Posturing

My Lord Archbishop,

My wife and I worshipped at Southwark Cathedral on Sunday morning last [19th August] and I write to ask you to be so good as to inform me if the practices to which we were there made a party are now accepted for our Church. I refer especially to the posturings at the altar out of sight of the congregation and the mumblings out of their hearing. I thought it was one of the accepted principles of the Reformed Church of England that the congregation should have fully and intelligently in all the worship at this service. At Southwark the congregation can neither see nor hear what is going on at the altar. We feel as many others do that if we wanted that sort of thing we could and should go, not to an Anglican cathedral, but to Brompton Oratory.

I am yours faithfully

Percy Hurd

This was 1934 and Sir Percy Hurd was at that time the Member of Parliament for the constituency of Devizes. The correspondence begun by this letter of complaint sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury continues for some weeks and it is all to be found in the archives of Lambeth Palace Library.  The Archbishop’s Chaplain at that time tried to do the right thing, to bat the complaint in the direction of the Bishop of Southwark, but the MP would have none of that. ‘We have nothing to do with the Bishop of Southwark’ he wrote. ‘As members of Parliament we are concerned with the Church in its corporate capacity and as represented for us in yourself.’ The correspondence stumbles on until September 1934 when the Chaplain basically tells the MP that there will be no more communication on the matter.

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Sir Percy Hurd, a fine looking gentleman

There was obviously a great deal of posturing going on and it wasn’t all in the High Altar sanctuary at Southwark Cathedral!  Sir Percy obviously had a few axes to grind. One axe seemed to be against the newly introduced 1928 Prayer Book which had failed to gain parliamentary approval but was being used in places, such as the Cathedral, where some of the ‘inadequacies’ in the Book of Common Prayer as some Anglo-Catholics would have it, were sorted out.  Interestingly we, like many cathedrals I suspect, still use the 1928 Prayer Book, day by day. But he was probably opposed as well to some of the catholic practices that were becoming more common in the post-war (First World War) Church of England.  Perhaps there was a lot of ‘bowing and scraping’ going on up at the altar.  Sir Ninian Comper, the Cathedral Architect and a great mediaeval revivalist had certainly dressed the High Altar Sanctuary for the part.  The walls and pillars were draped in pink damask (the material was made into the copes that the Archdeacons in the diocese now wear, a kind of Maria act from the ‘Sound of Music’ with those curtains!) and the reredos was now modelled on the Pala d’Oro in St Mark’s Venice.  Cloth of gold Eucharistic vestments had been designed and made and it would have all looked very splendid.

The mumblings could have been about the difficulty of hearing from the nave if services were held at the High Altar, but that was nothing new.  So maybe Sir Percy heard some more pious, private mumblings going on, the ‘Secret Prayers’ that many priests say during the Eucharist.  They are meant to be said sotto voce but they can appear, I suppose, like mumblings and mysterious incantations.

But there is posturing and there are mumbling that put us in touch with important elements of the Feast of the Incarnation that we are still celebrating.  It is right that we use our whole selves in worship, we bring our whole body, our five senses into prayer.  We see and touch and taste and smell and hear.  True liturgy invokes all those senses and that sixth sense that recognises the divine in the midst.  So one of the Epiphany hymns that we have been singing begins with this verse

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
Bow down before Him, His glory proclaim;
With gold of obedience, and incense of lowliness,
Kneel and adore Him: the Lord is His name!

Worship, such as the worship of the Magi in the presence of the Christ Child, involves bowing and kneeling and adoration.  It feels to me like the natural response to being in the presence of the divine.  The Magi point us to this reality of ‘God among us’, of the Word made flesh, through their posture, for as St Matthew says

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. (Matthew 2.11)

They saw the child and they knelt in homage, and so do we.

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‘Kneel and adore him’

 

And then, those mutterings.  One of the things that High Church priests were accused of doing when the ritual trials were going on at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries was around the mixing of the chalice.  We no longer fight about this in the Church of England since we discovered sex! In fact, it seems so normal perhaps few people realise it was a problem.  In most offertory processions that I see perfectly reasonable, law-abiding people bring forward cruets of wine and water.  It’s the mixing of those in the chalice, this so called ritualistic practice, that caused the problem.  But what is the prayer that the priest says as they do this?

It’s a prayer that takes us to the heart of the doctrine of the incarnation, and something that we remember every time we celebrate the Eucharist. The priest will ‘mumble’

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

As mumblings go its pretty wonderful, I think.

So, Sir Percy, if you’re still looking for an apology I’m afraid you’re not getting one from me. We will continue to offer worship in Southwark Cathedral worthy of that holy house in Bethlehem, worthy of the God who dwells with us, worthy of Jesus, the Word made flesh before whom we kneel in wondrous adoration. We can do nothing less.

Holy God,
you bring us to our knees
in humble adoration.
Accept the worship we offer
as we accept the love you show for us
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

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Star gazing

I was Confirmed when I was eleven.  This meant that for a few months beforehand I, with the rest of those being prepared for the sacrament, had to go along to the Vicar’s study, once a week, to learn the Catechism.  But as part of that we also had to be prepared to make our first Confession.  That involved learning what sin was all about, or at least having a better idea of what God thought of as sin as opposed to what your parents and the next-door neighbour told you off for (bouncing a ball off the neighbours wall didn’t seem to be on God’s list of venial or mortal sins but very much annoyed Mrs Joiner!).

So, in order to give us a clue, Fr Davies gave us all a list of sins we might have committed, a checklist of badness for an eleven year old in the Sixties! To be honest, I hadn’t even dreamt of doing most of the things that were suggested to us but one thing I did recognise.  There amongst murder and robbery was ‘I have read my horoscope’. These were days before Russell Grant and Mystic Meg but I had committed this sin, I had seen the horoscopes in my parents’ Daily Express and I had read what was going to happen to Leos on that day (my star sign). In order not to break the Seal of the Confessional I can say no more except that I changed my ways from that day onwards.

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Leo at the Jantar Mantar

In reflecting back on 2017 I said that during my India trip the most impressive thing we saw was the Taj Mahal. That was true. But the most unusual and, I suppose, surprising was a place called Jantar Mantar in Jaipur.  This is what can best be described as an 18th century astronomical park, a collection of 19 monumental astronomical instruments in the open air that were built to enable, amongst other things, horoscopes of the greatest accuracy to be prepared for every person.  Walking into this ‘park’ is like walking into a modern sculpture exhibition.  The ‘instruments’ are of staggering beauty and incredible accuracy (the sundial tells the time within 20 seconds) and in recognition of this it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I couldn’t help thinking about this place and wandering over, with only a little sense of guilt, to the instrument which measured the Leo star sign, as we keep the Feast of the Epiphany.  Whatever else those Wise Men were that St Matthew tells us about, they were clearly star gazers, people who, like the builders of the Janta Manta, kept an eye on the heavens as a way of understanding what was happening on the earth.

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Guided by a star

 

St Ephrem the Syrian was a prolific hymn writer of the 4th century who, I suspect, with his middle-eastern heritage, was more comfortable with star gazing than was my Parish Priest from Leicester!  In a hymn for Epiphany he writes this

Blessed is your birth that stirred up the universe!

The whole of creation was caught up in the events in a stable in Bethlehem, not only the hearts of local shepherds were stirred by angels singing and a baby in a manger, the universe itself was stirred.  The stars themselves told the Good News of the incarnation and in the Book of the Revelation Jesus names himself after them.

‘I am .. the bright morning star.’ (Revelation 22.16)

Jesus is our star sign, the one and only star worth watching for, the one to whom we look to for past and future, as Alpha and Omega and following that star is a journey worth making.

I’m still not reading my horoscope, even after visiting the wonderful and impressive  Jantar Mantar and even though I rejoice in the journey of the Magi, but I do want to keep my eye fixed on Jesus as the guiding star.

Arguably the most famous poem for Epiphany if that by T S Eliot called ‘The Journey of the Magi’ with that memorable opening ‘A cold coming we had of it’. Eliot’s inspiration was the sermon preached at Whitehall on Christmas Day 1620 before James I by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (whose tomb is to be found beside the High Altar at Southwark Cathedral).  The Bishop, at the end of his sermon, fixed his listeners attention on the star.

‘In the old Ritual of the Church we find that on the cover of the canister, wherein was the Sacrament of His Body, there was a star engraven, to shew us that now the star leads us thither, to His body there. And what shall I say now, but according as St. John saith, and the star, and the wise men say, O Come. And He, Whose the star is, and to Whom the wise men came, saith, O Come. And let them who are disposed, O Come.’

The star led Wise Men to Jesus, it will lead us too; it led them to his fragile, life-giving body, it leads us too.

Jesus, bright Morning Star,
draw us to crib and altar,
that we may worship and adore you.
Amen.

Farewell 2017

Like you, perhaps, I’ve been thinking over this last year.  It hasn’t been an easy one and I’m not weeping as we approach the beginning of 2018.  So just a quick review of each month as far as it has been for me.

January – the bells came back to Southwark Cathedral.  That was a fantastic event and a great service when the Bishop baptised two of them and rededicated the rest.  I think it was seeing those twelve bells, dressed and lined up down the nave which is the lasting impression.  Or could it have been meeting the Revd Kate Bottley who then came with the ‘Songs of Praise’ crew to film them being raised to their place in the tower?

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With lovely Kate

February – I went off for a tour of Zimbabwe with Bishop Christopher, the Archdeacon of Southwark and the Bishop’s Press Officer.  I’d been to Southwark Cathedral’s own link Diocese of Masvingo but never to the whole of the country.  Amazing.  But who would have thought that this same year we would see the fall of President Mugabe and the Archbishop of York replacing his dog-collar?  The highlight though, I have to say, in the midst of all that amazing hospitality and wonderful worship, was visiting St Augustine’s Penhalonga, where the Community of the Resurrection had been based, and walking into a church I knew so well from photographs and now seeing it in all is splendour.

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The basilica of the bush

March – the Consecration of Karowei Dorgu as Bishop of Woolwich was a wonderful occasion.  The lack of diversity amongst the bishops was being addressed as far as gender was concerned but not with regard to ethnicity. Bishop Karowei was, and is, a clear sign of hope.  But then that same month the attack on Westminster Bridge and the killing of people there and then of PC Keith Palmer, doing his job, defending our democracy, was a shock to the system.  Hope all of a sudden seemed to be under attack.

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If the hat fits …

April – a month that should have been focused on Holy Week and Easter began with us hosting the funeral of PC Keith Palmer in Southwark Cathedral.  Cressida Dick became the Commissioner that same day so that she was in post to represent the whole of the Metropolitan Police Service at the funeral.  It fell to me to preach.  It is hard to describe what that feels like, knowing the streets and bridges were full of people, listening.  All I could do was remember that this was a funeral and that Keith’s widow and daughter would be there, listening.

May – one of the joys of life over the last eight years has been to serve the Society of Catholic Priests as their Rector General.  So it fell to me to visit SCP in Ireland and to encourage those few priests there who would identify as coming from the ‘catholic’ tradition.  It was a great visit.  What a wonderful country and people!  Later in the year, however, my time as Rector General came to an end.  But what a privilege it has been to visit and speak to members of our Society – women and men, black and white, gay and straight, single and partnered, with differing abilities – serving the church faithfully in the places to which God has called them.

June – the month began as any other and then the evening of 3rd June would see an event which would affect the whole of the remainder of the year.  The terrorist attack that evening on London Bridge and the Borough Market left 8 people dead and 48 people injured.  It also left a community scarred and changed.  Being unable to get into the Cathedral for almost a week meant that we had to learn how to be ‘the Cathedral’ differently; the local community came together with a new strength; we learnt about each other as people.  It has changed me – for the better I hope – and given me a new appreciation of my Muslim brothers and sisters.  Speaking at Friday Prayers at our local mosque in the week after the attack was a privilege I never thought would be mine and then hosting the long planned Grand Iftar in the Cathedral ten days after the attack has created new relationships and a greater understanding.  But at such cost!

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Three of the great Street Pastors who cared for us after the attack

July – General Synod is always a feature of my year but in 2017 the Synod in York became very significant.  Had the tide turned? Was there a different feel? The debates on welcoming transgender people and the banning of conversion therapy with regard to homosexual (in evangelical speak ‘same-sex attracted people) in church were powerful, brave and decisive. The irony was that at the same time a group of 50 people including 15 priests from Southwark Cathedral and the Diocese were marching in the London Pride parade, with pride.  It was a delicious and painful irony, a vignette of where we are as a church.

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Marching with Pride

August – I turned 60 at the end of July.  That was a fantastic occasion – great to see so many friends and family as we celebrated.  And then it was off to Spain for my usual ten days in the sun, catching up on reading and simply relaxing.  The highlight? I suppose visiting the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona now that it is almost complete.  Bonkers it is, but impressive bonkers.

September – it’s always one of those getting back to work months and this September was like that.  The terrorist attack in June meant that I was unable to lead the Cathedral Pilgrimage in the steps of Martin Luther, to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  But in September we held a reunion for all the pilgrims – so I got to see the photos and hear the stories!

October – as part of my first sabbatical in 2006 I visited Tamil Nadu in India – I’d always wanted to go back to that country and see another area.  A group of us had planned for a long time to do this and so in October eight of us, plus our organiser and guide, headed off for 15 days in Rajasthan.  It was everything we had hoped for – lovely people, wonderful sights, new experiences, delicious food, warmth and sunshine and something memorable.  For me it was the Taj Mahal, the scaffolding removed and there, resplendent, perfect, a monument to love and unsurpassed by the skill of humanity.

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Stunning

November – we use the nave of the Cathedral in many ways and occasionally for grand dinners.  One such dinner happened in November.  The chairs were cleared and round tables installed, the flowers were arranged and the lighting perfected, the candles lit and people gathered.  The event was the retirement of one of the Partners at EY (Ernst and Young) who have offices not far from the Cathedral.  Why mention this?  Well, the person retiring lives with a bad stammer but had not let this prevent him living his life and progressing in his profession and had set up a stammering network in the firm which is the largest such network in the UK. He spoke and sang at the dinner and with such confidence – it was very moving, and humbling.  And why at Southwark? Because at a memorial service for a colleague that we hosted he was asked to read and doing so was the beginning of a journey which has brought him to where he is, and praying in that holy place is one thing that has sustained him throughout.  Tremendous.

December – it is my favourite month and I make no secret of that.  We welcomed thousands of people to the Cathedral for carol services and concerts, as we do every year.  But this year people wanted to remember the events I have mentioned, but also Finsbury Park Mosque, the Manchester Arena, Grenfell Tower and the atrocities and the disasters that have happened in so many communities around the world during the year and that have given this year its particular feel and flavour.  All of it was brought to that vulnerable baby in the crib, all our own vulnerability that we have learnt so much of together, in the hard times and the good times of 2017 and that knowledge that God has been with us and God is with us.

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Ending the year in the Borough Market

 

So where do we go from here? There is only one direction and that is forwards.  It has been hard but it has not been all bad.  But all I can do is remember the words of perhaps the most famous poem for the turn of the year, the one that caught the public attention and the popular imagination when King George VI quoted it in his 1939 Christmas broadcast to the British Empire. It was written a number of years earlier by Minnie Louise Haskins.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

And that is my prayer and that is my intention – to put my hand in God’s hand as we walk into 2018.

Hand of God, hold us.
Hope of God, sustain us.
Vision of God, direct us.
Love of God, enfold us.
Peace of God, fill us.
Amen.

Living God

It was 25 years ago that an Australian rom-com film hit our screens and changed our language. The film was called ‘Strictly Ballroom’ and was all about a dancing competition. Sounds familiar? As far as I understand it it was that film that gave the title to the BBC show that for many people has become must-see television, ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, and the way in which the word ‘Strictly’, as the shortened version, has dropped into everyday language.

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Dancing without fear

But for a sequins and sparkle film, it also came up with a phrase which I’ve found really helpful this year. One of the characters talking to another says this ‘A life lived in fear is a life half lived.’

This has been a tough years in many ways and for very many people. As a nation we have experienced horrific terrorist acts in Manchester and London. We watched with horror as Grenfell Tower burnt on our screens and seared its way into our memories. We’ve seen refugees fleeing war and the Rohingya fleeing oppression. We have seen a gunman shooting from a Las Vegas hotel into a crowd of music fans. We have seen families without anything in the blockade of the Yemen. We have seen so many things that have made us weep.

Fear has dominated so much of the year – the fear of Brexit for some, of no Brexit for others; the fear of the newcomer and the stranger; the fear of nuclear standoff in the Far East; the fear of the unknown becoming known.

For the community in which I live and where I serve as Dean all of that became very real for us on the 3 June when on an evening when the crowds were out, having a great time in the London Bridge and Borough Market area, three men, armed with a van and knives wrecked havoc, mowing down people on the bridge and going on the rampage in the streets around Southwark Cathedral. As soon as I heard something was happening I headed out of my house close by and tried to get to the Cathedral to open the doors as a place of refuge and safety. But I couldn’t get any where near. The police held me back and I found myself on the main street, Southwark Street, filled with vehicles with blue flashing lights, pavements filled with the injured and the traumatised being tended to.

I don’t mind telling you that I was petrified. I’d seen this on the news, in the movies, but this was the evening when I lost my innocence. Terror came to our streets and we suffered.

All of that followed the attack on Westminster Bridge and the Manchester Arena; the attacks on Finsbury Park Mosque and Parsons Green tube would follow. These were a terrifying few months that we lived through that took from us the young and the hopeful, friends, colleagues, those who were dedicated to helping others, the innocent and vulnerable.

That evening when I got back to the Deanery it all felt hopeless, everything that we sought to stand for, inclusion, cohesion, all those buzz-words of communities nowadays, seemed to be under attack. But the new day dawned and we got on with helping one another through the grief and through the horror to a better place.

Amongst the cards that we will have received for Christmas will be many, I suspect, of a scene in a stable, of a baby with its parents, some sheep and oxen and donkeys looking on. It all happened a long time ago, in a foreign land but each year we remember again something as simple and ordinary as the birth of a baby but something as wonderfully profound, according to Christians, as God living along side us, ‘God with us’.

Beuronese Nativity

A baby is vulnerable, helpless, dependent, humanity at its weakest. The child quickly knows how to get attention, crying out, for food, or warmth or comfort but relying on someone else to provide all of those things, unable to do anything for themselves. And this is how God, Almighty God, enters into the world, not in strength but in weakness, and shares the vulnerability of what it means to be human. That immersion in what it means to be human would take that baby from that crib to a cross, where apparent weakness would be on display for the whole world to see. But this, as we have discovered is the way in which God works.

Although I was frightened that evening and though I felt hopeless I didn’t want the fear to overwhelm me or the hope I do have to desert me. Because I knew then as I know now, I believed then as I believe now, that God is with us and that when we look into the manger and see the baby we see the hope of the world, we see the Living God.

Some years later when he had begun his ministry and called his disciples to follow him, Jesus was talking to them. In the course of what he said he told them

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

The ‘they’ is us, you and me, and this is what we are celebrating when we give our presents and sit and eat and spend time with family, an abundant celebration because of an abundant gift, the fullness of life. And that is why that line from ‘Strictly Ballroom’ is so important – ‘A life lived in fear is a life half lived.’ Jesus wants us to live life in its fullness, not a life diminished, half-lived because fear is traumatising us. A fearful life is no life and when we simply give into the fear of where we are going as a nation, of where we are going as a global community, the fear of the person we don’t know, of the one who believes something different to me, looks different to me, acts differently to me, the fear of things that are beyond our control, once we allow ourselves to be taken over by that fear then life is not being lived as it should be. What is more we end up unable to deal with any of the things that have the potential to make us fearful.

That baby in the manger, that child in his mother’s arms, the God who is with us, is the one who desires for us life and gives us life – so that we can live it, fully, and dance if we can. This is the Living God.

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

Ponderings

There’s such a lot to think about at Christmas.  For all of us the pressure is on in one way or another. Personally, I’ve always found it hard to get all the stuff done in church and all the stuff done at home.  I’ve never failed – yet – but there always comes this crisis moment, like this weekend, when you realise that time is running out and you have to get things done and you ask yourself, ‘Where am I going to find the time to do it all?’  Anyway, it all focuses the mind and helps when you are trying to imagine, desperately, what to buy for certain individuals!

At the same time as struggling this reality I hear myself telling people to use this precious time of Advent for that deeper level of preparation, ‘take time’, I say, ‘don’t just get caught up in all the frantic busyness; take time to think.’ Physician heal thyself!

St Luke uses a lovely phrase about Mary in his gospel, something that has always stayed in my heart as I have thought about Mary and the example she gives to me, gives to us.

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Mary ponders

 

After the shepherds have left the stable, after they have greeted the new-born Jesus, Luke tells us this

‘Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.’ (Luke 2.19)

That word ‘pondering’ is the translation of a Greek word ‘sunballousa’ which means “placing together for comparison.” Mary treasured the experiences, she stored them up, so that like someone taking one piece out of a valued collection she could bring out the memory, bring out the experience and, metaphorically, turn it in her hand, like a precious object and look at it from every angle.  It’s a beautiful way of thinking about what we do with our memories, pondering them, pondering on them, properly valuing and curating them.

We can use the word ponderous however, quite negatively. It seems to imply someone taking too long to think about something, as though thinking should be a quick thing, instant, reactive instead of this beautiful, meditative way that Mary shows us.

I was pondering on this in the last few days because we have seen a week that has involved remembering.  On Wednesday we were joined at Southwark Cathedral by Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.  Charles and Camilla had come to visit the Borough Market and the community at the Cathedral six months after the terror attack on our community.  They came to see how we were getting on.  The next day they were in a packed St Paul’s Cathedral across the river remembering another community, the community that died and the community that survived in the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

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A moment for pondering in Southwark Cathedral

 

The service they attended in Southwark Cathedral was small and quiet, a simple Service of Light on the Feast of St Lucy, as the sun set outside and the Christmas lights illuminated the shoppers in the Market.  By comparison the service in St Paul’s was huge but full of poignant acts, children singing, scattering hearts, relatives clutching the photos of their dead loved ones – pondering.

We will sing the familiar and beautiful poem, ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Christina Rossetti, many times this Christmas and we have probably sung it many times already.  In one of the stanzas it says this

But only His mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

Part of the process of pondering is to be able to kiss and love the love the memory – that is the treasuring that Mary displays. That is hard when the memories are painful, when they are terrifying.  As she stood at the foot of the cross, not so many miles where she had first held her baby in her arms, Mary’s treasury was given new and harsh memories, the images of the agony of her son, his painful final words, his last breath and as she collapsed into the waiting arms of her fiends and John, the new son given to her from the cross, Mary’s heart, pierced by the predicted sword, was full to overflowing.

Mary, the eternal ponderer, has to be a model for me of what I do with the good and the painful memories.  I must not seek to forget, not try to forget but somehow, somehow to treat every memory, even the most terrifying, as to be ‘placed together for comparison’, to learn to ponder.  It will take time.

Lord,
teach me to ponder,
like Mary,
and to kiss the memory
however hard.
Amen.

Navel gazing

Belly buttons are odd things aren’t they. We don’t talk a lot about them but we all have one, a birthmark in many ways.  It’s such a visible reminder of our birth, of the process of growing in the womb, supported by, feeding from our mother.  And they’re a reminder of that act of separation in that traumatic moment of birth when we are physically separated from the one to whom we owe our life.  The cord is cut and we are left with this fascinating scar.

The Greeks had a word for it, why wouldn’t they, the omphalos, and whilst that word refers to the physical navel, the belly button, it also refers to a stone that marked a place of real significance.  The most famous was in Delphi, a beautiful stone marking the navel of the world.  But many places claim to be that navel, the place where the earth was formed out of divine love – and Jerusalem is one such place.

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The Mappa Mundi

 

The old maps, such as the wonderful Mappa Mundi, placed the Holy City in this pivotal spot.  You knew where you were in relation to that place, just as distance in London is measured from the statue of Charles I just south of Trafalgar Square.  That is point zero for London; Jerusalem is point zero for much of the world and especially for Jews, Christians and, to a large extent, Muslims.

It’s a year now since my sabbatical came to an end.  You will find in the side bar a link through to the blog I kept during those three months, which I called ‘Sabbatical Thoughts’. The bulk of the time I spent living in Jerusalem, in east Jerusalem to be exact, at St George’s College which is on the Nablus Road just a short distance from the Damascus Gate.  The College is located next to St George’s Cathedral, the home of Anglicanism in in this great city and interestingly the place (in fact in the Bishop’s House) where the Balfour Declaration was signed 100 years ago.

I’d been to the Holy Land on about 25 occasions, leading groups of pilgrims on what was for many the journey of a lifetime.  In fact we are off again in February, almost 90 of us from the Diocese of Southwark, with the Diocesan Bishop, Bishop Christopher and me in leadership roles.  I’m looking forward to being back; I always look forward to being back.

St George’s College hosts many visitors and groups from across the Anglican Communion and every day in the refectory I would sit with one group or another hearing what they were getting up to and sharing in their delight in being in this life-giving city.  Many of those visitors were from the USA.  It was just before the Presidential Elections and, as these were obviously part of that small proportion of citizens of that great country who have a passport and were willing to travel, you can imagine that they were not great Trump supporters.  I can remember one of them telling me about a hare-brained plan he had for declaring Jerusalem the capital of the State of Israel and moving the American Embassy from the actual capital, Tel Aviv, to the Holy City. ‘No!’ we all cried out in amazement, those of us for whom this was news.  But we thought a) he would never be elected and b) he would never do it.

Well he was and he has.

Wandering around this ‘navel of the world’ as I did every day for those six weeks I began to understand more and more just what a delicate balance existed which kept the place relatively peaceful.  There were moments of violence, there was heavy Israeli police and military presence, entering the Damascus Gate was always an intimidating experience even for me who was clearly not Palestinian but was going in and out all the time.  But people were getting on with their lives.  But you could spot provocative acts.

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The navel of the world?

 

The road from Damascus Gate to the Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) which we know as the Temple Mount, is the route taken by thousands of Palestinian Muslims on route to Friday Prayers.  Some settlers have moved into the area and huge Israeli flags now fly above the street in the Muslim Quarter, provocatively. But people just get on with it, get on with their lives, until something happens which tips the balance. But when we tip the balance, deliberately, mistakenly, accidentally in such a delicate place, politically, socially, theologically, we cannot be sure what the consequences will be.

When I’m leading pilgrims around the Holy Land and especially Jerusalem I use the Psalms of Ascent with them.  These are a group of fifteen Psalms – 120-134 – which were written with pilgrims in mind, so called because in Israel/Palestine you are always going up to Jerusalem, it’s always an ascent. Just as now people made their way to gaze at the navel and encounter God at the zero point of creation.  And as they made their way to the Holy City they prayed for it’s peace.

O pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
‘Peace be within your walls
and tranquillity within your palaces.’
For my kindred and companions’ sake,
I will pray that peace be with you.
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek to do you good.
(Psalm 122.6-9)

That has been my prayer since President Trump put his promise into effect.  That delicate balance of east and west Jerusalem, of the Old City with it’s four quarters – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Armenian – is at serious risk.  We gaze at the navel of the earth, our Mother city and weep for what might be.

Lord,
we pray for the peace of Jerusalem;
may they prosper who love you.
Amen.

Unleashing the beast

It was the Friday before Advent Sunday and I was in the Cathedral for Choral Evensong. It was one of those evenings when the boy choristers were having a long practice (we don’t have a choir school at Southwark Cathedral and so the music staff have to use all the practice time that they can get with the boys and girls in order to be ready for big services) and so the Lay Clerks were singing.  The music was lovely, as it always is.  Now, our practice is that the Dean or, in their absence, the senior Canon reads the Second Lesson.  I was there and so I was verged to the lectern as the Magnificat (sung to Tallis in the Dorian Mode on this occasion) was coming to its conclusion.  I opened the Bible and read.

The lectionary in this period of the churches year gives us the joy of some of the more unusual and challenging books of scripture, by which I mean, Daniel and Revelation.  Neither are particularly straight forward and both can be lurid.  I wonder what some passing visitor makes of some of these passages? Any way, I was to read Revelation 17, the whole of that chapter – and of course I did.

Basically it’s about – and this is a word that hasn’t appeared in this blog before – the whore of Babylon and the beast on which she is seated.  The Lay Clerks listened, the congregation listened, I read and I think we all wondered what it was about – but there was no opportunity to talk it through. But the images that it put into my head have remained with me.

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The Whore of Babylon depicted for another age

 

Many people have had a good go at understanding what is being referred to – pagan Rome, catholic Rome are just two suggestions.  But the image itself remains a powerful one.

I’ve been disturbed this week though not by the image of the whore on the beast but the spat between President Trump and our own Prime Minister over his retweeting of material from the far-right group ‘Britain First’. Thanks to his retweeting of such hate-filled, hateful material his millions of followers and the rest of us are now more aware of this particular beast.  From being a marginalised organisation it has now achieved publicity that it could only have dreamed of.  It would be funny if it were not so frightening that in his repost to Theresa May he got the wrong Twitter account! But even that shows how dangerous social media can be in the wrong hands.

So watching the news on the TV and the coverage of this row I then saw an image of some of the leaders of that right-wing organisation and of one of them holding a cross as part of a demonstration against our Muslim sisters and brothers.  That is an image of the beast for me and to brandish the cross as a sign of hate instead of a sign of hope a sin that disturbs me to the core.

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The liberating sign of the cross

 

 

This is Advent Sunday, the beginning of those days in which we look to revealing the kingdom both here and yet to come.  That is the kingdom for which we pray day by day as we pray the prayer Jesus taught us to pray

‘your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as in heaven’

The kingdom we are called to reveal is a place of hope for all people, in which the beast does not stalk but is defeated and that beast and its blasphemous names include racism, intolerance, islamophobia, homophobia, sexism and all the numerous other ways in which we exercise hatred over others.  None of these things is what Britain is about, not the Britain I love, and the cross must never be associated with any of them.  We have to defeat the beast in every generation.

Lord Jesus,
your cross speaks of love not hate;
may we challenge beastliness
wherever we find it.
Amen.

Symbolic acts – Postscript

I obviously write my blogs in advance of posting them. So it was great to see ++Sentamu putting his collar back in when he was again on the BBCs ‘Andrew Marr Show’ this morning. But as he rightly suggested, it’s easy to put a collar in, it’s more difficult for the people of Zimbabwe as they move into their new future. So we need to keep praying. But thanks, Archbishop, for making people sit up and take notice through a simple yet powerful symbolic act.

Symbolic acts

Almost ten years ago Archbishop John Sentamu was on the BBC’s ‘Andrew Marr Show’ and cut up his dog collar saying that he wouldn’t wear it again until Mugabe was no longer President of Zimbabwe.  It was a powerful and symbolic act that captured the imagination of people. Since then I’ve seen the Archbishop on many occasions – at services, in the closed rooms of the Crown Nominations Commission, at his home at Bishopthorpe in York, at Synod in that city or in Westminster – and I can honestly say that he has never had a bit of plastic around his neck.  However important the occasion, whoever was in the congregation, the absence of that bit of gleaming white plastic was obvious.  Perhaps now the collar will be reinserted.

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There goes the collar! (Picture BBC)

 

It has been a rollercoaster of emotions, these days since it looked as though Mugabe would be going immediately and then appeared to be hanging on and then, finally, in the face of impeachment, went.  My thoughts and prayers have been with my friends in that wonderful but beleaguered country.

I’ve been thinking about the priests from Zimbabwe that I spent time with at St George’s College in Jerusalem last November.  We were studying together, clergy from the Diocese of Southwark and clergy from our link dioceses of Matabeleland, Central Zimbabwe, Manicaland and Masvingo, with clergy as well from the Diocese of Harare.  It was great getting to know each other on the neutral territory of the Holy Land and a great preparation for my return to Zimbabwe in February of this year.  With Bishop Christopher, the Bishop of Southwark, as well as the Archdeacon of Southwark, Jane Steen and the Director of Communications, Wendy Robins, we travelled around each of those five dioceses, an opportunity for me to see all the cathedrals as well as visiting a variety of projects.  As ever it was amazing to witness the resilience and sheer joy and hopefulness of the people.  Their generosity knew no bounds as they fed us like honoured guests with food, I suspect, that they could hardly spare.

But what I have also been thinking about in these days has been assembly at Cathedral School.  Each week one of the clergy from the Cathedral goes into our parish primary school, to do, as clergy across the church do, lead assembly.  Assemblies and expectations of the clergy have changed in the 34 years I have been ordained when I began leading assembly at St James’ Middle School, in Manston on the outskirts of Leeds.  We may have taken in a visual aid but that was it – the rest relied upon us talking.  But now I have to go armed with a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate what I’m going to do.  It’s not a bad thing and I really enjoy both preparing and delivering the assemblies.  But whatever it is that we are thinking about we conclude with a prayer for Zimbabwe.  The children have learnt it off by heart and with hands together and eyes closed they say a variant of the Prayer for Africa.

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

That regular praying for Zimbabwe which takes place in the Cathedral School and at the map of Zimbabwe in the nave of the Cathedral, is not a symbolic act, of course, not like the statement made by the Archbishop, destroying his collar.  As we pray we believe that it will make a difference.  And it has, certainly to our friends in Zimbabwe.  I have told them about assembly and about all the children caught up in prayer.  And then I filmed a bunch of children at one of the schools in Masvingo greeting the Southwark children with a rapturous greeting. The children back home loved it – they saw the faces of the children they were praying for!

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Children from one of our link schools

 

I love the Letter of James.  It always feels to me that it could have been written yesterday, so relevant, so direct, so challenging, whether it be about how the rich treat the poor, how the tongue can run away with itself, or where our priorities lie.  And then in the final chapter James talks about prayer.

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. (James 5.16b-18)

That fervent prayer made a difference and we believe that prayer, beyond being symbolic of our love and concern, is effective, it changes things.  Sometimes that is hard to see, very hard to see, but I do not lose faith that in God’s season things change and the harvest comes.

Whether or not ++Sentamu takes up his collar again we will continue to pray that prayer. As the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, said

‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.’

The people of Zimbabwe have stepped out, now their leaders have to step up and we need to pray for them and journey with them. So join the children of Cathedral School and pray with us.

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

Dressing up

I loved being in Infant School.  The school was just around the corner from where we lived in Wigston, on the outskirts of Leicester.  The school, infant and primary, was called Waterleys, though it was no where near water!  Going to school at that stage in your life is such an adventure of discovery, learning to read and write and count, learning about the world and relationships, learning about yourself.  We had, of course, a corner in the classroom where there was a Wendy House and we could act out home life and I can’t remember we boys not being allowed to play whatever role that we wanted to adopt, and I’m sure, knowing myself, I would have been happy playing with the dolls like I did at home with my sister.

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What we didn’t have, as far as I can remember, was a dressing-up box.  Now I see children with their parents in the supermarket dressed as Spider-Man or a princess, or a character from ‘Frozen’ or another Disney film, having chosen that ‘costume’ as their preferred clothing and perhaps acting out in their head the character that they have chosen to be.

At home we were allowed to put on mum’s coat and shoes and shuffle around in high-heels and fall over and laugh and it was all very natural.  So I was delighted with the news last week that in Church of England Schools children can choose from the dressing-up box exactly what they want to wear, cowboy outfit or princess, it doesn’t matter.  I simply don’t see it as about gender neutrality or creating gender confusion, as some have suggested, some negative challenge to who we fundamentally are but more about that fantastic journey of discovery that growing up should be – and putting on clothes is part of that.

There used to be a lovely children’s programme on the BBC called ‘Mr Ben’.  The eponymous hero had a penchant for ‘dressing up’.  So each episode began with the bowler-hatted, black-suited city gent, Mr Ben, leaving his house at 52 Festive Road and arriving at the costume shop where the moustachioed owner would lead him to the changing room where a costume would await him.  Then Mr Ben emerged as a different character and had an adventure.  What was going on I do not know – but this was 1971!

As a catholic, of course, I love dressing up.  So on the day that the CofE announced that tiaras were ok for boys we had a special service in the Cathedral in which new vestments were blessed by the Bishop and after he had blessed them we got dressed up.  The members of our Guild of Broderers (the posh name for embroiderers) had been working since 2012 on this set of Jubilee Vestments, for the diocese to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  It had taken so long because of the amount of embroidery involved and because, as volunteers, they only come to the Cathedral one day a week.  But the final set of Eucharistic vestments were complete – the chasuble and dalmatics – and that was what was blessed. You can see lots of photos of the event here.

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The Bishop of Southwark wearing the Jubilee cope

 

The things that we wear in church are of course ‘gender-neutral’ it doesn’t matter who the deacon, the priest, the bishop is, the vestments are the same because they are not about pointing to the person wearing them, precisely not so, but pointing to Christ. But we begin this process of dressing up, not in the rich priestly vestments but in the simple baptismal robe, the vestment of the people of God and that is truly gender-neutral, as St Paul points out to the Christians in Galatia.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.27-28)

In the Old Testament we are given details of how Aaron is dressed for his priestly ministry – the details about what he wore were important to the people of God then as what we wear is important to the people of God now, whether or not people like to wear formal vestments.  Dress becomes a defining characteristic of how we understand ourselves, not as people, but as church.  George Herbert reflects on this in his poem ‘Aaron’

Holiness on the head,
Light and perfections on the breast,
Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest:
Thus are true Aarons drest.

Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest:
Poor priest, thus am I drest.

Only another head
I have, another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In him I am well drest.

Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me ev’n dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new-drest.

So, holy in my head,
Perfect and light in my dear breast,
My doctrine tun’d by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come people; Aaron’s drest.

Learning to inhabit the costume, to wear the clothes, to live the adventure, that is what growing up is about, that is what growing up in Christ is about – and perhaps it all starts in that dressing-up box at the corner of the classroom and reaching out to choose … well, whatever you choose to choose.

Clothe us, Christ,
in the livery of life
and make us wear well
the clothes you place upon us
and the clothes we choose to wear.
Amen.

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