Please believe … PS

As a consequence of some family celebrations taking me away from normal life for a few days I haven’t had time to write a proper Living God blog. Apologies to you all. But there was a post script I wanted to add to last week’s blog about the installation of Mark Titchner’s iconic image in the Cathedral – ‘Please believe these days will pass’.

The other day I was sitting in the lovely sunshine in the courtyard at Southwark Cathedral enjoying a coffee with a colleague. One of the Day Chaplains approached us and began telling us about various things. Then they began reflecting on ‘Please believe..’. What they said made me think of it in another way.

We have probably all passed by those churches which have a ‘wayside pulpit’, not the kind that you find on the old chapel on Lambeth Walk, or Christchurch, North Brixton, pulpits literally built outside so that a preacher could preach to the passing, or gathering crowd, but the notice board version of the pulpit. The posters that are put on to them, with their simply but memorable message, are sometimes a bit cringe worthy but often much more than that.

There is the familiar but always amusing “ – What’s missing? UR.” or the more biblical ‘Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the snake and the snake didn’t have a leg to stand on.’ In fact, so I understand, the tradition of these billboard slogans goes back to the early 20th century and the United States. Driving past the church, or driving into its parking lot, the message would be easily read.

Our Day Chaplain thought that the installation had that power to engage, to arrest the attention, to fix itself into the mind, the outside brought inside so that we can take the message back out with us.

As Jesus says to his disciples

‘What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.’ (Matthew 10.27) 

Mark Titchner’s work is, of course, billboard art, it is usually found in the street, from the modern ‘wayside pulpit’. It’s great to subvert that, as long as the message gets out – ‘Please believe these days will pass’.

God of every passing age, be with us in what remains, in what endures, in what survives and strengthen those for whom these days do not seem to be passing. Amen.

Please believe …

Each year, for the past ten years, we have had a installation in Southwark Cathedral that has focused our minds and thoughts and prayers during Lent. The principle has often been around in some way using the concept of veiling the Great Screen. This year, whilst we had secured an artist and their work when we realised that we would be in yet another lock down and the Cathedral would be closed we decided to delay the installation until people could actually get along to the Cathedral to enjoy it in-person.

The installation we had chosen was by the artist Mark Titchner. Mark is from south London and his ‘street art’ has been seen in the public realm and especially during the pandemic. He uses simple texts, set against colourful and engaging backgrounds – the simplicity helps get the message across.

So we were delighted when last week, on Bank Holiday Monday, Mark was able to come along with the technical team who would help install the huge image. Because of the size of it you can read the message from wherever you are in the nave – ‘Please believe these days will pass.’ The dimensions of the work are impressive. Mark wrote this to us about it

A standard 48 sheet billboard is approximately 6m x 3m (6096mm x 3048mm to be precise!) and the artwork for the Cathedral is 9.23m x 6.3m which by my calculation makes it over three time as large as the billboard.

So the art fills most of the space created by the medieval pillars, arches and vaulting. It is literally a statement piece.

Whilst the art didn’t arrive when we really wanted it, actually and by the grace of God, it has come at a pivotal time in this pandemic. As we move as a nation through the various stages of the roadmap leading to the complete relaxation of the Coronavirus restrictions it is easy to believe that it is all behind us.  But the world, as we know, is still in the grip of a pandemic.  Mark’s monumental installation is a stark reminder that we need to look beyond these islands to a world still suffering.  But it is also a message of hope, because the truth is ‘these days will pass’ and we must hold on to that belief, that hope. 

Jesus spoke to his disciples about the passing of days, of powers and times and then he says this to them

‘Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’. (Luke 21.32-33)

His words are both disturbing and comforting.  In a similar way this art installation is both reassuring yet realistic.  These days may pass, but what will remain, what will we find, what is there new that awaits us beyond the passing?  For Christians is it is the enduring Word of God, who we recognise in Jesus, which gives us hope for the future.

I was due to preach at the Choral Eucharist on the evening of Corpus Christi. It was the first time I had preached with the installation in place, but I couldn’t ignore it. Nether could I ignore the fact that it was the 4th anniversary of the terrorist attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market. These were the lections for that service – Genesis 14.18-20; 1 Corinthians 11.23-26; John 6.51-58 – and this is what I said.

You can’t escape the image, you can’t escape the message.  For the next six weeks this cathedral is dominated by the installation of Mark Titchner’s street art which says to us, and you can read it for yourself, ‘Please believe these days will pass’. 

At the beginning of Dylan Thomas’ play for voices, ‘Under Milk Wood’, the narrator says simply to us, listening into the town of Llaregyb sleeping then waking,

Time passes. Listen. Time passes.

The times that we live in will pass and the things that we are still living through will pass.

Today is the 4th anniversary of the events of the 3 June 2017 that changed our lives forever as 8 people died and 48 people were injured and numerous people suffered the trauma of the terrorist attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market.  This morning we marked those events in a simple service around the olive tree which stands as our memorial in the churchyard.  It’s a silent witness, slowly growing as the days pass.  Please believe these days will pass, and the present will become our past and the future will become our present. 

And into all of this this Feast of Corpus Christi speaks to us. 

In every Eucharist we’re taken back in time, not just in memory but in deep reality to that Upper Room in Jerusalem, and to the twelve and their companions gathered around a table with Jesus.  And he takes bread and blesses, and breaks, and shares it.  And he takes a cup of wine and blesses and shares it.  ‘This is my body … this is my blood … do this in remembrance of me.’  And we do it, day in day out, the past, present and future sacrament of which St Thomas Aquinas speaks in the words of the alleluia that was sung before the Gospel

At this sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is renewed, our lives are filled with grace, and the promise of future glory is given to us.

The memory becomes real, the past is brought into the present, our lives now become grace-filled, the present is infused with the mystery of God, tomorrow is freighted with promise, the future is full of glory. 

Wherever we are in this present moment we have the assurance that God is with us, as God was with our forebears, as God will be with our successors.  Listen, time passes, and as it passes bread is broken and we are fed.

God knows the journey that we’re on, that you are on, he knows that as his children travel they need to be fed. Just as manna rained down from heaven in the wilderness and mortals ate the bread of angels, so we feed, not on angels’ bread but on God through God’s own self placed in our hands, food for the journey as we move from the past, through the present to the future. 

Please believe these days will pass; please believe that you are fed for the journey, please believe that God is with us, for as we will shortly say in powerful acclamation of the most powerful truth

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

I hope you will come along to the Cathedral and see the installation for yourself; it is with us until 23 July. And when you do come you will find this prayer you are invited to pray with us.

God of every passing age, be with us in what remains, in what endures, in what survives and strengthen those for whom these days do not seem to be passing. Amen.

Can you breathe yet?

A year on from the murder of George Floyd and has anything changed? Can my sisters and brothers breathe yet? This is what I have been thinking about this week. On the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd I had the most incredibly moving experience, well, two experiences really, but related at a very deep level.

In the past decade the Church of England has really got to grips with the training that is offered to Deans and other members of the Chapters of Cathedrals. That has been an excellent initiative and whilst I have often been a bit critical of some of the training we have been offered it has always stimulated a great deal of thinking. The latest round of training I was invited to take part in was all about increasing diversity in our cathedrals.

This happened to take place last Tuesday, the first anniversary, and then in the evening I was due to welcome Chine McDonald to the Cathedral to be in conversation with the Archdeacon of Croydon, Dr Rosemarie Mallett, about Chine’s new book ‘God is not a white man’. The one reinforced the other, the training and the conversation, the stories we shared, the deeper reflection.

In preparation for the training we were invited to read or watch a number of things, inclusing teh recent Panorama programme on racism in the Church of England. We were then asked to reflect on what we had seen.

It was a shocking experience, watching the Panorama programme.  It was shocking because we heard individual stories from those who had experienced racism first hand.  But it was not new in the sense that we have been on a journey around this subject for a long time and the Cathedral has been a long time on this journey.

Inclusive Church was founded in 2003 and the then Dean of Southwark, Colin Slee, was one of the founding members and preached at the launch service in Putney.  We immediately signed up as a Chapter – we were shamelessly inclusive.  And we would shamelessly use a capital I as well as a lower case i when talking about ourselves.  But, to be brutally honest, we were talking about LGBT issues and to be honest we were really talking about gay men. 

Now I am Dean, the boy who had grown up in multi-cultural Leicester, who was formed by the first black priest I had ever met, challenged into changing my sloppy ways of thinking when I came to Southwark, wanting to be included as the person I am in the church I loved and had given my life to.  So we arrived at this descriptor, value statement for our life as a community.

Southwark Cathedral an inclusive Christian community growing in orthodox faith and radical love

Out of that we have three words which we print on our Pride T-shirts –

Inclusive : Faithful :Radical

It describes our intention, not sadly not yet our reality.

How dare we use such words of our self when it is not true – or, at least, as not true as it should be, as Jesus would want it to be?  Of course, we can say we are on a journey and we are, but it is a long journey and that was partly what I saw on the Panorama programme.

I am always fascinated by the length of the route that the Israelites took from slavery to freedom – forty years in the wilderness, doubling back on themselves when things got a little too hot to handle, satisfied with unsatisfying food, until Joshua, not Moses, crossed the Jordan and with stepping stones showing the way, they followed.  They could have got there a lot more quickly but for good and bad reasons they didn’t.  It took Joshua and the stepping stones, which they would lift from the riverbed onto the bank as a lasting memorial, to actually deliver them on to another shore. (Joshua 4.3)

When your children ask in time to come, “What do those stones mean to you?” then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. (Joshua 4.6-7)

Listening to the real stories, listening to Chine and the challenge of black theology to our out of step way of thinking of and imagining God, allowing the reality that others live to impact me during the day and then watching again the footage of that terrible evening in Minneapolis when a police officer knelt on my brother’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds and he cried out to be allowed to breathe, I realised the enormity of the task that we face, in the Cathedral, as a wider community, as society and the memorial stones we need to mark the journey.

So I am looking for those stepping stones that will take us from slavery to freedom, to a better place in which we can all breathe and be the person God calls us to be.

There is a long way to go. This was my #BlackLivesMatter prayer and I am still praying it. 

God of all, who loves each of us for who we are, to whom each life matters, who counts the hairs on our head who knows when a sparrow falls; teach us to love as you love to respect, to honour, to care and to protect each of our sisters and brothers, that your embracing, including kingdom may come now and your love be known by all, always. Amen.

All the world’s a stage

I was a bit nervous of allowing myself to feel too excited as Monday 17 May loomed larger on the horizon. The problem with having these dates for the various stages of the relaxation of the Coronavirus regulations in advance is that you then have them fixed in your diary and in your mind and you plan for them and look forward to them. Obviously for those who have to get beer barrels attached to their pumps or food in their kitchens the advance notice is really important. But for the rest of us there is always the uneasy feeling that something will happen that will mean that the plans are suddenly changed and we will be disappointed. But as we approached Monday of last week it looked as though all would be well despite the advance of variants.

I was particularly delighted because there were three things in the diary which were helping me to understand that we were moving into very different times.

The first was to happen on Monday morning. We have been involved in London Open Gardens weekend for a number of years but, apart from last year, it has always been a weekend when people could discover for themselves some of London’s more hidden away gardens. This year the event is to be online. However, we were chosen to be involved and so a cameraman, Steve, arrived early on Monday morning to film in the Deanery garden and to interview me about it. You can found out more about the event which takes place on Saturday 12 June here Sarah Greene, of Blue Peter fame, will be presenting the programme and it promises to be great.

One of the things I have learnt over this past year is the importance of open space, be that space public or private, a big park or a small garden. To be able to enjoy the beauty, the peace and tranquillity of a garden is great for our mental as well as our physical health.

One of the lovely things about the Deanery garden is that we have two wonderful neighbours; to one side the Globe Theatre and to the other Tate Modern. In the evening, after the filming, I had been invited to go along to the Tate which was specially open to allow local residents to go along and see there of the exhibitions. Just as walking round a garden is uplifting, so is walking round a a gallery. You suddenly remember what it is that you have been missing and the mental stimulation and emotional stimulation of art is, for me, a vital part of wellbeing.

There were three exhibitions that we were able to visit. The first is by Zanele Muholi, who describes themself as a visual activist. From the early 2000s, they have documented and celebrated the lives of South Africa’s Black lesbian, gay, trans, queer and intersex communities. It’s a radical and challenging exhibition that is coming to an end soon and a great reminder that #BlackLivesMatter touches on many aspects of our human nature, in many different communities. Catch it if you can.

The second exhibition is by Yayoi Kusama which features the most amazing installation of what I can only describe as two mind-bending halls of mirrors. The use of mirrors, lights, darkness and water create the most incredible effects. As we were constantly hearing the news from Israel/Palestine of the terrible attacks each community was making on the other I was taken to the experience ion the Children’s Memorial at Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust Memorial on the edge of Jerusalem. As you enter that space you are disoriented by candles disappearing into infinity and the images of children killed in the Nazi concentration camps all around you. You are put into a different space and this is what Kusama skilfully does when we enter her two ‘halls’.

The third exhibition is entitled ‘The Making of Rodin’. Visitors are met at the entrance to the exhibition by ‘The Kiss’, so familiar and so beautiful. Inside you can see how Auguste Rodin, working at the turn of the 20th century, broke the rules of classical sculpture to create an image of the human body that mirrored the ruptures, complexities and uncertainties of the modern age. This exhibition is the first, I believe, to focus on the importance of plaster in his work. Although Rodin is best known for his bronze and marble sculptures, he himself worked as a modeller, who captured movement, light and volume in materials such as clay and plaster. It was thrilling to see plaster, full size versions, of the ‘Burghers of Calais’, ‘The Thinker’ and ‘Balzac’.

Then Tuesday came and another exciting invitation. As I have said, to the other side of the Deanery garden is the Globe Theatre. They were holding a final dress rehearsal on Tuesday evening and were also trying out the new front of house arrangements. Members of staff, friends and family were making up the trial audience and I was invited to join them. We were going to watch a performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ a great re-entry into the world of theatre. However, I was also invited to bless the stage and the theatre before the show began. It was a surreal experience to go onto that great stage, in that great space, with the CEO, Neil Constable and the Artistic Director, Michelle Terry, to mark the reopening after fourteen months of darkness.

The heavens opened as we were getting ready to begin, the rain poured down, the sky was dark. Then the time to begin came and we heard the chimes from St Paul’s across the river and on cue the rain stopped and the sky cleared. When it came to my turn I said this prayer that I had written for the occasion.

Creator God,
who made the world a stage
set in a sea of stars,
bless now this wooden O,
the ground beneath,
the sky above,
the seats around,
the space where all life is found;
that eye may see
and ear may hear,
heart may conceive
and tongue may taste
the dreams you put into our minds
this night and always.

Then the stage filled with music and fun and the Dream played out – and we were thrilled.

In the beauty of the garden, through creative art, through song and verse and play, the soul is thrilled and the heart awakened. There was no disappointment, just joy.

God of creative joy,
may we stand on the stage of life
and live the drama
of your love

PS for those interested in why I wrote the prayer the way I did for the Globe, one of the things I was interested in doing was picking up on some of the Shakespearean themes. All the world’s a stage is from ‘As You Like It’

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;

‘Set in a sea of stars’ refers to the decoration above the stage. The ‘wooden O’ comes from Henry V

May we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?

‘That eye may see…’ is a response to Bottom’s speech from Act IV Scene I of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ where he says

The eye
of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream

Bottom, subverts, plays with or just misremembers the passage from 1 Corinthians 2.9

eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.

And the ‘dreams’ and the ‘night’? Well that is what it’s all about!

‘Give me a hug … please!’

We have become used to a strange, regulated way of living over the past year. Part of the strangeness is that now we are are all waiting, obediently, for Monday when we will be allowed to hug another person, cautiously. Who would have believed that government could control even that aspect of our life. One of the things that I had been getting used to in the past few years was adopting a more continental way of greeting. So I often found myself – not inappropriately I hope – kissing someone, once, twice on meeting them. It was lovely and warm and truly affectionate. I’d also noticed that people were relaxing even more during the exchange of Peace at the Eucharist, hugs and kisses added to the more formal handshake that we have got used to (or at least most of us) over the years.

Of course not everyone enjoys ‘sharing’ the Peace and are perhaps dreading the moment when the restrictions on it are lifted in church. When I was a student at Mirfield I remember one Mass in the Upper Church when we were with the members of the Community. In my innocence I approached a rather dour looking individual to share the Peace. ‘Peace be with you’ I said, with a smile and an extended hand. ‘No thank you.’ was the polite yet unexpected response!

Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to a hug on Monday, cautiously, appropriately, not randomly, and, if I understand the regulations, shaking another person’s hand, with similar care. However, whilst I say I’m looking forward to it I’m not quite sure how I will feel about it when the moment actually comes and a hand is directed towards me, or arms are open wide.

One of the most beautiful sights for me is standing in the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur in Paris. The building stands majestically above the streets of Montmartre. The white marble domes can be seen across the city, crowning the hill of the martyrs. As you enter, the place is silent, a place of prayer. A solitary nun kneels in the sanctuary in front of the Blessed Sacrament, exposed on the altar, 24/7, as it always has been. But there in the east end, covering the apse is the most wonderful mosaic. Inaugurated in 1923, the 475 square metre mosaic of Christ in Glory is one of the largest mosaics in the world. It represents the risen Christ, clothed in white and with arms extended, revealing a golden heart.

There are in fact two styles of the image of the Sacred Heart. The one that is perhaps the most familiar is of Jesus pointing to his heart. It reminds me always of that line from St John’s Gospel in the story of the raising of Lazarus when the people exclaim ‘See how he loved him!’ (John 11.36) Jesus directs our eyes towards the divine heart of love and says to us ‘See how I love you.’

But the other style of the Sacred Heart is the one that the basilica of the Sacré-Cœur proclaims. There Christ stands with open arms drawing us in, welcoming us in, embracing us in such a powerful and attractive way. It is the embrace, the hug, the enfolding that humanity needs. Looking at that takes me to one of our Eucharistic Prayers in which the priest, with arms extended, praying the Preface says

‘he opened wide his arms for us on the cross’ (Common Worship Eucharistic Prayer B)

Lord, give me a hug, please.

I have found the news from Israel/Palestine almost too much to bear. It is a land I love and feel I know so well. I have so many friends there, living in the horror of the situation. The news from India is equally appalling, the constant images of people overwhelmed by this pandemic. We need that divine hug, that divine embrace, that divine peace – that shalom, that salaam, that drawing in of humanity into the heart of God.

So, maybe that first hug I give is a virtual one, and the first one I need is a divine one, without any caution, because at this moment, we need it.

God, draw us into your love, hold us in your embrace. Amen.

‘I thee wed’

Whilst everything was happening up to the elections last Thursday, whilst gunboats were being sent out to defend Jersey from the French fishermen, whilst Hodge caught his first mouse (can you believe it), whilst we were all talking about the final episode of ‘Line of Duty’, big changes were happening in the background.

One of the big changes in ministry for Church of England clergy in the time that I have been ordained is the number of marriages at which we officiate. As a curate in quite an attractive church we would often have three or four weddings on a Saturday. It made for a busy day but in some ways it was fun, in other ways it was stressful. The stress came from the fact that so many things can go wrong with a wedding – the buttonholes don’t arrive, the bride’s heel gets caught in a grating, you drop the ring, a choirboy vomits, it rains, the whole thing starts late and you have another bride arriving, they all disobey you and throw confetti and you know that you are going to be blamed for it by the vicar! But the other source of stress was the Registers.

Edmund Blair Leighton – The Wedding Register

It was the kind of thing that we weren’t taught at theological college. I was taught how to fold a corporal correctly and how to blow out a flaming thurible but how to complete wedding registers was something that I had to rely on my vicar to instruct me in. From day one I realised that this was one of the most serious things I would be involved in. This was a legal ceremony in which I was acting on behalf of the state. I had to get it right because whilst God is very forgiving the Registry Office might not be as understanding and certainly the couple wouldn’t be if they had to come along and do it all all over again!

The first hurdle was getting the right information on to the Banns form. Having neat handwriting I always filled out the form – name, age, condition, rank or profession, address, father’s name, father’s rank or profession – so that I had a hope of being able to read it afterwards. Lots of potential pitfalls in getting all this information correct. But it was that information that you needed to call the Banns on three successive Sundays. I always asked the couple to check it closely, how it was all spelt, what their father’s middle name was and then to sign it all off. Because, it was from that document that we then had to transcribe the information into the Marriage Registers.

These were two hard back books, bound in green cloth with gold blocked lettering, cream paper and green printing and a book of certificates which were identical to the registers. Everything you wrote out, by hand, in registrar’s ink had to be identical. There were full and complex instructions about what to do when you made a mistake as you wrote them up. The mistake had to be corrected in a certain way and numbered in the margin, consecutively throughout the Register and the mistake had to be on each copy. So if you made a mistake the certificate you handed over to the happy couple had to have the correction on it.

My mouth would go dry, my hand shake, I couldn’t be disturbed as I undertook the task. Can you imagine the stress if you had three or four sets to complete? And then you had to make sure that people signed on the right line and in the right way. It makes me want to go away and lie down just thinking about it.

The reason I’m telling you all this is that from the beginning of last week all this has changed. All of our Registers are being closed, we can no longer issue marriage certificates and even that moment in a marriage service will change as there are no longer big registers to sign whether in the vestry out of sight or in full view of the congregation. Instead a form, completed on the computer, printed off and signed in the service will be all that is required. Much simpler, much easier, less stressful – I feel quite sad.

I’ve seen various clergy on Twitter rejoicing at the final closing of the green registers. I know that since going to the Cathedral I have been shielded from most of the stress involved because the Registers have been completed by the Head Verger in his rather fine handwriting. But it does feel as if in this whole process of simplification some significant and powerful roles are being taken from us – and this was one of them.

It’s not all bad of course. It is no longer just fathers who are included in the registers of the future, mums can be there as well, or just mum and no dad, or up to four parents. It’s not just two witnesses you can have but up to six. And no longer do you have to carry around the scribes mistakes ’till death you do part’! But what feels to me like a distancing of the church from the way we have always done things is a retrograde step. The joy though is that we are still able to legally marry people and not just perform a blessing – though the inability of the church to marry people who are of the same gender is still something that I hope we can address through the LLF process now underway in the church.

Whether or not we have the green registers the privilege of this ministry remains and to know that this is where Jesus began in making himself known.

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory. (John 2.11)

You will still hear the Banns read, you will still see people signing something but don’t expect to see those green Registers any longer.

Lord, the source of all true love, we pray for those preparing for marriage. Grant to them joy of heart, seriousness of mind and reverence of spirit, that as they enter into the oneness of marriage they may be strengthened and guided by you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(from Common Worship)

Local hero

You may remember a rather lovely film that was released back in 1983, ‘Local Hero’. It was memorable not just for the inspirational storyline but for the amazing scenery of the Scottish coastline and the ‘ear-worming’ music by Mark Knopfler. It’s a powerful title to the film though and one that came back to me following the death of a young man in the neighbourhood of Southwark Cathedral last week.

Folajimi Olubunmi-Adewole, Jimi, as he is known to his friends and now to us, jumped into the River Thames when he heard a woman screaming for help. She had fallen into the river from London Bridge. By all accounts he ran from the bridge to the section opposite the cathedral which is at a slightly lower level and jumped in from there. Someone else jumped in with him to join in the rescue attempt. The woman and the other person survived, Jimi died and his body was later found by the emergency services.

In Cathedral Square, from where he made this heroic act, flowers have been laid throughout the week. His friends have come along to remember him, local civic leaders have been along to pay their respects, strangers, who didn’t know him, have stopped and chatted to me about what Jimi tried to do. There is a general sense of stunned admiration for this young man.

We held a hustings last week, on Zoom of course, in preparation for the Mayoral Elections in London this week. At the end I said to all those representing the main parties that have candidates and to the others like me who had attended to hear what they had to say, that Jimi reminded us of the quality of so many young people in our communities. There is so much talk about young people and in all the debates they are often presented as a problem to be solved – knife crime, gangs, county lines, mobile phone and bike thefts – so much is laid at their doors and we can be in danger of demonising our young people, our sisters and our brothers. And then Jimi comes along and in a selfless act reveals himself as a local hero.

I have been thinking a lot this week about what Jesus said to his disciples. When I wrote to Jimi’s parents on behalf of the Cathedral community I offered these words to them

‘Greater love has no one than this, that a person will lay down his life for his friends.’ (John 15.13)

The Cathedral choir often sings a wonderful anthem by John Ireland called ‘Greater love’. It’s a powerful piece of choral writing which brings together some amazing texts. Ireland couples these words of Jesus from St John’s Gospel with words from the Song of Songs, as well as other texts in the New Testament.

‘Many waters cannot quench love, Nor can the floods drown it.’ (Song of Songs 8.7)

Out of love for his sister, his neighbour, who we presume he didn’t know, Jimi went to the rescue and the floods cannot drown the power of his act. He is our local hero, raised and educated in the area, known, loved and respected by his friends, mourned by his grieving parents. In a week when local politics will be fought over and much will be said his life speaks eloquently to us, and makes us fall into silent admiration. The waters of the Thames may have claimed him but God will embrace him for eternity and we mustn’t forget him.

May Jimi rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.

Tackling racism head on

I have been in General Synod for the past few days and so have posted a number of blog posts from there which you may have seen. If not you can find them by using this link.

So as far as a Living God blog is concerned I offer you the text of the sermon that I have preached in the Cathedral this morning. The readings were Acts 4.5-12; 1 John 3.16-24; John 10.11-18.

If I’m waiting for the ‘Antiques Roadshow’ to begin on a Sunday evening I sometimes see a bit of ‘Countryfile’ which is normally scheduled beforehand. Not being a country person at all it’s not a programme that, to be honest, I choose to watch, but there is something undoubtedly lovely about it. Who cannot be won over by the sight of spring lambs and the mother sheep, of the diligent and skilled sheepdog busy doing what they do and the shepherd looking over the flock. Last week they featured a young girl, brought up the whole of her life on a farm and caring for the orphaned or abandoned lambs, they chasing after her eager for the next bottle. It was lovely.

There’s no escaping how powerful the image of the Good Shepherd is, even for those of us living in the centre of a city completely removed from pastoral delights. Even for the earliest Christians it was a source of huge comfort – and they’d never even heard the tune Crimmond. In their catacombs they’d depict Christ the Good Shepherd, young, vigorous, with a sheep across his shoulders, the one who would both protect and rescue them. It’s an image that never diminishes in its power.

And as Jesus spoke to the crowds and said those most famous words with which the gospel began, ‘I am the good shepherd’ they knew exactly what he was talking about. Even the city dwellers were familiar with sheep, with goats, with shepherds. If you lived in Jerusalem you’d be used to the constant arrival of lambs and sheep, to the sheep pools at Bethesda and the temple courts for ritual purposes, to the table to feed families and at the heart of that most defining moment in the lives of the people and the nation, the festival of Passover. They knew all about sheep – and they knew all about shepherds.

You may recall that at Christmas we often refer to the rather bad reputation that shepherds actually had. They were outsiders to the rest of the community, smelly, rough, uneducated. In Roman law what they said couldn’t be taken in evidence. Which makes it so wonderfully remarkable and powerful that in St Luke’s Gospel it’s to shepherds that the angels appear and it’s to shepherds that the good news is told, that Jesus had been born. It was also amazing that they told everyone what had happened and people listened to the testimony of the shepherds and, most amazingly, believed them.

Now Jesus calls himself a shepherd, a good shepherd. In that incredible counter-cultural, world upside down creating way that Jesus has, he identifies with the people on the edge, with the ruffians who people wanted to keep at arms length outside the city wall. ‘I am the good shepherd’ he says.

This gospel reading is one of total inclusion. Jesus speaks of a number of folds, a number of flocks. That is the way things would’ve been. But Jesus has a bigger vision, a wider point to make

‘I must bring them also .. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.’

None is left behind, the fold is large, the flock is one, all are gathered together.

St Peter in our First Reading had spoken about Jesus being the rejected one, there though the imagery was of the cornerstone, but it’s all the same theme, Jesus is the rejected one, chosen by God, who becomes the foundation of the temple, the rock on which we build, who is the shepherd, the outsider who draws the people in. The rejected stone becomes the good stone, the rejected shepherd becomes the good shepherd.

But it’s even more powerful than this. In every Eucharist we recognise Jesus not as shepherd but as Lamb. ‘Jesus is the Lamb of God’ says the priest as the host is raised before us and we are invited to share in the Eucharistic meal. This is the Passover Lamb, sacrificed for us. ‘O Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world’ sings the choir.

The shepherd is the lamb, Jesus not only oversees the flock but is part of the flock. As the poet, artist, William Blake wrote in his wonderful poem ‘The Lamb’

He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

We are called by his name, we are lambs, part of the one flock of which Jesus is both Good Shepherd and lamb.

Last week was tough. On Monday we watched the Panorama programme in which the journalist Clive Myrie exposed racism within the life of the Church of England. On Tuesday we watched as the USA took a first step towards greater justice for African Americans and all people of colour who face day-in day-out the brutality and injustice at the hands of the American police forces as the murderer of George Floyd was found guilty. On Thursday the report of the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Task Force was published; we heard of the terrible way in which men of colour who fought and fell alongside their white comrades in the First World War were not recognised by headstones or monuments; and we marked the 28th anniversary of the murder of our brother Stephen Lawrence on the streets of this diocese in Eltham.

Things have to change. The Archbishops’ Report was entitled ‘From Lament to Action’. Well the time for lamenting is over, now is the time for action. St John has a word for us today in the Second Reading

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

The church keeps asking for forgiveness for the way in which we have treated women, the abuse we have allowed against our children, the hatred we have fostered against gay people, the way we have discriminated against black and brown people, whoever is not white and indigenous. ‘Not in word or speech, but in truth and action.’

The Good Shepherd is a person of few words and of courageous, heroic action, ‘And I lay down my life for the sheep’, who stands firmly in place when the hired hand runs away, who will search for the lost in the wilderness of the world, who will be the lamb of sacrifice, who will be laid upon the altar. Jesus demands that we act – and that includes us.

As your Dean I want you to know that everyone of you is important to us, but I want you also to know that Black Lives Matter and that we need to be doing even more, acting with even greater intentionality to make this true not just in word but in deed, ‘in truth and action’ to use St John’s words.

I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.

That means all of us, equally, in one flock, in one fold, sharing in one bread, stood around one table, under one roof. That is really what being inclusive, faithful, radical means.

And we do it for Stephen Lawrence and for Damilola Taylor, we do it for George Floyd and for everyone who fell in the war who we decided to forget, we do it for everyone who every day faces the pain and humiliation of discrimination, we do it for Jesus, who lays down his life for us and now gives us his life that we may live better.

Doorkins, Hodge and much, much more

Like spring cleaning some jobs seem to come round faster and faster as you get that bit older. When Lent begins I know that at some stage I need to sit down and write my annual report so that it can be published on Easter Day. In normal times I have taken the opportunity to go up to the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield. I book one of the guests rooms in the College, hide myself away and also take the opportunity to worship with the College and the Community and to catch up with life there. It all works very well. Obviously, for the last two years, or rather the last two occasions that I’ve had to write the report, I haven’t been able to do that and instead I have simply had to shut the door of the study and get writing.

Although it is a task that hangs over me, when I actually get going it is something I love to do. Once I know how to begin I just get going, a stream of consciousness, memories, reflections on life at the Cathedral. I was working it out and this is the tenth report that I have had to write – the first one as Acting Dean and the rest as Dean. Looking back they are a record of our life as a community, chronicling all that has happened.

This year was obviously like no other, but you could say that of any year. This past year though was beyond our imagining and so much has happened even whilst the doors of the Cathedral have been closed. In the sermon I blogged on Easter Day I was reflecting on the way in which God gets on with the work of resurrection even in the dark and it applies equally to the year we are thinking about. Behind the closed doors of the Cathedral, as in the sealed tomb, the work of God went on.

I love the verse in which Jesus says this

‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ (John 5.17)

Even when things appear locked down our Creator God is creating, recreating, resurrecting. I find that thought, that truth enormously comforting and supportive. It is not all up to us, we don’t have to do it all.

So, 2020! Where do you begin? Well in my report I began with Pepys and his experience of the plague. I’m just finishing the wonderful novel ‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell. Again it is written from a plague perspective and is deeply moving. Just as an aside I really appreciate getting to know Edmond Shakespeare that bit better, even through the pages of a novel. He lies in the choir of Southwark Cathedral, buried there by his brother, William, and makes his appearance in this story. So it was with the reality of plague in London that I began, but the journey would take me through the pandemic and the locking down and the unlocking, the new things we learnt, the fresh experiences we shared. Of course, as part of that we saw Doorkins die and Hodge arrive. Those little cats have made the journey with us along with thousands of others who are part of that wider community at Southwark Cathedral. Through it all God has been working and the Holy Spirit has been leading.

So I invite you to read my report. You can download it here.

Next Sunday we will be holding our Annual Parochial Church Meeting, delayed by a week because of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, but the opportunity for people to question me about the year that has passed. We will never see the like again.

God of time and of eternity, ever at work, ever present, as you have seen us through the year past guide us through the year to come, whatever it may hold. Amen.

In memoriam – part 2

This lunchtime we celebrated a Requiem Eucharist as we prayed for the repose of the soul of Prince Philip. The choir sang the Requiem by Maurice Duruflé. It was stunningly beautiful. My role was to preach – so, this is the homily that I delivered. The readings for the Eucharist were Lamentations 3. 22–26, 31–33, Romans 5. 5–11 and John 6. 35–40.

At the very end of this Eucharist the choir will sing the final part of the Requiem.  In paradisum, as it’s called, ends with really poignant words

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

It’s an amazing thing to sing following the death of a prince.  The Lazarus mentioned is not the friend of Jesus who he brings back from the dead, not the brother of Mary and Martha but instead it’s the Lazarus who is the poor man in St Luke’s Gospel who lay at the gate of the rich man. 

It’s a reminder to us, in a very powerful and profound way, that death is a great leveller.  Though life can deal us very different hands it doesn’t matter in the end whether you’re a prince in a castle or a homeless person here on the streets of Southwark, death comes to us all, with equal brutality, equal finality and the riches and the rescue of God also come in the same way.

As Jesus says in our Gospel reading in words particularly powerful in this Easter season

‘This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.’

This is the promise for each of us here and when, to use St Paul’s language, this tent in which we dwell is rolled up, we are brought into something glorious, ‘swallowed up by life.’

It has been a wonderful privilege to be able to welcome Prince Philip to this Cathedral on four occasions over the last 21 years that I’ve been here.  The first occasion was on Millennium Eve when he and Her Majesty The Queen came to say their prayers on the way to the Dome for midnight with the Blairs!  It was an unforgettable evening for us all.

His Royal Highness arriving for the Shakespeare celebration in 2016

Then they both came again in 2006 when the Chief of the Mohegan tribe joined us from his lands in New England to remember his forebear who had attempted to have an audience with Queen Anne and never managed it but was buried here.  It’s a very long story!

Then in 2013 the royal couple came again this time to see the Diamond Jubilee window in the Retrochoir, when the Queen met Doorkins the cat and the Duke was rather mystified by the modern glass.  They came here after visiting the Shard, which by all accounts Prince Philip so much enjoyed that he almost missed his express lift back down with the Queen, much to her amusement. 

Finally, he came on his own to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare in 2016, an amazing service weaving together scenes from the plays with scripture and music. It was a proud moment for us and for the Globe Theatre on Bankside where he was patron, though the Duke was surprised to find the Bishop of London here, Richard Chartres, outside his jurisdiction.  We reassured him that it was ok!

On each of those occasions Prince Philip was fascinated by what was going on, asking questions of everyone, intrigued by the detail, the little things – the verges the vergers here carry, for instance – as much as the big things.

So much has already been said about Prince Philip since his death on Friday and I’m sure yet more will be said.  He was a remarkable person and we’re very conscious that his death, as Her Majesty was reported as saying, has left a void in her life and in the life of this nation and the Commonwealth.  The earthly tent has been rolled up and it leaves a space where it was pitched.

But it is that phrase of St Paul’s ‘that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life’ that I find so inspiring.

The Duke was someone who lived life to the full, but for him, as for all the departed, there is yet more to come, life is not just for now, but for eternity, and the frailty and the fragility that can come upon even the strongest of individuals is eclipsed by the freedom and fullness of resurrection life. Death and the grave do not swallow us up but life itself.

In all the images that we’ve seen of Prince Philip over the last few days there’s one that has haunted me.  Not the handsome young naval officer, not the groom with his regal bride, not the Consort kneeling at the feet of his Queen and swearing his loyalty, not the kilted father in the grounds of Balmoral with his children, not the older man celebrating years of marriage, nor a retiring Prince taking the final salute on the doorstep at Windsor.  It was the picture of him as a little boy, rootless, homeless, the security of family having been shattered, looking like so many child refugees seeking a place of stability. 18 months old, sleeping in a cot made from an orange box, rescued by the Royal navy – it sounds very familiar.

Perhaps there’s not much difference between Lazarus, once poor and Philip, maybe more equal than we imagined, both swallowed up in life, finding true equality in the eyes of the God who created them and loved them, who created you and loves you.  May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

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