Stabat Mater

The day after the Feast of the Holy Cross (which if you are reading this on Sunday was yesterday) is the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.  There is logic in this, of course. John tells us that Mary was at the foot of the cross with the beloved disciple and suffered the pain of which Simeon had spoken so long before at the presentation of her child in the Temple in Jerusalem.

‘And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2.32)

The city in which the prophecy was spoken was the city in which it would be painfully fulfilled.

Whilst visiting all those Spanish missions in California, as I was doing a few weeks ago, I was looking at numerous statues of Our Lady of Sorrows, in the Spanish tradition, of course, dressed in real clothes.  The dress she wore was often purple velvet.  Painted on tears fell from her downcast eyes.  Whilst not particularly my taste in statues (there was a much more discrete one in the Upper Church at Mirfield when I was at college there) yet there remains something terribly moving and relevant about this image. Women stood there with me, real, rather than painted, tears on their cheeks.

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Not to everyone’s taste

It seems to me that life and religion, and that is a false and unnecessary separation, are about making connections.  I think I have said before that what is now grandly called ‘theological reflection’, is really about thinking about things, but with God in mind.  So I cannot think about Mary at the foot of the cross without thinking about the mothers that I met in Zimbabwe.

The Mothers’ Union is everywhere you go in Zimbabwe and, I suspect, in other parts of ‘Anglican Africa’.  They make sure you can see them by wearing a uniform – black skirt, white blouse and ‘Mary blue’ hats and sashes.  They stand out from the crowd.  And they are always working, cooking the food, cleaning the church, playing the drums, singing their hearts out, running projects, making you welcome and bearing the pain of the reality of the situation that their children are growing up in.

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Mothers of Zimbabwe waiting to welcome us

The mothers of Zimbabwe are no different to mothers in so many places.  Who can forget the grief of the mothers in various countries in South America, holding the pictures of their children who have ‘disappeared’?  They cry out to Mother Mary, they cry out to Stabat Mater.  They recognise in Mary one who has shared the sharp pain when the fruit of their womb is suffering before them.

So keeping the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows may not be your particular thing.  But perhaps it is the opportunity we need, each year, to stop and remember the sorrow that so many mothers have to bear, and to stand, as does Mary, alongside them.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners, now
and at the hour of our death.
Amen.

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Posture

We were having a bizarre but amusing conversation in the Cathedral offices the other day.  An older friend had just been to see us who, in her younger days, had been one of the last of the debutantes.  She had of course been to Finishing School.  So then I discovered that one of our volunteers had also been ‘finished’. ‘Where were you finished?’ I asked, having discovered that this was the right way to ask the question.  ‘Switzerland and Paris.’ was the answer.  ‘Nice’, I said. We have some wonderful volunteers and well finished too!

I know very little about Finishing School but I do know that good deportment and posture were high on the agenda.  Holding yourself, with dignity and decorum, walking upright, sitting in a lady-like way was part of the stuff that delivered young women on to the London scene perfect for a good marriage.

Deportment

Steady!

I suppose I was formed at the best ‘Finishing School’ in the Church of England, not in Switzerland but among the hills and grandeur of West Yorkshire above the River Calder.  It’s a long time ago now, of course, but at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield we learnt how to deport ourselves in church, how to walk, how to sit, how to stand.  Oh yes! there are very important rules around all these things.  I love the opportunity (which is rare nowadays now that I am no longer a Precentor) to teach people how to sit and stand.  You sit in the sanctuary (in my rule book) with both feet on the ground, with hands on knees but without the fingers hanging down like a bunch of bananas! You stand upright and you sit without looking behind you to see if there is anything to sit on!  That takes practice and trust.  You feel the seat of the chair on the back of your legs and you sit on it! The sanctuary is not a cocktail bar and so you should never, whatever your gender, sit with your legs crossed.  Why? Because it looks terrible as far as I’m concerned.

So, I was shocked to see the Leader of the House of Commons lounging across the Government front benches the other day.  Given the enormity of the challenges that our nation faces the fact of his adopted posture at that moment is almost trivial.  I haven’t studied posture in the house closely so I don’t really know whether other people have adopted a similar pose or not.  But at the moment, in that prominent position it gave out, let’s say, unfortunate messages.  I am sure Mr Rees-Mogg would not approve of such behaviour by his priests in the sanctuary where he goes to Mass.  So how come here, in the House, in a vital debate, in front of the cameras?  I don’t know – but it feels like a certain message was being delivered.

How we deport ourselves does speak volumes.  On one of the evenings last week, in the midst of all the Brexit turmoil, the Old Testament reading was about the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem.  It’s a great passage, full of detail and vibrancy.  And as part of it it says this

‘As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.’ (2 Samuel 6.16)

David was so full of joy that all he could do was dance before the Lord – but it offended Michal, who then despised him.  How we behave is not insignificant.

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With joy David dances

Our hymns and our prayers are full of references to posture – ‘Before I lay me down to sleep’, ‘Stand up, stand up, for Jesus’, ‘kneel and adore him, the Lord is his name’, ‘Be still for the presence of the Lord’. Our body language is part of the way in which we communicate with each other and with God.  Think about what you are saying.

Lord,
may I be alert, ready,
still or active,
speaking with my body
the prayer of my heart.
Amen.

Mission shaped church

So, I’m back from my summer holiday.  I’d been asked by a friend if I would officiate at their wedding in August.  Nothing so odd about that you might think, the kind of thing that clergy do.  What was unusual and exciting in this instance was that the wedding was to take place in the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission in San Francisco and neither the bride or groom nor any of the guests lived in that city!  But there were long family ties with the church and so that is where we all headed for the wedding.  And what a joy it was!

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The view across the bay

There is a Norwegian Seamen’s Mission in Rotherhithe and we have strong links with it from the Cathedral.  It was established when the Pool of London was visited by many Norwegian sailors.  The Mission served their religious and cultural needs and it still does both of those things for the Norwegian ex-pat community living in London – but there are few sailors among them.  Similarly the Mission in San Francisco is there to serve those same needs and it does so from a commanding position above Fishermen’s Wharf looking out across the bay and to the Golden Gate Bridge.  Entering the Mission for the wedding rehearsal I was met with the familiar smell of fresh coffee and waffles, part of the ministry of hospitality that’s at the very heart of what the Missions are about.

I’d never been to the West Coast of the USA before, so going across for the wedding provided the perfect excuse to abandon our usual August holiday on the beach in Spain and do something very different.  We knew – because we’d booked the flights – that we were flying into San Francisco and flying out of San Diego, we knew that we would hire a car and do a bit of a road trip but, to be honest, we had no plans apart from that.

The first week though we did plan to spend in San Francisco enjoying the wedding and that lovely city.  The Dean at Grace Cathedral let us use their guest apartment for the week, so there we were on Nob Hill enjoying the hospitality of that great church.  It was amazing to walk in and visit their AIDS chapel.  There are only two cathedrals in the world with an AIDS chapel, Grace and Southwark. We have this very special link which stretches back to the early ’90’s when the threat of AIDS and its reality were ravaging our communities.  Both cathedrals responded separately in the same way and both continue a prominent mission beyond AIDS to the LGBT community.  It made me immensely proud to step inside what in reality is our sister cathedral.

We rode the Cable Cars, saw the sea-lions, struggled up the hills, went to Chinatown and the Castro, rode over the Golden Gate Bridge, experienced the fog, sought out the location of ‘Tales of the City’ and Mrs Madrigal’s house and did all the things that visitors to San Francisco should do.  But we didn’t know what the holiday was really going to be about.  But our God is the God of surprises.

The day after the wedding we were at the place where the reception had been held, on the edge of the Nappa Valley.  The mother of the groom took us out for the day.  ‘How about going to Sonoma?’ she asked.  We said ‘Great’ without really knowing anything about the place.  In fact Sonoma is a lovely little town in the middle of vineyards.  But what is particularly special is that at its heart is the final Spanish Mission to be established, the Mission San Francisco Salano.  We parked in the square, walked to the adobe church and its attendant buildings and were instantly captivated.  In they shop they were selling pilgrim passports.  We bought one and it was stamped at the back with the final stamp. This was the final stop on the Mission Trail, the Camino Real, which begins in San Diego.  That was it, the shape of the holiday was suddenly decided; we would make it a pilgrimage and try to visit as many of the 21 Spanish Missions as possible.  In the end we visited 19 of the 21 and it was a blessing.

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The Mission at Sonoma

The story is basically that in 1769 an expedition of Franciscans headed out of what became Mexico into what was then known as Alta California under the leadership of  Friar Junipero Serra.  He was a phenomenally visionary and practical man who oversaw the establishment of many of the missions over the remainder of the century.  The first was in San Diego the second in Monterey and gradually with infilling and expansion the 21 were built, Sonoma being the last and most northerly.  Four of them – San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco – were the basis of what are now huge cities; some are now basically cultural museums; some are local parish churches continuing to serve local congregations.  But all had a chequered history which saw them secularized by the Mexican Government after independence from Spain and then handed back to the church after the defeat of Mexico by the USA and the creation of the State of California and its incorporation into the Union in 1850.  It was President Abraham Lincoln, whose signature could be seen on some of the documents on display in the Mission museums, who gave the church back its missions.

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A mission bell on the Camino Real

It was a terrific journey.  There is a very dark side to the whole story, the indigenous peoples at whose conversion and ‘westernisation’ the missions were directed, suffered terribly.  Whole tribes were decimated by the introduction of western diseases and long held traditions were lost.  In some places the remnants of those tribes are now rediscovering their history and proudly displaying it.  But on the positive side St Junipera Serra, as he now is, and his companions proclaimed the gospel, baptised and taught the people, introduced new forms of agriculture and animal husbandry, planted vineyards and helped to create the California we know.

But there was something else I learnt.

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Mission San Diego – the first, our last

When we arrived in San Diego and had visited the first and, for us, the last of the Missions we decided to take the trolley bus out to the USA/Mexican border.  The journey isn’t a long one.  But the tracks and the overhead lines end where Homeland Security begins.  People were going backwards and forwards on foot across the border, cars were heading in and out.  We stood there thinking about President Trump and his ‘bad hombres’ speech and all his determination about building a wall along this border to keep the Mexicans out.  But what had become so clear travelling south, following this missionary trail, seeing the mission shaped churches, looking at place names that were both catholic and Spanish, was that this part of the USA has Mexican culture in its DNA.  There are natural flows along this pacific coast and the Franciscans have been only part of the story.

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The Nuevo Camino

In the wonderful film ‘Out of Africa’ there is a scene in which the damned river on the farm bursts through the earthworks and reverts to its own course.  Someone says something like ‘you can’t stop the river flowing’. A friend told me about a friend of theirs building a house in Africa on land they had acquired.  ‘You can’t build there.  That is where the elephants walk.’ he was told.  But he ignored them and built.  Just before the building was complete the elephants walked across it.

Perhaps the Franciscans walked a path in the name of Jesus, created a ‘Camino Real’ that cannot and should not be ignored.  A wall or a fence may not be strong enough to resist what is natural.

Loving God,
your mission,
like your love,
has no bounds.
Help us to breach the walls
that seek to divide
and allow the rivers to flow.
Amen.

On holiday

Apologies. I’m on holiday. Living God will return when I get back at the beginning of September.

Living God in Zimbabwe

It has been an amazing week. We can use that kind of phrase in tweets and on a blog too easily, but this week really has been amazing. I said last week that I would be travelling to Zimbabwe and to our link Diocese of Masvingo. There I would be meeting up with Bishop Christopher and Canon Wendy Robins who had already been out for a few days but in the dioceses of Matabeleland and Central Zimbabwe. So that is what happened.

The flight to Harare was uneventful, changing planes at Johannesburg and then waiting in one of the slowest queues for visas I have ever experienced when I arrived at Harare Airport. But then, through into arrivals and there were two friendly faces waiting for me. One of them was my good friend Friar Fungai, a member of the Community of the Holy Transfiguration whose Mother House we visited later in the week. It was great to see them and we quickly set off on the almost 5 hour journey down south to Masvingo.

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Don’t let life get you down

You relatively quickly leave Harare behind you and are out in the open country. The roads, frankly, are terrible. But our driver was avoiding potholes as best he could. Then, about an hour away from our destination disaster struck. One of the tyres suffered a puncture. We got out of the car. I was useless. It’s embarrassing to say but true nevertheless that I have never changed a tyre in my life. My two friends set too, showing me how it was done. Various tyres had to be removed and recirculated and the spare put on. The jack jammed and a pile of rocks gathered from the ground around us were used as a replacement. With African ingenuity we got back on our way and arrived at the hotel where we were staying.

The next day I went to the Cathedral of St Michael which is in the centre of Masvingo. There were Bishop Godfrey and his wife Albertina waiting for me. There was a gathering of diocesan staff and clergy for lunch and the same group with some additions gathered again in the evening when Bishop Christopher and Wendy had arrived.

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Masvingo Cathedral

Now the reality in Zimbabwe is that they lack so much. There are constant electricity blackouts, fuel is scarce and expensive. Food prices have rocketed. The shelves in the shops are not full and the rains have failed. Given all of that, the hospitality we received on that first full day was second to none. That was repeated throughout the time I was in Zimbabwe. I said last week that I had asked that the fatted calf was not killed for me. The bishop had responded that they always kill it for their guests! What I also realised as the week wore on was that our presence allowed others to share in a feast – which must seldom happen – so that relieved my feelings of guilt a little bit as I watched everyone tucking in with gusto.

Meals tend to follow the same pattern. First you choose your starch. The traditional food is called Sadza, which is a thick porridge-like substance made of corn meal. But there are different varieties, white, red and a new one to me, made of sorghum, which is delicious. Then you get your meat, usually chicken, sometimes beef, occasionally pork. In one meal in Chivhu later in the week I tried the offal which was tripe cooked with onions and tomato – it was delicious. Then there are vegetables, often a cabbage or spinach like green, sometimes mixed with peanut butter. There is always rice on offer, sometimes fried potatoes and always a lovely soup-like gravy. Often there is some salad as well, though travelling has taught me to avoid salad where possible!

So that has been my diet. I have not gone hungry. But I was very conscious that others are hungry. During the week we visited four schools and they all ran feeding programmes. Members of their Cathedral congregation will remember that a few years ago we collected money specifically to finance these initiatives. Now, corn meal is supplied by the State but everything else, the vegetables and, very rarely, the meat, is supplied by the school. Mothers take it in turn to come and cook, out there in the school yards on wood fires, stirring the Sadza for their children. One headteacher told me that the children don’t like missing school because they don’t like missing their meal!

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Cooking the school lunch

On the Wednesday we went in the morning to a World Heritage Site.  Great Zimbabwe has given its name to the nation and also its most powerful symbols, the bird on the national flag and the tower with two trees that is the symbol of the ruling party, Zanu PF. The site of Great Zimbabwe is a huge one.  It was built between the 11th and the 15th centuries and had a population of between 10,000 and 18,000.  The name ‘Zimbabwe’ comes from the Shona words for ‘large stone house’ and that neatly describes this royal city.  Going there you realise what a powerful and established kingdom existed before the European nations arrived.

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Great Zimbabwe

Then in the afternoon we went to one of the diocesan projects that I have visited on each of my three trips to Zimbabwe.  The Transfiguration Skills Centre was established to train people in agricultural skills.  What has been interesting is that over the three visits you see changes in the place – but they are not all positive.  The piggery that was full last time has few pigs now.  The feed is so expensive it is no longer profitable to raise them.  The sheds which held the chickens are mostly empty – the reasons are the same.  The fields where maize was growing were now barren.  There has been no rain and the bore hole has dried up.  There are no trainees because there is nothing to train them in.  But those who showed us round were not depressed, they were as hopeful as ever that things will get better.  I pray they are right.

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Once fertile land

The Thursday saw us visiting four churches and schools in the Shurugwi District.  This is a very rural area.  The journey there and between the churches (they are not at the centre of villages as we might imagine from our own experience) meant travelling on dirt roads for long distances.  This makes every journey difficult.  Our driver, Albert, was skilled at picking the spot in the ‘road’ that would be easiest to negotiate.  I would have been off the road and in the ditch as soon as I put my foot to the accelerator! So we went to St Boniface, St Mary, St Michael and St Francis church and school.  In each place we were met by children waving, excited to have some visitors.  The Mothers’ Union were always out in force, singing as we approached.  Some children danced for us, others marched alongside us.  In each place the whole school gathered for an assembly and we got a chance to speak to them.  I told the children in each of the schools that at Cathedral School the children there pray for the children of Zimbabwe every day.  But many of them have no idea where Zimbabwe is, or what the children are like.  So in each place I took a photo of the children waving so that when Cathedral School returns I can show our children just who they are praying for.

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This is who you are praying for!

In each school wonderful Headteachers and staff are struggling to educate their pupils with few resources.  Most have no electricity, save for a generator which they switch on when they need to print off examination papers.  In none of the schools we visited this time were there computers for the children to use.  In one or two we saw some old PCs that had been donated stacked up and waiting for the day when electricity would be available.  But the children read well and write well and when I asked a few of them what subject they liked best the answer was usually ‘mathematics’.  And they sang their hearts out as we gathered.

On Friday we travelled back half way towards Harare to a town called Civhu where we visited a couple of churches including St Francis where I had been before.  There a new church is being built to house the growing congregation, but the work has stopped because the cost of materials has risen and the ability of the congregation to give has diminished as the price of food and fuel has risen.

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The beginnings of the new church

We had travelled north for the climax of the visit and that was the Shearly Cripps Festival.  This takes place each year at the beginning of August at the shrine built around the grave of Fr Arthur Shearly Cripps who came out to work among the Shona people at the beginning of the 20th century and never left them.  He lived in a little hut and bought farms with his own money so that local people had their own land to work on. The people still love and revere him.

The Festival begins with Evening Prayer on the Friday and the people camp all around the shrine, sleeping and eating there until Sunday morning.  We arrived on the Saturday morning in time to take part in the Festival Mass which begins at 8.00am.  The altar is under a lovely thatched roof in the local style.  The congregation sits all around.  This year there were fewer people there than in the past because of the problems with fuel but there must have been close to a thousand people gathered.  The spirit was amazing, the worship was wonderful and the three and a half hours that it took flew past.  I was invited to give a message of solidarity at the end of the Mass and I did that with huge joy.  In the afternoon, after another meal, there was a choir competition with some wonderful singing.  But it was the choir from Daramombie High School that stole the show and went home with the trophies.

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One of the choirs competing in the Festival

On Sunday, then in Harare, we went to the Cathedral for their High Mass.  It was simply beautiful.  Once again the singing, the liturgy, were all perfection.  Yet in the streets around there is such obvious poverty and need.  It makes you weep.

So it has been amazing as I said at the beginning and what is most amazing is that despite all of the problems, despite things being even worse than the days of Mugabe, yet there is this indomitable spirit of hope that is not about a superficial smile, putting a brave face on it, not about stoicism, but born of a deep Christian commitment and belief that what Mother Julian of Norwich said is true.

‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’

As I stood there during the Shearly Cripps Festival I was thinking about that priest and his commitment to the place.  It was so much about living out the incarnation, about going to the place and being one with the reality that is there.  All I kept thinking about was that poem by R S Thomas that I have often quoted – ‘The Coming’

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

‘Let me go there’ and he did and stayed.  God was very present in those places and those people.  The hospitality was generous but what they taught me even more satisfying.

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

A blog will come

Be patient please. I’ll post a blog when I get back from Zimbabwe. But here’s a greeting to you from some great children at one of the schools we’ve visited.

Out of Africa

Those graphics we have been shown over the last week of a heatwave heading in our direction were very colourful and dramatic.  It was all heading our way, we kept being told, ‘out of Africa’. Well, as you read this I will be heading into Africa.

All Church of England dioceses are encouraged to make links with Anglican dioceses and provinces around the world.  They are enormously important for being able to understand more the nature of the Communion of which we are part (very important as we head for the next Lambeth Conference which will be taking place in exactly a year).  When I was a priest in Leeds our links were with what is still called the Church of Ceylon.  People regularly visited the two dioceses on that beautiful island, Colombo and Kuranegala, and in fact the priest I worked with was able to spend a substantial amount of time out there experiencing ministry in a different place.

Southwark has been linked for many years with the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe which is part of the Province of Central Africa.  Since 2002 there are five dioceses in that country, Harare linked with Rochester Diocese and the other four – Matabeleland, Central Zimbabwe, Manicaland and Masvingo linked with Southwark.  The cathedral is linked with the last in that list, and the newest, Masvingo.  That is where I am heading.

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Fr Shearly Cripps outside his hut that is now his shrine

Because of the particular problems facing the people of Zimbabwe at the moment – shortages of almost every kind – this will be a small visit, just me, with Bishop Christopher and Canon Wendy Robins.  We don’t want to be too much of a burden on our very generous hosts.  I emailed Bishop Godfrey, the Bishop of Masvingo, a few weeks ago.  I had been reading more reports from our friends in ArtPeace, the project that produces the lovely stone carvings we sell in the shop, and the stories of shortages, drought and violence are very disturbing.  Knowing what Zimbabwean hospitality looks like I said to +Godfrey ‘please, you don’t need to kill the fatted calf for me, a bowl of sadza (the corn meal porridge) is all I need.’  I received a very firm reply, ‘We always kill the fatted calf for our guests however hard the times.’

It will be a humbling visit.  Hope, generosity, hospitality, I will see it all.  We will be visiting parishes and churches, schools, clinics and projects, some of which we help to fund, some that the local people resource themselves.  We will share in the Mass, we will sing and I will sway along with the rhythms of the drums.  The Mothers’ Union will be out in force, the mainstay of the church. The whole visit will culminate in the Shearly Cripps Festival at Moronda Mashuna, the Five Wounds, where people from all over will gather to celebrate the life of Fr Arthur Shearly Cripps who came out to Africa from England at the turn of the 20th century and gave his life to the people.

So, pray for me as I pray for you.  I will report as much as I can whilst I am there, it all depends on access to data of course, and pray with us for the people of Zimbabwe.

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

On the streets

When I was in Leeds, particularly when I was a priest in the Parish of Richmond Hill, there were always occasions coming along when we would escape the walls of the churches and get out onto the streets.  There were two principle occasions each year at St Hilda’s, Cross Green, apart from the Palm Sunday Procession and the Walk of Witness on Good Friday, of course.  The first was the May Procession held on the day on which we had the crowning of the May Queen and the other was the Feast of the Assumption when we held a big festival.  There was a massive Roman Catholic Church in the parish, Mount St Mary’s, like ‘a city set on a hill’ and they had a portable statue of Our Lady and so, in a spirit of practical ecumenism, we used to borrow that.

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Blessing of Illuminated River

Mary was decked out in a variety of plastic flowers and would be carried aloft by some willing volunteers and escorted by servers with their candles and incense, by clergy and by a mixed bag of laity.  It was fantastic.  If you ever saw that great film ‘East is East’ with Jimi Mistry, then the opening scenes of the procession through the streets of Salford where completely reminiscent of us walking through the streets of back-to-backs in east Leeds.  We didn’t just have the pious to accompany us but kids on bikes, babies in push chairs and, of course, dogs who thought we should be well out of their territory and were doing their best to make sure that happened!

Jesus was an itinerant preacher, had a peripatetic ministry, walking the roads and the paths of Galilee, always on the move, taking religion and teaching and prayer out of the confines of the Temple, outside of the formality of the synagogue and into the street where anything could happen.

‘As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.’ (Mark 10.46)

It happened all the time, those chance encounters on the road that were life and faith transforming for those who were there at the right time in the right place, sitting, standing, waiting by the roadside for God to go past.

We do a great deal of this ‘taking religion out of the church’ at Southwark Cathedral, whether its Apple Day in Borough Market, or Lammas Day with Bread Ahead, our local baker, or Blessing the River in Epiphany, we are there on the streets beyond the confines of thick, protective stone walls.

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Setting off!

This weekend has been a great opportunity for that.  On Friday evening, much to the amazement of local drinkers in the pubs around the Cathedral and the Borough Market, a procession left Cathedral Square at 9.30pm!  We were not a huge crowd but, despite a bit of drizzle (always a threat to outdoor religion) we were enthusiastic.  The occasion was blessing the Illuminated River Project.  This is a ten year art installation along the Thames in which the bridges will be individually lit but visually connected through the work of the American artist, Leo Villareal.  Last Wednesday the first part of the project, the illumination of London Bridge, Cannon Street Bridge , Southwark Bridge and the Millennium Bridge was launched and on Friday I was asked to bless the work.  So with cross and lights and me in a cope we walked up onto London Bridge and asked Gods blessing on the work.

God bless those who cross the bridges.
God bless those who walk the edges.
God bless those who sail the waters.
God bless those who steer the vessels.
God bless those who care for fishes.
God bless those who light the bridges.
God bless this illumination
light and joy, colour, imagination.
May it bring this river to life
even on the darkest night.
Amen.

We read from the Book of Revelation about the city and the river, we read extracts from poems by Dunbar and Kipling and Eliot and we prayed, there on the bridge as the buses passed and the party boats sailed beneath us and the walkers nudged past.  And some people ignored us and a few jeered and some made the sign of the cross and many more said hello and smiled.  It was great.

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Blessing the Graveyard

Sunday sees us walk, as we do each year around the Feast of Mary Magdalene, from the Cathedral to the Crossbones Graveyard, the unconsecrated ground where early on, the medieval sex workers and their babies were buried and later on paupers were buried and with cross and lights and smoke, with prayers and reading and singing, and, I hope, in the sunshine, we will remember those women and those children and those people used and abused and excluded by our society.

May this be a holy place in our community,
set apart for the past, the present and the future
and a place where the dead and living may know your peace.

Being out there, being on the streets, getting religion out of church, beyond the walls, where we might sit beautifully oddly alongside everything else that is going on, that must be a mission initiative in anybody’s book!

Lord, give us the courage
to walk the streets
and encounter you
as others encounter us
and you.
Amen.

Poverty, chastity, obedience

The church that I was brought up in, All Saints Wigston Magna, had for quite a few years produced a number of vocations to the religious life.  This meant that every so often during the year there would be a nun in church on Sunday who was on leave and had come back to stay with her family.  As a boy and a teenager I was in the choir and the stalls where we sat had lovely fretwork at the front.  During communion we all had to kneel down and being little I was able to peek through the designs carved into the woodwork and see these nuns walking past – and especially their feet.  This is a long time ago, so nuns dressed ‘properly’ – wimple, veil, habit and sandals, without socks! So I got to know nuns’ feet very well.

novice-conference-2014

A selection of members of Anglican communities

The other side of life was that the church day out every year was to visit one of the convents that one of the nuns from the parish was living in.  So one year we went to Clewer, another to Wantage, another to East Hanningfield.  What I remember about Clewer where Sister Pamela was was simply how vast the corridors seemed to be.  At Wantage we were visiting Sister Mary Columba – how could you have a boy’ and a girl’s name I wondered?  There I remember the lovely statue of Our Lady in the chapel carved by Mother Maribel.  Then at East Hanningfield where the Sisters of the Community of the Sacred Passion were I can remember being fascinated and appalled to see prosthetic limbs being made in huts in the garden for those suffering from the effects of leprosy!

The reason I am telling you all of this is because of something that happened at the meeting of General Synod last week that I didn’t really talk about in my Synod blog.  A bit of history was made.  For the first time since the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries the Church of England has formally, in her Canons, recognised the existence and importance of religious communities in our life.  A number of representatives from our religious communities are elected onto the Synod, so that they can share their particular perspective on the life of the whole church.  But there was nothing in the Canons and therefore nothing to provide legal structure and regulation for communities which is something that is needed and especially with the rise of new forms of monasticism, such as at Lambeth Palace and elsewhere.

So that was put right and the legislation went through its final stages in this Group of Sessions.  A couple of the religious stood to speak and then nobody else did.  I was going to stand and missed my chance, and I am really sorry about that.  I wanted to say, thank you.  Thank you to the members of the communities who, I believe, give so much to the church and to the Church of England.  As was pointed out in the short debate they aren’t ‘better’ Christians but they are living the Christian life in such a distinctive way, a way that gives encouragement to the rest of us.

Those nuns feet and those days out from Wigston helped me to know that training for priesthood alongside the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield would be perfect for me, and that particular community and its members have helped me, and help me, to be the Christian and the priest that I seek to be.

The passage that has been attributed as inspiring many to enter a religious, consecrated life, people like Benedict and Francis, is from St Mark’s Gospel.

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10.17-22)

Jesus-and-rich-young-man

‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him.’

Poverty, chastity, obedience – possessions, intimate love, freedom – however you define these vows that others seek to live by I’m afraid they are beyond me.  Like the rich man I turn away, unable to give so much up.  My only consolation is that Jesus will look on me and love me; my only hope is that some of my sisters and brothers have the courage to live without these things and to show me that it is possible.

Lord, bless those you call into community
and give me the courage to learn from them
the things that truly matter.
Amen.

Where’s Living God

If you’re wondering where my weekly blog is, well, I’m at General Synod in York. But, if you’re interested you can catch my thoughts and reflections on my General Synod blog. I’ll be back next week. Keep us in your prayers, please.

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015

LIVING GOD

Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

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

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark