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.

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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.

The happiest days of my life

I have a strange relationship with films and those who know me well would agree with that.  I often make the ridiculous statement ‘I can only watch a film I’ve seen before.’ People, rightly, look at me with incredulity.  But I know what I mean.  I like what I like and I know what I don’t like – violence, horror, blood, suspense, things like that.  I do, however, trust my sister’s choice of films.  While I was staying with her and her family after Christmas they made me watch ‘The Hunt for the Wilderpeople’.  I loved it.  If you haven’t seen it I recommend it.  And I have watched ‘The Two Popes’ – I thought that was great – honest, moving, heart-warming (never I thought I’d say that about watching anything to do with the contemporary church!).  But one of my favourite films is the 1950’s classic, ‘The Happiest Days of Your Life’.  It’s a film similar to the St Trinian series, set in an out of control Public School, and stars Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford and is completely devoid of violence, horror, blood or suspense.  Perfect!

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Fab film

The Church of England is facing a crisis, another crisis.  This one is all to do with training for priesthood.  Flicking through this week’s Church Times there are a number of articles about the problems being faced by Westcott House in Cambridge.  They have specific problems and I am keeping them in my prayers but there is the wider issue the church has to face about the fate of residential training.

It is 40 years this year since I arrived at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield.  I looked at two other colleges before accepting a place there.  I went on a visit to Ripon College, Cuddesdon, which I thought seemed lovely but there was something not quite right for me, and I looked at Westcott.  I had a miserable few days there but I think that was because the previous weekend I had been to the College of the Resurrection and had had a ball.  I had thought that the Cambridge Federation would expose my little Anglo-Catholic self to something of the wider church but when I experienced that I knew that, at that stage, I needed something more solidly catholic.  So that is how I ended up in the Calder Valley for three years.

I hadn’t read any theology and barely done RE at school.  But I had been to church all my life with no gaps for teenage rebellion – those years passed me by.  But I had achieved a good enough first degree to enable me to read Theology at Leeds University under the professorship of David Jenkins.  So for my first two years I was a ‘Leeds Man’ as we were called.  Each day a few of us on the degree course piled into one of the College cars and drove off to Leeds, leaving our cassocks and scapulars behind and being proper students.

But after lectures we would head back to reengage with the ‘Common Life’.  We talked about that concept a great deal, and sins against it.  These were the days before ‘devices’ and you were not allowed to have a tele in your room as that was anti the Common Life, so the only way of watching the box was by going to the TV Room and entering into negotiation with those already there.  It was an experience similar to what you used to have in boarding houses by the seaside or on wards in hospital where you had to agree with a bunch of strangers whether it was to be BBC or ITV.  Of course, during my years at Mirfield ‘Brideshead Revisited’ was being shown and the TV Room was packed out with those who wished to be the reincarnation of Sebastian Flyte!

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The journey between College and church

Living the common life was part of what we were there to do, learning how to be alongside other people, with all their quirks and demands.  We had to serve at table and clear the pots; we had to clean the toilets and do the gardening; we had to rehearse serving and the chant, clean the chapel and meet all the requirements of an academic institution.  Above all we had to be in church.  There was no choice about this.  You went to Morning Prayer and Evensong each day.  You had to be at Mass on Sundays and Feast Days and the College Mass once a week, but most of us were at Mass every day.  And you had to be in church meditating and you had to have a Spiritual Director and there was an expectation that you would make your Confession.  There was very little resistance to any of this.  We simply followed the rules.  We knew that we had to be in our cassocks and scapulars most of the day, for church, for meals, for lectures, that we would wear black shoes or sandals.  We got used to being strange and living a dedicated life.  To put it simply, we were being formed for priesthood.

I cannot begin to tell you how much that has made me the priest and the person that I am. I found the place and its tight structure strangely liberating. I began to understand who I was and I was able to build a resilient prayer life and a pattern of committed worship that continues to see me through each day.  It was a hard thing to express to my family but these were the happiest days of my life.

The strange thing is above everything else a priest needs to learn resilience.  Of course you need to know how to properly lay out and fold a corporal on an altar – essential.  And some theology and biblical knowledge helps.  But if you are to survive then you need a disciplined life of prayer and worship and you have to know how to relate to a bunch of people, lay and ordained, who you think will share your views and beliefs and priorities and often don’t.  Parish life is not easy, nor is cathedral life to be honest, but then college life wasn’t always the bed of roses that I have so far suggested.  But there is a real sense that wherever God places you, wherever God calls you, to whomsoever God sends you you have to get on with it.  If that sounds less than life-giving then I have expressed myself badly.  The structure I was given day-in, day-out, in residential training equipped me to survive and to flourish.

That is my concern.  I am sure that courses in all their forms are great and that they provide excellent training but there is nothing that they can supply that can replace the experience of being residential, being formed in a particular environment, for a peculiar and particular priestly ministry.  But the church has to decide what she wants from her next generation of clergy because the truth is, you only get out what you put in.

Thinking of all this makes me pray once more the prayer of the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold.

For all that has been, thanks.
For all that will be, yes.
Amen.

What a beginning!

I’ve been on my post-Christmas holiday.  I had to wait on this occasion until after the New Year had arrived and my colleagues had had their time off.  So it was great to be able to preside at the Eucharist early on New Year’s day, the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus (Mary Mother of God in the Roman Calendar), and to pray for God’s blessing on the year and the new decade that lay before us.

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Wonderful fireworks in London to welcome a new decade

Having been warned off horoscopes as a child by our vicar when I was preparing for Confirmation – it was one of the sins mentioned in the list of potential sins that we were given, a kind of checklist of naughtiness – and never having ventured into Madam Zaza’s gypsy tent on a pier to have my fortune told, I’ve never really been that interested in knowing in advance what is waiting round the corner for me.  As Jesus so wonderfully puts it in St Matthew’s Gospel and in the translation of the King James Version

‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ (Matthew 6.34)

But the events that we have been dealing with so far this year have been monumental in their different ways. In Australia the year began as it ended, with fire sweeping across the bush and the forests and threatening communities and lives.

Then President Trump decides to order the assassination of Major General Qassem Suleimani whilst he was in Iraq.  As so many commentators have said, his actions have caused the deaths of many people.  But it felt like an act of real and dangerous provocation on the part of the President without any sense of what the next steps would be. Then the news of the crash of the Ukrainian Airline flight and the death of 173 people was terrible.  And now we have learnt that this was as a result of a catastrophic mistake when a missile was launched against it the level of danger in the region is even more real.

And finally the Duke and Duchess of Sussex make their announcement about how they see their future and none of us quite knows where this leaves them, or the rest of the Royal Family but we are assured that all will become clear very quickly.

Whilst all of this has been going on, the House of Commons approved the ‘Brexit Bill’ and it has now been passed to the House of Lords.  The cameras and the crowds have left College Green, the flags are no longer waving and the whole business if our withdrawal is now moving towards its inevitable conclusion.  Cathedrals are being asked whether or not they will be asking their ringers to ring on the night of 31 January a peal of joy but maybe silent prayer is the answer in these circumstances.

Then some very good news as the Northern Ireland Assembly makes a return to Stormont and takes up the responsibility of the governance of the Province.  Those who have managed and encouraged this have to be congratulated.

What a beginning!  I never saw any of this coming!

At Southwark Cathedral we are beginning our Year of Vision.  Each term during this year we will be concentrating on one of the three key words in our value statement – inclusive, faithful, radical.  So this term our focus will be on what it really means for us to be an inclusive community and that has to be much more than being LGBT+ friendly, which is what we are so often known for, though it will continue to mean that, but more besides.  What I do know is that with all that is happening it is vital to have vision. As it says in the Book of Proverbs

‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’ (Proverbs 29.18)

Whether it is in relation to the environment, global politics, internal order, the shape of our institutions, the lives of individuals, the place of the church, we need vision, and we need to hold to it.

God, give us clear vision
and a commitment to it.
Amen.

‘It’s a mystery’

During Advent I was invited to a parish in Kingston to preach at their morning service.  It is one of the things that I really enjoy, getting out of the Cathedral and into the diocese.  Don’t get me wrong; I love being in the Cathedral.  But as I keep reminding people, being a Dean is not just about looking after life in the cathedral, it is also about being the Senior Priest in the diocese.  Knowing what that means will vary between people and places but for me it has always meant getting out into what is a very large and populous and exciting diocese.  So, I arrived at this church where I had had the joy of acting as Patron for the last appointment.  I went into the vestry and the vicar said to me ‘We found this when we were clearing out a cupboard.  I thought you might be interested.’

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From the vestry cupboard

What it was was a copy of the Southwark Diocesan Gazette from 100 years ago. This was the forerunner of ‘The Bridge’, the present Diocesan newspaper.  But in this edition was included an article on All Hallow’s Southwark.  This is a church that is now in the Cathedral parish. However, it is no longer a functioning church and the building that is referred to in the article no longer exists as it then did.  During the Second World War the building suffered terrible damage and only part of the Victorian structure now exists.  A new aisle was added in the 1950’s to enable the church to continue as a parish church, but with the changes in demographics and churchgoing in the 1970’s the parish ceased to exist and it was put instead under the care of the cathedral.  We have plans for the future of the church but until we have the money they remain just plans.

What this article describes, however, is the rather exotic ecclesiastical life and practice at All Hallows.  The tradition of the church was at the top end of the candle.  Such scandalous things were happening, as are described in this piece, including ‘wearing a stole, making the Sign of the Cross and using the mixed chalice.’  Can you imagine?! The church was under regular attack from more protestant groups for these Popish practices.  At one stage a petition was made to the House of Lords to get all of these excesses stopped but the then Bishop of Winchester (the parish then being in his diocese) defended the priest and the Clewer Sisters who were at that time based there.

I was thinking of all this as I was saying Mass this morning.  I had said the Offertory Prayer, ‘Blessed are you…’, over the bread and then took the empty chalice to meet the verger who was serving me.  He had the cruets in his hands, wine and water, and I charged and mixed the chalice.  What was a scandal back in 1878 is much more commonplace now.  The congregation hardly noticed what I was doing. Not a glimmer of a reaction to what was going on!

When the priest mixes the chalice they often say the ‘Secret Prayer’ that accompanies the action.

By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

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‘By the mystery…’

I have said these words so many times over the last 36 years, day in, day out, as I have stood at the altar, presiding at the Eucharist.  But as I said them today the words struck me.  We are still in the Christmas Season, still celebrating the mystery of the incarnation and here in the chalice part of that mystery is expressed.  As the water and wine mix together in the chalice, so in Christ these two natures, co-mingle as it were, divinity embraces humanity, humanity embraces divinity.  That mystery, celebrated in a backstreet church in Southwark, a scandal to so many, is still in its essence a scandal to some.  How can this be, this mystery of the incarnation, this deep truth of Christmas, that as St Athanasius described

‘God became man that man might become God.’

In the film ‘Shakespeare in love’ we meet a former Warden and Vestryman of St Saviour’s Southwark, now the Cathedral, Philip Henslowe, who has a phrase which recurs throughout the story.

Philip Henslowe Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman How?
Philip Henslowe I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

It’s a mystery.  That is what we are drawn into at Christmas and drawn into in the Eucharist and drawn into in every liturgy.  It may have been shocking at the time but that is what churches like All Hallows were seeking to rediscover and re-present, through ritual, through teaching, in mission, the wonderful mystery of God.

God of majesty, God of mystery,
take the water of my life and make of it the wine of the kingdom,
take the worship that we offer and make it a window into heaven,
take the stuff of today and make it the sign of our eternal tomorrow,
take our flesh and make it divine.
Amen.

Last Christmas

So, it has been the last Christmas of the decade and what a great place to end with a ‘Gavin and Stacey’ special on Christmas Day.  After almost a decade it was reassuring to know that not that much has changed in our society, that millions of us could still tune in together, at the same time, to watch a Christmas special.  Perhaps we are not as divided as we feared!  It felt like the old days when we would settle down to watch ‘The Morecombe and Wise Show’ to see which TV celebrity would be making a fool of themselves or showing what a good sport they were.  Angela Rippon, Glenda Jackson, Andre Previn, they all appeared.  But the trip back to Billericay and Barry was heartwarming and I have to admit to shedding a tear as Ness knelt before Smithy at the end of the Christmas Day special.

TV Family

How we used to watch the TV

It was a good Christmas at the Cathedral, or I should say, a good Advent and Christmas Day because Christmas has only begun. But it was good to see so many coming along to carol services and concerts, to special events and then to all the services around Christmas Day itself.

We normally have one ‘Christmas Message’ each, the clergy at the Cathedral that is, that we preach at the Carol Services we are looking after.  In the end I had to have two – pre and post election.  So just for the record these are the two that I have been preaching.  Have a wonderful Christmas and as Stacey said to Gavin, ‘We’ve got to keep the fire burning.’


This was my first homily!

You may be a Lidl food shopper, or perhaps it’s Aldi where you go, or maybe Iceland – ‘Mum’s love Iceland’ so I’m told or you may in fact be an M&S food person, or even, Waitrose but wherever it is you go you may well have picked up from the checkout one of those Christmas catalogues they have lying around to entice you.

To be perfectly honest I like a bit of convenience.  I’ve been flicking through the catalogue from my local food shop, M&S Simply Food to see what I might order to make Christmas Day really easy and non-stressful, at least where the kitchen is concerned.

Turkeylifestyle

Oven ready!

They’ve got ready stuffed this, pre-cut that, perfect roast potatoes, Christmas cakes in every shape and size, puddings you don’t have to boil for three hours.  I’m almost ashamed to admit it, here in the midst of the Borough Market where I could buy all the ingredients and put these things together myself – from scratch.  But, no, I think I’ll go for convenience, again!

It was inconvenient to have a General Election called for today, ‘Just the worst time of the year’ to pinch a phrase from the poet, T S Eliot.  Lots to do, schools and church halls all booked up, so much to distract us and an election to bother about when we could be least bothered.

But a bit of inconvenience goes with Christmas.

When the message reached Nazareth that a decree had been issued that everyone had to be in their home town to be counted, it was very inconvenient if you came from Bethlehem and were living up north in Nazareth.  But there was nothing for it, pregnant wife and all had to be loaded onto a donkey and a week’s journey undertaken.  ‘Just the worst time of the year’.

It was inconvenient for the innkeeper to have a pregnant woman on his doorstep, inconvenient for shepherds having to leave their flocks by night, inconvenient for star gazers to be pulled away from gazing at ‘Just the worst time of the year’. It was inconvenient for a capricious king to be told a new king had been born just the other side of the hill, where stars were shining.

It was so inconvenient.  But God knew there was nothing else that could be done and broke into our reality in the most inconvenient way.  God came as a needy baby, God came in total vulnerability, God came as child to save his children.  It was inconvenient but there was no other way.

And the world stopped what it was doing, forgot all the distractions, and as the poet Christina Rossetti described it in one of her carols, humanity was

‘Thrilled through with awestruck love.’

Whether you’re ready for God or not, God comes to you, God comes to us, inconveniently asking us to live differently, to live better.  God comes to us inconveniently speaking of truth and justice, of peace, of hope; inconveniently holding up the poor and challenging the rich.  God comes inconveniently, even when everything seemed oven-ready!

But we have been ‘Thrilled through with awestruck love.’  We see it in the crib, we see it on the cross.  We weren’t ready, it wasn’t the time, but God comes at God’s time, in our time, bringing us hope, speaking of peace, embodying love.  God has come to bring us home, whether it’s convenient for us – or not.


This is the homily I have been preaching post-election.

I make it no secret that I love Christmas.  Scrooge and I would just not see eye to eye at all – there’s no humbug in it for me, just pure joy.  But am I just really in love with the fantasy of Christmas? For me that fantasy is a bit like the recipe for a Christmas cake, so many ingredients to create that incredible flavour.

The Christmas inside my head is about trees and carols and snow, it has elements of ‘Home Alone’, ‘White Christmas’, ‘Frozen’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, lashings of Band Aid, the Pogues with Kirsty McCall (of course), Noddy Holder, Phil Spectre, Michael Buble, its about a sprinkling of memories of selection boxes, Blue Peter annuals, the Radio Times special, waking up early on Christmas morning and wearing paper hats.  In my head and in my heart there’s such a fantasy of Christmas.

Card-MerryXmas_Snowscene1

The fantasy of Christmas

But if I stop fantasising, just for a moment, I suddenly realise that most of the Christmases that I’ve enjoyed have been nothing like that.  Presents break as soon as you look at them, the turkey is tough, grandma snores in the corner, the tele is rubbish and it rains all day.  Reality impinges on my fantasy and the magic and the sparkle and the glitter and the angels seem to disappear.

The truth is that Christmas is both about our fantasies, let’s call them our dreams, and it’s also about our reality.  Christmas is about the joy of anticipation, the building up of hope, in the midst of the ordinary and the mundane.  Christmas is about arriving in a town in the dead of night and finding that the inns are full.  It’s about being given a stable instead of a warm bed in which to have your baby.  Christmas is about heaven breaking into our harsh reality.

Just as we were about to begin the countdown to Christmas, before we’d even been able to open a single door on our Advent Calendar and enjoy the chocolate hidden behind it, this community was drawn into a second terror attack.  The events on the other side of the river at Fishmongers’ Hall and then on London Bridge, the deaths of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, the injuring of bodies, the disturbing of minds, the reopening of wounds, the stirring up of memories, made for a harsh beginning to the anticipation of Christmas.  But this was the reality in which we started to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I was at a carol service the other day and looking through the order of service beforehand realised that the choir would be singing my favourite carol.  It’s called ‘Bethlehem Down’, the words are by Bruce Blunt and the music by Peter Warlock.  They wrote it together in 1927 to finance a binge drinking session that they were planning for Christmas Eve that year. They wrote the carol, entered it into the Daily Telegraph Carol Competition for that year, won and I suppose drank the winnings!  Perhaps not a great reason for doing it.  But what they produced is deeply poignant and shockingly honest.

When He is King they will clothe Him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown.

In nativity plays in schools and churches across the world a doll is wrapped and laid to rest in a manger, but the child as a man will be wrapped in other cloths and laid once more to rest, in a tomb.  Jesus is born into our harsh reality because we exist in the real world, you exist in the real world and it’s to the real world that God comes, in peace, with hope. We mustn’t allow the fantasy of Christmas to obscure its reality.

But, you know, we also need a touch of the sparkle and the magic of Christmas to shine into the world, we need Disney, we need Michael Buble and a fantasy of Christmas to make us realise the truth of what is so amazing, that God is with us, that heaven touches earth as a child is born.

Feel some of the magic of Christmas now and face the reality of tomorrow when it comes, knowing that when it does come God is with us, God is with you.


Whatever your Christmas was like, whichever of these best describes it, I hope that the new year is full of blessings as we continue to encounter the Living God.

Living God,
your life gives life to the world;
live in us,
live in me,
may our lives reflect your life.
Amen.

The Four Last Things

Just on the edge of Dartmoor, about a half hours drive outside of Exeter is the home of the Society of Mary and Martha at Sheldon.  It’s a beautiful place, old thatched barns re-purposed to provide chapels, meeting rooms, accommodation and lovely places of welcome for those who go there to find the space to reflect and recover.  In the past two years I have been twice and on both occasions to lead retreats. So, in the last week before Advent, I was there to lead a retreat which I had called ‘The Advent of Eternity’.  It was based on what are known as ‘The Four Last Things’, a traditional Advent meditation on heaven, hell, death and judgement.  They are tough subjects, but rich ground for contemplation and discussion – and over the week we did both as we took each of these ‘things’ in turn, and in listening and in worship looked at what these meant to us as we also studied the awesome paintings by John Martin that can be found in Tate Britain.

The Last Judgement 1853 by John Martin 1789-1854

‘The Last Judgement’ by John Martin

 

Like most right-minded people I have been horrified by the reaction to the Revd David Coles’ death and the messages that his partner, the Revd Richard Coles, has received from so called Christians.  I am ashamed of those who could write to someone in grief to say that they hoped that their loved one was ‘burning in hell’. What such expressions of what can only be described as a warped understanding of Christianity reveal is the depths of homophobia that continue to exist in parts of the church, the inability that some have to ever accept the Good News that Jesus both is and brings and the lack of common humanity in the cold stony hearts of some of our sisters and brothers.  Richard, existing as he does for part of each week in the media and having a high profile on social media, is bound to attract attention, and not all of it positive, of course.  But this cruel reaction makes me think of those powerful words from the book of the prophet Zechariah

‘And if anyone asks them, ‘What are these wounds on your chest?’ the answer will be ‘The wounds I received in the house of my friends.’’ (Zechariah 13.6)

But I know that the wicked people who do such cruel and sinful things are a very very small minority of Christians, but they have the capacity to destroy lives and to seriously hamper the work of the gospel. Our prayers at Southwark Cathedral have been for David and with Richard.

But having spent a week with others thinking about those ‘Four Last Things’ it makes me wonder what kind of view of heaven some people have.  The simple question is, how big or how small is heaven?  Is your heaven so big that all humanity can find their eternal home in it, or is your heaven so small that few will be admitted there.  And, if the latter is true, do I even want to be in such a heaven – though I know that according to the beliefs of some there is no place in heaven for me.  At one of the Church of England’s ‘Shared Conversations’ on sexuality a very nice person sitting next to me turned and said to me, in front of everyone else, ‘You know you cannot be saved.’  I thanked them for their courage and honesty and assured them that I had always and would always rely on the mercy of God; there is no firmer ground on which I can stand.  Yet those words remain with me though because, of course, that person may be right and I might simply be deluded by a liberal, inclusive reading of the Gospel.

So I was glad to read something written by the 19th century Danish Philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard.  He said,

‘If others go to hell, then I will too.  But I do not believe that; on the contrary I believe that all will be saved, myself with them – something which arouses my deepest amazement.’

As we stand at the advent of eternity that is something for me to hold on to.  Heaven, hell, death and judgement, there is real truth in all of them but there is even greater and more fundamental truth in what we will be preparing for over these last days that lead us up to Christmas.

In a stable in a small town in way off Palestine a young woman will give birth to a baby.  And she and her husband will name him Jesus, just as the angel had told them to, because he will save his people from their sins.

That is the truth come from above as we glimpse eternity in God’s gift of God’s self, heaven is open, hell is destroyed, death is defeated and judgement becomes the consuming fire of love.

God of our eternity, God of our now,
bring us to heaven
save us from hell
carry us through death
forgive us in judgement
and all for your love’s sake.
Amen.

Leadership

I have to apologise to you.  For a number of reasons it has been a tough week.  It has meant that I just didn’t have time to think about and then write a proper blog. I hope you will forgive me.  So I thought I could just share the sermon I’ve preached today at Southwark Cathedral. The only part of it that you won’t be able to participate in is the auction we held after the Choral Eucharist.  But you can still make a donation to the Robes Project if you haven’t yet had an opportunity to do so.  This is the link to my JustGiving page.

The readings for today were Isaiah 35.1-10, James 5.7-10 and Matthew 11.2-11.


We talk a great deal about leadership nowadays, and not just in relation to our political parties and their leaders! The church has become, let’s say, a little obsessed with models of leadership.  We deans are now sent off on leadership courses to hone those skills that will make us effective leaders – leaders of high functioning teams, as they’re called, leaders of communities, people who can give a reliable lead in good times or bad.  A few years ago, I was on a course that was being run in Cambridge by the Judge Business School, a very mini-MBA which had been designed to help us think about just such skills.

It was the week before Holy Week, Passion Week as we’d call it, and so at the back of all of our minds was what would be happening when we got back to our cathedrals from the Sunday onwards, the Palm Procession, Maundy Thursday, the Watch until midnight, the three hours around the cross on Good Friday, the stillness of Holy Saturday and then the joy at dawn of Easter Day.  It was all there, in our minds, as we then looked at various leadership styles.

Our lecturer told us how he was at one stage embedded with the Cambridge Blues – his word not mine; how he’d been observing how they worked in the Camp Bastion equivalent of the MASH military hospital tent; he showed us film of football coaching.  To be honest it all left me cold.  Not that there wasn’t great leadership going on, the cox getting everyone to row in unison, in the same direction, the triage going on in the emergency room, the motivation happening on the pitch.  I got all of that – but what about Jesus, what kind of leader was he?

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John and Jesus in the window of the Harvard Chapel in Southwark Cathedral

John is in prison.  Herod had had enough.  John was a thorn in his side, constantly pointing the finger, speaking too much truth to power.  As in so many regimes throughout history, especially those who imagine they have a mandate to do whatever they want to do, he didn’t want criticism, he didn’t like to hear the truth being spoken or have his decisions questioned. He particularly didn’t like his private life or his morals being scrutinised in the public arena.

John fell foul of all of this.  The gospels tell us nothing really of what went on. We know that John, this great Advent figure, was baptising by the Jordan and we know that the crowds headed out to hear his uncompromising preaching and we know that in those crowds it wasn’t just the poor who were hearing this prophet preach – that there were soldiers and lawyers and tax collectors in the crowd, a whole cross section of society that were being stirred up.

We then know that John was beheaded by Herod, at a party, and that Herod’s relationship with his brother’s wife was a huge factor in all of this.  And we get this snippet when John sends his disciples, who’ve been visiting him in prison, to find out just who this Jesus is, whether or not he was the Messiah for whom everyone was looking.

They find Jesus and he tells them to simply look at what he’s doing.

The First Reading spoke about the coming of the kingdom of God and what a difference that would make – to everything.  Isaiah is giving us a vision of a world transformed and the things that are mentioned – the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing – are the very things that Jesus points out to the disciples of John.

‘If you want to know me’, Jesus is saying to them and to us, ‘if you really want to know me, look at what I’m doing, look at the effect I’m having in people’s lives, look and see who I am.’

Jesus was the fulfilment of everything that’d been prophesied, Jesus is the fulfilment of the promises of God, Jesus is the leader for humanity to follow.

Both John and Jesus played their roles, John as the prophet, the forth-teller and Jesus as – well it was still hard for people to know.

As John’s disciples leave, Jesus challenges those who were following him about their expectations as far as John was concerned.  What’d they been expecting when they went out into the desert to find him and listen to him?  A reed, a ruler – a weak figure easily swayed, a strong figure with the trappings of power?  They had huge expectations and John was not what they were expecting, but there were still none greater than he.

Thursday saw a seismic shift in our politics.  Outside of this city the political map has substantially changed and we have to recognise that fact.  There’s been plenty of analysis going on since that exit poll was announced.  To be honest I was gutted by the result and that is me simply being honest with you.  There are some big questions to be answered and not just by the leaders of the other parties who failed this nation so badly.  The style of the Prime Minister’s leadership is apparently just what so many people in the country were looking for and those who would not normally vote Tory have, in Mr Johnson’s words, ‘lent him’ their vote.  We now wait and see. I hope they are not disappointed.

For those of us who have a strong view on what the world should be like, those of us who hold to the vision of which Isaiah speaks and the Baptist proclaimed, those of us who believe that religion is not just about heaven, ‘pie in the sky when you die’ but realising that heaven on earth for all people, whoever, wherever they are, then the work for us has only just begun.

When John sent his friends to find Jesus he was still doing that work of vigilance even from a difficult place, even from the prison cell.  And they take back the report of what they see, what they see being done, what a difference is being made to people’s lives.  They take back the message that the poor are hearing good news.

So this is a call to us to be vigilant.  It’s hard for governments that have a big majority, almost as hard as those that have no majority.  We wait to see what kind of leader the Prime Minister really will be and whether the support that has been lent to him really will be recognised in policies and actions that will improve the lives of the many and not the few.  And we have to hold government at every level to that and keep on doing what we do and do so well.

We’ll be having an auction after this Eucharist.  It’s an auction of the prizes that we couldn’t auction before the sleepout for the Robes Project.  That sleepout was cancelled because of the second terrorist attack in this area.  But the work of Robes goes on because the needs of the homeless do not go away.  I know that you’ll support that auction and that work as generously as you’re able.  And our witness to the homeless and our witness to the glorious diversity of this city and our witness to reconciliation and peace and justice will go on.  We need to give leadership to that, all of us.

We do it, of course, because we follow a leader like no other.  What we didn’t talk about on that leadership course was what it means to be a leader who is also a follower and a follower of a leader who will take you to the cross on that royal road, of which Isaiah speaks, that royal road to the kingdom of God.  This is our leader, our wounded healer, our crucified king, despised, rejected of men, the baby in the manger, the man on the cross, the bread in our hands, our resurrection and our life.

Who is he?  Look at what he does, look at what he does for us, look at what he does for you, what he does for me.  We follow him because in Jesus we have a leader who will never let us down.

Jesus,
may I follow
where you lead.
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