Ponderings

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

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

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

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Mary ponders

 

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

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

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

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

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

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A moment for pondering in Southwark Cathedral

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Navel gazing

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

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

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The Mappa Mundi

 

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

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

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

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

Well he was and he has.

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

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The navel of the world?

 

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

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

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

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

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

Unleashing the beast

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

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

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

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The Whore of Babylon depicted for another age

 

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

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

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

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The liberating sign of the cross

 

 

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

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

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

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

Symbolic acts – Postscript

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

Symbolic acts

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

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There goes the collar! (Picture BBC)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Children from one of our link schools

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dressing up

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bishop of Southwark wearing the Jubilee cope

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The red and the white

This has been a big weekend in London.  On Saturday the 690th Lord Mayor of the City of London, following his election, went on parade through the Square Mile.  It’s one of the fun events of the year, marking the transition between the occupants of the Mansion House.  I must pay tribute to Dr Andrew Parmley and his wife Wendy who have been the Lord and Lady Mayoress for the past year.  I suspect that there has been no other church organist filling the shoes of Dick Whittington.  Andrew and Wendy have been gracious and generous occupants of this ancient and honourable role.  We look forward to working with the new Lord Mayor, Charles Bowman.

As part of the Lord Mayor’s Parade, adding to the pageantry, are the ancient Guilds of the City of London, the Livery, parading in their finest.  Amongst them, I suspect, will have been the Barbers.  These rank 17th in the City hierarchy, and for 205 years of their history were called the Barber-Surgeons.  That name ceased to be the Company name, but remained the name of their hall, when the professionalization of the surgeons led to the establishment of their Royal College.  But the ancient name recognised the fact that for a very long time you went to your barber not just to have your hair cut and your chin shaved but for surgery as well and a bit of blood-letting.  That is why, in England, the poles outside of traditional barbers are coloured in red and white.  It’s a reminder that the cloths used to soak up the blood were hung on these poles to dry out after washing and, in the wind, twirled themselves around the pole.  The colours are called ‘blood and bandages’ – a long way from a trip to Vidal Sassoon!

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They grow together

 

I was thinking of this, not because I have been to the barbers recently (my hair doesn’t need much attention as I don’t have that much to give attention to) but because of a debate that we had at Southwark Cathedral around the Remembrance weekend that we are keeping in this busy weekend.

One of the things that I like to do is to be able to respond to what the congregation at the Cathedral are asking.  That isn’t always possible, given the competing demands placed upon us, but often we can find a way of satisfying various needs.  One of the congregation asked us whether this year, in addition to selling the traditional red poppies, we would also be prepared to sell the white alternatives.

There are some things that I am happy to make a decision about on my own, but there are other things that really do require much more thorough discussion.  This was certainly one of them.

Would we be prepared to do this? What would be the reaction? What were our feelings about the red poppy anyway?  How did we feel about this whole business of remembrance? The debate became deep and wide ranging.  Start talking about it and it brings to the fore deeply held emotions and important principles.  I don’t need to go into all the things we talked about in that Chapter meeting but what I can say is that at the end we decided that we could sell both without compromising what anyone felt about the importance of the red poppy as being deeply symbolic, whilst recognising that the white poppy said something important about our commitment to peace and our desire that there be non-violent solutions to international problems.

So that is what we have been doing over these past few weeks.  The red poppies have been selling as well as ever, in support of the work of the Royal British Legion, and the white poppies have also been selling and some people have been wearing both, the red and the white, like a barbers’ pole.

When I was a young priest back in the early ’80’s there seemed to be little enthusiasm around Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday.  It felt as though the energy had gone out of it and that keeping either or both would disappear in a few years’ time.  Perhaps the festival would continue in the Royal Albert Hall, perhaps The Queen would still attend the Cenotaph in Whitehall but for most people it would be a thing of the past.  But we couldn’t have been more wrong.

I think it has been a mixture of things.  Instead of our troops being engaged solely or mainly with the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland we became involved in wars and conflicts overseas and the body count began to rise and the stories of PTSD and the pictures of injured servicewomen and men became a feature of life.  The young princes became more actively part of the Armed Forces than their predecessors and Prince Harry, through the Invictus Games and other initiatives especially in relation to mental health, has heightened our awareness of the reality of life for many in the Armed Forces.  The rise of alternative charities, like ‘Help for Heroes’ has raised public awareness of the needs of returning servicemen and women.  The development of Armed Forces Day and then the four year commemoration of the centenary of the First World War, the sea of poppies around the Tower, the restoration of war memorials, even the works financed on our cathedral buildings as part of the preparing for 2018, have all meant that acts of Remembrance have become more important, not less.

In this last week I have officiated at an Act of Remembrance in our local council offices to mark the end of Passchendaele, one hundred years ago, officiated at Mayor Sadiq’s Service of Remembrance in City Hall and on Remembrance Sunday itself at the war memorial in the Cathedral parish with the Mayor and all the civic representatives.

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Peter lashes out

 

But I still need to hold on to that white poppy as well as the red.  Jesus is constantly calling us to live for peace and I am reminded of that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest.  In the heat of the moment headstrong Peter reaches for his sword and attacks.  He lashes out and injures Malchus, the servant of the High Priest, cutting off his ear. And in the midst of the turmoil Jesus speaks

Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’ (Matthew 26.52)

In that place of violence Jesus speaks calm truth.  Yes, I can see, if you apply the Just War theory, that there are times when there is no other option but to take up arms, but it has to be the very last resort and not our first instinct.  Peter lashed out in the heat of the moment and was rebuked; there are those who are in leadership positions that still want to lash out.  The red and the white reminds us of both the human cost and the call to peace.

Ellis Evans was a Welsh poet called up at the age of 17 and sent to Passchendaele to fight.  He died there.  His nick name is ‘Hedd Wyn’ which means ‘Blessed Peace’. His poem ‘War’ begins like this

Woe that I live in bitter days,
As God is setting like a sun
And in his place, as lord and slave,
Man raises forth his heinous throne.

We cannot let God nor Blessed Peace to set like the sun.

God, as we remember the dead of war
may we never forget your call to peace.
Amen.

Where am I?

Well, I’m in India.  In fact I’m on holiday and there is no better time to go than during the Feast of Diwali, with its lights and hopes and prayers for the New Year.  This is a holiday so I won’t be blogging but I hope to bring you some news and stories when I get back.  Please keep me and my travelling companions in your prayers.

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Diwali lights

 

God of our travels,
keep us safe wherever we go
and bring us back to our homes,
renewed, refreshed
and ready for all that lies ahead.
Amen.

A priest for ever

Back in 1994, when the first women were ordained priest, a new catholic society within the Church of England came into existence.  The first members were admitted in the Diocese of Southwark on the Feast of the Holy Cross, 14 September, into the Society of Catholic Priests – the red cross brigade.  The bright red crosses on lapels and dresses can be seen in General Synod and at many gatherings.  I became a member when I came to Southwark in 1995.  It has always been a great source of support for me in my priestly ministry and being in a truly inclusive society within the catholic tradition has been a great encouragement.

Last Thursday I ceased to be Rector General after almost 9 years of serving the Society in that way.  A new Provincial Rector, Fr Kevin Maddy, was elected and we wish him well as he leads the Society which now has members in Australia and North America as well as in Europe (despite Brexit the British parts of SCP will remain in the European Chapter).

This is the text of the sermon I preached at the final Mass at which I was to preside as Rector General.  I thought you might be interested in reading what I had to say.  The lections for the Mass were Hebrews 5.1-11 and Luke 22.14-20.

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The SCP cross

 

George Herbert, that saintly priest and poet begins his handbook for clergy called ‘The Country Parson’ with this simple but rather startling definition about what it is that we are called to do

A Pastor is the Deputy of Christ for the reducing of Man to the Obedience of God.

I’m not sure that untranslated those few words would be entirely understood by many, or many of those who share with us in the sacred ministry of the priest in the Church of God. I’m delighted that when I was at Mirfield we were constantly being told that we were being ‘formed for the priesthood’ and not, as some other places of learning are concerned, ‘trained for ministry’. This isn’t intended to be an old git homily but it seems to me that so often those who are ordained are lumped by the wider and, I suppose, wiser church into this catch all category of ‘ministry’. It’s an inclusive word and so I should rejoice in that – but you see, I was called to be a priest – it was specific, it was as we now say , intentional, not on my part, but I believe on God’s.

As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says, and that person knows a thing or two about priesthood,

One does not presume to take this honour, but takes it only when called by God.

We did not have the audacity to choose ourselves for this, or the arrogance to choose this for ourselves. I suspect that each of us here is a priest out of obedience, women and men for whom the call to the priestly life was undeniable and unavoidable, which was tested and affirmed by the church and confirmed through the laying-on-of-hands within that apostolic succession which gives us the authority which God alone can give.

Herbert defines our life as Dignity and Duty

The Dignity, in that a Priest may do that which Christ did, and by his authority, and as his Vicegerent. The Duty, in that a Priest is to do that which Christ did, and after his manner, both for Doctrine and Life.

This idea that we are the Deputy, the Vicegerent – the earthly representative of God – is daunting. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews admits, we’re subject to weakness, we’re part of that fallen humanity which, through the grace of the sacraments that we administer, we seek to raise to the true status that we have lost.

That word ‘vicegerent’ really means ‘holding on behalf of’. As priests, we hold Christ on behalf of the people and the people on behalf of Christ. Whether we’re holding the host before people hungry for God, or holding the hand of someone hungry for heaven, we’re holding, on behalf of the one who holds us, Jesus Christ our Eternal High Priest.

We will all have been traumatised by the events that have affected us so far this year. Terrorist attacks at home, Westminster Bridge, London Bridge, Finsbury Park; the disaster of Grenfell Tower; the natural disasters in the Caribbean and northern India and Bangladesh; ongoing war; ongoing crises; the madness that leads a lone gunman to mow down concert goers in Las Vegas; and the political disasters from which it will take generations to recover – this is the context in which we do, not ministry, not leadership, not all the words that others seek to apply to what we do, but we do our priestly ministry – breaking open the word, breaking the bread, sharing the love, sharing the cup, witnessing to the dignity and the duty that is our calling.

I hope you’ll excuse me if I’m a little self-indulgent as we all have stories we can tell and as clergy we tell them – but I’m the one preaching!

The evening of the 3 June was one of the most devastating of my priesthood. Some of you may have already read what I’ve written about it or have heard me speak. But that evening I was at the Deanery with friends. We’d enjoyed a barbeque in our garden and had gone up to the drawing room for more drinks. We had a house full including the person who was to be our new deacon, arrived that day to move into his flat.

And then a text arrived which said that something was kicking off on London Bridge. So I did what you would do – I put on my dog collar and grabbed my bunch of keys. My first instinct was to open the church and provide a refuge for those caught up in whatever was going on – after all that is what we’ve done at the south end of London Bridge for the last 1400 years!

But I couldn’t get very close. Finding my way as best I could I got near to the market only to be met with a huge number of heavily armed police officers, with their machine guns and night sights trained on me. I was forced back onto Southwark Street. What I saw there I’ll never forget – a road full of ambulances, of flashing lights, pavements full of injured and traumatised people being attended to by paramedics and friends.

I’d love to be able to tell you that I was the Good Samaritan, binding up the wounds of those on the roadside – but I wasn’t, I followed the directions of the police and found my way home. The house was full, a young Muslim guy, who chairs our residents forum, texted me – he couldn’t get home and so he stayed with us, with the helicopters whirring around over heads, with the world around us going mad. I have to tell you that that night I was physically sick.

I just didn’t know what to do and whether I was up to doing it.

But the dawn broke and we began, step by step, bit by bit, holding people for Christ. The Cathedral was closed for a week as we were at the heart of what’d happened. All I and my colleagues could do was be the church, be priests out there, but doing what priests do, the dignity and the duty, saying Mass where we could, saying our prayers and being there with people in their pain and distress – be they Christian, Muslim, of other faiths or none.

And the community needed the church. It was we who were able to articulate on behalf of others what we were all feeling, it was we who could offer liturgy which held the stages of mourning, the stages of rebuilding or re-hallowing. I presided over the removal of the flowers that had gathered on London Bridge, with incense and holy water we walked the path of the attackers and reclaimed the area for Christ and the community and we kept bringing it all to the altar.

And I didn’t know what to do from one moment to the next – but that priesthood to which you and I are called is so much more than we can begin to understand – for it’s not our priesthood but Christ’s, it’s Jesus who ministers through us and it’s Jesus who holds our hand as we hold the hand of others.

parson

The cover of George Herbert’s handbook for Parsons

 

The church has many agendas and some of them are good and right but some of them well out of a place of misunderstanding or even a refusal to understand. What we’ve been ordained to is not something of the moment but something of eternity, for as the psalmist says

You are a priest for ever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.

Initiatives will come and go, the church will grow and diminish, it will reform when needed and change when called to by God. But one thing is for ever and that’s the priesthood of which we are the most unworthy of members. We’re an instant in an eternal history which will only be brought to its fulfilment when we stand in that place ‘when sacraments shall cease’ as a great Eucharistic hymn describes it.

Until then we hold Christ to the world and the world to Christ, break the bread and share the cup, offer the church’s welcome and farewell, bind and heal, forgive and befriend, in persona Christi, in the place of Christ, in the person of Christ, who has called us to share his priesthood for ever.

Father, we thank you
that you have called us to your service,
to feed your people
by word and sacrament.
By the power of your Spirit,
keep us faithful to you
and to those in our care.
Keep united in the bonds of peace and love
the members of the Society of Catholic Priests,
that by sharing in Christ’s priesthood here on earth,
they may come to share in the joys of his eternal kingdom,
where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
for ever and ever. Amen.

The Gift of the Gab

It’s strange in life what you end up with discovering you have some kind of talent for.  I have to put this in context.  I was a monumentally shy boy; well; not uncontrollably shy but shy enough to stop me doing lots of things that ordinarily one would enjoy doing.  But I suspect that inside the wallflower there was always a little bit of me that loved performing.  I remember when I was only seven or so being given a book of poetry by my one of my grandmas.  One of the poems – I wish I could put my hand on the book – had a poem called ‘Mr Nobody’ by Walter de la Mare and for some reason I dragged my sister, who was also shy, into performing this with me for the assembled wider family.  So I was shy but there was a bit of another person who liked the spotlight struggling to get out.

Microphone

‘Please speak into the microphone!’

 

Now, most weeks, I’m having to speak.  Last week I was talking about the number of sermons I was having to write.  This week is no different.  I woke up on Thursday morning and suddenly realised that I had to have written four in the next few days.  But sermons are one things – it’s the ‘could you just say a few words’ or the after-dinner speeches that I’m thinking about.  Most weeks, on many occasions, I find that I have to make some kind of speech that is outside of the liturgical setting, outside of the safety of the priestly role and the fortress of the pulpit.

Or I’m listening to other people having to make a speech.  That can be equally nerve-wracking, especially if you know that the person doing so, hates it or is terrified, or isn’t very good at it.  So I was feeling particular sympathy for the Prime Minister this week at the Conservative Party Conference, watching a ‘car crash’ of a speech.  Like many people outside that hall, I suspect, I have little idea what she said or what she was attempting to say.  All I can remember and all that we will all remember were those three elements – the P45, the falling F and the cough.  We will watch that in the ‘Review of the Year’ and in countless editions of ‘It’ll be alright on the night’ and other blooper shows for generations to come.  And Theresa May knows that, just as any of us know that our worst moments are played back to us, in our own heads, or by other people.  So I may not share her views, but I can’t help but share with her the experience.

Public speaking puts us out there.  Not only do people listen to our words, but they also listen to how we say things.  We are meant to be amusing – and that can be disastrous, we are meant to be memorable – and that can be even worse.  I have listened with no little envy to great after-dinner speakers – people like Victor Stock, the former Dean of Guildford – who can have people at one moment crying with laughter and then moved to tears.  It is a real gift.  But the fact is that we all, at sometime have to get up and say something, gifted or not, eloquent or not, and we all hope that when we do the F doesn’t fall off!

I find encouragement in the scriptures and with those great leaders in the Old Testament, Moses and Aaron.  You will know the Moses story well – the baby in the bulrushes, the Egyptian prince by adoption, the burning bush, the plagues, etc, etc.  It’s a fantastic story.  Moses was the leader par excellence, leading his people on, staff in hand, across the wilderness, with a firm vision and goal before him – The Promised Land.  Like many leaders he had clay feet – he lost his temper, smashed things, was capricious, and never got to share in what lay at the end of his long leadership.  But towards the beginning of the story is something that is fascinating.

Moses said in the Lord’s presence, ‘Since I am a poor speaker, why would Pharaoh listen to me?’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. (Exodus 6.30 – 7.2)

Moses was a fine leader but a useless public speaker.  He knew that and he knew that without eloquence he would never be listened to by Pharaoh.  He just didn’t have, as we might say ‘The Gift of the Gab’. But Aaron, his brother, did.  Aaron could do it, he could be, as God says, his prophet.  Moses could be the leader, Aaron could be the spokesman.  And that was how it worked.  Mostly it worked well, this collaborative style, until, of course, Moses was too long up the mountain talking to God, the people got restless and in order to pacify them Aaron capitulated and gave them the Golden Calf to worship. Aaron really had to stick to what he knew how to do – talking and not leading!  But this great collaboration brought them through the wilderness and to the vision that lay ahead, the Promised Land.  Knowing what we can do and what we can’t is a sign of true wisdom.

beham-hans-sebald-moses-aaron-e1354456503126

Moses and Aaron in collaboration

 

Of course, Moses could speak, he could speak to God and, so we are told,

Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. (Exodus 33.11)

Discovering what gifts we have and using them, acknowledging what gifts we don’t have and having the humility to turn to others who do, well, that’s the ideal in life.  But sometimes there is only you who can stand on that podium and then all you can pray is that the F doesn’t fall off!

Lord,
when I have to speak,
speak through me,
and when I need to listen
may I hear your voice.
Amen.

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