The seven-year itch

In 1955 Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell starred in a film adaptation of a play by George Axelrod, ‘The Seven Year Itch’.  The film, which featured the famous  ‘Marilyn over the grate pose’ popularised the idea that at the point of seven years a relationship can begin to go stale and the eye begins to wander and terrible things can happen in a relationship that once appeared good and sound.  Perhaps there’s some truth in it, I don’t know, I’ve never experienced that phenomenon myself.


But I was thinking about ‘seven years’ this last week when on the news we were told that the war in Syria has now been going on for that long.  Footage was shown of children, aged seven, who were born into the appalling and frightening situations that we see day by day in Syria and who have never known any thing different.  Their world experience has been formed and framed in a situation of appalling and brutal warfare.  They have known what we shouldn’t know as children, the death and mutilation which is part and parcel of indiscriminate warfare in which every person is a legitimate target.


Yet another scene of pain and devestation

The question I posed to myself was the extent to which I was ‘itching’ for things to be different.  An itch is an interesting thing.  There’s that lovely scene in the Disney version of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ in which Baloo the bear, voiced by Phil Harris, is singing ‘Bear necessities’ and trying to rid himself of a troublesome itch. But sometimes the itch won’t go.

Both in the Old and New Testament writers refer to us having ‘itching ears’, ready to listen to anything, not necessarily the truth.  But my ears itch to hear some good news for the people of Syria.

It is a long time now since I had the privilege of visiting that country.  I was helping to lead a pilgrimage from Southwark Cathedral, a journey that took us first of all through Jordan and then around Syria.  It must have been around 2001 I think when we went and life seemed very different.  Things may have been very difficult under the surface, but as pilgrims we were not made aware of that.  What we did experience was a beautiful country full of beautiful people with a rich heritage of faith.  What I saw there were Christian communities that had been the first to be formed, a tradition going back to the very first days of the church and still being lived out in remote hillside communities where the liturgy was in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

We saw stunning archaeological sites, Palmyra, the queen of the desert; Bosra, Aleppo; the Crusader remains; the monastery of St Simon Stylites; Damascus itself, walking down Straight Street and thinking, ‘This is where blind Saul was led by the hand.’ And everywhere there were people ready to greet us, to take us by the hand and welcome us.  And no day passes when I don’t wonder where those people who were so kind to me now are, whether they are even alive, and I have no way of knowing.  But I am itching for change.

An itch keeps us restless, and we must be restless until this horror ends.

Restless God,
for the people of Syria we pray;
as you never forget them,
neither may we.


Celebrating mums

It’s Mothering Sunday – yes, that is what it is called, not Mothers’ Day – we keep it on a Sunday because we are giving thanks to God for our mums and it’s about ‘mothering’ not just about how lovely our mums are.  Anyway, whatever we call it around the country people will have emerged from morning services clutching some straggly daffodils, perhaps tied with a bit of ribbon, that have either been handed over in church by child (of any age) to mother or will be if they survive the battering journey home.  We have a wonderful Flower Guild at Southwark Cathedral and Pat (Gold at Chelsea) has the task with some others of getting our bunches of daffs ready.  She kept calling me during the week.  ‘The snow has done dreadful things to the daffodils; I might not be able to get any; I’m just warning you.’ What a nightmare! Mothering Sunday without daffodils!


Worry not.  I went into one of the ancillary rooms on Friday and there was Pat with two other members of the Guild putting the bunches together.  Phew! Pulled back from the jaws of disaster. That would have been a real cloud hanging over us (unlike our Lent art installation) if we’d had no flowers.

I was back at Mirfield during the week, staying at the Community and College of the Resurrection.  It’s my yearly visit, three days in that wonderful atmosphere sharing again the common life that is such a feature of the place and made it, for me, the most wonderful environment to be formed for priesthood.  I go at this time of the year as I have a task to do that I need a bit of space to achieve.  On Easter Day my Annual Report is made available.  It has to be written – and that was the task, and a few other bits of writing, like the five ‘thoughts’ I had to prepare which are to be broadcast on Premier Radio each day during Holy Week.  Anyway, I got all of that done.

But on the Wednesday it was the Feast of Ss Perpetua, Felicity and their companions.  The priest who was presiding at the Mass, in her homily, told me something about these early Christian martyrs of which I was previously unaware.

I knew that the account of this martyrdom which took place in Carthage in around 203 AD was remarkable in lots of ways.  It was remarkable in that the detailed and rather gory account of what happened to them spread through the Christian world with a speed which would challenge our modern communications.  The document that recorded it was one of the most powerful and influential of the time.


St Perpetua and St Felicity


But what was also incredible was the story it told of how Christians lived which was counter-cultural.  Vibia Perpetua was a married noblewoman, said to have been 22 years old at the time of her death; Felicity was her slave imprisoned with her. Her companions were another slave named Revocatus, two free men Saturninus and Secundulus, and a man named Saturus, who voluntarily went before the magistrate and proclaimed himself a Christian. They were catechumens and so were preparing for baptism but proudly called themselves Christians and spoke fearlessly in the name of Jesus.  The account of their martyrdom made it clear that they were, in effect, baptised in their own blood. But what this mixed bunch of people reveals to us is that Christians were ignoring the current social conventions of only mixing with people of their own class.  Here a noblewoman and free men stand alongside slaves and share the same fate.  Christians worshipped in truly inclusive communities that were startling to others.

What I didn’t know was that at the time of their martyrdom Perpetua was nursing an infant and Felicity was pregnant.  These were two young mothers who stood in the arena and despite the demands of motherhood did what they believed to be right.

The mums we celebrate today have perhaps not had to do anything like Perpetua and Felicity but too many mums around the world do have to make stark choices and sacrificial decisions.  The images on our screens of a mother trying to feed her child from breasts that hold no milk, searching for a scrap of food that her child, not she, will eat, struggling to keep the fruit of her womb alive, are distressing and moving.  Whether on the outskirts of Damascus or in the Yemen it is women, it is mothers who bear so much of the pain.

In a couple of weeks time we will be with Mary at the foot of the cross, Mary going through her own martyrdom, a sword piercing her heart in fulfilment of old Simeon’s prophecy as she watched the fruit of her womb die.

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2.34-35)

Mary, Perpetua, Felicity, the unnamed mothers on our screens, and our own mothers also, all to be celebrated on such a day as this which calls not for an excess of sentimentality but healthy honesty and realism about just what it does mean to be a mother – and a father.

God, mother, father, of us all
bless those who are our mothers
and strengthen those whose mothering
leads them into suffering.

A cloud on the horizon

We’ve all had that experience, lying on the beach, soaking up the rays, and then suddenly seeing on the horizon some cloud bubbling up.  Will it head in our direction, will we be running from the beach, towel in hand, escaping the downpour? The prophet Elijah had a similar experience, though he wasn’t sunbathing at the time.  Instead it was a time of drought in the land of Israel. Elijah predicted to Ahab that the drought would end and the heavens open and rain would be heard.  But there was no sign of it.  So Elijah keeps on sending his servant up to the top of the mountain to look for the cloud.

elijah cloud

‘Look, a little cloud …’


On the seventh time of looking the servant cries out

‘Look, a little cloud no bigger than a person’s hand is rising out of the sea.’ (1 Kings 18.44)

Like the cloud viewed from the beach, what looked small on the horizon, something the size of a person’s hand, suddenly becomes one of those big clouds that bring rain (or snow) and so it was for Elijah and Ahab.

There was a wonderful picture during the beginning of last weeks ‘snowmageddon’ which showed half of London under a heavy snow-laden cloud, half still in sunshine.  But the cloud delivered what it promised!

We are living with a large cloud in Southwark Cathedral during this season of Lent.  Susie MacMurray’s installation, ‘Doubt’, is causing a lot of interest and discussion.  For some it is too oppressive and depressing and I can understand that; for others it is a welcome invitation to think about their own clouds and also a permission-giving way of thinking about doubt.  But perhaps it has come at just the right time as a cloud hangs not just in Southwark but over all Cathedrals.

Those who try to keep up to date with the life of cathedrals, the real life Barchesters and Lindchesters of the Church of England, will be aware that last year there was a little local difficulty in two of our forty-two great cathedrals.  Problems were encountered at both Peterborough and Exeter which have had very serious consequences in those wonderful places and the ripples have caught the rest of the forty.  In order to look at some of the underlying issues which helped to create the situation in those two places and have contributed to something of the financial difficulties in many more, the Archbishops established a Working Group under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Stepney (himself a former Dean) to look at the issues of governance and financial control.

The deadline for responding to the draft report from the Working Group, which was published at the beginning of January, was last Wednesday.  All over the country people were trying to squeeze and conform their responses into the straightjacket of an online response form, to reflect the subtlety and nuance of what they needed to say in a system that allowed for neither. But in one way or another I suspect all of us have managed it, for better or worse.

In order to gauge opinion at Southwark the Chapter organised two meetings, one for the congregation, another for an expanded joint meeting of Chapter and Council (the Council has become something of an endangered species in this draft report). There was much that both meetings saw as positive, but much that we at Southwark were already doing, around financial scrutiny and reporting, around Safeguarding and resilience.

But there is a cloud ‘the size of a person’s hand’ rising from the sea.

Anthony Trollope explained how Barchester looked in his imagination

“Let us presume that Barchester is a quiet town in the West of England, more remarkable for the beauty of its cathedral and the antiquity of its monuments than for any commercial prosperity; that the west end of Barchester is the cathedral close, and that the aristocracy of Barchester are the bishop, dean, and canons, with their respective wives and daughters.”


The ‘aristocracy’ ,as he describes it, is clerical, bishop, dean and canons.  That was the way it was and that is the way it is.  We employ many wonderful lay people at Southwark without whom nothing would happen (the world is very different from Trollope’s day) and our governance structures are filled with talented lay people.  But it is the bishop, dean and canons who have the task of leadership and in a particular and subtle way.

The bishop is not the dean and takes their seat in the cathedral with the dean’s permission. The dean is not a canon who hold their own office and are given in their licence ‘a voice on Chapter’ which is more than simply being heard. It is a delicate structure formed over the last 450 years since the Elizabethan Settlement, adapted and changed, but essentially holding to that ideal that Trollope’s ecclesiastical aristocracy have the responsibility of governing and leading the cathedral.

So want is the small cloud? I think somewhere underlying some of the proposals, especially around the role of the dean and the role of the bishop and the role of the canons is a fundamental anti-clericalism that is creeping into the church on the back of a passion for a more ‘managed’ style of church.  It is thought, and probably with some justification, that you don’t find those ‘business’ qualities circled by a dog-collar but are found in those in the ‘real’ world.  So the logic is to move the power into the hands of those who know what they are doing.

This is a cloud that could bring a storm. For the cathedrals nor dioceses are ‘businesses’, our business is God and everything else that we do, which, yes, involves running enterprise sides to our life, is subservient to the principle duty of the bishop, dean and canons, to worship God and to lead others in that worship.  That is where all cathedrals, even those who fail some of the ‘business’ tests, are serving the church, and God, wonderfully well.  You only have to look through our doors to know that that is true.

So what do we do now? Well, the on-line responses will be analysed and a final report produced.  When, I do not know.  But I shall keep climbing that mountain to see what is happening to the cloud! Until then I will pray the prayer of a great defender of the Anglican catholic church in the early seventeenth century, Archbishop William Laud.  This is his prayer, and mine.

Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Saviour. Amen.

Under a cloud, again

I stood yesterday morning on the balcony of my hotel bedroom down by the beach of the Sea of Galilee in Tiberius.  I had made sure that I was up in time to watch the sunrise.  Gradually the sky lightened and then pink rays began to stretch into the pale blue sky, rays which deepened in intensity until light flooded from the sun which emerged from behind the hills.  It was almost a cloudless sky, except there was one sliver of cloud just where sunrise was happening.  But that cloud was captured by the colour of the new day, it turned red, brilliant red from the brilliant redness of the sun.


The first hints of sunrise over the Sea of Galilee


As children we sang

Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight.
Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning.

Was I being warned of something, alerted to something? In fact the cloud burnt away and the rest of the day was almost cloudless.  But perhaps the friendly warning was something that I was being given, the one that Gerard Manley Hopkins paints for us with words when he writes

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

The poem, called ‘Pied Beauty’ ends with these words

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Today we are climbing a mount that was once shrouded in cloud when God fathered-forth and revealed the divine beauty that was in Jesus.  We are visiting Mount Tabor on this third Diocesan Pilgrimage which I am jointly leading with Bishop Christopher Chessun, the Bishop of Southwark.  In many ways this ascent of the mount will be something of a climax to the journey that we have been making.  It began a week ago when we flew to Israel and began our eight day journey in Jerusalem. Having visited all the holy sites there we then made the journey to Galilee, hence being in a hotel in Tiberius.

The Transfiguration of the Lord is the event that, perhaps, happened on Mount Tabor.  The gospels aren’t specific about where it happened but the synoptic gospels and the Second Letter of St Peter are clear that it did happen and that it became a fulcrum point in the journey that they were on, turning from Galilee to Jerusalem, from the lakeside ministry to the passion. Peter writes

[Jesus] received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1.17-18)

The inner-circle of disciples, Peter, James and John, were there and they witnessed the descent of the cloud which took Jesus from their sight.  But when they saw him he was bathed in divine light, white, shining, brighter than they could imagined.  The cloud was shot through with the glory of God, with ‘the grandeur of God’ to use other words of Hopkins.


A dark cloud hanging


Before I left the Cathedral to come on pilgrimage I was standing in the chancel with a colleague, looking at the cloud that is suspended in the nave for the duration of Lent.  Our Lent art installation by Susie MacMurray is called ‘Doubt’ but it does bring to mind all those other clouds that we encounter in the scriptures, such as on the Mount of the Transfiguration.  As we stood there we asked each other a question I hadn’t really thought about until then – ‘What colour do you imagine the clouds in the Bible to be?’ The cloud we have is deepest black, the kind you see that presages bad weather, a storm.  But what colour was the cloud that descended on Mount Tabor, for instance, what was the colour of the cloud that descended on Moses on Mount Sinai? Well, that one was perhaps dark, because, after all, scripture tells us that it threw out lightening and thunder.  But this one I’ve always imagined as bright, not dark.  The clouds at the crucifixion – well they must have been black.  The clouds at the ascension – well they must have been white.

But whatever the colour of the cloud, like my morning experience on the shore of the Sea of Galilee they were dappled with divine presence, coloured by God, ‘whose beauty is past change’.

Whatever the colour of the cloud that is hanging over us, whatever the colour of the cloud that we are under, whatever cloud is currently suspended over you, we should be expecting the cloud to change as God’s glory is revealed, even in the darkest cloud.

Glorious God,
shine through the cloud
and make your dappled beauty known.

Under a cloud

Christina Rossetti wrote a poem about clouds, called ‘Clouds’.

White sheep, white sheep,
On a blue hill,
When the wind stops,
You all stand still.
When the wind blows,
You walk away slow.
White sheep, white sheep,
Where do you go?


‘White sheep, white sheep’


The cloud that hangs in the choir of Southwark Cathedral and will do for the whole of the season of Lent is nothing like the white fluffy clouds that chase like sheep across a blue sky as we walk the downs, nothing like the high pale cloud that keeps the heat down on a summer ‘s day.  The cloud that hangs in the Cathedral has something dark and menacing about it.  As you enter the Cathedral it is as if something has exploded and left a large black cloud hanging, get nearer and it alters the light, it is heavy, not light, a clack sheep amongst Rossetti’s ‘white sheep, on a blue hill’.

Like a lot of installation art, this piece by Susie MacMurray is to be experienced as much as looked at. You need to come into the Cathedral and look at it from a distance and then dare to approach it, to sit under the cloud and feel its brooding weight,

Clouds feature a great deal in scripture and in the Christian tradition. Popular imagination might expect faith to be lived out in bright clear sunshine but from that moment when Moses climbed the holy mountain, shrouded in cloud, and experienced the presence of God, it has been a familiar experience and theme. The Gospel writers described a similar event in the Transfiguration of Jesus and as Jesus died on the cross the clouds brought night into day and the onlookers were plunged into darkness. All of these things and much more are captured in this installation.


A brooding presence


But it is called ‘Doubt’ and that directs us towards another direction of Christian thinking and experience. The mediaeval mystical tradition in this country did not shy away from the cloud which can exist in the world of faith. In ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ a 14th century book written anonymously the writer says ‘Beat with a sharp dart of longing love upon this cloud of unknowing which is between you and your God.’

The cloud that Susie MacMurray has created and which dominates the chancel and high altar sanctuary during Lent and Holy Week, draws us into this apophatic tradition. We recognise our doubts and sense the darkness but beat both ‘with a sharp dart of longing love.’

I invite you to experience it with us. I will be spending a long time under it this Lent and exploring my own doubt, and it’s opposite, faith. And I’m sure I will, after Good Friday, be longing for the cloud to lift and the bright light of Easter to shine.

God of mystery,
when the cloud descends,
when you seem unknown,
when doubts assail me
and darkness surrounds me,
lift the mist, break into the darkness
and let your light shine
in me
and through me.

What’s been happening?

If you want to know what I’ve been up to this week visit my General Synod blog.  Follow this link here.


PS see if you can spot me in this photo! I am there. Sorry, no prizes.

A lady called Dorcas

I have just received the latest news from Zimbabwe about our friends at ArtPeace.  Those of you who follow this blog may remember that as part of our commitment to our sisters and brothers in Zimbabwe we sell stone carving in our shop produced by artists in this project. The money goes directly to them.

As part of the relationship that we have built up we receive regular updates about the situation in the country and some stories about some of the people involved.  I asked if I could share this particular story with you and they were happy that I do this.  I was especially touched as the name ‘Dorcas’ and the story of the woman in the Acts of the Apostles who has that name (Acts 9.36-42) mean a great deal to me.  The love that the biblical Dorcas received and the love that she showed to her neighbours is deeply affecting.  I hope that our friend in Zimbabwe receives similar love.

This is her story.


Dorcas – a proud woman in a difficult situation

‘This lady called Dorcas, lives in the wet lands between Tafara and Mabvuku suburbs. Her family were evicted from a farm in Bindura by a government minister after their employer was removed from the farm. They now live in poverty. Her husband ran away leaving her with 2 children and she is 6 months pregnant. I was touched by her story. She said since they were evicted to this wet area, they were promised cement and bricks to build a better foundation for their cabin house but without success. They, including Grandma Ruth, sleep on a plastic sheet on top of a mud floor to prevent blankets from getting wet – hence the need to lift their cabin off the wet ground.’

Keep Dorcas, her children and her unborn child in your prayers.

God bless Zimbabwe
protect her children
transform her leaders
heal her communities
and grant her peace.
for Jesus Christ’s sake.

A touch of green

You know it’s heading towards spring when all the papers for the February meeting of the General Synod land through your letter box (you can get them electronically but I still like them printed – sorry) and your realise that the chamber in Westminster is becoming you.  The other way you know is just by stepping outside. So I ventured into the Deanery garden to find some bulbs coming through the soil.  Spring is on the way.  The fresh green of new life will very quickly reassert itself over the brown of winter.  And, as if to join in with what is happening around us, the church has moved from gold to green, from the end of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons into what is known as Ordinary Time.


This is the first Sunday ‘back in green’ and it is good to see it.  This is the miracle of liturgy and tradition, echoing life in the worship of God.  The green we see at the altar mirrors the green I see emerging, triumphant in my garden.  Life reasserts itself.

If you are interested in that other prelude to the arrival of spring I will be keeping a General Synod blog going.  You can find a link on this page.  As ever it’s a mixed agenda – our relationship with the Methodist Church, the work of the Crown Nominations Commission (I know quite a bit about that after serving 8 years on it), food waste and that really important debate on valuing people with Down’s Syndrome. Synod can get very absorbed with the inner workings of the church and the niceties of doctrine and practice but ‘the green blade rising’ as that lovely Easter hymn describes it, reminds me that life is the most important thing that we should be concerned about.  So that is a debate I will be fascinated by.  After all Jesus said

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

Abundant life, lived by all – that is the Gospel – for all people, of all abilities.

So enjoy the green, for about ten days, for Lent is fast on its tail and pray for us who gather in Synod at the end of this week.

Creator God,
breathe fresh life into me,
into the church,
into the world.

The still unspeaking and unspoken Word

It feels as though I’ve been celebrating Candlemas for over a week!  Well I suppose I have given the way the lectionary and ordo seem to work nowadays.  But it is a great feast to keep going back to and so much in it to think about.  I was invited to preside and preach at a Candlemas Eucharist at our Diocesan Office and this is the homily I preached.

The last vestiges of Christmas disappear with this feast.  The tree has long gone, the baubles packed away, carefully, in their boxes, the lights wound so as not to be tangled when we try to use them next year; my friends, the the fairy is no more!  But the crib remained, in church, in our homes, the reminder that though the world has moved on we’re still celebrating God’s greatest act of love, God’s greatest gift to a needy world.


Ready for next year

Christmas is now celebrated by the world before Christmas Day and as soon as the last cracker has been pulled it seems as though it’s all over.  But the church celebrates Christmas at Christmas and the celebration lasts until Candlemas, the fortieth day.

Mary and Joseph are good and law-obedient Jewish parents and so they take their first born son to the Temple in Jerusalem to do what the law requires.  Every first born son has to be bought back from God, redeemed, by sacrifice.  So, child in one arm and sacrifice in the other they step into the place where God abides and are met by these two old people – Simeon and Anna – who’ve spent their lives watching and waiting for this very moment.  Christmas has come for them, at the very last moment, on the very last day, Christmas has come for them, before the last vestige of the feast has gone, before the crib is packed away – and in the last gasp of celebration Simeon exclaims

‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’

They’ve been waiting, patiently, for the light to shine in the darkness, they’ve been waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem, and here, in this bundle, in the arms of a virgin mother, the world’s contradiction lies, light, redemption, salvation, the spoken word of God in flesh.

T S Eliot in his poem ‘A Song for Simeon’ imagines the old man speaking – and in that imagining he says

Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation

The Christmas proclamation is that the ‘Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ but that word is still ‘unspeaking and unspoken’. Jesus has not yet spoken a word, we’ve not yet heard the sound of his voice.  But we will.  His words will heal the sick, absolve from sin, raise the dead.  His words will bring down the powerful and exalt the humble. His words will bring joy to many and sorrow to some. His words will be whispered in prayer amongst the trees of a grove, or ring out in screams from the tree of the cross.  Even death will not silence his words as the whispered name of Mary in a dawn-dewed garden will announce his resurrection.

But at the moment he is the ‘still unspeaking and unspoken Word’.

The curtain falls on Christmas.  But it doesn’t.  We are above all things the church of the incarnation.

Roy Wood, the lead singer of the glam rock band Wizzard famously hit the number one slot back in 1973 when he sang out words we hear year by year

Oh well I wish it could be Christmas everyday
When the kids start singing and the band begins to play
Oh I wish it could be Christmas everyday
Let the bells ring out for Christmas.

My brothers and sisters, the good news is that it is.  We live the incarnation and the word speaks; the light shines in the darkness and we are redeemed.  As the Southwark Diocese website says, we are

Loving God, walking with Jesus, led by the Spirit

We live and breathe what Christmas means, that God is with us, that the light has broken into the darkness of the world, that this Eucharist is the touching place with God and that the unspeaking, unspoken word is heard in the voice of the church, in the voice of each Christian, in your voice. The best of Christmas is yet to come!

Lord Jesus, silent light of silent night,
speak, for we wait to hear your voice,
speak, and let the Word be heard.


Small is beautiful

Even though I am, as you might say, ‘vertically challenged’, I’m not size-ist; some of my best friends are too tall! It’s just that size isn’t everything.  After all, as some people say, ‘They don’t make diamonds as big as bricks’? Well, that’s only partly true.  Watching Her Majesty The Queen on the recently broadcast BBC programme ‘The Coronation’ talking about the Cullinan Diamond and the ‘chips’ she was wearing as a broach makes you realise that there are some big rocks out there!

The latest project at Southwark Cathedral has been the re-roofing of the choir and repairs to deteriorating masonry at a high level on that part of the Cathedral.  We have been fortunate enough to get funding to do the work from the Government’s ‘First World War Centenary Cathedral Repairs Fund’ as well as some generous individual donors.  One of the great aspects of the project has been working with student stone carvers from the City & Guilds in Kennington, south London.  They worked over the summer in a temporary lodge they set up in the churchyard, carving decorative bosses to replace those that time, weather and pollution had destroyed.  It was amazing to see them working and the skill and passion they brought to the task.  But last week I had the opportunity to see them again.

Stone carvers

Stone carvers hard at work

The project had now reached the point where the new bosses had been set below the parapet.  The students had returned to make sure that they sat well into the profile of the older masonry.  It was delicate work; one hard tap and the intricate foliage could be damaged! So I climbed the scaffolding and saw the work in progress.

To be honest I’m not great with heights or ladders – but this was one of those not to be missed experiences. The work was tremendous – but a surprise awaited me. There on a corner of the building, in some of the old masonry, was carved a tiny head of a bishop.  You can’t see it from the ground yet it is there.  Someone, for fun maybe, had ‘doodled’ on the edge of a piece of stone and created this tiny masterpiece for the sheer joy of doing it.


Do you recognise this bishop?


There is something so special about what is small and unexpected, a tiny gift, like the hazelnut in the hand of Julian of Norwich.  Who was this big-eared bishop? We don’t know but he has been there looking down on London Bridge for hundreds of years.  We don’t know who carved him, we don’t know why.  But, like a tiny, precious gift to the unsuspecting visitor, he is there – a gift from the past in the present.

The prophet Isaiah, speaking God’s words to us, says

‘I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands’ (Isaiah 49.16)

It’s staggering to think that in the vastness of creation my very being is carved into the hands of God, little me, like the face of an unknown, big-eared bishop, who time has forgotten.  But we are not forgotten to God whose divine hands bear the imprint of our being.

We don’t need big gestures to make a difference – even something small can be beautiful and bring unexpected joy.

God of the vastness of the universe,
of the smallness of the atom,
small as I am
enfold me in the palm of your hand
and remember me.

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

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

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

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark