A very personal journey

Readers of this blog over the years will have picked up various snippets about my backstory.  I have given quite a lot away over time because that, I suppose, is how I do my theological reflection, thinking about where I have been and how the things of God have affected me, sometimes perfected me – and maybe, just maybe, it rings a bell for some of those who read what I write.

This weekend we have held at Southwark Cathedral a study morning with Canon Paula Gooder and Professor Esther Mombo of Kenya, a Canon Theologian of Southwark Cathedral and a service to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women as priests.  It coincides with the exhibition that opened last week in the OXO Tower gallery called ‘Here am I’.  The photographer Jim Grover followed twelve priests in the diocese who are women, photographing them as they went about their ministries in very different and varying situations.  The result is a wonderful exhibition and telling of the story of some remarkable lives. The photos in this blog are some of the ones in the exhibition, some of my amazing sisters.

From: 'Here Am I'. A photo-story celebrating the 25th anniversar

Canon Joyce Forbes (picture Jim Grover)

But these women are only the tip of the iceberg, for each of those twelve there are so many other women, as well, of course, as men, doing amazing things in response to the call of God to them.  The title of the exhibition is, of course drawn, from the response of Isaiah to the call of God. Isaiah cannot believe what he is hearing God say but finally he responds

‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ (Isaiah 6.8)

It took him a long time – Isaiah knew what he was like, someone lost, a man with ‘unclean lips’.  But the Lord convinces him – amazingly it is him that he wants, him that he needs, him that he calls.  It reminds us of the wonderful story of the calling of the boy Samuel which is picked up in the popular worship song ‘I the Lord of Sea and Sky’ by Dan Schutte with its chorus

Here I am, Lord. Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

I was born in Leicester in 1957.  As children our mum took us to the church she worshiped in and in which she had been baptised, confirmed and married – All Saints, Wigston Magna.  It was a lovely medieval building which members of the Oxford Movement had got hold of.  It was old fashioned for my tastes now, but that was then and there were few options around in terms of liturgy and it might not have been as old fashioned as I now remember it.  We went to the National at Walsingham each year, went off to visit women from the congregation who had joined religious communities.  There were vocations, men to ordination, women to the religious life.  But that was how things were.

It was there that I realised my own call to priesthood.  I had quickly escaped Sunday School and joined the choir.  There, siting the other side of the Rood Screen, I could enjoy every moment of the liturgy, the candles, the smoke, the bells, the vestments.  The Diocese of Leicester was good to be part of.  There was a Diocesan Youth Group that I was part of and a Diocesan Vocations Group.  Bishop Ronald Williams was the first bishop of Leicester I really knew, our bishop from 1953-1979 and so through the period of my exploration of vocation he was the one I related to.  He was followed by the ‘knitting bishop’, Richard Rutt, who was in post when I finally went off to Mirfield, to the College of the Resurrection, to be formed for priestly ministry.

As I arrived at the College the ASB was published.  Things were changing.  And other things were changing too.  I knew there were deaconesses, of course, but, apart from a few wives there were no women at the College and we were set at the heart of a male religious community. But there was talk of the ordination of women! Women deacons, women priests! I didn’t like that.  What about Rome, what about my upbringing, what about all that in persona Christi stuff we were being taught? So, I was ordained opposed to the ordination of women.  But there were a lot of people like me, some more vociferous, some fearful of change, some, frankly, misogynist, some confused.  But as I was ordained in the Diocese of Ripon for a parish in Leeds there were women being admitted to the order of deaconess alongside me.  We were in what we then called ‘Potty Training’ (post-ordination training) together, learning about ministry together.  There were some great women who were my contemporaries – Elizabeth, Julie, Catherine – to name but three, women who were ready to challenge my thinking, confront my views and they did.

One in particular though began to change my life.  I was sitting in the vicar’s lounge in Holbeck where our Potty Training sessions happened.  The door opened and a diminutive young women with big glasses and bright stationary came in and plonked herself beside me on the sofa.  We became instant friends and little did I know it then that this person was sent to change my attitudes, to expand my thinking, to challenge my view of priesthood.

Changing your views on the ordination of women was not an easy thing to do to be honest.  There was a great deal of peer pressure to remain in the true fold.  The churches that I was ministering to were generally of a particular tradition and their congregations generally opposed.  My friends shared my views and as the temperature in the CofE hotted up the implications for a change of heart became clearer.  You might gain some friends but you might lose some on the way.

Of course, I read the books and the pamphlets that were published, arguments this way and that.  They were good books – but to be honest I am more than a heart than a head man and it wasn’t going to be books and academic arguments that would change my mind.  Instead it would be my friend on the sofa with the big glasses.

She said she felt called to be a deacon and I could see that call in her.  But many people could just about cope with the deaconate.  But she also said she felt called to priesthood and …. I could see that too.  And it was seeing it, recognising it that changed my heart and my head.

So, 25 years ago I came to Southwark Cathedral.  Two friends were being ordained to the priesthood, Julie for the Woolwich Episcopal Area and Alex for the Kingston Episcopal Area.  The diocese had decided that there would be three services on the same day in the Cathedral, one for each Area and all the women would be ordained that day.  So I was invited to two of the three services.  I had seen Southwark Cathedral from the railway line, going in and out of London Bridge station on various occasions.  But I had never been in.  So I arrived to be warmly welcomed and took my place as history was made – and it was joyous.

It was a big day for those women, ordained as priest, the same priesthood as I was living, but it was also a big day for me personally.  Not only had my views completely changed but I had also been asked to ring the office of the then Bishop of Southwark.  Bishop Roy Williamson was looking for a new chaplain and my name had been mentioned to him as a possibility.  I had rung Bishop’s House.  Bishop Roy suggested we meet.  ‘I’m coming down for two of the ordinations’ I said. ‘Let’s meet in between them’ he said.  And so in the old Provost’s Study in what I call the ‘old new buildings’ at the Cathedral I met Bishop Roy for the first time and a few months later I was appointed as Bishop’s Chaplain and made the move from Leeds to London in 1995.  But immediately after the ordinations I caught a flight to New Jersey in the USA to begin a long placement in a parish in a place called Camden.  Those three months there would change the rest of my life, my attitudes, my circle of friendships, my confidence, even my daily life.  It was the most momentous weekend and as I write this I can hardly believe it all happened like that against the background of the church responding to the call of God to ordain women as priests.

Whilst I was still in Leeds I was meeting with a group of like-minded catholic priests.  We held our meetings in the converted porch of the lovely church of St Wilfrid, Halton.  So we called ourselves for want of anything better ‘The Porch People’.  It was great.  So, when I finally moved to Southwark in January 1995 I was introduced to something similar that had been set up here on the Feast of the Holy Cross 1994.  The Society of Catholic Priests (SCP) had been formed by men from the catholic tradition who believed in the ordination of all people regardless of gender, ability, sexuality, ethnicity to each of the three orders of ministry.  I was among friends.  The eight years I was to serve as Rector General of the Society seeing the expansion of SCP into North America and Australia was a real privilege.  From that platform I was able to play a small part in seeing women ordained as bishops.  It was only a small part but nevertheless it was joyous to be involved.

I had stood for election to the General Synod in 2005 and was elected.  I am still on the Synod, in my third quinquennium, but now as one of the five deans.  It was being on the Synod, however, that enabled me to stand for election to the Crown Nominations Commission – the body that nominates diocesan bishops to the crown.  I was elected twice and the greatest privilege was to be a member of the Commission that nominated the first bishop who was a women to a diocese, Rachel Treweek to Gloucester.

Being a member of the Chapter at Southwark Cathedral since 1999 and Dean since 2012 has meant that I have now worked with a huge number of talented and extra-ordinary ordained women and I am a better priest and a better person for it.  But it was Julie, big glasses, colourful stationery that set me on the path.  It is she, along with all my other ordained sisters, who I give thanks for this weekend.


Mother Mae Christie (photo Jim Grover)

I don’t know how I used to read the Easter Day gospel when I believed differently about women, how I understood quite what Jesus was doing in the dew soaked garden as the sun rose and he called Mary Magdalene by name and said to her

‘Go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ (John 20.17)

But now I know that Mary was the Apostle to the Apostles.  So for every person in ministry I give thanks, but for the women I give particular thanks.  It has been a long journey and a very personal one for me, but I’m glad that it was this road that I travelled and I am glad that I travelled it with sisters.

Lord Jesus,
as you called Mary by name
and sent her to make your resurrection known
may we hear your voice today
and go where you send us

whoever we are.


A safe place

There have been a number of famous citizens of Leicester over the centuries – Simon de Montfort, who helped create our parliamentary system; Daniel Lambert, the fattest man in Britain (those as old as me may remember Joan Noakes and Peter Purvis both getting into a single pair of his trousers on ‘Blue Peter’); Joe Orton, the playwright; Sue Townsend, the creator of  ‘Adrian Mole’; Gary Lineker, footballer, broadcaster and crisp fanatic; me, of course – but the person I have been thinking about was Joseph (John) Merrick who was immortalised in the film ‘The Elephant Man’.  Merrick was born in Leicester but as those who have seen the film will know became part of a freak show.


Joseph Merrick – a man not a freak

The film was incredibly moving.  Merrick was presented as a gentle, sophisticated man who others were simply treating as an animal, an object of fun, someone to be ridiculed or abused.  The final scenes were heart-rending.

I have never watched ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’, or at least never watched a whole programme.  The bits I have seen have wanted to make me pick up the remote very quickly.  But that show, as so many have commented last week, after the tragic death of one of the participants, is not the only example of this kind of cruel reality TV.  But it did play into some hideous trends in society, not least a desire for Warhol’s ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ and also the desperate situations of the poorest and most disadvantaged in our society.  People, it seems, will do anything when they need money, or when they desire fame – or when they imagine that one might lead to the other.

When all the talk was going on about the show being axed by ITV I was also thinking about this whole business of creating not a public space but a safe place for people to make their confessions, a safe place to unburden themselves.  Why would you confess your sins, in public, on TV?  I simply do not get it.  But I’m delighted that there is a place in church where we can, and do, open up in a much safer place.

The Church of England has been thinking for the last few years about the place of sacramental Confession in our lives, what is properly called the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  I have been delighted to have been helping with that thinking not least around what is called the ‘Seal of the Confessional’ and how this works with the needs to create a safe church, how this works with the very real demands of safeguarding that have to be at the forefront of our minds, collectively and individually.

Many people do not realise that in fact if you are a member of the Church of England you can make your confession, one-to-one with a priest.  The common misconception is that this is something reserved for Roman Catholics, that we ‘got rid of’ at the Reformation.  But that is simply not the case.  The ‘Seal’ is there as part of our Canon Law and the practice of making a confession included, though not prominently, in the Book of Common Prayer.

But as Anglicans we have always used the old adage about it ‘All can, none must, some should’. Making a confession might not be what every one wants to do, for one reason or another.  But for some it is just the thing that can help them be reconciled with God and their neighbour and themselves.  The church offers this safe place, not a safe place in which a priest can collude with a perpetrator, not a safe place in which wrongs that need to be dealt with elsewhere can be hidden, but a safe place in which each of us can know that we are loved, in which each of us can hear that we are forgiven, in which each of us can know that burdens can be laid down and that there is freedom and new life in Christ.

We don’t need to go on TV, undergo a lie detector, be ridiculed for who we are or what we have done, we don’t need to play this out in public.  There is a better way and a safer way. For the church, of course, we have to think about how best to make this sacrament available and how best to make the church a safe place for all to be.  Through thorough training – I will be co-leading on more of this in the Diocese of Southwark this week alongside the Diocesan Safeguarding Advisor – through systems of advice and care for confessors as well as penitents, I believe that we can make the best use of what Jesus gives to the church, as pure gift.

It was on the evening of Easter Day, and Jesus was with the disciples. They had chosen a safe place to be and Jesus enters that safe place with the promise of new life, new starts for all who truly repent of their sins.

[Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ (John 20.22-23)

It is a huge responsibility, a huge gift that has been entrusted to us.  Using it safely, using it well, that is the challenge we face.

Father, forgive us.

Take, eat

I know I’ve put on a bit of weight in the last few years.  Thanks for not mentioning it! But believe it, or not, I only eat three times a day – well, perhaps a bag of crisps in the evening – and not huge amounts – normally! But I wouldn’t dream of eating the same meal three times a day and I can’t imagine that many people would.  Breakfast is some granola or muesli, sometimes with yogurt and a little honey.  Lunch is invariably a sandwich and an espresso.  And dinner?  Well, that could be a lovely dinner in a Livery Hall or something picked up from the supermarket on the way home.  That’s it basically.

Broken bread

I was thinking about this last week because I was at the Eucharist three times in one day.  Now, on a Sunday that is not so strange.  There have been some Sundays throughout my ministry where I have been at more than one Eucharist and when I was in a parish in Leeds I was always at four and often presiding at all of them.  But a Wednesday in May? That did feel different.

Apart from breakfast which I always have on my own, standing in the kitchen, munching the muesli as quickly as I can in order to get into the Cathedral in good time to do emails before Morning Prayer, I’m normally eating with other people.  That is part of the experience of eating for me.  When I do have to eat alone it feels like a very different experience.  I was always impressed by one of my grandmas who was widowed in her fifties.  She never skimped on her meals.  I remember the woman across the road talking to my grandma about meals after her husband had died.  ‘You make custard!’ she said in disbelief.  ‘Yes’ my grandma insisted.  And she did, and gravy! I hope that if and when it comes to it and I am eating alone then I can adopt the ‘Custard Principle’ of life.

But the Eucharist is a meal that we never have on our own.  We rightly call it ‘communion’ because we are always sharing it with other people.  Paul was having to address an abuse in this pattern of Christian living when he wrote his First Letter to the Christians in Corinth.

‘When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.’ (1 Corinthians 11.20-21)

The whole principle of communion was under threat.  And we are reminded of the Corinthian crisis at every Eucharist when we use St Paul’s words as the bread is broken in order that it can be shared.  The text in Common Worship is drawn from 1 Corinthians 10.17.

We break this bread to share in the body of Christ.
Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.

So the food was the same for each of those three meals, but each Eucharist was different because I was breaking bread with a different congregation and with a very different intention. The first service was the regular early morning Eucharist in the Cathedral.  It was being celebrated in the beautiful retrochoir.  We move around all the altars during the week and on this occasion it was in the Lady Chapel that I was presiding.  There were eight of us there, mostly people on their way to work.  It was very simple, very straightforward, very peaceful.

Then I made my way to Streatham and Bishop’s House, the home of the Bishop of Southwark.  It was the day of his senior staff meeting and so we were all there before we began the agenda, bishops, archdeacons, senior staff, ordained and lay, and me. The meal was the same, in fact the readings were the same – it was the feast of St Julian of Norwich and the Archdeacon of Reigate delivered a very good homily – but the Eucharist was different.  The Bishop was presiding and it was my turn to read the gospel – but essentially I was being ministered to and I was sharing in this sacred meal with the people with whom I work.

I had to leave that meeting early and head back to the cathedral to preside at a very special Eucharist, the final one of that day, a service in celebration of the life and ministry of the priest I mentioned last week, Fr Christopher Morgan.  The nave was packed with people from all the parishes in which he had worked and friends from near and far.  There was a great atmosphere and almost everyone there made their communion or came up to receive a blessing.

From 8, to 20, to 150.  The same meal but such different celebrations, the same food but such different gatherings, the same sacrament but different manifestations of the church.  And that is the glory of the Mass, of the Eucharist, of Holy Communion, of the Lord’s Supper, whatever name you might use for the meal that we were given in the Upper Room and told to ‘do this in remembrance of me’.  That is it’s glory.


I was further reminded of this the day afterwards.  Each year for about the last 15 years I have had the privilege of leading a day with those about to be ordained priest to think about presiding at the Eucharist, the theory and the practice.  And this was the day for doing it this year.  I began with a Mass in another environment, in the chapel in the Franciscan house just outside the Cathedral parish.  I’m on their rota, and in their little chapel there were five of us breaking bread, me with two of the sisters and two of those who live alongside them.  It was another lovely gathering.  So I went from there to share my views on how we should preside at something that as priests we do so regularly but which is always so fresh and new and once and forever.  But I began the session by doing something different.  Instead of launching in with what I wanted to say, I read a passage from the final chapter of Dom Gregory Dix’s great work ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’. Dix, after describing some of the history of the liturgy, then breaks almost into poetry.  He begins by saying

Was ever another command so obeyed?

And then goes on to describe the variety of contexts in which the liturgy is celebrated and concludes

And best of all. week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei – the holy common people of God. (pg 74)

There is no other better prayer to pray in thanksgiving for Jesus’ gift of himself to us than by using, as I use every time before I approach the altar, the great collect for the Feast of Corpus Christi.

Lord Jesus Christ,
we thank you that in this wonderful sacrament
you have given us the memorial of your passion:
grant us so to reverence the sacred mysteries
of your body and blood
that we may know within ourselves
and show forth in our lives
the fruits of your redemption;
for you are alive and reign with the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

My way

Sometimes a story makes the news and you think ‘Well, I knew that – tell me something new!’ That was how I felt when I read in the papers last week the results of a survey that the Co-op funeral service had conducted. It told us that at most funerals no hymn is sung. Instead people choose ‘popular’ music, some quite modern songs, others more classic. The reason given was that as most people no longer go to church and therefore no longer have the experience of singing hymns together they no longer have that reservoir of knowledge of religious music from which to draw on these occasions.

To some extent the same principle exists in relation to weddings. Those who choose to have their wedding in church will tend to be people who have some experience of singing hymns. But in my experience – and I have now been ordained 36 years and I think that there has not been a year since I was ordained a priest that I have not conducted at least one marriage – the choice that they have is somewhat limited. We just don’t know hymns as perhaps we once did.

The article referred to the hymns that are chosen for funerals – ‘Abide with me’, of course but also ‘All things bright and beautiful’ which now seems to crop up in weddings as well as funerals – but where people are learning to sing it goodness only knows – certainly not in church, in my experience!

To be honest I have nothing against music that isn’t religious at such services. ‘The Man from La Mancha’ has just opened again at the London Coliseum after a very long absence from the stage. However, we recently had a funeral in the Cathedral for a local businessman, a generous supporter of the Cathedral, and his family asked that we had the great song from that show ‘To dream the impossible dream’. It was sung beautifully and the words were so appropriate for the life that we were celebrating.

By contrast the song that seems very popular at funerals which, whilst a wonderful song, seems to present for me more challenges, is ‘ My Way’.

And more, much more than this
I did it my way.

It all seems just a little selfish, I little bit of ‘my way or no way’, perhaps sadly reflecting how many live but perhaps not the right song for a Christian funeral.

One of the deep sadnesses at Southwark Cathedral in the last few weeks has been the loss of three members of the congregation who each, in their own way, contributed to our lives. Paul Walker had arrived at the cathedral to join the choir as a boy. He never left us and moved from the quire to the sanctuary, becoming over time our Head Server. Paul was a quiet and modest servant of God in the sanctuary. He helped to lead the worship of the people of God in an unassuming and gentle way. He is sadly missed.

Then we lost Christopher Morgan, a retired priest, who, since retirement had joined our team of Day Chaplains. They are the wonderful people who are on the cathedral floor each day giving time to people who wander in. Most often they can be seen ‘loitering with intent’ as chaplains are meant to do in many situations, ready to respond as and when they are needed. I see them listening to and praying with people. Christopher was a wonderful part of this team.

And then, last week, we received the terrible news that Marion Marples had died, suddenly. She was a SPA, a Southwark Pastoral Auxiliary, at the Cathedral, one of those who holds the Bishop’s license to minister pastorally. The ministry of SPAs varies greatly depending on what the individual brings to the task. Marion’s ministry was as a great point of contact between the cathedral and the local community. So many people in the area knew Marion. She organised a weekly tea at the local sheltered housing complex, acted as vice-chair of ‘Living Bankside’, the local residents association, worked as part of the local ecumenical group, assisted with the local food bank, and much much more. She had helped us set up the Robes Project for the homeless and had for many years looked after the Confraternity of St James, the association which supports pilgrims on the Camino. She was now working to encourage pilgrims on the route to Canterbury.

So as I read the words for ‘My way’ these words stood out

I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve travelled each and every highway

Perhaps, after all, even ‘My way’ has it’s place, as long as the ‘My’ is Christ’s! Each of these people have helped to make Southwark Cathedral what it is, a place of worship, a place of caring, a place for pilgrims, a place where the Lord abides always. Each has travelled the Lord’s way and have helped others to do so. Whatever we sing as we remember them our song will be caught up into that of the angels.

May each of them rest in peace and rise in glory.

Lord Jesus, abide with us always, in life and in death, as we follow your way. Amen.

An Easter Break

I’m sure you were waiting expectantly for a Living God post. So I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m having a post-Easter break! See you next week.

We have to keep praying

Last week I put out a special prayer for Notre Dame, today it is Sri Lanka and the victims of the terrible and violent acts wreaked upon innocent people, some at worship on Easter Day, others enjoying a holiday on an island that is a jewel in the Indian Ocean.  It breaks our hearts, such evil, such wickedness.  But I believe that we have to keep praying because … well, it’s the only thing I can do and I do believe that prayer is effective.


Yesterday I was quoting a poem by R S Thomas in my Easter sermon at the 9.00am in Southwark Cathedral  This is the full text of the poem entitled ‘The Empty Church’, which, I think, contrasts what can be our frustration with prayer with our persistence in prayer.

They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more

to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illumined walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

So I kneel and I pray, and this is the prayer I invite you to pray with me after the Sri Lankan explosions.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ (John 20.19)

Risen Lord Jesus,
as our sisters and brothers
knelt to pray
life was taken from them,
as others relaxed
life was taken from them.
In the presence of such evil
keep us firm in faith
and constant in love
that the world might be filled
with your life, your light
and your peace.

The empty shell

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Southwark Cathedral.  As a consequence of the way things work out (some of this is to do with the Cathedral Statutes) I get to preach at the 9.00am Eucharist, which is lovely.  Our ‘nine o’clockers’ are not like some of the ‘early service’ congregations that you get in the Church of England but they don’t normally get to sing.  So Christmas and Easter are their opportunities to add to the chorus of the church on those feasts.  Anyway, enough of that – this is what I said to them.  The lections were Isaiah 65.17-25, Acts 10.34-43 and John 20.1-18.

Easter would not be Easter without an Easter egg or two or three.  But which to choose from?  There are so many out there, all looking equally delicious, all looking equally fattening.  The most popular has to be, of course, the wonderful, delicious Cadbury’s Creme Egg.  Is it the thick chocolate coating?  Is it that white and golden fondant filling?  Is it the thrill of getting the wrapping off it?  Whatever it is the Cadbury Creme Egg is the most popular of all Easter eggs and over 500 million of them are manufactured every year with about two thirds of that number being enjoyed in the UK alone!  So, that is a staggering three and a half Cadbury Creme Eggs for every person in the country to enjoy – and someone is eating mine because I don’t eat them.


Happy Easter!

But, brothers and sisters, I need to denounce them as heretical eggs.  This innocent looking shiny egg, available singly or in packs of three or even ten I believe, is peddling a lie.  The really good Christian egg has nothing inside it, not a bag of buttons, or Smarties or Thornton’s Continentals and certainly not stuffed full of delicious sticky white and golden fondant.  It’s a scandal that such an egg is so enjoyed!  The really true Christian egg is nothing other than an empty shell, break it open and there’s nothing inside.

When the disciples had left the tomb on Friday, as the sun was setting and the Sabbath was beginning, they rolled the stone across the entrance, sealing the dead body of Jesus inside.  In the first light of a new day Mary Magdalene makes her way back to the garden, creeps from the Upper Room where they’re all staying, eager not to disturb her exhausted and devastated friends.  In the half light she gets into the garden and sees the tomb and that the stone has been rolled away and her response is to run.  Something devastating, unbelievable has happened and she has to tell the others.

So she gets back to the room and wakes them up and Peter and John join her in running back again to where Jesus had been buried.  The sun was now rising and things could be more clearly seen.  And we get this race, young John outrunning the others and arriving first.  But in his youthful enthusiasm he’s unsure what to do.  He looks inside but doesn’t go inside, but breathless Peter arriving, has no hesitation and enters the empty space.

All of the gospel writers are clear that the tomb was empty, just a hollow shell, and not a scene of disorder, not a scene of chaos but of something almost planned, deliberate.

‘He saw the linen wrappings lying there’ it said in the gospel ‘and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.’

Things are mentioned in the gospels for a reason and John tells us deliberately about the order that exists in the empty tomb.  Those linen wrappings so carefully wound by the women around the body of Jesus, that cloth that’d covered his sacred head, are now folded, rolled, set aside, not discarded.

We run into a field as children.  There’s a bird’s nest in the tree above us.  It’s spring and the blossom and the fresh leaves are dressing what’d been cold bare winter branches.  In the grass we find an egg, but it’s just a shell, an empty, speckled shell.  A baby bird has hatched and flown.

Easter Day is a day of new creation.  That is what our First Reading was reminding us of.

I am about to create new heavens
   and a new earth.

says God through the prophet.  New heavens and new earth, in the dew covered freshness of a new day, in a new garden in which God will once more walk and ‘Ave’, hail a new woman whose name is spoken as creation begins again.

Peter is speaking to Cornelius and his household in our Second Reading and he speaks of his calling to be a witness.  He went into that emptiness, into the empty shell that’d once held Jesus.  But like a broken egg it contained nothing.  The chaos of Good Friday had been replaced by the order of the day of creation.  But what Peter is witnessing to is not a great absence but a great presence.  It could seem that the empty tomb is a symbol of the absence of God but it speaks to us in another way entirely.

The Welsh priest-poet, R S Thomas, in his poem ‘The Empty Church’ talks of the ‘stone trap’ that we made for God, but God escaped and is free.  They couldn’t nail him to the cross nor seal him in a tomb.  God chose, in the incarnation to become as we are but in the resurrection God is as we will become, liberated, part of this new heaven and new earth, enjoying the freedom of the new creation.

The images that we saw last Monday of the Cathedral of Notre Dame being engulfed in flames were terrifying.  Many of us will have walked into that vast church, stood beneath those monumental towers.  It was a building that seemed as solid as the island it stood on.  But it was so easily taken over by flames and what’d seemed so strong became something so fragile, something that seemed so permanent became something so vulnerable.  The moment the spire collapsed was one of those moments that will stay with me – a powerful image.

But even more powerful were the images that then emerged when the flames were extinguished and the emergency services gained access to the building.  It could’ve been an empty shell that confronted them, but it wasn’t.  The most wonderful sight was to see the golden cross, shining, somehow, in the darkness, standing, ordered, above the disorder of the rubble around it.

Notre Dame

Order in disorder

Peter went in and found the tomb empty, not abandoned in haste but left in order.  The two men left believing but not understanding, not understanding what this filled emptiness meant.

Emptiness can easily open up in our lives, suddenly, without warning.  Emptiness can take over in our society, a lack of leadership, a lack of vision, a lack of direction.  We rightly fear the vacuum that’s created that anything and anyone can fill.  But what we celebrate today is not the absence of God but the presence of God, the freedom of God, the life of God, who cannot be trapped and held and controlled and contained but is with us, meeting us in the garden of the new creation.

That was Mary’s witness to the others, that was Peter’s witness, that was the apostles’ witness, that is the witness of the church of the resurrection and that was the witness of that image from Paris emblazoned across the front pages, the ordered cross, majestic, in the midst of chaos, filling that empty, tomb like space.

Thomas ends his poem ‘The Empty Church’ like this

Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illuminated walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

The someone greater is Jesus, who walks from the tomb whilst the others run, who meets Mary in her grief with words of comfort, who calls us by name even when we don’t recognise him, who confronts our fragility and survives our fires with a life that cannot be defeated.

Life was born from the shell of the empty tomb and it is the life that we are living, the life fed by Christ’s sacramental presence at this altar on this glorious Easter morning.  Into our disorder God brings order; to what is old and broken God brings what is new and complete. This is Easter. The Lord is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Lord Jesus,
re-order, re-new, re-birth my life
with the power of your

‘It will be revealed with fire’

We all watched with horror as the flames licked the beautiful structure of one of the world’s greatest churches, an icon, not just to the people of Paris and France, not just some kind of monument to be visited but an expression of faith and holiness and piety.  As others have said, Notre Dame was the soul of the nation.

Notre Dame

I was asked yesterday to write a prayer for others to pray in the aftermath. This is it, with the text from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that was in my mind.

‘It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.’ (1 Corinthians 3.13)

Lord Jesus,
your broken body, laid aside,
rose in glory.
Give resurrection hope to the people of Paris
and all who grieve the destructive fire
at Notre Dame.
From the ashes may beauty once more arise,
as from the grave our new life comes.

Our Cathedral Organist, Peter Wright, was due to give a recital on the great organ of Notre Dame in just a few days’ time.  Though that will not be happening we are delighted that Olivier Latry,  who holds the post of one of four titulaires des grands orgues  Notre Dame is due to give a recital on the organ of Southwark Cathedral on Thursday 9 May at 7pm.  Tickets are available here.  We will take the opportunity of him being with us to take a post-recital collection in aid of the restoration of Notre Dame.  Some things, by God’s grace, so long planned, come just at the right moment!

Footfall – a meditation

On Palm Sunday evening at Southwark Cathedral, before we finished the day with Compline, I led a meditation alongside this year’s Lent art installation, ‘Footfall’, by Alison Clark.  These are the connections that I made as I sat looking at the work which has captured the way in which the stones of the Cathedral have been marked by the feet that have trodden them over the centuries.

Footfall 1

We looked at the dew covered grass, the place where we had been walking.  We could see the marks our footfall had left, gently changing the landscape of this newly made world.

Adam and Eve heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3.8)

And we saw another footfall, sparkling with divine presence, adding to the marks we had left, on the soft grass of the garden.

But we had to leave and walk on harder ground.

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man. (Genesis 3.23)

My feet fell on harder ground, none of the soft impression, but a less forgiving rock was beneath my feet.

We walked and walked.  It was a walk to freedom, so we were told, but it felt hard.  I was a child when this walk began, when my mother snatched me up by night and, with hardly anything to carry, we headed from the city out into the sands and to the great river.  I remember it now, the terror, the horses, the screams of our neighbours and then the roar of water retreating and the soft riverbed beneath us, the footprints of hundreds, thousands, there to see, for a moment, until the water returned and obliterated them, never to be seen again.  Then we walked by day, by night, in blistering heat and blistering cold.

I have led you for forty years in the wilderness. The clothes on your back have not worn out, and the sandals on your feet have not worn out; you have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink—so that you may know that I am the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 29.5-6)

Now I am a man and I wear my father’s sandals.  He is long gone but these sandals will carry me a long way, to the land we have been promised.  I can’t wait to stand on new soil, to make my mark in a new land, to carry my children to freedom, as I was carried to freedom and to see footprints that won’t be washed away.

I took my harp and sat down.  The journey was proving hard.  I had fled King Saul but not until I had embraced Jonathan, the one I loved, perhaps for the last time.  Then with those who supported me we made it into the hills.  But we were famished.  It was hard on the feet, on those rough hills, where I had once looked after sheep.  I was younger then and now I had not sheep but men to look after, men to feed and protect.

The priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away. (1 Samuel 21.6)

We ate the holy bread and trudged on.  It has been the caves that have provided the shelter we needed and the place to rest and as my companions slept I picked up my harp and I sang

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake. 

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me. 

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long. 
(Psalm 23)

Some of the men stirred as they heard me sing but were as soon again snoring.  There was a lot further to travel, to tread.

Footfall 2

It was a lot to ask of her but we had no choice, I had no choice.  So even though she was due to give birth to a baby in just a short time I had to get her on the back of the donkey and lead her from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  It was a journey I knew because it was the way that I went when I went up to Jerusalem.  But three days walking at a slow pace, looking all the time at her, to see if she was ok, watching where I was treading, it wasn’t easy.

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Luke 2.4)

And we arrived and not a moment too soon.  That night there were footsteps outside the shed in which we were staying.  Some of the shepherds arrived, off the hills where my ancestor David had been, eager to see a baby, for some reason I don’t yet understand.  But hearing them come and hearing them go, their footfall on the street outside, encouraged me, and her.

Basically we’ve been walking for three years, round and round, backwards and forwards, short walks and long, him at the front, us behind, always behind.  But, you see, I was never a walker, I preferred a boat, but now, I suppose, I am a walker and there are few places where we have not been; into the hills, down to the lake, through fields, across deserts.  I don’t know how far we’ve walked.  But now the pace has changed.

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. (Luke 9.51-52)

It seemed aimless before, re-treading our steps all the time, but its different now and some have gone ahead, to get things ready.  I’m still following, I’m still walking in his footsteps.

The streets are so busy, the crowds are here for the festival and I’m out on the street with them, but pressed against the wall.  I want to see but I don’t want to be seen.  I want to see what has happened to him, since we ran away, last night, though it seems ages since it happened.  Peter followed at a distance but the rest of us ran.  All I’ve heard is that he was arrested and condemned, to death.  I can’t believe I’m saying that.  But from what I heard this is the way that they will bring him, and I have to see.  The slabs of stone that cover the street have been worn smooth over the years, all these people, coming and going, and I press against the wall out of sight.

As they led Jesus away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. (Luke 23.26-27)

He was just in front of me.  I had spotted him because he stood out as a foreigner, not from these parts and may be that is why the soldiers also saw him and dragged him out to take the weight of the cross.  I’d spent years following him.  Now he is following, walking behind, but there is a crowd also following, walking in each others footsteps and I mingle in and follow.

They nailed his feet – so he couldn’t walk again.

I am off to Canterbury.  It’s something I’ve wanted to do for ages and then, when the fields had been prepared after winter and the wife was ok I said that I would do it.  And here I am in Southwark, waiting to meet up with some others.  They tell me it isn’t safe to walk the Kent Road on my own, some folk handy with a knife, ready to cut your purse from your belt, or your throat from your life.  So I’m waiting to see who I can walk with.  And I’ve come in here, into this priory by the river, to hear Mass and say my prayers and light my candles and ask God’s protection for the journey.  It was light outside, with spring warmth, but dark and cold and damp in here.  But the stones were smooth and good to walk on.

Bifil that in that seson on a day, 
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay, 
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage 
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage
At nyght were come into that hostelrye 
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye 
Of sondry folk, by áventure y-falle 
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde
The chambres and the stables weren wyde
And wel we weren esed atte beste
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste
So hadde I spoken with hem everychon, 
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon, 
And made forward erly for to ryse
To take oure wey, ther as I yow devyse

(Prologue The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer)

And we are here, treading where others have trod and slowly sculpting this place and leaving our mark and recognising where others have walked, before us.  And we know that we are part of a long journey from a new garden, from slavery to freedom, to this place now, where pilgrim feet have tod, then, now.  But we are followers of Jesus, the one who walked and marked the ground and touched lives.  They nailed his feet so he couldn’t walk again.  But we walk.  As St Theresa of Avila wrote

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Ours are his feet, we are Christ’s footfall, adding our steps to the journey.

Lord Jesus,
may we follow in your footsteps,
walk the path you trod,
tread with care, but with courage,
step lightly, but firmly,
with our hearts set on heaven
and our vision fixed on you.
Take us to Jerusalem.

A black hole

I never really understood physics when I was having to do it for ‘O Level’ – perhaps that is why I got an appalling grade! So as the pictures arrived from space and various experts appeared on the news channels last week to explain just what a black hole is and why the black at the centre of the corona of golden light was different to the black on the outside of it, and what’s in it, well, I was left no better off.  But in fact I was.


A wonder of creation

There is something amazing when the stuff of science fiction becomes the stuff of science fact.  I’m sure the USS Enterprise in ‘Star Trek’ was often on the brink of being dragged into some kind of inter-stellar, galactic vortex and the holy trinity of the flight deck, Kirk, Spock and McCoy, were shouting Warp Factor 6 and things like that.  But I thought it was all fantasy (I had obviously never studied Einstein!). Then, somehow, using all of these telescopes and coordinating them we manage to get an image back on Earth that shows us what we thought we would never see.

Today we embark on a week that will draw us into a cosmic event.  The death of Jesus on the cross, according to St Matthew, is surrounded by creation itself in agony.

‘From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. …. Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.’ (Matthew 27.45, 50-51)

Creation is drawn into the passion, as we are.  There is a universal aspect to what we witness as Jesus makes his way to Calvary.

There is a verse in the hymn by Fr Faber’s hymn ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ that always speaks to me of the mystery and the wonder of creation.

There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss.

We are always discovering more of what creation is and how it finds its focus at the cross.

God of universal wonder,
draw us deeper into your love
as we follow Jesus to the cross.

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

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