The tender branch

It has been quite a week what with General Synod (hope you saw the daily blog here) and preparing for an online Advent Sunday as well as an online carol service. Then there was the Robes Sleepin with its almost three hours of continuous broadcasting and a number of very significant anniversaries to engage with – ten years sine Colin Slee died, twenty years since Damilola Taylor was killed and, today, one year since the terrorist attack at Fishmongers’ Hall, our neighbour across the river, which resulted in the deaths of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones. So I hope you will forgive me for not writing a proper blog today. Instead I offer you the text of this morning’s homily. Normal service will be resumed next week!

The lections for today, Advent Sunday, are Isaiah 64.1-9, 1 Corinthians 1.3-9 and Mark 13.24-37.

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The leaves have turned into their autumnal colours and then fallen.  Bare branches now remain.  We began these lockdowns in the spring, now we’re heading fast to winter; we began as new life was beckoning, we’re now in the time of dark nights and the mists and mellow fruitfulness have become cold and frosty mornings.

But today is our day of new beginnings, our day of eager anticipation.  Today is not an ending but a beginning.  Advent Sunday is wonderful and whilst this week we can’t be together at the Eucharist watching as someone tentatively lights the first candle on the Advent Crown, as a sign to us that Jesus is coming, yet we can light that candle in our homes, we can make that expectation bright and real.

Jesus talks of the fig tree, bare, looking dead.  The rich leaves had fallen.  The juicy, sweet, voluptuous fruit had gone.  The tree stands hard, bare, empty.  But he points to it and says

‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.’ (Mark 13.28)

We must learn the lesson of the fig tree, that the hard branch will become tender.

The poet Sylvia Plath listened to this lesson from Jesus and then she wrote

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.”

I’m not so much looking forward to Christmas this year – though of course, deep down, I am – but I am looking forward to the New Year.  I don’t know about you but I can’t wait to shake the dust of 2020 off my feet and step into a new year, knowing that it will be a year of grace and new possibilities.

I won’t weep for the year that’s past but I will weep for all that we’ve lost, the thousands of people who’ve died in this country, the well over a million who have died around the world.  I will weep for lives broken, jobs lost, communities devastated.  I will weep for cancelled plans, lost opportunities, weep for the stress and the fear and the anxiety that we have suffered.  I will weep in thanksgiving for those who’ve worked to keep me safe, worked to tend the needs of the sick, weep for the feeders and the carers and the key workers of every kind who’ve given themselves and more than themselves.

But I want to learn the lesson of the fig tree, I need to learn the lesson of the fig tree.  I look for the hard branches becoming tender and that wonderful future beckoning and winking, to use Sylvia Plath’s beautiful, evocative language.

The Jesus who I await, the Jesus we await, is the Jesus who will become the fruit of that tender tree, whose branch-like arms will stretch out to embrace me who long for embrace, whose sweetness will feed me who need to fed, whose blood will wash me who long for true cleansing, who will touch me as I am unable to be touched.

Jesus, bread and wine, body and blood, single light shining in the darkness, crucified, risen, awaited – this is the Advent Christ who meets us today and leads us into a tender, fruitful tomorrow.

Jesus, tender shoot, strong branch, life-giving fruit of the bare tree, sustain me, support me, hold me, feed me. Amen.

The beautiful story

I’ve just finished reading a really beautiful story – ‘Sweet Sorrow’ – a novel by David Nicholls. It was our Book Group book this month and I have to confess that it made me cry as I finished it, big tears, down my cheeks tears. Lots of memories flooded back of school and first love, of friends, lost and kept, family, the pressures of exams, Shakespeare, learnt, remembered, forgotten – and the ‘star crossed lovers’ at the heart of it.

It’s just over a week since the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ (LLF) material was finally published by the Church of England. For those of you who might not be so familiar with the workings of the CofE as some of us are, this is the document on which the church has been working for a few years on the issues of sexuality and marriage. I can hear you yawning! ‘Surely we have done all of that?’ Well clearly we haven’t because we have still not come to a ‘decision’ about the place of LGBT+ people in the life of the church, nor have we really tackled the issues that surround our understanding of marriage and committed relationships in any form, that complex business of relationships that so many novels, like ‘Sweet Sorrow’ attempt in different ways to address. So this piece of work is intended to help us have resourced conversations that might in turn lead us towards some kind of decision making, I suppose.

The point of the LLF book and the videos and the other resources as I understand it is to get us talking and thinking and praying and allowing ourselves to be led by the Holy Sprit in discerning God’s will for the church and the way forward out of this impasse. So I was interested to watch one of the first major contributions to the debate and the process, which was made available on YouTube last week. It’s a thirty minute film entitled ‘The Beautiful Story’ and is the work of the ‘Church of England Evangelical Council’ (CEEC) which is an unofficial gathering of people from the evangelical tradition within the Church of England.

So like many people I sat down and watched it – high production values, good filming, lovely shots, a really professional job. I got over the fact that the only people in it who seemed to be allowed to wear dog collars were the bishops and that the churches in which the interviews were shot had mostly been stripped bare of anything that was particularly beautiful. It reminded me of that verse in 1 Samuel

She named the child Ichabod, meaning, ‘The glory has departed from Israel’ (1 Samuel 4.21)

It didn’t look like the church that I know and love. But I forgave them all of that.

What did disappoint me, however, were two things in particular and one larger issue. The first was that at one point a contributor, speaking about ‘same-sex attraction’ (the phrase evangelicals seem to prefer to homosexuality), said that rejection of ‘living this out’ was a non-negotiable. I didn’t fid that helpful language at the beginning of a conversation – it felt a lot like shutting down any opportunity of talking. Secondly, I found some of the talk about structural changes to the church – maybe a couple of new provinces that were ‘safe’ – equally unhelpful. This is not the way to get the best out of the conversation that we are meant to be having, again.

But my real disappointment was around the telling of ‘The Beautiful Story’. It is undoubtedly true that scripture and the life of faith and the life of the church is a story of romance, a love story, between God and humankind and that the language of the Letter to the Ephesians of the relationship between Christ and the church is very helpful. The writer talks of how ‘Christ loved the church’ (Ephesians 5.25) as a way of understanding marriage and by implication other human, loving, sacrificial, honouring relationships. We use that language every time we celebrate a marriage in the Church of England. There it is, proudly, in the Preface to the service that sets our stall so to speak.

But the speakers, all sincere, many known to me, some of whom I have had the pleasure of working with over the years, only told part of ‘The Beautiful Story’. Just as I didn’t really recognise the Church of England in what I was watching neither did I really recognise the fullness of the God I know in Jesus. I and you have our own beautiful stories to tell and the story we would tell involves the person that God created, me, you. The God I know doesn’t deal in ‘non-negotiables’ but seeks to include, embrace, love every part of the rich creation that flows from the divine love which is so beautifully described in scripture

I was daily his delight,
   rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race
. (Proverbs 8.30-31)

I don’t particularly want to spend the rest of my ministry talking about sex, it’s boring and it just sucks the energy out of the church that should be engaging with God in mission and telling the story of the romance, this beautiful story that includes every person, whoever they are, whoever they are attracted to, those who are called to the single life and those who are called into relationship with another person. I am privileged to be part of a beautiful community at Southwark Cathedral that lives well the beautiful story, with difference, celebrating it, embracing it, not fearing it in whatever form we encounter it and where the glory of the story exists and survives and thrives.

I too have a story to tell of finding love and growing in love and I rejoice in that and rejoice in the glory of the God that never departs or abandons us, in the God who loves me into my better me and embraces me as the child that was so lovingly created.

God of grace and truth, as we live your beautiful story may we recognise your divine image in each one of our sisters and brothers, for your glory never departs and your story is never fully told. Amen,

Winners and losers

So much of life can be like a game of snakes and ladders. You seem to be making progress in an upwards direction and then the dice falls and you head back down a snake, seeing all the journey that you have made slipping past you. Whatever it is, Covid, work, relationships, progress doesn’t always happen as neatly as we might like. And I suppose that sitting round playing board games – which I think that many people have rediscovered through these various lockdowns – is a way of learning that in life there are winners but there are also losers. In fact, there is always more chance of being a loser than a winner.

I have discovered ‘Bake Off The Professionals’ whilst I have had more time in the evenings to watch TV. The two judges, Benoit Blin and Cherish Finden, are actually what make the show for me. Ok, I am impressed by 24 identical choux buns with a clockwork showpiece made of spun sugar, but it is their reactions which make the show compelling – whilst always, of course, waiting for the chocolate masterpiece in the background to collapse. The two people bringing their confections to the judging table have worked for hours to complete the challenge. Benoit and Cherish take a bite. ‘I’m not impressed, ‘I cannot eat this’ and with very few words the world, like their showpiece, comes crashing down. Like all these shows the final scene is the agony of who goes forward and who leaves the competition – for the world to see that they are the losers.

They are hard lessons to learn in life, but we have to learn them, we have to learn how to be a good, gracious loser and how to allow the winner to have what they deserve, the space to celebrate their achievement, the space in which to be applauded whilst we stand back joining in the applause – today is not our day, it is their day.

I remember so many children’s birthday parties that we had to go to, the parties of our various cousins, or school friends, or the neighbouring kids we would play with in the street. After the sandwiches, trifle and cake and lashings of orange squash we would play the party games. Invariably they ended in tears, and it was the birthday boy and girl who was crying. It wasn’t fair that on their birthday they were a loser in Pass-the-Parcel. Reality hits hard – be a good loser.

The agony of watching the US Presidential election being played out across the Atlantic has partly been about the seeming inability of the President to see himself as a loser and to recognise that someone else can be a winner. There was a piece on the radio the other day talking about his son Don Jnr and the moment when Donald Trump’s wife suggested that they call him after his father. Donald Snr was reported as having said ‘But what if he turns out to be a loser?’

Faith teaches me different things. As I look at Jesus nailed to the cross am I looking at a winner or a loser? Perhaps that language doesn’t even work. But a passage that we often read at funerals sheds some light on it for me.

In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.
Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good,
because God tested them and found them worthy of himself.
(Wisdom 3.2-5)

To recognise the real winner you need wisdom. Learning that, continuing to play the life version of Snakes and Ladders, bringing your sagging choux buns to the judging table, seeing the parcel pass you by, well its all part of growing up and growing up well. But ultimately we look to the cross and see Christ victoroius and with the church sing the great song of the victor who semed to be the loser.

Christus Vincit. Christus Regnat. Christus Imperat.

Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ commands! Amen.

Groundhog Day

I loved the film ‘Groundhog Day’ starring Bill Murray when it came out in 1993. Those were the days of video hire shops and I was then vicar of Richmond Hill in Leeds. There was a small corner shop video place just up the hill from the vicarage that I used to frequent. That was where I hired the film, taking it home in its big box, slotting into the huge video player under the TV and enjoying the movie. I’m sure you saw it, but if you didn’t it’s about how Phil, a selfcentred weatherman, goes to the town of Punxsutawney for an assignment. He is later shocked when he wakes up the next morning and realises that he is reliving the same day over and over again – with hilarious consequences.

This is a Groundhog

Entering into this second national lockdown has felt a bit like a real life Groundhog Day, but without the laughs. I have to admit to getting up on Thursday and feeling deflated, lacking in energy and enthusiasm. I hope that some of you know me well enough by now to know that is not me. By nature I’m more like that fabulous nun in ‘Sister Act’, Sister Mary Patrick who loves everything, unapologetically. When Deloris asks her if she’s always so cheerful she replies, beaming, “Am I? All right, I am, I can’t help it. I’ve always been upbeat, optimistic, perky. My mother always said, ‘that girl is pure sunshine. She’ll grow up to either be a nun or a stewardess’. Coffee?” I’m not sure if being a Dean is more nun or stewardess!

But when you feel trapped in something, like this pandemic, like this lockdown, when the Prime Minister says ‘until 2 December’ and then the Chancellor extends the furlough scheme to the end of March you end up crying out with the psalmist ‘How long, O Lord? How long?’

But let’s be honest, life can be a bit Goundhoggy. Mum lived by routine: Mondays washing, Tuesdays the bedrooms, Wednesday washing, Thursday shopping, Friday baking, etc, etc. My life has a familiar shape and pattern formed over years; prayer and work and leisure, not in equal measure but in that great, healthy, life-giving Benedictine fashion. The church year is a kind of Groundhog Day. As we enter this ‘Kingdom Season’ we know that Advent is on the horizon meaning that we begin the whole thing again. It’s the ‘Circle of Life’ to coin a phrase from the Lion King. And there is a great deal in it which is comforting and reassuring and safe. But at the moment this new lockdown doesn’t feel like that.

The prophet Isaiah writes

The Lord God has given me
   the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
   the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
   wakens my ear
   to listen as those who are taught.
(Isaiah 50.4)

‘New every morning is the love’, the day may seem to be a repetition of yesterday, of the day before, but each day is new and fresh and full of possibility, if I am open, if I am listening, if I look not at the Groundhog but at the God who liberates us even in lockdown.

This is my prayer for this second lockdown. I offer it to you as we respond to the call to pray each evening at 6pm.

Lord Jesus,
who entered the locked room
and made yourself known to your friends;
be with us in this lockdown
that we may be aware of your presence
and know your blessing upon us.
Amen.

Grief and sorrow

When Doorkins, the Cathedral cat, died and we decided to have a service to give thanks to God for all that she had done for us, I thought that a few eyebrows might be raised but, to be honest, I hadn’t anticipated such a reaction as we saw last week. Call me naïve. But I was surprised by the reaction in both directions, those who who felt it was an affront in the situation in which we find ourselves to those who were bearing such burdens of grief and distress and those who felt that it was entirely appropriate that a cat’s death should not pass without mention.

I have been deeply moved by the messages and the emails that I’ve received since we held the service. So many people took the time to try to put into words not so much what Doorkins meant to them but what the service meant to them. Doorkins had a huge fan club and so there were many people who were expressing their sorrow at her death but even more than that there were people telling another story.

One person wrote this

Why was I crying? For my beautiful students who lost their finals and their graduation. For my daughter who had her gap year ruined and is currently confined to one room at her University … For the summer we all lost. For the freedoms we didn’t realise we had that are now replaced by fears and suspicions. For the local art house cinema, now shut. For theatre and actors and artists. For my BAME colleagues who have had so many family deaths and no family funerals.

I wept as I read it.

When I was beginning the process of formation for priestly ministry at Mirfield a book was published by SPCK called ‘Letting Go: Caring for the Dying and Bereaved’. It was by someone called Ian Ainsworth-Smith. When I eventually came down to Southwark I had the privilege of meeting him and now count him as a friend as he is a Canon Emeritus of Southwark. Ian was chaplain at St Christopher’s Hospice and wrote out of the wealth of his experience. The book had a profound effect on me. I remember in particular reading about how the process of grief and mourning can be delayed. We know it can be so. Someone dies and we simply can’t cry, the tears don’t flow. We are filled with feelings of guilt – ‘I should be in tears; but I can’t cry’. And then, later, after it has all happened, after the funeral and the ham tea have happened, after months, even years have passed, something occurs. Someone else dies; we break a plate at home; a pet dies – and it’s as though a cork is removed, a dam is breached and the tears flow and the grief and sorrow can be expressed. Ian was able to explain and describe it more ably than me.

Whenever I hear Purcell’s ‘Dido’s Lament’ I weep and not in the same way in which I can cry when the first strains of the ‘Sound of Music’ begin. This is crying from a deep place, this is the cry of lament and grief and sorrow. The text, drawn from to the Aeneid, the story of the Trojan Wars, is this

When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

As the person who emailed me so ably described there is so much to weep about at the moment and there is more yet to come. We have already lost so much, so many and the grief we hold is in many ways overwhelming. And then a little cat dies and nice things are said and beautiful music performed and the flood gates open.

It was a terrible week. We had just learnt about the death of the migrant family in the Channel, Rasul and Shiva and their children Anita and Armin and their third child Artin, yet to be found. Then after the service we heard about the terrorist attack in Nice and the killing of Vincent, Simone and a third woman not yet named, in church. There is so much to weep about.

Jesus stands at the grave of his friend Lazarus and he weeps.

When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ (John 11.33-37)

Jesus weeps and then raises his friend to life. Jesus weeps as we weep and then shows us the empty tomb and his hands and his side, wounded, yet glorious. There is light in the darkness, it’s just that on occasions it has to be something as fragile as a little cat to show us.

God of consolation, hold us as we weep, sustain us in our sorrow, allow us to grieve, then lead us to life, your gift to us in Jesus. Amen.

Being agile

Now, no one who knows me would accuse me of being physically agile. I must have told you before that the most awful part of the school week for me was the two double periods of PE that I had to endure. At this time of the year we were out in all weathers playing rugby. I was placed as far back as I possibly could go whilst still being on the pitch. Then in spring it was football. The same technique was used. I was one of the last to be picked by the two lads who had been chosen to be ‘captains’ – a liability none would willingly choose to have in their team. Then in summer it was cricket. I don’t need to describe the levels of horror that held for me as a ball would descend towards me from a clear blue sky and people were shouting ‘Catch it!’ – as if!. And in between all these things there were bouts of gymnastics and the agony of the swimming pool. It was only in the VIth form when we were allowed to go on a long distance run or play badminton, both without any supervision from the staff who were drinking coffee somewhere where we weren’t, that I found a smidgen of pleasure. You see, I have little coordination and so agility have I none!

A daring young man on the flying Trapeze

But this time that we are living through at the moment is demanding of us all mental agility like never before. Agility was a word being bandied about as the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivered his latest version of the Job Retention Scheme. Rishi Sunak undoubtedly does display a willingness to change direction, to rethink, reimagine, to display an agility that has not always been evident in the Treasury, and I want to recognise that. True, the writing was on the wall and it would have been better if it had been read earlier before some people were made redundant as employers had to work out how they were going to keep their business afloat – but agility where we find it needs to be celebrated.

I keep wondering why I’m feeling tired at the moment. I’m not staying up late, not eating late at dinners in restaurants, not out in a bar with friends – none of the things that might normally make me tired in the day. I think that part of what feels exhausting is simply not knowing with any confidence which way we are heading, what the situation will be tomorrow, let alone next week, let alone at Christmas.

So any plans I have seem to have to be rewritten, reimagined. Last week I have been reimagining Remembrance, reimagining Advent, reimagining Christmas and I know that I will have to reimagine each one of them again before we arrive at those particular events or seasons. Planning is much more active than it has ever been before, it requires a degree of agility.

I haven’t been to a circus for years. I wasn’t ever a fan of the clowns, particularly the white faced clowns, nor prancing horses. But I did like the people on the trapeze, high above our heads with just that net strung across the ring to save them from death. Swinging, leaping, catching, the momentum, the fearlessness, the sheer agility, was amazing. That old song comes to mind

He’d fly through the air with the greatest of ease
A daring young man on the flying Trapeze
His movements were graceful, all girls he could please
And my love he purloined away.

The call to agility though is an important one. It was Woody Allen who said

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

The Magi had a plan, they had a route map. They followed a star and found Jesus and they had a route in mind back to ‘Persian lands afar’. But God knew otherwise. Having planned to pay a final visit to Herod and then be on their way scripture tells us

‘having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.’ (Matthew 2.13)

Having plans at the moment is impossible, trying to stick to anything we have decided to do is near impossible. Instead we are called to be agile, moving with the wind, led by the breeze, taken by the currents. It was the way that the Irish monks decided to travel. In those early days of the life of the church in these islands those brave, missionary monks would get into a coracle and allow God to take them wherever God would. Without sail or oar they allowed themselves to go, an inner agility that could respond to God. It demanded a courage that still fills me with awe, to ‘set out, not knowing where he was going’ (Hebrews 11.8). The ‘he’ in this passage is Abraham, who allowed himself to travel by faith and not by plan, not by design, to be agile, ‘a feather on the breath of God’ as Hildegard of Bingen described herself. That is the agility I need at the moment.

God, give me the courage to set my plans aside and be carried on your breath, as agile as a feather, wherever you would take me. Amen.

‘It’ll end in tiers’

That has to be my favourite headline from last week. I can’t remember which newspaper coined it – for once I don’t think it was The Sun – but, fantastic. I was taken back to times in childhood when you are up to something with your friends, having a great time, chancing it a bit, not noticing the possible dangers, and the mums lean in towards each other and say ‘It’ll end in tears!’. No sooner said then a child is crying and rushing back to mum’s skirts for comfort.

We are in another hard place. The divides which many of us have spoken about already, the glaring divides of social inequality, the divides between north and south, are becoming more and more apparent. The unity that was displayed back at the beginning of the national lockdown, that amazing community spirit, the willingness of people to volunteer in numbers never quite seen before, standing on our front door steps (almost) religiously every Thursday at 8pm, applauding the NHS, all that seems to have dissipated. We seem to be in a very different place and the almost weekly slogans and new restrictions, the confusing and seemingly illogical messages and restrictions are just irritating many people to the point when they no longer want to play ball, instead they want to take their bat home (too many metaphors)!

Like you, I imagine, I have been studying the tiers especially as London moved up a tier at the end of last week. What would this mean for the Cathedral? What would this mean for our communities? What would this mean for me? I looked through the diary. Dinner with a friend and his partner who I have known from school days and haven’t seen for months, cancelled. Pizza with the curate and his new wife, cancelled. Lunch with my colleague after we have met in his office, cancelled. Christmas …. well, we wait to see.

As a consequence of the deep disquiet within the church during the national lockdown when our churches were forced to close, contrary to Canon Law, there is no talk of Places of Worship being affected in any of the tiers. But will people want to come, to join a congregation, if they are fearful, or discouraged, from travelling and meeting other people. By the time you are reading this blog I will know what effect it had on the congregation for the Choral Eucharist. And what will it mean for the important acts of remembrance that are now just two weeks away, All Souls, gathering for a Requiem Mass or visiting the graveyard with family members to lay some flowers; Remembrance Sunday on the streets, keeping a collective silence, shoulder to shoulder for our veterans, not to mention huddling round a bonfire, watching the fireworks and enjoying the Cinder Toffee. There is so much that will yet again be changed and yet again be lost to this terrible year.

That is my moan over. I know why we are doing this, we have to try as best we can to slow down the rate of infection, we have to make sure our hospitals can function and the most vulnerable are protected. My question to myself though has been – what is my role in all of this, what is the role of the church in all of this, all of this uncertainty and anxiety, all this fear?

There are such things as Priests’ Handbooks, especially for when you are visiting the sick. They are properly called ‘Vade Mecum’ which simply means ‘go with you’. ‘travel with you’. They contain all the prayers that a priest would need at the bedside, they travel in your pocket, in your knapsack, often for a sense of security. It’s one place where you really don’t want to be lost for words. For Anglicans there is also, of course, that great book ‘The Country Parson’ by the seventeenth century Metaphysical poet, George Herbert. This is not so much a prayer manual but a manual on how to ‘do the job’, on how to live the life, how to be the Parson. So I turned to CHAP. XV. The Parson Comforting.

The Countrey Parson, when any of his cure is sick, or afflicted with losse of friend, or estate, or any ways distressed, fails not to afford his best comforts, and rather goes to them, then sends for the afflicted, though they can, and otherwise ought to come to him. To this end he hath throughly digested all the points of consolation, as having continuall use of them, such as are from Gods generall providence extended even to lillyes; from his particular, to his Church; from his promises, from the examples of all Saints, that ever were; from Christ himself, perfecting our Redemption no other way, then by sorrow; from the Benefit of affliction, which softens, and works the stubborn heart of man; from the certainty both of deliverance, and reward, if we faint not; from the miserable comparison of the moment of griefs here with the weight of joyes hereafter. 

It is that that I should be doing, we should be doing, affording our ‘best comforts’. There is that wonderful phrase in the Book of Common Prayer, the ‘vade mecum’ for the people of God of England, which are called ‘The Comfortable Words’. And the comfort given there is this wonderful passage from St Matthew’s Gospel.

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11.28-30)

This must be what we hold out to the nation, to the world, to our neighbours, to ourselves at this moment. Today all the cathedrals of the Church of England have been united in doing this, praying for us all in this pandemic, in our anxiety, in our sadness, in our fear, in our loneliness. It may bring us to tears, but God will wipe them away.

This is the prayer I wrote for the Cathedrals at the beginning of the pandemic. I continue to pray it.

Loving God, source of healing and comfort, fill us with your grace, that the sick may be made whole, that those who care for us may be strengthened, that the anxious may be calmed, and those most vulnerable be protected in the power of Spirit, in the faith of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

SleepIn

I was fortunate that the Chancellor’s deal, ‘Eat out to help out’, coincided with my holiday in the summer. I have to admit to taking advantage of it on the days when it was on offer. Unlike a lot of what has subsequently emerged from the Government it was straightforward – even I could understand it – order a sandwich and a coffee and you are helping..

Usually at this time I’m getting ready to circulate the details of my JustGiving page to all my friends to elicit their support for the annual SleepOut that we organise at Southwark Cathedral to help the Robes Project. This is the local cold weather shelter that we have been involved in as a Cathedral community since it began back in 2007. In addition to hosting the SleepOut we also look after one of the evenings when our guests arrive and have good food and good accommodation as well as good company. It’s a fantastic project and we’re always grateful for all the support that so many people give to us, to help with the SleepOut and in so many other ways.

I’m doing the Sleepin RU?

Last year we were all lined up for the evening and then the dreadful terrorist attack on people in Fishmongers’ Hall happened. That resulted in the appalling murder of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones and as the area was put under lockdown it was obvious that the SleepOut couldn’t go ahead. But in the end I ended up with more sponsorship than ever before. People are amazingly generous.

This year we face another set of challenges and the consequences of a very different lockdown. The model that Robes and many other homeless projects work on is that of dormitory accommodation. Obviously that cannot happen this year; the close proximity in which our guests have to sleep just doesn’t fit any of the guidelines. So the project has to rethink, reimagine itself and we have had to do the same with the main fundraising event, the SleepOut. Normally there are around 150 sleeping in the churchyard, a space that isn’t vast. That’s not going to work!

So this year the SleepOut has become a SleepIn. Robes supporters are being encouraged to think creatively about where they could sleep in order to be sponsored. Perhaps the floor, or in the garden, or on a balcony. There are numerous possibilities. At the moment I’m considering whether I take up resuidence in the Dog House in my back garden (not a real dog house just waht we call the summer house in the corner) or sleep on my own in the Cathedral. Either way I’m signed up and ready for it. The tag line is

Sleepin to help those who Sleepout

It’s as simple as that. The SleepIn happens on the evening of Friday 27 November. You can register to take part here. And when you are deciding whether or not you want to do it remember the story that Jesus tells in Matthew 25 and that amazing statement

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

Oh, and by the way, this is the link to my JustGiving page. Please support me, but more importantly, please support the guests of Robes.

Lord Jesus, you had nowhere to lay your head, until others welcomed you. Bless the work of Robes and bless all who will sleepin in to help those who sleepout. Amen.

In memory of Doorkins

Our good friend Celia Pike has produced a beautiful card in memory of Doorkins. We are grateful to her for all the lovely images that she has produced over the years. They have given pleasure to so many people.

(c) Celia Pike

You can find the memorial card along with all the other Doorkins images on the online shop page on the Cathedral website here

Doorkins Magnificat

We had some goldfish, the kind that you won at the fair, brought home in a little plastic bag and which swam round a bowl until they swam no more. We had a white mouse called ‘Snowy’ which didn’t survive very well. We did better with my sister’s Cockatiel called ‘Beauty’ which was with us for a very long time. But because it developed a passionate hatred of my sister’s boyfriend, who was to become her husband, when she left home to get married the bird didn’t go with her. But we were never allowed a cat or a dog. The thought of the mess and disorder they would bring was too much for my mum to contemplate – after all, the mouse was in the shed, the fish in a bowl and the bird in a cage whereas a dog or a cat would be anywhere and everywhere.

I always enjoyed seeing other people’s larger pets, dogs that would jump up you and cats that would dig sharp claws into you but I never committed to actually having one myself. So when Doorkins arrived at the Cathedral back in 2008 this was something of a novel experience for me.

I’ve written in this blog on a number of occasions about Doorkins Magnificat to give her her full name. I’ve told her story to a great many people and I’ve enjoyed doing that. Although she wasn’t a cuddly cat I grew to love her, very quickly grew to love her. She had real character, she treated us with a measure of disdain, I respected her for that. She knew what we could give her and she grew to rely on it. From those first tentative steps into the building she made the church her own. She was never happy going into any other space – the sacristy wasn’t for her – all that gossiping in there probably put her off. She preferred the holy spaces and every so often she would move to another place which became her favourite spot.

At one time it was the Harvard Chapel, secreting herself in a tight little space beneath George Pace’s brutalist sedilia where there was a hot water pipe, then it was one of our stalls, then a seat in the retrochoir, or the north transept, or spread-eagled on one of the grates from which the hot air emerged into the Cathedral. She shrugged off the attention that others tried to give to her; she lashed out when she’d had enough and I couldn’t blame her for that. Celebrity is costly!

She had an uncanny knack of knowing when something significant was happening or someone important was about. If the bishop was there she emerged to eyeball him, taunting him with her presence. A royal visitor might be treated to a little cat rubbing against their leg uncharacteristically seeking a stroke. The solemn moment of the Bidding Paryer at a posh memorial service would be broken into by a little cat wandering onto the tower space, sitting down, washing herself thoroughly, then getting up and walking off as though none of us were there.

It was my predecessor, Colin Slee, who named her and yes, it was a cheeky reference to his nemesis Richard Dawkins, but he spelt the name differently so we could perpetuate a myth that it was just a coincidence. Colin loved Doorkins and she knew it. So when she settled down beneath his coffin the night he lay in the Cathedral before his funeral our hearts were broken. Somehow she knew.

‘Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been? I’ve been to London to visit the Queen. Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you there? I frightened a little mouse under her chair.’

It was Her Majesty of course who visited her. Doorkins was in her favourite place at that time, asleep on a cushion in the Chancellor’s seat in the Consistory Court. The Queen looked, commented and moved on – Doorkins slept on.

Life was ok until 3 June 2017 when the Cathedral was at the epicentre of the terrorist attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market. The vergers had put Doorkins out that night as they did every night as they locked up the Cathedral. She enjoyed her nights out in the market, plenty of scraps, plenty of fun and she could sleep it all off during the day. But what she experienced that night changed everything. She was caught up in the lockdown of the area. We couldn’t get to the Cathedral to rescue her, so she was left to her own devices. We contacted the Met Police and they looked out for her and fed her. But when we got back, opened the door, she ran in and wouldn’t go out again. She had experienced the terror of that evening with everyone else in the Borough Market. After experiencing the kindness of humans she saw the evil that they can do. So she came back to the safety of the Cathedral and like Hannah before stayed in the holy place.

A book was written about her, lovely cards were produced, mouse mats sold, she was a celebrity.

But she was getting older and we knew that. Last year, one Saturday, during a Diocesan spirituality day, she fell down the steps of the tower space in front of everyone. She needed a safer, softer environment and so she had to retire. One of the vergers offered her the comfort of his apartment as her retirement home and she has been there ever since.

Just a few days ago she suffered a stroke. We knew that the end was in sight and it came more rapidly than we had thought. So, on the evening of 30 September at 8.20pm she died in the arms of the verger who had made his home her home.

When we think about who we are as a cathedral we think about Doorkins, just arriving, gradually finding confidence to come in, and then stay, becoming part of the community. She found a place where she could be fed and loved. She found a safe place where people accepted her and let her be who she was. And she made the place softer and gentler and more accessible for the thousands who arrived just to see if they could see her and get a picture they could take away with them.

Thank you, Doorkins and thank you, God, for giving us such companions out of you good creation. Amen.

Pictures (c) Bridget Davey Doorkins memorabilia is available from the Cathedral Online Shop here

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