It’s a lovely word – sublime – and not one I often use. ‘Of very great excellence or beauty’ is what the dictionary tells me it means. So it was exciting to know that today I was going to visit ‘The Sublime House’ in Rouen. The reason I am here is that this is the first farewell occasion of this year as I prepare for my retirement from Southwark Cathedral in July. There are a number of places I want to go to outside of the Diocese of Southwark to say farewell and thank you. The first of these is the congregation at Rouen Cathedral. We have had a covenant relationship with the Cathedral of Notre Dame for over 25 years. It has been a blessing to us.

The relationship grew out of the personal friendship that my predecessor as Sub Dean, or more precisely Vice-Provost, Canon Roy White had with Pere L’Arche who was the Dean of Rouen Cathedral. Out of their fraternal bonds grew this desire to actually commit ourselves as congregations to working together to achieve, or at least move towards achieving, that unity for which Christ prayed

‘that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me’ (John 17.22-23)

It is part of that sublime – that word again – High Priestly Prayer that Jesus prays as he moved towards his Passion. At that moment his desire for us is voiced to the Father, that we may be one. And in response to that prayer we have once more kept the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

I have been to Rouen many, many times. Sometimes it has been with groups of people from our congregation, sometimes with the boys or the girls of the choir, sometimes on my own. In 2014 we came with people from Bergen Cathedral, our other formal ecumenical link, to celebrate 1000 years since the baptism of King, now Saint, Olave in Rouen Cathedral and the subsequent and consequential conversion of the Norwegian people. Each time we have come we have discovered more about this wonderful and ancient city.

Part of the walls of the house

So it was lovely yesterday to be taken to a place which I have never visited before. It’s called the Sublime House because of something written in graffiti on one of the walls of the ‘house’. This building constructed in the early 12th century lies now beneath the car park of the Palais de Justice. When work was being carried out on the restoration of the Palais in 1976, the remains of this building were discovered. It is Romanesque in design and construction and a substantial part of it remains. It was set in the mediaeval Jewish Quarter still marked in street names in the immediate area. But whether this was a synagogue, a rabbinical school, or a private house for a wealthy member of the Jewish community in Rouen which was also used for other ritual and community purposes, is not known.

The street name is a reminder of the Jewish Quarter

However, there are carvings at the base of pillars which speak of verses in the psalms – ‘the lion and the adder’ of Psalm 91 – and also graffiti in Hebrew script, the most important of which says

‘This house shall be so high until the Rock shall have mercy on Zion’

Which in French is translated ‘Que cette maison soit sublime’ and hence the name, ‘La maison sublime.’

You can just make out the ‘sublime’ graffiti

We stood there in what remains of the ‘house’, walls so substantial, built to last, to hold something of the Jewish community here and remembered that the position of Jews in French society, as across much of Europe, deteriorated in the 13th century until they were expelled from France in 1306. The property held by the Jewish community was taken, as was this ‘house’.

The day before we stood in this sublime space had been Holocaust Memorial Day when we remembered once again what happened to our Jewish sisters and brothers during the Second World War and the six million who were killed. We also have to acknowledge the disturbing rise once again of anti-Semitism in so many places and the ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine which is once again having devastating consequences on both communities. Our prayers for Christian unity bumped up again our prayers for a deeper understanding between Jew and Christian, and between the peoples of the Abrahamic faiths and between peoples of all faiths and none.

‘The lion and the adder shalt thou trample underfoot’

The Sublime House stands empty, a monument, but the words scratched into the stone by a scholar, or a worshipper, or someone just looking to the restoration of Jerusalem spoke to us all. As the Psalmist said in Psalm 122

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’ Amen.


Servants of the servants

To be honest, I wanted to write something in response to the bishops’ statement following the Living in Love and Faith process and the draft liturgical resources that have been published in the last few days. But on reflection, there has been a lot on social media already and, at the moment, I don’t want to add to it. Instead, I need time to think about what I think and I also want to hear what General Synod has to say. So, don’t worry, I’m not ignoring what is going on, I just need more time on this one.

So, instead, I thought you might like to read what I said in my sermon at the Diocesan Servers’ Festival held in the Cathedral yesterday. It was another stage in getting back to normal and good to welcome servers from churches across the diocese who serve and enable us to worship, real servants of the servants. The readings were 1 Samuel 3.1-10 and John 2:1-11.

“My name is Samuel. I think I may be ten, but I don’t really know. Eli says that I’ve been here for six years with him and I was only little when my mother left me here, but I don’t know how old I really am. I see my mother each year, she brings me a new robe to wear, though I grow a lot faster than she imagines, and I never really ask her why I’m here, or when I came, or how it all happened. I just cling to her and love the moment of seeing her. You may wonder if, deep down, I think she loves me – after all she gave me away, her little boy. But when I look into her eyes, each year, on my one day off, I know she loves me.

Yes, one day off. I hear other boys playing outside, in the square, calling out, singing songs to each other. But I’ve never had time to play with them. Eli is quite old now and I have a responsible job. In the morning I unlock the door to the temple, then I check that all the lamps are lit, then I make sure that everything is clean and tidy. Then I bring to Eli food to eat and wine to drink. Then I check the lamps again and tidy up after the people have been in to make their offerings. And finally, late at night, I can lock the door and roll out my mattress against the door, and lie down, but only after I’ve checked that the lamps won’t go out overnight, that there’s lots of oil in them to keep them burning.

As I go about my work, I hear in my head some of the words of the song my mother sings to me every time she visits

‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones.’ “

Eli and the boy Samuel

“My name is Samuel. You don’t need to know how old I am, all you need to know is that I have a good business, a very good business, that my inn is well run and very popular. I have the reputation of never watering down the wine, never running out of anything and serving the best food in the district – succulent lamb, fresh tasty bread and juicy olives. People come to me if they want to celebrate, because I have a big room and, as I say, a fine reputation for good food and wine and the best place to hold a party. ‘We’ll have the wedding at Samuel’s place’ is what people say.

Well, that was my reputation until today. It was a normal wedding booking. People were coming to Cana, where my inn is, from all over the district. The bride and groom were very popular and the family was big. There were even people here from Nazareth.

All went well at first. The bridesmaids escorted the groom, their lamps well lit. The doors closed and the party began. I don’t know how long your weddings last but ours can last for days – and people eat and drink a lot. So, I have to have everything well planned. But things went wrong this time. Whether it was that group of fishermen and carpenters who came with a young man and his mother from Nazareth, I don’t know, all I do know is that all of a sudden one of the servants ran to tell me that the wine had run out. My reputation was in danger, my whole business threatened. To be honest I didn’t know what to do.

Then … it was amazing … but the servants came back and said that everything was ok; that I had no reason to worry. They had more wine, in fact a heck of a lot more wine, suddenly from nowhere. All my six water jars were full of it. I tasted it, it was delicious, much better than the wine I’d been serving at first. I asked what had happened but all they could do was quote from the prophet Isaiah

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.”

Two Samuels – of course we don’t know the name of the Steward of the wedding feast at Cana, but he might have been called Samuel! But both of them, the boy and the man were in the business of serving. That was what they did, and both were really proud of it.

Neither of their jobs, their lives were glamorous and in many ways they had to stay out of the limelight. For the boy Samuel it was Eli who had centre stage; for Samuel my steward it was the bride and groom who were the guests of honour. But neither sought to be the centre of attention – they just wanted to serve.

What you all do is amazing. You enable worship to happen. Like Samuel checking the candles; like the steward checking the bread and wine; like Samuel serving the priest, like the steward serving the guests. Being an altar server is a high calling because it’s an enabling ministry. Because of what you do people can come along to church and be caught up in the worship that’s offered, caught up in the praise offered to God, caught up in that atmosphere of prayer, caught up in the meal that looks towards the heavenly banquet.

You may feel that you don’t do much – that you only carry a candle, only swing the incense, only hold the cross, only point in a book – but that’s an essential task that you’re doing – and each task adds together to create liturgy – the work of the people of God, the worship of the God who is love.

There are some words that we sing as a hymn that were written way back in the very early fourth century by St Ephrem who lived in the area of Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. He was a deacon, not a priest, and so called to a ministry of ordained service and he wrote this.

Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands
that holy things have taken.

Those are your hands, the hands of the lamp-trimmers and the door openers; the hands of the bread holders and the wine pourers, your hands are made holy because you handle holy things on behalf of the holy people of God. Like Samuel and Samuel you are servers, servers of God, servers of God’s people and you help those of us who are priests and bishops to draw people into the foretaste of the heavenly banquet in which Jesus provides not just the wine but also the bread, his body and blood, which never fails but sustains us into eternity.

God bless your hands; God bless your ministry; God bless you, servers.

Loving God, bless us as we serve, bless us as we worship, bless us as we come before you in true humility. Amen.

Golden years

David Bowie had a hit, a long time ago, with his song ‘Golden Years’, with that opening line

Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere.

Golden anniversaries, jubilees, celebrations, are important milestones whether they for a marriage, of ordination, of a royal reign, even of a life. 50 golden years is a long time and seeing our way through them is something really worth celebrating. It’s another ten years before I can celebrate my golden jubilee of ordination but it is always lovely when you are invited to join someone who is able to celebrate a life time of devotion. So I was delighted when some time ago Sister Joyce CSF asked me whether she could have a celebration in the Cathedral for the 50th anniversary of her life profession as a Franciscan. Of course, I said yes. Joyce is a valued member of the congregation and has been a Chapter member and much more besides and so it was exciting to think that we could be alongside her as she both celebrated these golden years and as she renewed those vows during the Eucharist.

An early photo of Sister Joyce CSF, when they still wore veils!

All of that happened yesterday and it really was a golden opportunity to give thanks for golden years, that to some might look like life ‘taking you nowhere’ but for those who have something of an understanding of the religious life, knowing that nothing could be further from the truth.

I mention the Community of the Resurrection a great deal in this blog and those who follow it will know that I valued my years in the College and the subsequent years of association with the Community really highly. They have given so much more to me than I have been able to give to them. But it is not just CR that has paid an important part in my life.

I was fortunate that the church I was brought up in, a place I have also often mentioned, All Saints Wigston Magna, over the years produced many vocations to the religious life. As children we were used to seeing one nun or another back on furlough – a word that since the pandemic has taken on a different significance for me. There was a sister at Wantage, one at Clewer, one in East Hanningfield. They had strange names to a child’s ears – Sr Mary Columba, things like that – and these strings of letters after their name, something for the cognoscenti to get their minds around – CSMV – the Community of St Mary the Virgin; CSJB – the Community of St John the Baptist; CSP – the Community of the Sacred Passion. The nuns looked of indeterminate age, the normal signs of aging hidden beneath a wimple and a veil, no sign of a wrinkled neck to give the game away, just slightly gnarled feet in sandals, making their way past we children peering through the fretwork in the choir stalls, preparing to receive the Sacrament in reverent awe.

Summer would involve a trip to see one or other of them – Clewer, vast, almost like a prison block to my eyes; Wantage, with the beautiful carvings by Mother Maribel, the lovely statue of Our Lady and the child Jesus that I adored; East Hanningfield with its array of Nissen hut holding vast quantities of prosthetic limbs to help those suffering from leprosy who the sisters served. It was another world as was the experience of chapel – the slow processions of veiled figures in and out, the high-pitched quiet and careful chanting, the posh accents that anglican nuns seemed to have. Then there was the sparse tea that we were given, tea and plain biscuits, but served with girlish laughter and a smile. I loved it and every moment has stuck in my memory.

Yet in all of this I hadn’t had experience of the Franciscans, until I came to Southwark and discovered in the Cathedral a chapel dedicated to St Francis and St Elizabeth and began to learn about First, Second and Third Order and about the straightforward and attractive simplicity of the community.

At first the sisters were living in a house just south of the centre of Brixton. I was on the rota to go and preside at the Eucharist for them, a real joy. Then they had to vacate that house and the diocese found them a place in the old St Alphege Clergy House not far from the Cathedral round the corner from where the Sisters of the Reparation to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament (CRJBS) had lived. That is where they still are and I am still on the rota to go along on a Thursday as I did last week. Whilst there are some sandals, there are no veils and wimples, but the atmosphere is as calm as I experienced as a child and the life as simple and I still get tea after the service even though it is at breakfast time – though there is cereal offered instead of biscuits!

At the front of the order of Service for Sr Joyce’s celebration were two poems. This one struck me as particularly beautiful. It’s called The Summer Day by Mary Oliver.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Offering that ‘wild and precious life’ in obedience to the call of God, offering that ‘wild and precious life’ into the context of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, or whatever language the particular community uses, offering that ‘wild and precious life’ in response to the call of Jesus to ‘Come, follow me’ is incredible and amazing. And thank God that people do it and, like Joyce, celebrating 50 years, can stay the course and run the race and live the life and that people like you and me can touch the fringe of it and find it life-giving.

To God be the glory. Amen.

New Year, new start?

The crowds had gathered on the Millennium Bridge outside the Deanery; we had had a good dinner and had watched ‘The Glass Onion’, now we were ready for the bongs from Big Ben and the subsequent fireworks. You can’t actually see them from where we are on the River Thames. The bends in the river, so familiar to people nowadays from the opening titles for ‘Eastenders’, mean that the London Eye and Big Ben are almost at 90 degrees from where the house is. But if the wind is in the right direction you can hear a distant boom and loud cheers. We opened the windows to catch the sound and watched the fireworks on the tele – the best of both worlds maybe.

The clock struck twelve and 2022 faded into the distance and 2023 began and I realised in that moment that this was to be, for me, a momentous, turning point year. Advent and Christmas had absorbed all my attention and I hadn’t really realised that I had six months left at Southwark Cathedral, and in this role, and in this house. In that split second of seeing out the old and bringing in the new it all became apparent to me.

New Year is always a bit odd. It is as though we imagine that what was happening is in the past and we begin anew, afresh. If only that could be true and particularly at the moment. I had said this in my Christmas Day sermon in the Cathedral

We leave this year knowing that there’s a great deal of unfinished business that will inevitably carry over into next year. The war in Ukraine is still going on; prices are rising and will rise; strikes and pay demands are unresolved; refugees continue to arrive because there’s no safe and legal way for them to get here; people will continue to starve as crops fail and water holes dry up because we cannot really commit to what is required to combat climate change; the rich will still get richer and the poor will still get poorer. But as I constantly say, and I really believe it, is that into all of this God enters and reality and mystery meet.

There is a lot of unfinished business, we begin this year with a full in-tray and already other things have come along that are grabbing our attention and challenging some of the elements of our life, not least Prince Harry and his series of revelations and allegations that are being drip-fed into our news and consciousness at the moment. Added to that there have been a whole series of deaths within our community, the loss of people, much loved and significant, without whom this new year will be the poorer. And, of course, the crisis in the NHS appears to be getting worse by the day and I feel as if I look helplessly on as it seems that a much loved part of our national life is collapsing with severe implications for each person and every household in the nation.

The Deanery hall at Christmas

On Twelfth Night we took the trees down for the last time in the Deanery and carefully packed them away, with the lights and the baubles, wondering what we will do with them. The hall looked stark after the beauty of the tree had been packed away, beauty that we had lived with for a full month.

And back to normal

Thank God, therefore that Epiphany happens at this time of the year. Without all of the glitz and frippery of Christmas itself, the epiphany events speak of divine revelation and divine gift in a powerful way. From revelatory gifts, to the divine voice of affirmation and the first miracle of the kingdom pointing to the overwhelming generosity of God, this season of manifestation gives us hope. In gold, frankincense and myrrh, in baptismal waters and miraculous wine, we begin to understand the nature of the God who is ‘one with us’. And as St John says in his Prologue which echoes through this period

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ John 1.5.

I’m looking forward to these next six months and seeing all the ways in which our living, loving God speaks into and transforms all that we currently face. One of the collects in Common Worship for this season speaks so powerfully to me and I will be praying it regularly as a New Year resolution I can keep!

Almighty God,
in Christ you make all things new:
transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Bethlehem Bound – And the Word was made flesh

This is the final of the three addresses I gave at the recent ‘Bethlehem Bound Quiet Day’. Have a very happy Christmas. There won’t be a Living God blog until Sunday 8 January.

Lord of the journey,
with Mary and Joseph,
with shepherds and Wise Men,
we are Bethlehem Bound.
Bring us with them
to worship before Jesus
baby, brother, Lord and Saviour
and so make every journey
a walk with you.

We have set off and we have arrived. But what did we come for, why were we Bethlehem Bound? There are still people travelling after Mary and Joseph had arrived at the inn, still people heading in this direction and they have all yet to arrive. But what have we come for?

The amazing church of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is a riot of imagery and astonishing in its design. The original architect Antonio Gaudi was eccentric, revolutionary and fiercely faithful to the catholic tradition in which he was raised and in which he lived and so tragically died. His church would be a sermon in stone, a creedal statement for all to see. What he designed amongst the incredible towers and spires were three main facades only two of which have been completed. But these two facades are the most important as far as I’m concerned – although it will be amazing to see the Glory façade if I’m still alive when that is finally done.

But visitors today are met by an eastern façade, the first to be completed, dedicated to the incarnation and the western façade dedicated to the passion. These are the fulcrums of our faith, the two doctrines that shape all that we believe and all that we do as Christians – the doctrine of the incarnation and the doctrine of redemption, of our salvation. The crib and the cross as much as the empty tomb are what we are about.

In the year 325 the first Ecumenical Council of the church was called. It met in a place called Nicaea, but whilst that city no longer exists as it then did and whilst it happened such a long long time ago the name of that Council lives on in the creed which is attributed to it – the Nicene Creed – that we most often say and especially when we are gathering to celebrate the Eucharist.

As a little chorister I learnt to sing the Creed to the Merbecke setting- Merbecke himself was tried for heresy in the retrochoir of the Cathedral and was found guilty – as one of the first things that I did. If I say the version of the Nicene Creed that we find in the Book of Common Prayer, then it is accompanied by a tune in my head.

The Nicene Creed that flowed out of the Council of Nicaea, called to answer the challenges that Arianism was creating, something that was declared a heresy by the decisions of the Council, decided on our understanding of the incarnation, that Jesus Christ is both truly and fully divine, and truly and fully human, that just as his death would be declared to be a real death, as our death will be, so the birth of Jesus was a real birth, just as our birth was. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things. (Hebrews 2.14)

The ‘he’ in this verse is Jesus, who the writer says, can call us sisters and brothers because he fully shares our nature. And this is why I love Christmas, this is why I am Bethlehem Bound each year, this is why I travel to the manger with so many others, it is because in those incredible words of St John in his Preface to his gospel

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1.14)

In such profound simplicity John describes the enormity of what we believe. As the Council of Nicaea asked us to say and as we say every Sunday, together, as the people of God, as the sisters and brothers of Jesus, who share the same flesh and blood

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,
was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and was made man.

And on Christmas Day, in those places where we do such things, at the words of the incarnatus we fall to our knees. There is nothing else we can do in the face of this magnum mysterium, this great mystery of the faith, that the godhead could be located in a baby, in a manger, within the created order and a tiny child could speak with the voice of God.

This is what Gaudi attempts to do in his great façade. At the heart of the wall of the incarnation is the Holy family but around it are all those who travel to Bethlehem to see this great thing, the shepherds and the wise men, the sheep and the other animals and the angels, so many of them, singing and blowing their trumpets. It is simply glorious because it is simply glorious.

I have been tantalising you with the poem ‘Little Gidding’ by T S Eliot. The poem is much longer than the section that I have been quoting from, but let me just add a bit more to what I have already read to you.

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city–
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Those words are so powerful and these for me particularly so as we reflect on the incarnation

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel

We kneel at the incarnatus because what else can we do? The principal response we make as we lift the latch and enter through that door, the place of our arrival, the end of the journey, is to kneel and adore him. We are drawn into the heart of mystery and into the heart of worship at the manger and at the altar.

I also promised you that I would return to Frances Chesterton’s beautiful poem which Howell sets with such gentleness.

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.

Bend low about His bed,
For each He has a gift;
See how His eyes awake,
Lift up your hands, O lift!
For gold, He gives a keen-edged sword.
(Defend with it thy little Lord!)
For incense, smoke of battle red,
Myrrh for the honoured happy dead;
Gifts for His children, terrible and sweet;
Touched by such tiny hands,
and Oh such tiny feet.

We need not wander more … bend low about his bed.

People are surprised when they come to this cathedral that it is not like other cathedrals. ‘Why did you build it next to a railway line?’ asked one trans-Atlantic visitor of one of our cathedral guides. The place is cheek by jowl with life. The market has been here a thousand years, the traders selling their wares. The bridge has been delivering visitors to the City since the Romans had their settlement there. The river has been carrying people and things, discharging merry makers and cargo. The theatres were performing the plays and scandalising the church with their cross-dressing naughtiness. All life was here and all life is here, around the churchyard, pressing in from every side and disturbing and disrupting life. And that is how it should be. For me, as Dean, it is a sheer joy that the church is in this deeply incarnational setting, that we should be disturbed and disrupted by life. Because this is why ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’, both to experience and to add to the disruption.

‘God became man so that man might become god.’ These words of St Athanasius sum up the mystery of the Incarnation. This is what we celebrate at Christmas, and it is the source of our great joy. The Incarnation changes everything, because God is love and it is love that we find at the end of the journey, pure love incarnated, made flesh, for you and for me.

We have come a long way, together, with God, who also was Bethlehem Bound, entering into the human story in a way which changes each of our stories, fundamentally changes our understanding of the nature of God.

As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware wrote in his famous book ‘The Orthodox Way’

Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is. … Christ’s riches are his eternal glory; Christ’s poverty is his complete self-identification with our fallen human condition.

He shares our poverty, laid in the straw of a manger, so that we can share the glory of his heaven. This is the self-emptying, kenotic God, who lies in the arms of Mary and needs her tender touch and warm milk, even though by his single breath all things came into being. As John Donne so beautifully put it in one of his Holy Sonnets, speaking of Mary

Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother.
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloistered in thy dear womb.

This is why we travel, Bethlehem bound for this purpose, to kneel and adore the God who is one with us.

Incarnate God,
as you share our humanity
may we share your divinity;
as you share our poverty
may we share your riches;
as you emptied yourself
so fill us with your grace,
now and for all eternity.

Bethlehem Bound – Arriving

This is the second of the talks I gave at the recent ‘Bethlehem Bound Quiet Day’ at Southwark Cathedral. I hope that you enjoy it.

Lord of the journey,
with Mary and Joseph,
with shepherds and Wise Men,
we are Bethlehem Bound.
Bring us with them
to worship before Jesus
baby, brother, Lord and Saviour
and so make every journey
a walk with you.

One of the most amazing places in the world, in my opinion, must be the Plaza del Obradoiro in front of the west end of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The twin towers loom over you, the flights of steps up to the main doors weave in front of you and the exotic nature of the design, unlike anything else in the world, Santiago Baroque as it is called, with a slight green tinge on the stone from the moss that grows on it – well it does rain a great deal – is stunning. There is a lot of space in which you can just sit and wait – and it’s worth finding somewhere to perch and just spend a bit of time. Why? Well, on the north side of the cathedral is a tunnel which leads people from the main street in the town along the side of the cathedral and to this west end. It’s a busy tunnel and the reason is that this is where the Camino ends, this is where ‘The Way’ ends, this is where so many journeys end.

You sit there and watch the walkers and the riders arriving. They are all carrying a rucksack and most of them have a shell or two dangling from it. They will have a stick of some kind in one hand, water bottles dangling from their backpack, shoes that have the dust clinging to them testifying to many miles walked – or a bike that shows the wear and tear of a long off-road ride.

But what is so incredible is seeing these people, these new arrivals, fall to their knees, in joy, in exhaustion, in a state of heightened and sheer emotion, tears flowing, laughter breaking out, cheers from friends who are there to welcome them. It is the most wonderful arrivals hall in the world.

But the journey doesn’t end quite there. They must summon up the strength to climb the steps, enter the cathedral and walk to the east end where the bones of St James are enshrined and embrace the one they have walked to see.

It’s a similar if less spiritual experience in the arrivals hall of an airport. The cab drivers are all there, the drivers of the limos collecting someone important, names written on a scrap of paper, or, as I now often see, on an iPad, being held up as the automatic doors leading from customs disgorge the newly arrived travellers into this place of arrival and embrace.

Amongst the drivers are the families, the friends, the lovers, the parents, the colleagues, all craning to get a first glimpse of the person they are there to greet. And then they emerge pushing the luggage trolley, dragging their case behind them and the screams of delight are heard, and people run forward and embrace and laugh and kiss and cry. ‘She’s arrived’ is written on a text and sent to the person waiting at home, ‘and she looks wonderful. Get the kettle on.’

The point of the journey is the destination, the place that you were always aiming for. It might have been the hotel in Torquay that Mum and Dad had booked for us – choosing from a brochure that you used to get from the local tourist board in the place that you wanted to stay – long before Teletext and the internet, when it was done by exchanges of letter – Bed & Breakfast, half board, full board, shared facilities, cruet provided. Dad pulled up outside ‘The Dorchester Guest House’ Torquay, whatever it was grandly called, to find something resembling Fawlty Towers. ‘I don’t think much of the nets’ says Mum. ‘Let’s see what the rooms are like’ says Dad. We just want to get out of the car; as far we kids were concerned we had arrived and were desperate to embrace the sea.

Abram arrives in the land to which God had directed him.

The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, ‘Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northwards and southwards and eastwards and westwards; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring for ever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.’ So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord. (Genesis 13.14-18)

He had arrived and as he pitched his tent by the oaks little did he know that that would be the place of encounter with the reality of God, the place of hospitality.

People were arriving in Bethlehem from all over the country. They had crisscrossed the paths of many others, some heading back home in the north, others to the coastal plains, some down to the rich, sweet lands around Jericho in the Jordan Valley. The nation had been on the move. But some had come to the city of David, this little town of Bethlehem set in the hills, the place of barley growth, the place where sheep safely grazed, the place where bread was baked – after all that is what the name of the town actually meant ‘House of Bread’ and the smell of the baking barley loaves was like a warm embrace. ‘I remember that smell when I used to live here’ one would say to the other.

I quoted part of T S Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’ to you earlier and I want to return to that poem.

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city–
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

The line that speaks to me as I think about this whole notion of arriving is this

what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all.

Eliot picks up a similar theme at the end of the poem that will be read at many carol services and concerts over Christmas, ‘The Journey of the Magi’. Eliot was inspired in writing this poem by a sermon that Bishop Lancelot Andrewes preached to King James and the court at Whitehall on Christmas Day in 1622. ‘A cold coming we had of it’ was a line that the saintly bishop, now buried just behind us, wrote. But towards the end of the poem Eliot’s magi say this

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

What had they travelled for, what did arrival mean for them? For Harold Fry, on his unlikely pilgrimage, his arrival with Queenie is when she is at the point of death, unable to speak, yet the journey and the arrival turned out to be much more about his relationship with his wife Maureen. They were the ones truly reconciled by the journey. He, she, neither of them, had expected this. He thought his arrival would be about a tearful farewell with an old flame, but instead it was an encounter with his own life and a renewal of the love that he had for his wife.

were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?

For most people arriving in Bethlehem there was a straightforward task to be done, be counted by the Romans, tick that box and enjoy some time back amongst the hills and the barley loaves and watch the stars that always shone so brightly after you made your way home from the inn, slightly worse for wear, after the old and the new wine had been consumed.

Frances Chesterton, the wife of G K, wrote a beautiful poem called ‘Here is the little door’. It was set to music by Herbert Howells and this is how it begins

Here is the little door,
lift up the latch, oh lift!
We need not wander more,
but enter with our gift;

I will return to that poem in our last session. But we are at the door. For amongst all the arrivals are Mary and Joseph and it is their Bethlehem Bound journey that we are most interested in. Luke doesn’t tell us much about the journey, we can only imagine it. And all we know of the arrival is this

‘there was no place for them in the inn.’ (Luke 2.7)

When they arrived there was no greeting party, no one holding a sign up so that they knew that they were expected, nothing on a booking app to assure them they had a room all ready. Instead, through the crowded streets they made their way, man, girl, donkey until they saw a door and perhaps a light, something gently glowing that drew them nearer, and an innkeeper who had no room, but a place where they could get out of the cold.

It was not what they were expecting, not what Joseph had hoped for his arrival, for his wife, so close to giving birth. But it was warm and it was welcoming and they had arrived.

what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled

Fulfilling the census requirements was just the shell, the husk of the meaning of the journey. At the dead of night life would break forth and the true meaning of all that travelling would be revealed.

W B Yeats writes a beautiful poem, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ with its intriguing first line ‘That is no country for old men.’ But this is the second stanza.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

Arriving in Byzantium, modern day Istanbul, must have been like arriving in heaven. For Yeats it seems to represent a past glory that old men seek, and maybe old women too.

What are you hoping for when you arrive, where is it that you imagine you are travelling to? I say imagine because we may think we are travelling to one place when in reality we will arrive somewhere quite different and find ourselves surprised, or maybe disappointed – sailing the seas and arriving in the holy city – but for birth or death – to say goodbye or to welcome in a fresh life? What are you expecting as you fall on your knees at the end of the journey?

God, be at the beginning
and at the end of all our travels
and open our eyes
and our hearts to the meaning of the journey.

Bethlehem Bound – Setting Out

As ‘Bethlehem Bound’ begins I thought you might like to be able to read the talks I gave at the ‘Bethlehem Bound Quiet Day’ held at the Cathedral. There will be a series of three blogs this week as we approach Christmas. I hope that you enjoy them.

It was always such a palaver when we were kids and it was time to go on holiday. There were three of us and Mum and Dad. They liked to take us on a family holiday, somewhere in the UK, none of that abroad nonsense, and anyway, Dad liked the drive even if we were all travel sick.

Weeks before we were due to leave Mum began planning what we would take, drawing up the lists and beginning to assemble everything on a spare bed. We needed clothes for all eventualities – for the rain obviously but also for those hoped for moments when the sun would come out and we could get onto the beach and maybe even into the sea. We needed to be able to change for the evening and have some clothes for every eventuality. She then had to fold it all properly, putting sheets of tissue paper in all the things that might easily get creased. Meanwhile, Dad had to get the car ready, check the oil and the water, fill her up with petrol, check the tyres and wash it so that we looked respectable as we set off.

Then on the morning of our departure there was the whole ritual of the roof rack. ‘Don’t scratch the car’ was the advice from my Mum. Dad was grumbling about getting it secure. The cases were loaded on to it, strapped down and then the tarpaulin stretched across and also secured so that the inevitable would not happen – which, being inevitable, of course it always did – flying off as we were hurtling along some road in Devon.

Then all that was needed was for everything in the house to be turned off, double and triple checked, everyone go to the toilet for the last time and packed into the car with a potty for the one who would be sick, and we finally backed out of the drive and we were off, setting off on our journey.

I have to admit to you that I really love Christmas. I know it can be annoying, I know it can be stressful, I know it can be expensive, I know that it will be disappointing in one way or another – but I always forget all of those realities when this point in the year is reached and we can get ready for Christmas, really get ready in this final week.

I have a great excuse for getting my Christmas trees – yes trees – up early – we have a lot of entertaining to do over December in the Deanery and so I need to make sure that the place looks properly Christmassy and trees do that. There are things though that I still need to do, some gift buying, lots of gift wrapping, the final bits of food shopping that can only be done close to the day itself. But I am almost ready. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas and I am excited.

For these, but for deeper reasons as well, I wanted to write a book to help us engage with the Christmas story and particularly the journey to Bethlehem that we all make and the characters who were making the journey and will be our companions on the way. So that was what the thinking was that led to the book ‘Bethlehem Bound’.

In the time we have together today I want us to think a bit about the journey that we will be making towards Christmas but also in that wider context of the journeys that we make, in life, each day. And I also want us to think about the ultimate reason that we are doing all of this metaphorical travelling and actual planning, the ultimate journey that God made in the incarnation, that sublime doctrine that for me is at the heart of our faith and at the heart of the church.

But first let us pray.

Lord of the journey,
with Mary and Joseph,
with shepherds and Wise Men,
we are Bethlehem Bound.
Bring us with them
to worship before Jesus
baby, brother, Lord and Saviour
and so make every journey
a walk with you. Amen.

It has been a regular joy for me to take pilgrims to the Holy Land. It is the journey that Christians have made for 16, 17 hundred years, since the holy places were identified and pilgrims decided to set out and travel there. When Queen Helena discovered all the holy sites and when the beautiful churches were built over the spots, the places associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and also with his birth, the starting gun was, as it were fired, which set people off on their travels.

Modern pilgrims are part of that same great company, following on the travels of people like Egeria, the woman, perhaps a nun, of the 4th century who set off for the Holy Land and wrote her account, her journal of her travels, so that we can discover from a first-hand account just what the place was like. For instance, Egeria took part in the liturgy for the Epiphany which began with, as she writes,

‘the night station at Bethlehem, when they assemble in the shepherd’s hut.’

But she goes on to say that

‘in Bethlehem on that day; you see there nothing but gold and gems and silk. For if you look at the veils, they are made wholly of silk striped with gold, and if you look at the curtains, they too are made wholly of silk striped with gold. The church vessels too, of every kind, gold and jewelled, are brought out on that day, and indeed, who could either reckon or describe the number and weight.’

It was a brave journey that she made but thank God she did. But when we decide to journey we have to at some point set out, begin the travels.

A few years ago, there was a lovely book published written by Rachel Joyce called ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’. It’s the story of a man whose life and marriage have become dull, who then hears that an old flame of his is dying, she is in a hospice at the other end of the country – he’s in Devon, she’s in Berwick Upon Tweed – it’s 600 miles. He decides to write to her and so after penning a letter saying what he felt he needed to say he put his coat on and headed off for the post box. But when he got there, he decided to walk to the next one and then the next and in the end he decided to carry on walking to deliver the letter himself, by hand, to Queenie. At one point in the book, it says this

“The least planned part of the journey, however, was the journey itself.”

And elsewhere Harold says

“If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it stands to reason that I’m going to get there.”

Harold’s pilgrimage, because that is what it becomes, his journey, captures the imagination of others and they join him on the road. He set out not intending to travel, not knowing what he was doing, ill prepared, it was ridiculous. But he set out and kept on going, one foot in front of the other, on the least planned journey, but knowing that he would get there.

In the Letter to the Hebrews the writer talks about faith and comes up with lots of examples of faithful people. One of those that we are pointed towards was Abraham and the writer of the letter says this

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. (Hebrews 11.8)

The journey was a faithful response, but he set out not knowing where he was going, where the journey would take him – it was an example of complete faith. It would take him to the land which God had promised him, a land in which he and his descendants would flourish and it would be the land in which God was made known, at the door of his own tent when three unexpected visitors arrived and hospitality was offered, as well as in a stable in Bethlehem when the unexpected God arrived in an unexpected form, a baby in a manger.

I want to read you a section of one of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets, ‘Little Gidding’. I’ll return to the poem but I wanted to begin with this section

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.

Little Gidding is a real place, a tiny church in the fields in Huntingdonshire. It is in many ways unprepossessing, but it was a place where a community settled around Nicholas Ferrer after the reformation when community life as it had been known had disappeared. It is a church you could easily drive past, if you didn’t know to look out for it in that area of flat lands and big skies. But when you do find it you realise it is one of those ‘thin places’ where earth meets heaven, a special place and made even more special by Eliot’s meditative poem which looks at this whole idea of journey and arrival.

But it’s that line

If you came by day not knowing what you came for

That speaks of the same impulse that took Abraham from the land of Ur where he was settled and obviously wealthy and successful to another place, a place he didn’t know, on a journey that he could not predict. Not knowing where you are going, not knowing what you came for.

There were many people setting off towards Bethlehem. We know about two of them, Mary and Joseph, but in reality there were so many others, making their own journey, setting off from so many different places. But they had a goal and a destination in mind. St Luke of course sets the context for us at the beginning of the second chapter of his Gospel

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. (Luke 2.1-5)

It was a journey that they hadn’t chosen to make, not a holiday trip like the one I have described from my own childhood. This was a journey that others had decided that they had to make, a journey of necessity if they were to comply with the law and the demands of the occupying powers. The Romans it would seem were conducting a census of all their territories. It’s something that conquerors do. When the Normans invaded this country they wanted to be sure of what they had.

The Domesday Book, as we know it, was the result of the “Great Survey” of much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086 by order of King William I, William the Conqueror. In total, 268,984 people are tallied in the Domesday Book, each of whom was the head of a household.

It was the same principal that required Joseph, as head of his household, to be counted but the requirement was that he had to travel to be in the right place in order for this to take place. But everyone must have been on the move. It’s incredible to think about. He couldn’t have been the only person who had moved from his hometown. And, as we know when they finally arrived, so many people had come back to Bethlehem that there was no accommodation to be found. A world on the move, people making journeys, people starting out.

So my question to you is, what journey are you on? Perhaps you recently set out on a new journey, or a new stage of a journey that you’ve been on for a while. Do you have a destination in mind or are you just seeing where the path you are on takes you? And have you got what you need for the journey, or are you travelling light, like Harold Fry in just what he was standing up in, like a Franciscan hoping for some hospitality on the way. After all, as his disciples set out on their journey Jesus gave them very clear instructions, travel light, unencumbered by stuff

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food.’ (Matthew 10.1, 5)

Where are you going? How are you travelling?

Lord Jesus,
be our companion on the way
and the goal of our journey.

Bethlehem Bound

It is amazing how fast this month is going. I can’t quite believe that we are already at Advent 3 – though the way the calendar has fallen this year, with Christmas Day on a Sunday (always the best option for parish priests and others in ministry) – Advent is the longest it can possibly be, four whole weeks! Nevertheless, there hardly seems any time to get ready for Christmas. I have already been to lots of carol services and concerts and this coming week holds even more joy for me.

It also means that my recently published book for Advent and Christmas, ‘Bethlehem Bound’, is about to come into its own, and this blog is simply to remind you of that. Next Saturday is ‘O Sapientia’, the 17th December, when the Great O Antiphons begin to be sung. That is where the book begins. It then takes us on a journey to Bethlehem, through Christmas and to the Epiphany. In order to help you in reading it there will be Tweets every day, directing you to the right pages, and when it is relevant, the right times. So I hope you will join me in that.

You may also have seen that I was invited to post a weekly blog on the St Paul’s Cathedral learning pages. They develop some of the Advent themes and help get people ready for Bethlehem Bound. If you haven’t seen those you can find them here.

So by next Sunday the journey will have begun and we will be en route. Enjoy the journey; I look forward to travelling with you.

Lord of the journey,
with Mary and Joseph,
with shepherds and Wise Men,
I am Bethlehem Bound.
Bring me with them
to worship before Jesus
baby, brother, Lord and Saviour
and so make every journey
a walk with you.

We wish to see Jesus

It was my name day last week, the Feast of St Andrew. It’s always lovely to get to that day; November is all but over and Advent has already begun or about to begin and the Advent calendar is waiting for the first door to be opened. But I actually love the day as well. I am always pleased with the name my parents chose to give me, I think I may have said that before. Why they chose to name me after the two brothers, Andrew and Peter, I don’t know. But they are names that I’m happy to travel though life with.

The reading for Morning Prayer on St Andrew’s Day is a passage from St John’s Gospel. It records an event that happened when Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem. The triumphal entry had just happened and Jesus was there at the heart of the religious authorities and institution, the Temple. Some Greeks approach Philip. They must have recognised that Philip was also of Greek heritage – his name gives the game away and the fact that he came from the town of Bethsaida in Galilee, which was in the hills above Capernaum, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and a place where the population was predominately from that heritage, made him an ally to approach. The request that Philip received and which led him to take these enquirers to Andrew, who then took them on to Jesus, was both simple and profound.

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ (John 12.21)

They had heard of him, perhaps someone had described to them what he was up to, perhaps someone had repeated to them some of things that they had heard him saying, heard him teaching – and they wanted to see him and hear him and witness him themselves. ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’.

On the day before St Andrew’s Day this year some statistics were released from the most recent census that had been conducted in the UK. The data around religion proved to be newsworthy. For the first time less than half of those who answered the question – and the response to this voluntary question about religious affiliation was up on the previous census, 94% compared to 92.9% in the previous census which shows that people were willing to engage with the question even though they didn’t have to – identified as Christian. As it says in the census report

For the first time in a census of England and Wales, less than half of the population (46.2%, 27.5 million people) described themselves as “Christian”, a 13.1 percentage point decrease from 59.3% (33.3 million) in 2011; despite this decrease, “Christian” remained the most common response to the religion question. (ONS Census Release 29 November)

However you want to spin it this is a massive drop in numbers, a huge reduction. In the main points on the front page of the release it then says this

“No religion” was the second most common response, increasing by 12.0 percentage points to 37.2% (22.2 million) from 25.2% (14.1 million) in 2011.

We can suggest what this might mean, why people say this, whatever it does or does not mean, that they are spiritual but would not describe themselves as practicing, believing, ‘signed up’ Christians, but whatever gloss you put on it the figure is a stark one.

The day after the release was the Feast of St Andrew, the patron saint of mission. It was a wake up call as we kept the feast that there is a real mission challenge facing the church. If we saw that kind of fall repeated over the next few decades then the church would be in a very very difficult situation. Already people are rightly asking why we have an Established church in a non-Christian country and I am sure the same questions will be asked around the forthcoming Coronation of King Charles III.

I go back to those Greeks approaching Philip with that simple yet profound desire, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’. My question to myself, as a dean, as an ordained minister of the gospel for almost 40 years, as a member of the General Synod since 2005, as someone who could be described as an institutional person, part of the Establishment, is this, is the church really showing Jesus? Do we take people to meet Jesus, or do we in fact block, restrict, obscure, distort that divine encounter. I wonder if the problem is not with Jesus, not with Christ, not with the one who comes amongst us and reveals the depth of the death-defying love of God for the whole of humanity but with the institution. Rightly or wrongly we are seen to be misogynist, racist, homophobic, privileged, exclusive, entitled, censorious, irrelevant, elitist – and you can add to that list – and at times and in places we have been and still are some or all of that. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet

‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’ (Hamlet Act 1 Scene IV)

At it’s best the church is life-giving, life-changing, a blessing, the shepherd’s hut in the midst of a hostile wilderness, a place where we are fed, where miracles happen, where we encounter the Living God. But at our worst … well, I don’t need to spell it out. Yet, and there is a big yet in all of this, yet, we opened booking for our Cathedral Carol Services and all the places were taken within a few hours; yet we have a big online community, with us each morning to pray; yet we have a diverse congregation, age and ethnicity, and sexuality and ability and all the rest. The church is not dead and people are not uninterested but there is something that is getting in the way of us showing Jesus to those who wish to see him. That is the challenge for the whole church and we have to address it today because tomorrow comes along too fast!

Jesus, may we see you, in the church, in the world, in one another. Amen.

Keep awake!

It’s Advent Sunday and in the gospel for today Jesus tells us to ‘Keep awake!’ It’s an important call to be awake to the reality around us, to be awake to the reality of God, to be awake to the needs of our neighbours. As we were approaching the beginning of Advent we had three events at the Cathedral that spoke to me about this call that we would be hearing as we began the countdown to Christmas.

We have been served by some excellent MPs in the constituencies in this diocese. One of those who really encouraged communities and individuals was Tessa Jowell. She was the member for the Dulwich area for 23 years campaigning on behalf of local people and much loved, even by those who hadn’t voted for her. She was inspirational, but she was also inspirational in the way that she died as much as in the way she lived. The same passion that she lived by was present in the way she approached her death. She was open about it, campaigning for better help and care for those who suffered from brain cancer as she did. She died in 2018 and her daughter Jess was instrumental in setting up the Tessa Jowell Foundation to continue her work on behalf of those who were also diagnosed with that form of cancer.

We were privileged to host the memorial service for Tessa in the Cathedral in 2019 and then on Thursday evening to be the venue for a huge fundraising dinner which had the aim of extending the work of the Foundation to those children who suffer from the same cancer. It was an inspirational evening. There was music and laughter and a real buzz of excitement and commitment around the cause. There was also huge generosity and it was humbling to sit there as significant pledges were made in the auction that will make this new work possible. Being awake to the need for the care of those who face cancer was at the heart of what we were doing.

The window inspired by the young people

Then on Friday an event brought a number of constituencies together. The Clewer Initiative works to highlight and combat modern day slavery. They approached us to see if we wanted to be involved in their campaign. It was something that we really felt called to do. So a coalition was set up which brought together our Cathedral Education Centre with the Diocesan Board of Education, the Worshipful Company of Glaziers, John Reyntiens and his stained glass studio and students from two secondary schools in the diocese. Together they created a window which tells the story of the scandal of modern day slavery and highlights where we might encounter those who are enslaved – in car washes, nail bars, as well as in the sex industry. At the same event some documents and objects relating to the slave trade in the eighteenth century were also on display. Amongst them was a chilling piece of paper, written in the most beautiful hand, a conveyancing document listing the names of all the slaves on a plantation in the Caribbean. The youngest on the list was just 4 years old. Setting our own complicity in the slave trade then alongside our own ignorance about the slave trade now was powerful.

What was so great was seeing the students, some with their parents, identifying their own work which had been translated by skilled artists in stained glass to create an incredible panel. Being awake to the issue of modern day slavery was at the heart of what we were doing.

On Friday evening into Saturday morning a crowd of people slept out at the Cathedral. It was the annual Robes SleepOut, the first proper one we had been able to do since the pandemic. People young and old arrived at the Cathedral on Friday evening, armed with their equipment for the night, ready to sleep out, knowing that what they were doing would make a big difference to those who, often through no fault of their own, are forced to live on our streets. They were hoping not to stay awake through the night but being awake to the needs of the homeless was at the heart of what we were doing.

And why? Why should we be bothered about addressing the issue of brain cancer, modern day slavery and homelessness in the Cathedral. Isn’t this more woke than awake? As we said Compline in the Cathedral before we settled down for the night in our sleeping bags, on cardboard, under the stars on a cold but clear November evening, we heard those familiar words of Jesus from Matthew 25

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25.37-40)

‘You did it to me’, the one facing brain cancer, the enslaved and frightened, the one on the streets, each revealing something of the divine, in themselves, in their living, in their suffering. We stay awake to each of them, their needs should keep us awake.

Loving God, may I see you in each of those around me and stay awake to their need. Amen.

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark