the link here.  I do my best to update the blog as often as I can and to be as honest I can be about what goes on.

What reassures me in all of this is that the gospel experience is that Jesus brings calm to the storm.  The disciples thought their end was nigh as the wind picked up and the rain fell and they were being tossed about on the waters of the lake.  And then Jesus speaks as Mark tells us

Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (Mark 4.39-41)

Jesus speaks words of peace into each of the storms that we face, the ones we know are heading our way and the ones that seem to come from nowhere, and that catch us unawares.  But as the wind builds up and the trees around us shake we need to have faith in the one whom even the wind and sea obey.

Lord Jesus,
speak your word of peace
into our storms.
Amen.

What’s love got to do with it?

‘What’s love got to do with it’ sang the wonderful Tina Turner. Well, nothing if you believe the Church of England.

Whether or not the bishops of the Church of England intended the Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships to be released in the way that it was last week, the effect of its publication is that the cat is out of the bag.  Whether or not this was deemed business of the House that fell to the bottom of everyone’s inboxes and filing trays over Christmas, we know what ‘the Church’ thinks about sex and the only proper place for intimate sexual relationships to take place, that is, within marriage.  Of course, I know that this document was restating the classic teaching of the church and many of the things that were said were identical to the document released back in 2005.  However, I was naively hoping that we were a church prepared to engage, with imagination and generosity, with the reality that exists around relationships in our society.

Gay_marriage_1671810c

For one reason or another I have watched the bio-pic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ a few times on various flights I have taken (this all goes back to my ridiculous relationships with films that followers of this blog will be familiar with). I really enjoyed it and it reminded me of so many of the great songs that Freddie Mercury and Queen performed.  And some of their lyrics from one of the songs have been playing in my head

This thing called love, I just can’t handle it
This thing called love, I must get round to it
I ain’t ready
Crazy little thing called love.

The word ‘love’ was completely absent from the statements that the House of Bishops have presented to the church over the years.  We just can’t handle it, this whole idea that people might actually love one another and that that love might find its expression in loving acts.  We just can’t handle it.  That is what I find so deeply disturbing.

The statement reiterates that

While clergy are fully entitled to argue, in the Living in Love and Faith process and
elsewhere, for a change in that teaching, they are not entitled to claim the liberty to set it
aside.

That, in fact, was the only place that the four-letter word ‘love’ actually appeared, in relation to the process in which we are engaged.  We await the publication of the report of the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ group and all the study material that will be presented to us to engage with the issues.  But what we have to do is actually have the courage to talk about love.  Jesus does it all the time, the early church talked about it, but in all of this we seem to have forgotten that when two people commit themselves to each other, whatever the form of that commitment might take, it is probably, most probably because they love one another – and it is that which I want to be able to bless, the love that responds, echoes, re-echoes the divine impulse to love.  But at the moment I cannot and so I continue to argue that we must change and change as an institution as well as change our teaching.

So we issued a statement from Southwark Cathedral last week in response to the Statement and I am delighted that our Diocesan Bishop has endorsed it.  It simply says this

Southwark Cathedral remains committed to our values of radical, faithful inclusion.  It was therefore with sadness that we read the recently published statement from the House of Bishops following the introduction of Civil Partnerships for heterosexual couples.  Whilst we recognise the church’s teaching we also want to support and encourage people who are entering loving, faithful and stable relationships of all kinds and joyfully celebrate their love for one another.  We will continue to offer a pastoral and liturgical response to those from our community who ask for the opportunity to come to church around the time of their Civil Partnership or Marriage and, whilst keeping within the bishops’ guidelines will always make a generous response.  We wish it to be known that we believe that we are all loved by God regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, ability or sexuality and Southwark Cathedral will continue to remain as a beacon of light and hope for all who feel excluded by the church.

It’s a crazy little thing, this thing called love but as John said in his letter to the church

Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4.8)

I know that the gospels use a variety of words for the variety of forms of love but I also know that it was out of love that all things came into being, that through love we have been saved and in love that we are held.  If I can reflect that love in all my relationships then surely that is a blessing that can be blessed.

Oh, and before I go, in the week when the United Kingdom was facing the greatest change in its governance and place in the world for half a century, the Church of England yet again takes its eye off the ball, ignores the nation and talks about sex! You couldn’t make it up!

God of love
may we love as you love us.
Amen.

Opening the door

There is something very intriguing about closed doors – we often find ourselves wondering what is behind them. That is the premise of course of books like ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. Open the door and a whole new world lies beyond; you never know what treasures await you.

This weekend I am in Jerusalem attending the Centenary Celebrations of St George’s College. The College was founded 100 years ago to train priests for the church out here. But over the years it moved from doing that to providing study pilgrimages for individuals and groups from across the Anglican Communion. The College is in the Anglican Cathedral close and so part of the wider community that exists here. I first experienced the welcome and the facilities and the opportunities that the place provides when I spent half of my sabbatical here in 2016. I came out here with the intention of finding places that pilgrims to the Holy Land and particularly to Jerusalem seldom, if ever, visit. I have since been back on a number of occasions.

So it is great to be part of the celebrations. Canon Richard Sewell is the Dean of the College and the Course Director is Canon Mary June Nestler. With other staff here they form a terrific team.

As part of the celebrations we were treated to a morning out doing precisely what I had been doing on my sabbatical, going to two places that are not visited by many people and it meant going through two doors that are usually locked!

The first gate

There is a great deal of archeology going on in the Holy Land at all times and visitors will often see digs happening. Some of these are highly controversial, such as the ones around the old City of David that lies under the Palestinian village of Silwan. Not far from there, continuing up the road that skirts the walls of the city, and opposite the catholic cemetery where Oscar Schindler is buried, is one of these archaeological sites.

An unprepossessing temporary gate set in a concrete wall was opened and we went through into an archaeological site. This is where a gate that no longer exists used to be. The line of the present walls of Jerusalem which pilgrims see is not what it was at the time of Jesus. What is being discovered here is what is known as the Essene Gate. We were shown the line of the Bronze Age wall and then the later walls built upon it, the line of the Roman road that came through the gate and then the level of the Byzantine gate and houses. There was so much to see. This gate, looking towards the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna, would have been known by Jesus and it is named after the sect, the Essenes, of which John the Baptist might have been a member, the group that lived at Qumran. It was a privilege to see.

The remains of the wall and gate

From there we walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was a beautiful day, crisp, cold but with a wonderful clear blue sky. The courtyard was full of pilgrim groups and the church was as packed as it always seems to be nowadays. But we turned right on entering and headed down to the Armenian Chapel. There we were met by Fr Samuel, one of the Armenian clergy who look after the chapel.

I had always known that chapel as being dedicated to St Helena, who discovered the True Cross on the site and whose son Constantine had the first basilica on the site built. But he told us that for the Armenians it is the chapel of St Gregory, the founder of the Armenian Church back in the very early 4th century. Then he took us to a black wrought iron door. One of our group was allowed to open it and we all went through.

Spot the door!

A number of years ago, about forty in fact, the Armenians decided to discover what lay behind their walls. What they found, when they removed all the dirt that was there, were the retaining walls built by Hadrian to create a platform on which his pagan temple could be built. This was destroyed by Constantine to build the basilica which, in a complex set of buildings, enshrined Calvary as well as the tomb of Jesus. But in addition to this the Armenians also discovered the bed rock and the lowest level of the quarry that occupied this site, the quarry above which the crucifixion occurred and the quarry alongside which Jesus was buried. We were deep below the level of the chapel and it was good to be there.

Behind the door

One other thing they had discovered was a stone on which had been inscribed a picture of a boat. A pilgrim, presumably had done this in the very early days of Christians coming to this place. And beneath the boat the words were written ‘O Lord, we have arrived.’ It is moving to see such evidence of the pilgrims who have trodden the path before you, who made the often perilous journey, by land and sea, to be here.

‘O Lord, we have arrived.’

We went back out and the door was locked. I was reminded of that lovely Epiphany anthem that we hear sung at this time. The music is by Herbert Howells, the words by Frances Chesterton

Here is the little door, 
lift up the latch, oh lift! 
We need not wander more, 
but enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold. 
Gold that was never bought or sold;
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;
Incense in clouds about His head;
All for the child that stirs not in His sleep,
But holy slumber hold with ass and sheep.

‘We need not wander more’, O Lord, we have arrived. The door is opened and we enter in and what treasures we find.

Lord, may we be door openers to others, that they too may find your treasures. 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

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

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

LIVING GOD

Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

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

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark