Praying through Brexit

Someone said to me last week, ‘You’re good at writing prayers.  Could you write one about Brexit that all the cathedrals could use?’  I love a challenge and so I sat down and wrote a prayer – this one.

God of reconciling hope,
as you guided your people in the past
guide us through the turmoil of the present time
and bring us to that place of flourishing
where our unity can be restored,
the common good served
and all shall be made well.
In the name of Jesus we pray.


Then on Friday I gave an interview and said the prayer on Premier Radio.  The lovely interviewer commented that it was a short prayer and I said that I thought God preferred short prayers (Matthew 6.7). But he also asked what it was that we should be praying for in the situation that we now find ourselves.


As someone who voted Remain and has been a bit of a ‘remoaner’ since the result of the referendum was announced, I find myself in a very difficult position.  And I suspect many of us feel very conflicted.  Deal, no deal, second referendum?  To be honest my main concern is not so much the backstop, though I am concerned about Ireland, not so much the trade deals, though they will be vital, not so much the queues at Dover, though that might be horrendous.  My concern is how we come back together as a nation after what will be increasingly divisive, whatever the decision is this week in Parliament.

So that is what my prayer is about.  Yes, we should pray for our politicians, yes we should pray for the Government, yes we should pray for wisdom.  But the vocation of the Church of England in this situation has to be about that ministry of reconciliation to which the whole church is called.  How are we going to do that?  How can we draw people back together again and to trust one another? The scars that this whole process will leave will run deep and as the real consequences of what we have done begin to be felt by the poorest in our society, by those who have fewer choices to make, those who are already marginalised, then the church will need to step up with those others of good will who are our partners in helping individuals and communities to thrive.

The Church of England used the language of ‘mutual flourishing’ when we were working through the process to enable women to be ordained to the episcopate.  We have to get that language off the shelf and dust it off.  Because that is what we must be about as a nation and that is what the church has to work and pray for.  In or out we have to seek that mutual flourishing and that will involve give and take, compromises, looking out for the other, deferring to one another, respecting one another and I fear that these Brexit years have seen us forgetting how to do that.

If we can give ourselves to praying for those two things – reconciliation and flourishing – then we will be doing something positive in this dreadful situation in which we find ourselves.

God of reconciling hope,
as you guided your people in the past
guide us through the turmoil of the present time
and bring us to that place of flourishing
where our unity can be restored,
the common good served
and all shall be made well.
In the name of Jesus we pray.


In celebration of Doorkins

You can accuse me of many things.  But you can’t accuse me of having a blog with only one tone or register!  We like to vary things at Southwark, and so do I.  Lots of people come to the cathedral to share in worship, particularly at this time of the year; lots of people come to experience the beauty of the building; and lots of people come to find Doorkins the cat.  One such regular visitor is Norma Reid.  She is a member of the congregation of St Andrew’s URC Church in Walton-on-Thames.  It is through that congregation that we have a link with ArtPeace in Harare and sell so much of their work in our Cathedral Shop.


Well, it seems that Norma has written a poem about Doorkins.  So here it is and thanks to Norma.  By the way, there is a lovely calendar of Doorkins available from the shop with some really beautiful photos of her.  It will cheer up 2019 whatever it holds.  If you want a copy – they are £8.99 – you can email Jon, our Shop Manager, by clicking here.


There’s a hush in the cathedral,  Evensong will soon begin,
There’s a welcome from the wardens as they usher people in.
They have come to look for comfort, inspiration, strength and love
And they sit in contemplation with the vaulted stone above.

It was seven in the morning, ten long years have ceased to be
Since the Verger went to open up – he’d had his cup of tea.
A smile suffused his face – a little cat was waiting there.
The cathedral sought a mouser – it was answer to a prayer.

I’m Doorkins, I’m Magnificat, a name that suits me well,
An Abyssinian foundling, I have a tale to tell.
My life changed in a heartbeat, now it seems so long ago,
It was coming up for Christmas with the smallest hint of snow.

There’s a whisper of a shadow and a soulful, furry face
As the gentle strains of music fill that venerable space.
Then a tabby shadow stops awhile and lends a furry ear,
And the beauty of the music can provoke a furry tear.

My life was void of purpose, I cannot tell a lie,
A veteran of London’s streets, a teardrop in my eye.
I sought in vain a haven, peace and shelter from the storm,
A kindly hand to stroke me and a place to keep me warm.

A thousand years of  history surround this hallowed place.
It’s visitors are guaranteed left spellbound by its grace.
They listen to the guide intent, while  hoping yet to spy
A  little cat called Doorkins,from the corner of their eye.

I keep my counsel as cats do, my four paws on the ground,
The rodent population quakes when Doorkins is around.
A part-time pigeon-fancier, I make them shake a feather,
Though I much prefer to play with them in summer’s clement weather.

When it’s summer in the garden Doorkins stretches on the grass,
To delight the office workers who will stroke her as they pass.
Though, as  cats can do, she’ll scratch you if you catch her unawares.
If it’s early in the morning you might find her saying her prayers.

I’m a photogenic feline that the people love to meet,
I bask in their attention (and my litter tray’s discreet).
When I am stressed and need to chill the crypt is where I choose,
And there’s nothing like a cushion when I want to have a snooze.

There’s a buzz in the cathedral, there’s excitement in the air,
Bristol fashion, smart and shipshape, lowliest pew to Bishop’s chair,
Burnished brass and sparkling silver, stained glass windows whistle-clean.
Everything tuned to perfection for Her Majesty The Queen.

I won’t admit to favourites save the Dean, the Verger too.
When Her Majesty The Queen I met I didn’t have to queue.
We had a brief encounter of the memorable kind.
I think my calming presence helped Her Majesty unwind.

I love this great cathedral, it is my forever home.
As if to prove it, I have been immortalised in stone.
I’m Doorkins, I’m Magnificat, a cut above the rest.
The Cathedral Cat of Southwark,
Put it simply,
I’m The Best.

© Norma Fraser Reid


In the book of Proverbs it says this

Where there is no vision, the people perish. (Proverbs 29.18)


The Elephant – a vision of …. ?

Perhaps when you think of the Elephant & Castle vision isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.  You may think about the ugly pink shopping centre that we hope will soon be replaced by something much better for the whole community.  You may think of the traffic which never seems to be eased whatever the planners do. You may think of the Tube station, the interchange between the Northern and Bakerloo lines.  You may think of the old story that the place is named after the visit to the Infanta de Castille who supposedly lodged on the south bank of the Thames, in Southwark, next to what is the Deanery I have the fortune to live in.  It seems south Londoners in the sixteenth century didn’t understand ‘infanta’ or ‘castille’ and thought it was Elephant & Castle that they were talking about! Sounds like rubbish to me.

But last week I was involved in something at the Elephant or more accurately in Walworth that is about vision.  Visitors to the area will have watched the huge 1960’s housing blocks that boarded the New Kent Road being emptied and demolished to make way for new housing.  The whole project is not without its critics.  Those blocks had lots of problems but they did provide a huge quantity of affordable social housing.  Whatever the actual figures are that provision is reduced.  But in its place is being built ‘Elephant Park’ a district of new homes and some public amenity space.

Walworth 1

The Dedication Ceremony

I went along to dedicate a new piece of public art, a ‘war memorial’ for Southwark which has been placed in the public square created by the side of the old Walworth Town Hall.

Often the statues and monuments we see nowadays are not so impressive.  But when the wraps came off this monument what was revealed was stunning.  The work by the Scottish artist Kenny Hunter is the cast of a fallen tree trunk, representing the lives lost by war and in conflict of all kinds, complete with the figure of a youth standing on the trunk and looking hopefully to the future.

Kenny Hunter said of his work that it is ‘structured around two coexisting dualities. The first sets in opposition the trauma of war to the idealism of childhood innocence expressed through the fallen tree and the figure of the youth. The second is between this horizontal bronze tree and the living trees that surround it. One is memorialised, while the others continue to grow and change.’

The work is called ‘I’ll hold my human barrier’, a line from a poem by the Second World War poet, Hamish Henderson.

But it’s the figure of the young man that is so affecting.  For a start off he is a youth, he is dressed like youths in the area, he is black, he stands proud, he is nothing like the people we normally see on our memorials, he is everything that so many of our young people in the area are.  Yet he has a vulnerability which also is a feature of the lives of our young people in the inner city.  This memorial is to all whose vulnerability has led to them losing their life – in active service but also in violence, or acts of terror, or acts of hatred.

Walworth 2

‘Your young ones will see visons’

A passage from the prophecy of Joel was read

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old ones shall dream dreams,
and your young ones shall see visions.
(Joel 2.28)

and then the memorial was dedicated. This is the prayer I wrote and used.  It’s a prayer for vision because without it even more will perish, in Walworth, in south London and beyond.  So pause at the Elephant and catch the vision.

give us the vision that sees beyond destruction
the hope that sees us through despair
the healing that sees us through pain.
As we remember all those who have suffered
in war, in conflict, through terror or hatred
we dedicate this memorial to their memory.
May it stand here as a symbol
of our vision
of our hope
and of that healing which comes through you
and in whose name we ask for blessing
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In memory of David Edwards

Today we hosted the memorial service for the late David Edwards.  The Very Revd Dr David Edwards OBE was Provost of Southwark from 1981-1994.  He was a prolific writer and contributor to the Church Times.  Under his care of SCM press they had published John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’.  We heard some wonderful tributes to David as scholar and teacher, priest and pastor and friend from Paul Handley, the current Editor of the Church Times, Bishop Peter Price, formerly of Bath and Wells who had been a Canon of Southwark with David and Baroness Perry of Southwark a former Cathedral Warden and a dear friend.  It was my privilege to preach and this is the text. The reading was Ephesians 1.15-23


As all of you will probably know, one of the many joys of Southwark Cathedral is that it’s the final resting place of an iconic Anglican, one of the greatest and most influential scholars of that time when the true nature of the Church of England, of Anglicanism was being formed.  Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop Andrewes, lies here alongside the High Altar in his rather splendidly decorated tomb – or at least we hope that he lies there because he’s been moved around the building on a number of occasions.  Each year, as we celebrate his feast day we stand as close as we can to where he was first buried and read a passage about him from something written by his pupil and friend Henry Isaacson.

Never any man took such pains, or at least spent so much time in study, as this reverend prelate; from the hour he arose, his private devotions finished, to the time he was called to dinner, which, by his own order, was not till twelve at noon at the soonest, he kept close at his book, and would not be interrupted by any that came to speak with him, or upon any occasion, public prayer excepted. Insomuch that he would be so displeased with scholars that attempted to speak with him in a morning, that he would say ‘he doubted they were no true scholars that came to speak with him before noon’.

I can never hear that reading without thinking of David, a successor of Andrewes in this place and, like him, and as we’ve been celebrating this afternoon, a scholar and teacher, a priest and a pastor, a friend and a father.  As we’ve been reminded David was a prolific writer and a scholar of his age. He was a man at his studies, encouraging always the church, and by that I mean the whole church, to engage in theology, the true knowledge of God, to look at history, the story of God and his people in the world and to do both in a way that was relevant to the age.

At the end of the preface which David contributed to the 50th anniversary edition of John Robinson’s book ‘Honest to God’ he poses, after describing the publishing and theological phenomenon that caught him and SCM by surprise, a very straightforward question

‘So what will you make of it now?’

The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians in the passage that we’ve heard read, speaks of our growing in knowledge of God, and that as a fundamental part of the Christian life.  The writer uses a beautiful phrase to describe part of this process when they say

‘with the eyes of your heart enlightened’

A deeper understanding of the things of God, a theology that speaks to the heart and sheds light that dispels the darkness of ignorance, the darkness of not knowing.  It’s that task in which the theologian plays their part, that task that the opener of the scriptures, the explainer of history, the discoverer of science, the person of reason, the philosopher of an age always seeks to do, so that enlightenment happens, so that we see and understand more in the very depth of our being, so that ‘deep calls to deep’ as the psalmist describes it, in the life of the believer.

I worry about where we place theology in the life of the church today.  Is there room for a bishop like Andrewes, at his devotions and at his study for a good part of each day; is there room for a dean like David, who similarly followed a pattern of prayer and study, doing the heavy lifting of theology on behalf of the church, be that through the medium of the pulpit or of print, in church or in the Church Times?

Nowadays deans are sent off to Cambridge not to be deepened in theological skills but in leadership, in which we’re encouraged to look across the river from here not for inspiration from the many steeples and towers that extend our vision heavenwards but to the glass and steel towers and corporate headquarters that are crowding them out.  It’s leadership and governance and management and financial reporting and targets that are the skill set of the church today, it’s evaluation and peer review that set the standards for what we do.  There’s little space or time for theology and especially not academic theology not the kind of stuff that David gave his life to, certainly not on the bench of bishops and increasingly not amongst the deans.

So we need to ask that question that David asked of the legacy of John Robinson, what do we make of it now? What do we make of a church that seemingly turns its back on theology?

Fashions come and fashions go and that affects the church as much as anything else.  Things will, I’m sure, come full circle but in the meantime that deeper enlightenment is not what we would want it to be.  And that of course affects who we are in this place as much anyone else.

David was one of those who helped create what came to be known as ‘South Bank Religion’.  With Mervyn Stockwood and John Robinson and others there was an engagement with radical thinking that set people talking, the man on the Clapham Omnibus as much as anyone else, and created a movement that made talking of God relevant to the age.  This Cathedral stood at the heart of that movement and is still, in the imagination of some, part of it.  But as we who are here today day in, day out, know that radical theological edge is more fantasy than reality and, to be honest, we’re the poorer for it.

But of that radical theology, David, in his preface says this

‘radical’ does not necessarily mean ‘revolutionary’; it may mean going back to one’s roots to see whether they are still healthy, without any prior assumption about the right answer.

If this service, this act of thanksgiving does anything beyond giving us the opportunity to pay tribute to the life of a great man, I hope that it can serve to draw us back to those roots, to that healthy rootedness and draw us back to the Jesus who we seek to know, the fruit of the root and stock of Jesse as we will be constantly reminding ourselves in the Advent and Christmas seasons that lie just around the corner.  We should be praying that the spirit of ‘wisdom and revelation’ of which Ephesians speaks, rests upon the whole church, not just here in Southwark but in every place in which we seek to make Christ known.

That was why Andrewes was at his studies in Winchester House on Clink Street, that was why David was at his studies in Provost’s Lodging on Bankside, doing the theological task of wisdom and revelation for the enlightenment of the whole people of God, those who’ve heard the gospel and those who’ve yet to hear it.  But whilst ever theology is subservient to leadership in the church … well, all we can do is trust in the God who out of sheer grace and goodness has seen the church through to this day and will see it through for many days yet to come.  But David’s question will always echo around the church and we must take it seriously

‘So what will you make of it now?’

Loving God, we thank you for the wisdom and the insight that David brought to the church, for his courage in publishing and in preaching, his dedication to study, his ability to stretch minds and challenge complacencies.  We thank you for his books, for his sermons, for his lectures and for all the ways in which he broadened, deepened and challenged our understanding and love of you. Amen.

Stirring it up!

I simply can’t believe that we’ve reached the final Sunday of the Christian year – but we have. It’s the Feast of Christ the King and one of the two Patronal Festivals of Southwark Cathedral, a day on which we celebrate the St Saviour, Jesus, element of our posh ‘Sunday’ name – The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie.  But this feast that brings the year to its conclusion is a pretty modern creation. The feast was first introduced into the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church in 1925, but then it was at the end of October, just before All Saints Day.  In 1969 it was moved to its present place in the church year and given the proper title “Domini Nostri Jesu Christi universorum Regis” (Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe).  It took a few years for the rest of the western church to catch on but for most of us we now share in this final celebration of the year.

But, of course, for Anglicans this can never replace, in our inherited memory, the real name of this Sunday – ‘Stir-Up Sunday’.  That title comes from the Prayer Book Collect for the day.

STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Stir-Up Sunday

And that is why this is the traditional day for getting the Christmas Cake, and perhaps the Christmas Pudding, made.  They need plenty of heavy stirring if all the ingredients are going to be properly incorporated.  I know there are people out there who like to make their pudding a year in advance and pride themselves on it.  But I’m just not organised enough for that.  To be honest I most often resort to ‘shop-bought’  as my mother would have described it (though she also always bought a Mrs Peek pudding when none of us wanted to eat it and she had to eat the whole thing herself).  But if you like to cook your own and don’t have any time here is a recipe I found that takes no time at all.

A Cheat’s Christmas Pudding

You need:

    • 1½ x 411g jars luxury mincemeat
    • Grated zest of 1 large orange
    • 2 tbsp brandy
    • 50g self-raising flour
    • 1 tsp mixed spice
    • 50g fresh white breadcrumbs
    • 1 egg, beaten.

To prepare:

Empty the mincemeat into a large bowl and stir in the grated orange zest and brandy. Then stir in the self-raising flour and the spice together and stir into the mincemeat mixture with the breadcrumbs. Stir in the beaten egg. Spoon into a greased 900ml pudding basin.

To cook:

Cover loosely with greaseproof paper and microwave on high for 8-10 minutes.



Enough of that – but you will notice there is a lot of stirring still.  Like making bread I find that you can get rid of a great deal of frustration and aggression doing something like that – and if you happen to be feeling frustrated at the moment (I can’t imagine why) then making a pudding or a cake may be just what the doctor ordered!

Christians have a reputation though for doing a bit of stirring.  When Paul has arrived in Caesarea Maritima he appears before Felix the Governor.  The accusation against him was put by Tertullus who said

‘We have, in fact, found this man a pestilent fellow, an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world.’ (Acts 24.5)

Paul was a stirrer, an agitator, he was out there mixing it up and people who rely on stability for their power don’t like it.  Being accused of being an agitator, a stirrer, is a serious business and it still is.  You only have to look at the public reaction to the actions of environmental campaigners last week at some of the notorious junctions in London to see the truth of this.  Yet it is part of our DNA, part of our mission and that was why Christians were accused of ‘turning the world upside down’ (Acts 17.6), agitators, stirrers.

So when you use that wooden spoon to properly incorporate all those ingredients look on it as a symbol of our calling and may this Sunday be the celebration of the King and the Kingdom which is always turning the world upside down – and don’t forget that the church too needs a bit of a stirring as well!

God, stir us
out of complacency
and into

Toll free

The must see exhibition at the moment in London is ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’ on at the British Library, next to St Pancras Station, until 19 February 2019. It is simply stunning.  When I visited it a few days ago – and I have to warn you it is packed with people – I didn’t know quite what to expect.  I’d heard that the Codex Amiatinus, a giant Northumbrian Bible taken to Italy in 716, was on display returning to England for the first time since it was written. I knew that there were other treasures, great manuscripts, on display – Bede, Beowulf, the Dream of the Rood, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Augustine’s Gospels and to top it all off, the Doomsday Book .  I knew that it wasn’t just texts that had been selected but objects as well, like the Alfred Jewel.  But I didn’t know what an effect all of these together would have, or how the past would suddenly hit me between the eyes with a powerful force.


On Friday evening Professor Jo Story, one of the academic advisers, who helped piece together the exhibition, was in Southwark Cathedral talking to a nave full of people about it.  What came across to me in her talk and in what I had seen just how pivotal Christianity was in the creation of England and the creation of English.  Jo pointed out what in many ways is obvious, but I hadn’t appreciated in quite this way, that Christianity being a religion of the book, of the script, of scripture, relies on reading and writing.  When these skills are being promoted in a country that gives huge power and possibilities to rulers who can use that literacy for secular as much as sacred purposes and that was certainly what happened in the kingdoms that would finally become England.

Two figures emerge from the exhibition for me, Alfred and Cnut.  Both of these men are in a way reduced in our history by the stories we tell of them that make them seem a bit, well, idiotic.  Alfred, we are taught, burnt the cakes – an early failure in ‘The Great British Bakeoff’! Cnut sat on the beach commanding the tide to turn back and got his feet wet. But the truth of each of these stories is of much more impressive figures – Alfred distracted by his passion for good governance, for education and learning forgot the cakes he had been put in charge of; Cnut playing out a farce designed to challenge the false expectations of his courtiers that some how he was as powerful as God.

The texts on display from the time of King Alfred show a nation in which the English language was gaining a respectability equal to that of Latin, to the extent that Psalters and Bibles (or at least parts of them) were being translated into it.  It was no longer just the language of the field it could be the language in which you spoke of God.

But it is Cnut who spoke to me most powerfully.


Cnut the Great

Last week was one of the most appalling, politically speaking, that many of us have seen.  The chaos that surrounds the government and parliament is a shameful disgrace.  It is not just ‘the deal’ that is dead in the water it should be Brexit too.  Apart from a few individuals hell bent on exiting us from Europe I refuse to believe that this is what the British people voted for.  But into our agonies Cnut speaks from the past.

What is so powerful in this exhibition is the clear message that England was part of Europe, that linguistic and cultural diversity was the world of the Anglo-Saxons out of which England, as we know it, was born.  We were not some island separated from the rest, we were part of a greater whole, and people went to and fro and goods went to and fro and we were the richer for it.  Nothing speaks more powerfully than a quote from a letter that King Cnut wrote to his kingdom comprised of England and Denmark.  The king had gone on pilgrimage to Rome and whilst there there was a summit and he did a bit of negotiating.  He wanted open borders and a free trade deal for his pilgrims and merchants – and he got it! So he wrote back to share the good news and his letter says this

‘I spoke with the Emperor himself and the Lord Pope and the princes there about the needs of all people of my entire realm, both English and Danes, that a juster law and securer peace might be granted to them on the road to Rome and that they should not be straitened by so many barriers along the road, and harassed by unjust tolls; and the Emperor agreed and likewise King Robert who governs most of these same toll gates. And all the magnates confirmed by edict that my people, both merchants, and the others who travel to make their devotions, might go to Rome and return without being afflicted by barriers and toll collectors, in firm peace and secure in a just law.’  (Cnut’s letter of 1027)

Bring back the Anglo-Saxons is all I can say!

The prophet Isaiah has the vision of an open highway, a route for all to travel.

A highway shall be there,
   and it shall be called the Holy Way;
… it shall be for God’s people;
   no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray. 
No lion shall be there,
   nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
   but the redeemed shall walk there. 
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
   and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
   they shall obtain joy and gladness,
   and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35.8-10)

A toll free highway, a Holy Way, a gift from God to his people, even for the fools. The past has a lot to teach us and we forget that at our peril.

Lord, help us to see beyond the present
with the wisdom of the past
and a passion for the future.

The courage of our convictions

It seems a very long time ago since the commemoration of the First World War began.  Amazingly, when the display of poppies was installed around the Tower of London the referendum on Scottish independence had yet to happen and we hadn’t really heard the word ‘Brexit’ or understood what ‘backstop’ means (I’m not sure I know now to be honest) as we had yet to go through the agony of that referendum.  These four years see us in a very different place from when we first saw Her Majesty walk through those poppies and we wondered if we would get remembrance fatigue, if we could maintain such a long period of remembering.

But arriving this weekend at the anniversary of the centenary of the Armistice, the end of the war, it is simply amazing to see what enthusiasm still remains for remembering what happened. No one is now around to tell us their own story, we are doing it on behalf of a generation which has passed away.  It is a staggering piece of community, national, calling to mind.


The wave of poppies in the new Remembrance Gallery at City Hall

Some people have been knitting poppies, poppies are cascading from buildings, surrounding churches, adorning streets. They are projected, they appear in lights at the top of a tower block in the City of London, cover the inside of cathedrals.  They are made out of paper, ceramic, glass.  Poppies, poppies, poppies.  But its not all poppies.  There are the eerie figures of those who died in the war, in our churches, in public buildings – the there and yet not there, still missed.  There’s music, soundscapes, the names of those who died being read out.  People have been queuing once more at the Tower of London to see the moat no longer filled with poppies but with torches, burning in the darkness, bright sparks of hope. All this wonderful flow of creativity is helping us in this collective act of remembering.

John McCrae’s famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ ends like this

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poppy has become the enduring image and the millions that are being worn and which decorate our nation are testimony that we have kept faith with those who died – and with those who continue to die through the tragedy and the scandal of war.

But what other symbols might speak to us and what might they help us to articulate about this commemoration? That was the challenge presented at Southwark Cathedral as 300 children filled the nave on Friday.  They were there to remember the war but also to think about that work of making, building peace.  This was one of the many INSPIRE events being held with Oasis across the country.  Those who came to Southwark Cathedral were each given an envelope containing three ‘tokens’ and during the service the children took each out in turn.

The first was a coin. In fact it was a penny but it represented the ‘King’s Shilling’.  There was a recruiting song in the First World War that played in a cheeky way with this old idea of the shilling given to a new recruit in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

But on Saturday I’m willing if you’ll only take the shilling
To make a man of any one of you.

A boy would take the shilling and become a man by entering the war on behalf of King and country. It was a symbol of courage but it was also a reminder that many of those young lads had no idea what they were getting into. They became a man as they took the shilling but they were still lads as they went over the top, heroes yes but innocent ones.

The second token was a real challenge to all this talk of heroism because it was a white feather.  As we know during the war it became a symbol of cowardice and women were encouraged to hand these out to men who were not in uniform. Conscientious objectors could be locked up and certainly bullied and demonised, seen as unmanly, certainly not playing their part.  Yet these were also people of principle and people of courage – and so what was created as a symbol of derision could also be seen as a symbol of courage.

The final token in the envelope was a Lego brick.  It was there to encourage us to think of ourselves as peace makers, peace builders in our own generation and in our own situations.  Peace doesn’t just come from nowhere, it has to be worked at, worked for, built and defended.  And it takes lots of bricks and lots of courage to do it.

It was so imaginative, drawing out courage, the courage of our convictions, in different ways by different people and allowing the children to think what it means to work for peace – to fight for it, to stand up for it, to build it – and what it means for each of us to have the courage of our convictions.

In the apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus the writer reflects on choice and says this

He has placed before you fire and water;
   stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. (Ecclesiasticus 15.16)

Heart in Fire and Water

Fire and water

Those we remember this weekend made some massive choices, life changing, life ending, between the extremes, like fire and water, of war or peace, of shilling or feather.  I remain humbled by the choices that people, who I can never know, made on my behalf not just in the First World War, but in the Second and in subsequent conflicts.  Choices made though not just in the extreme situation of war but in other places too, courage to do the costly but right thing, and sometimes that was not to fight but to stand for peace. The choice is always ours to make, as is the choice to now work for a lasting peace, to make the present the real commemoration of the Armistice.

God places before us fire and water and we choose as those who have gone before us chose.

God, give us the courage of our convictions
and the wisdom to make the right choice.


Followers of this blog know well that I have recently come back from a pilgrimage to Romania followed almost immediately by two weeks in the Holy Land, principally in Jerusalem.  Re-entry has been hectic so I hope you’ll excuse this blog being the text of the homily I delivered at one of the Choral Requiems celebrated in Southwark Cathedral on All Souls’ Day.  The readings for the service were Lamentations 3. 17–26, 31–33; Romans 5. 5–11; and John 5. 19–25.

A group of us from the Cathedral were recently on pilgrimage in Romania.  The reason for us going there was to visit something that’s very particular in the churches in the north of the country.  A tradition developed there of not just decorating the interiors of the monastic churches but decorating the outsides as well.  Over hanging wooden roofs give some protection to the beautiful frescoes that extend from below the roof to the ground.  There are angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, there are patriarchs and prophets and apostles and martyrs and saints, there are the pagan philosophers who were seen as feeling their way towards God, and there’s us, people climbing the ladder towards heaven, struggling to keep a grip on the rungs as the little devils try to unbalance us and send us tumbling towards the fires of hell.  It’s simply wonderful, beautiful, and an achievement of art and theology that’s staggering.


The ladder

The same continues inside.  Frescoes and icons cover the walls – not an inch is left uncovered – many of them telling the gospel stories, showing the events of the ministry, passion, death and resurrection of the Lord.  But there amongst all these beautiful icons was one very beautiful image.

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Jerusalem, another place full of icons.  In the shop at the Dormition Abbey on Mount Sion I found though a very small hand painted version of the icon I’d first seen in Romania.  It’s too small for you to see but what it shows is the death, the falling asleep, the dormition of the Virgin Mary.  She lies on her bed, the apostles are around her.  But behind her, standing behind her, is Jesus and in his arms is a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.


The Dormition icon

Just as in a statue of Mary with Jesus she holds her child to her, so Jesus cradles this child.  But it’s not a child as we might imagine, it’s in fact the soul of Mary, as a child, as pure and as innocent and in need of cradling as any child may be.  But in a reverse of the nativity image Jesus holds Mary as once Mary held Jesus – but she held the new born baby and he holds the soul of the mother.

It’s a beautiful and tender representation of death.

The reading from the Book of Lamentations feels like a song of despair but there amongst the desolate lines it says this

The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. (Lamentations 3.25)

And as our gospel concluded

‘The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.’ (John 5.25)

This day of the dead, this All Souls’ Day, is a day for remembering and for commending, a day when we name the names of those who’ve died recently and hold before God those who’ve died in years past but who we never forget.  Bereavement is terrible and we’re never ever the same after we’ve lost someone we love.  But remembering remains important, forgetting would be dreadful, we never abandon our dead, we remember them.  And we commend them, again and again, place them into the love and care of Jesus, place their souls into his cradling.


The cradling

Like a child in the arms of the one who loves them, listening to the soft familiar voice of the one they know, this little icon is a reminder to me of a great truth that’s affirmed by the resurrection of Jesus.  The dead are never lost, but are held, cradled, in the arms of another.  Jesus holds us in life and in death, those stretched out arms are always ready to embrace us – we commend our loved ones to his cradling – until he frees each one of us to walk with him in resurrection life.

Lord Jesus,
you hold us in life and in death;
cradle into eternity
the souls of the departed.

Living God in Jerusalem – Abram’s gate

I was very much looking forward to discovering new places on this visit to the Holy Land and I was able to do so when we visited Nablus in the West Bank.  It is always an exciting visit whenever you go.  A church stands over the well, Jacob’s Well, the one well that served the town and so it would have been the place known by Jacob and, most importantly for Christians, the well at which Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman in John 4.

But when we arrived the church was closed and wasn’t going to be open for a short while.  So rather than waste the time the coach took us around the corner (almost literally) to Tell Balata.  This is what remains of  the ancient city of Shechem.  Founded in the 19th century BC, so before the Iron Age, it is a monumental structure, huge walls, a temple mount and the remains of other buildings.  But this was the place that Abram arrived at according to the Book of Genesis.

Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. (Genesis 12.4-7)

I was imagining this patriarch, this nomad, having left the splendours of Ur and then travelling as the Lord had instructed and coming to this place.  We walked through the remains of the massive gatehouse and I wondered if Abram had walked that way. Did they let this stranger through those gates?


The massive gate and wall of Shechem

But the significant thing that Genesis tells us that it was here, somewhere, that Abram built an altar and named God.  This was a pagan city, they weren’t worshiping the God of Israel, that God who was known to Abram and under whose direction the patriarch and his family were travelling.  But here God was worshiped and an offering was made.

It is remarkable what treasures lie just around the corner in this Holy Land, timeless and sacred places.

Loving God,
nameless and named,
formless and formed,
may we know you
and worship you
in Jesus. Amen.

Living God in Jerusalem – ‘Lord, we came’

Today was the day when we got up early and headed down to the Via Dolorosa to walk the Stations of the Cross, the Way of the Cross. It was a good move, we were on our own when we began, the shops along the way were not quite open and as we got to the Coptic monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre there were just the monks sitting there, reading their daily office.  It was lovely and peaceful … until we got into the church itself.  The now restored Edicule (or Aedicule), the tomb of Jesus that stands beneath the great rotunda, was already encircled by pilgrims waiting for their 20 seconds in the tomb at the place where the body was laid, at the place where only the linen wrappings were found on that first Easter Day.


The squint into the Edicule

When I was staying at St George’s College back in 2016 some of the work of restoration was ongoing and I remember the closure of the whole church as the slab above the stone on which Jesus was laid was removed after 500 years and the church leaders and the experts could see what was there.  Then it was all replaced.  The rather ugly, but effective, scaffolding that the British had put up around the tomb to stabilize it during the Mandate period, had been removed and the stones all cleaned.  Now it looks amazing.

In truth it doesn’t matter how long you wait in line in this church.  This is the most important holy site in the whole of Christendom.  But as you stand there, especially on the first occasion, especially if you have had no one to explain it all to you, you wonder – so where is Calvary, where did the ‘green hill’ of our hymns go, where is the garden, where is the rock hewn tomb? You can see nothing, at first sight, of any of these things.

Behind the Edicule (the posh name for the tomb) is a Coptic chapel and you can begin your discovery there.  Enter the little chapel and kneel down and get under the altar – reach out and you can touch the rock of the tomb.  First contact.  As you continue round look through the spy hole that exists, a squint such as found in many of our medieval churches and you catch a first glimpse inside. Second contact.  Then enter, first the outer chamber where the body was prepared and the inner chamber where the body was laid, kneel and kiss the stone.  Third contact.

All these people from all around the world.  There was a Roman Catholic sister from near Michigan in front of us, there was a Nigerian group behind us, Filipinos next to them.  It was wonderful.  But on pilgrimage we only ever tread where others have trod.

What is remarkable is that something has been discovered in the lower parts of the church that tells us that Christian pilgrims were coming to this place in the 2nd century AD when on the site where the church now stands stood a huge temple built by Emperor Hadrian, who had rebuilt the city after its destruction in AD 70.  Some Christians came there long before there was a church because they had heard that this now pagan site was where Jesus was buried.  Indeed, when St Helena, the mother of Constantine arrived in 326 and asked the Bishop of Jerusalem, Bishop Macarius, where Jesus was buried he took her to the site of the Roman temple.  The community knew it was there and pilgrims had already come there.


Lord, we came

One group left their mark, on a stone that was just reused in Constantine’s amazing church, an image of a 1st or 2nd century boat and the simple message in Latin, “Domine, Ivimus” which may be translated as, “Lord, we came.” It’s a powerful message, simple and true for every pilgrim since “Lord, we came.” You don’t need to say more than that.

Lord, we came.

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

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

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark