The happiest days of my life

I have a strange relationship with films and those who know me well would agree with that.  I often make the ridiculous statement ‘I can only watch a film I’ve seen before.’ People, rightly, look at me with incredulity.  But I know what I mean.  I like what I like and I know what I don’t like – violence, horror, blood, suspense, things like that.  I do, however, trust my sister’s choice of films.  While I was staying with her and her family after Christmas they made me watch ‘The Hunt for the Wilderpeople’.  I loved it.  If you haven’t seen it I recommend it.  And I have watched ‘The Two Popes’ – I thought that was great – honest, moving, heart-warming (never I thought I’d say that about watching anything to do with the contemporary church!).  But one of my favourite films is the 1950’s classic, ‘The Happiest Days of Your Life’.  It’s a film similar to the St Trinian series, set in an out of control Public School, and stars Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford and is completely devoid of violence, horror, blood or suspense.  Perfect!

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Fab film

The Church of England is facing a crisis, another crisis.  This one is all to do with training for priesthood.  Flicking through this week’s Church Times there are a number of articles about the problems being faced by Westcott House in Cambridge.  They have specific problems and I am keeping them in my prayers but there is the wider issue the church has to face about the fate of residential training.

It is 40 years this year since I arrived at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield.  I looked at two other colleges before accepting a place there.  I went on a visit to Ripon College, Cuddesdon, which I thought seemed lovely but there was something not quite right for me, and I looked at Westcott.  I had a miserable few days there but I think that was because the previous weekend I had been to the College of the Resurrection and had had a ball.  I had thought that the Cambridge Federation would expose my little Anglo-Catholic self to something of the wider church but when I experienced that I knew that, at that stage, I needed something more solidly catholic.  So that is how I ended up in the Calder Valley for three years.

I hadn’t read any theology and barely done RE at school.  But I had been to church all my life with no gaps for teenage rebellion – those years passed me by.  But I had achieved a good enough first degree to enable me to read Theology at Leeds University under the professorship of David Jenkins.  So for my first two years I was a ‘Leeds Man’ as we were called.  Each day a few of us on the degree course piled into one of the College cars and drove off to Leeds, leaving our cassocks and scapulars behind and being proper students.

But after lectures we would head back to reengage with the ‘Common Life’.  We talked about that concept a great deal, and sins against it.  These were the days before ‘devices’ and you were not allowed to have a tele in your room as that was anti the Common Life, so the only way of watching the box was by going to the TV Room and entering into negotiation with those already there.  It was an experience similar to what you used to have in boarding houses by the seaside or on wards in hospital where you had to agree with a bunch of strangers whether it was to be BBC or ITV.  Of course, during my years at Mirfield ‘Brideshead Revisited’ was being shown and the TV Room was packed out with those who wished to be the reincarnation of Sebastian Flyte!

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The journey between College and church

Living the common life was part of what we were there to do, learning how to be alongside other people, with all their quirks and demands.  We had to serve at table and clear the pots; we had to clean the toilets and do the gardening; we had to rehearse serving and the chant, clean the chapel and meet all the requirements of an academic institution.  Above all we had to be in church.  There was no choice about this.  You went to Morning Prayer and Evensong each day.  You had to be at Mass on Sundays and Feast Days and the College Mass once a week, but most of us were at Mass every day.  And you had to be in church meditating and you had to have a Spiritual Director and there was an expectation that you would make your Confession.  There was very little resistance to any of this.  We simply followed the rules.  We knew that we had to be in our cassocks and scapulars most of the day, for church, for meals, for lectures, that we would wear black shoes or sandals.  We got used to being strange and living a dedicated life.  To put it simply, we were being formed for priesthood.

I cannot begin to tell you how much that has made me the priest and the person that I am. I found the place and its tight structure strangely liberating. I began to understand who I was and I was able to build a resilient prayer life and a pattern of committed worship that continues to see me through each day.  It was a hard thing to express to my family but these were the happiest days of my life.

The strange thing is above everything else a priest needs to learn resilience.  Of course you need to know how to properly lay out and fold a corporal on an altar – essential.  And some theology and biblical knowledge helps.  But if you are to survive then you need a disciplined life of prayer and worship and you have to know how to relate to a bunch of people, lay and ordained, who you think will share your views and beliefs and priorities and often don’t.  Parish life is not easy, nor is cathedral life to be honest, but then college life wasn’t always the bed of roses that I have so far suggested.  But there is a real sense that wherever God places you, wherever God calls you, to whomsoever God sends you you have to get on with it.  If that sounds less than life-giving then I have expressed myself badly.  The structure I was given day-in, day-out, in residential training equipped me to survive and to flourish.

That is my concern.  I am sure that courses in all their forms are great and that they provide excellent training but there is nothing that they can supply that can replace the experience of being residential, being formed in a particular environment, for a peculiar and particular priestly ministry.  But the church has to decide what she wants from her next generation of clergy because the truth is, you only get out what you put in.

Thinking of all this makes me pray once more the prayer of the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold.

For all that has been, thanks.
For all that will be, yes.
Amen.

What a beginning!

I’ve been on my post-Christmas holiday.  I had to wait on this occasion until after the New Year had arrived and my colleagues had had their time off.  So it was great to be able to preside at the Eucharist early on New Year’s day, the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus (Mary Mother of God in the Roman Calendar), and to pray for God’s blessing on the year and the new decade that lay before us.

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Wonderful fireworks in London to welcome a new decade

Having been warned off horoscopes as a child by our vicar when I was preparing for Confirmation – it was one of the sins mentioned in the list of potential sins that we were given, a kind of checklist of naughtiness – and never having ventured into Madam Zaza’s gypsy tent on a pier to have my fortune told, I’ve never really been that interested in knowing in advance what is waiting round the corner for me.  As Jesus so wonderfully puts it in St Matthew’s Gospel and in the translation of the King James Version

‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ (Matthew 6.34)

But the events that we have been dealing with so far this year have been monumental in their different ways. In Australia the year began as it ended, with fire sweeping across the bush and the forests and threatening communities and lives.

Then President Trump decides to order the assassination of Major General Qassem Suleimani whilst he was in Iraq.  As so many commentators have said, his actions have caused the deaths of many people.  But it felt like an act of real and dangerous provocation on the part of the President without any sense of what the next steps would be. Then the news of the crash of the Ukrainian Airline flight and the death of 173 people was terrible.  And now we have learnt that this was as a result of a catastrophic mistake when a missile was launched against it the level of danger in the region is even more real.

And finally the Duke and Duchess of Sussex make their announcement about how they see their future and none of us quite knows where this leaves them, or the rest of the Royal Family but we are assured that all will become clear very quickly.

Whilst all of this has been going on, the House of Commons approved the ‘Brexit Bill’ and it has now been passed to the House of Lords.  The cameras and the crowds have left College Green, the flags are no longer waving and the whole business if our withdrawal is now moving towards its inevitable conclusion.  Cathedrals are being asked whether or not they will be asking their ringers to ring on the night of 31 January a peal of joy but maybe silent prayer is the answer in these circumstances.

Then some very good news as the Northern Ireland Assembly makes a return to Stormont and takes up the responsibility of the governance of the Province.  Those who have managed and encouraged this have to be congratulated.

What a beginning!  I never saw any of this coming!

At Southwark Cathedral we are beginning our Year of Vision.  Each term during this year we will be concentrating on one of the three key words in our value statement – inclusive, faithful, radical.  So this term our focus will be on what it really means for us to be an inclusive community and that has to be much more than being LGBT+ friendly, which is what we are so often known for, though it will continue to mean that, but more besides.  What I do know is that with all that is happening it is vital to have vision. As it says in the Book of Proverbs

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

Whether it is in relation to the environment, global politics, internal order, the shape of our institutions, the lives of individuals, the place of the church, we need vision, and we need to hold to it.

God, give us clear vision
and a commitment to it.
Amen.

‘It’s a mystery’

During Advent I was invited to a parish in Kingston to preach at their morning service.  It is one of the things that I really enjoy, getting out of the Cathedral and into the diocese.  Don’t get me wrong; I love being in the Cathedral.  But as I keep reminding people, being a Dean is not just about looking after life in the cathedral, it is also about being the Senior Priest in the diocese.  Knowing what that means will vary between people and places but for me it has always meant getting out into what is a very large and populous and exciting diocese.  So, I arrived at this church where I had had the joy of acting as Patron for the last appointment.  I went into the vestry and the vicar said to me ‘We found this when we were clearing out a cupboard.  I thought you might be interested.’

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From the vestry cupboard

What it was was a copy of the Southwark Diocesan Gazette from 100 years ago. This was the forerunner of ‘The Bridge’, the present Diocesan newspaper.  But in this edition was included an article on All Hallow’s Southwark.  This is a church that is now in the Cathedral parish. However, it is no longer a functioning church and the building that is referred to in the article no longer exists as it then did.  During the Second World War the building suffered terrible damage and only part of the Victorian structure now exists.  A new aisle was added in the 1950’s to enable the church to continue as a parish church, but with the changes in demographics and churchgoing in the 1970’s the parish ceased to exist and it was put instead under the care of the cathedral.  We have plans for the future of the church but until we have the money they remain just plans.

What this article describes, however, is the rather exotic ecclesiastical life and practice at All Hallows.  The tradition of the church was at the top end of the candle.  Such scandalous things were happening, as are described in this piece, including ‘wearing a stole, making the Sign of the Cross and using the mixed chalice.’  Can you imagine?! The church was under regular attack from more protestant groups for these Popish practices.  At one stage a petition was made to the House of Lords to get all of these excesses stopped but the then Bishop of Winchester (the parish then being in his diocese) defended the priest and the Clewer Sisters who were at that time based there.

I was thinking of all this as I was saying Mass this morning.  I had said the Offertory Prayer, ‘Blessed are you…’, over the bread and then took the empty chalice to meet the verger who was serving me.  He had the cruets in his hands, wine and water, and I charged and mixed the chalice.  What was a scandal back in 1878 is much more commonplace now.  The congregation hardly noticed what I was doing. Not a glimmer of a reaction to what was going on!

When the priest mixes the chalice they often say the ‘Secret Prayer’ that accompanies the action.

By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

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‘By the mystery…’

I have said these words so many times over the last 36 years, day in, day out, as I have stood at the altar, presiding at the Eucharist.  But as I said them today the words struck me.  We are still in the Christmas Season, still celebrating the mystery of the incarnation and here in the chalice part of that mystery is expressed.  As the water and wine mix together in the chalice, so in Christ these two natures, co-mingle as it were, divinity embraces humanity, humanity embraces divinity.  That mystery, celebrated in a backstreet church in Southwark, a scandal to so many, is still in its essence a scandal to some.  How can this be, this mystery of the incarnation, this deep truth of Christmas, that as St Athanasius described

‘God became man that man might become God.’

In the film ‘Shakespeare in love’ we meet a former Warden and Vestryman of St Saviour’s Southwark, now the Cathedral, Philip Henslowe, who has a phrase which recurs throughout the story.

Philip Henslowe Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.
Hugh Fennyman So what do we do?
Philip Henslowe Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.
Hugh Fennyman How?
Philip Henslowe I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

It’s a mystery.  That is what we are drawn into at Christmas and drawn into in the Eucharist and drawn into in every liturgy.  It may have been shocking at the time but that is what churches like All Hallows were seeking to rediscover and re-present, through ritual, through teaching, in mission, the wonderful mystery of God.

God of majesty, God of mystery,
take the water of my life and make of it the wine of the kingdom,
take the worship that we offer and make it a window into heaven,
take the stuff of today and make it the sign of our eternal tomorrow,
take our flesh and make it divine.
Amen.

Last Christmas

So, it has been the last Christmas of the decade and what a great place to end with a ‘Gavin and Stacey’ special on Christmas Day.  After almost a decade it was reassuring to know that not that much has changed in our society, that millions of us could still tune in together, at the same time, to watch a Christmas special.  Perhaps we are not as divided as we feared!  It felt like the old days when we would settle down to watch ‘The Morecombe and Wise Show’ to see which TV celebrity would be making a fool of themselves or showing what a good sport they were.  Angela Rippon, Glenda Jackson, Andre Previn, they all appeared.  But the trip back to Billericay and Barry was heartwarming and I have to admit to shedding a tear as Ness knelt before Smithy at the end of the Christmas Day special.

TV Family

How we used to watch the TV

It was a good Christmas at the Cathedral, or I should say, a good Advent and Christmas Day because Christmas has only begun. But it was good to see so many coming along to carol services and concerts, to special events and then to all the services around Christmas Day itself.

We normally have one ‘Christmas Message’ each, the clergy at the Cathedral that is, that we preach at the Carol Services we are looking after.  In the end I had to have two – pre and post election.  So just for the record these are the two that I have been preaching.  Have a wonderful Christmas and as Stacey said to Gavin, ‘We’ve got to keep the fire burning.’


This was my first homily!

You may be a Lidl food shopper, or perhaps it’s Aldi where you go, or maybe Iceland – ‘Mum’s love Iceland’ so I’m told or you may in fact be an M&S food person, or even, Waitrose but wherever it is you go you may well have picked up from the checkout one of those Christmas catalogues they have lying around to entice you.

To be perfectly honest I like a bit of convenience.  I’ve been flicking through the catalogue from my local food shop, M&S Simply Food to see what I might order to make Christmas Day really easy and non-stressful, at least where the kitchen is concerned.

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Oven ready!

They’ve got ready stuffed this, pre-cut that, perfect roast potatoes, Christmas cakes in every shape and size, puddings you don’t have to boil for three hours.  I’m almost ashamed to admit it, here in the midst of the Borough Market where I could buy all the ingredients and put these things together myself – from scratch.  But, no, I think I’ll go for convenience, again!

It was inconvenient to have a General Election called for today, ‘Just the worst time of the year’ to pinch a phrase from the poet, T S Eliot.  Lots to do, schools and church halls all booked up, so much to distract us and an election to bother about when we could be least bothered.

But a bit of inconvenience goes with Christmas.

When the message reached Nazareth that a decree had been issued that everyone had to be in their home town to be counted, it was very inconvenient if you came from Bethlehem and were living up north in Nazareth.  But there was nothing for it, pregnant wife and all had to be loaded onto a donkey and a week’s journey undertaken.  ‘Just the worst time of the year’.

It was inconvenient for the innkeeper to have a pregnant woman on his doorstep, inconvenient for shepherds having to leave their flocks by night, inconvenient for star gazers to be pulled away from gazing at ‘Just the worst time of the year’. It was inconvenient for a capricious king to be told a new king had been born just the other side of the hill, where stars were shining.

It was so inconvenient.  But God knew there was nothing else that could be done and broke into our reality in the most inconvenient way.  God came as a needy baby, God came in total vulnerability, God came as child to save his children.  It was inconvenient but there was no other way.

And the world stopped what it was doing, forgot all the distractions, and as the poet Christina Rossetti described it in one of her carols, humanity was

‘Thrilled through with awestruck love.’

Whether you’re ready for God or not, God comes to you, God comes to us, inconveniently asking us to live differently, to live better.  God comes to us inconveniently speaking of truth and justice, of peace, of hope; inconveniently holding up the poor and challenging the rich.  God comes inconveniently, even when everything seemed oven-ready!

But we have been ‘Thrilled through with awestruck love.’  We see it in the crib, we see it on the cross.  We weren’t ready, it wasn’t the time, but God comes at God’s time, in our time, bringing us hope, speaking of peace, embodying love.  God has come to bring us home, whether it’s convenient for us – or not.


This is the homily I have been preaching post-election.

I make it no secret that I love Christmas.  Scrooge and I would just not see eye to eye at all – there’s no humbug in it for me, just pure joy.  But am I just really in love with the fantasy of Christmas? For me that fantasy is a bit like the recipe for a Christmas cake, so many ingredients to create that incredible flavour.

The Christmas inside my head is about trees and carols and snow, it has elements of ‘Home Alone’, ‘White Christmas’, ‘Frozen’, ‘A Christmas Carol’, lashings of Band Aid, the Pogues with Kirsty McCall (of course), Noddy Holder, Phil Spectre, Michael Buble, its about a sprinkling of memories of selection boxes, Blue Peter annuals, the Radio Times special, waking up early on Christmas morning and wearing paper hats.  In my head and in my heart there’s such a fantasy of Christmas.

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The fantasy of Christmas

But if I stop fantasising, just for a moment, I suddenly realise that most of the Christmases that I’ve enjoyed have been nothing like that.  Presents break as soon as you look at them, the turkey is tough, grandma snores in the corner, the tele is rubbish and it rains all day.  Reality impinges on my fantasy and the magic and the sparkle and the glitter and the angels seem to disappear.

The truth is that Christmas is both about our fantasies, let’s call them our dreams, and it’s also about our reality.  Christmas is about the joy of anticipation, the building up of hope, in the midst of the ordinary and the mundane.  Christmas is about arriving in a town in the dead of night and finding that the inns are full.  It’s about being given a stable instead of a warm bed in which to have your baby.  Christmas is about heaven breaking into our harsh reality.

Just as we were about to begin the countdown to Christmas, before we’d even been able to open a single door on our Advent Calendar and enjoy the chocolate hidden behind it, this community was drawn into a second terror attack.  The events on the other side of the river at Fishmongers’ Hall and then on London Bridge, the deaths of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, the injuring of bodies, the disturbing of minds, the reopening of wounds, the stirring up of memories, made for a harsh beginning to the anticipation of Christmas.  But this was the reality in which we started to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

I was at a carol service the other day and looking through the order of service beforehand realised that the choir would be singing my favourite carol.  It’s called ‘Bethlehem Down’, the words are by Bruce Blunt and the music by Peter Warlock.  They wrote it together in 1927 to finance a binge drinking session that they were planning for Christmas Eve that year. They wrote the carol, entered it into the Daily Telegraph Carol Competition for that year, won and I suppose drank the winnings!  Perhaps not a great reason for doing it.  But what they produced is deeply poignant and shockingly honest.

When He is King they will clothe Him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown.

In nativity plays in schools and churches across the world a doll is wrapped and laid to rest in a manger, but the child as a man will be wrapped in other cloths and laid once more to rest, in a tomb.  Jesus is born into our harsh reality because we exist in the real world, you exist in the real world and it’s to the real world that God comes, in peace, with hope. We mustn’t allow the fantasy of Christmas to obscure its reality.

But, you know, we also need a touch of the sparkle and the magic of Christmas to shine into the world, we need Disney, we need Michael Buble and a fantasy of Christmas to make us realise the truth of what is so amazing, that God is with us, that heaven touches earth as a child is born.

Feel some of the magic of Christmas now and face the reality of tomorrow when it comes, knowing that when it does come God is with us, God is with you.


Whatever your Christmas was like, whichever of these best describes it, I hope that the new year is full of blessings as we continue to encounter the Living God.

Living God,
your life gives life to the world;
live in us,
live in me,
may our lives reflect your life.
Amen.

The Four Last Things

Just on the edge of Dartmoor, about a half hours drive outside of Exeter is the home of the Society of Mary and Martha at Sheldon.  It’s a beautiful place, old thatched barns re-purposed to provide chapels, meeting rooms, accommodation and lovely places of welcome for those who go there to find the space to reflect and recover.  In the past two years I have been twice and on both occasions to lead retreats. So, in the last week before Advent, I was there to lead a retreat which I had called ‘The Advent of Eternity’.  It was based on what are known as ‘The Four Last Things’, a traditional Advent meditation on heaven, hell, death and judgement.  They are tough subjects, but rich ground for contemplation and discussion – and over the week we did both as we took each of these ‘things’ in turn, and in listening and in worship looked at what these meant to us as we also studied the awesome paintings by John Martin that can be found in Tate Britain.

The Last Judgement 1853 by John Martin 1789-1854

‘The Last Judgement’ by John Martin

 

Like most right-minded people I have been horrified by the reaction to the Revd David Coles’ death and the messages that his partner, the Revd Richard Coles, has received from so called Christians.  I am ashamed of those who could write to someone in grief to say that they hoped that their loved one was ‘burning in hell’. What such expressions of what can only be described as a warped understanding of Christianity reveal is the depths of homophobia that continue to exist in parts of the church, the inability that some have to ever accept the Good News that Jesus both is and brings and the lack of common humanity in the cold stony hearts of some of our sisters and brothers.  Richard, existing as he does for part of each week in the media and having a high profile on social media, is bound to attract attention, and not all of it positive, of course.  But this cruel reaction makes me think of those powerful words from the book of the prophet Zechariah

‘And if anyone asks them, ‘What are these wounds on your chest?’ the answer will be ‘The wounds I received in the house of my friends.’’ (Zechariah 13.6)

But I know that the wicked people who do such cruel and sinful things are a very very small minority of Christians, but they have the capacity to destroy lives and to seriously hamper the work of the gospel. Our prayers at Southwark Cathedral have been for David and with Richard.

But having spent a week with others thinking about those ‘Four Last Things’ it makes me wonder what kind of view of heaven some people have.  The simple question is, how big or how small is heaven?  Is your heaven so big that all humanity can find their eternal home in it, or is your heaven so small that few will be admitted there.  And, if the latter is true, do I even want to be in such a heaven – though I know that according to the beliefs of some there is no place in heaven for me.  At one of the Church of England’s ‘Shared Conversations’ on sexuality a very nice person sitting next to me turned and said to me, in front of everyone else, ‘You know you cannot be saved.’  I thanked them for their courage and honesty and assured them that I had always and would always rely on the mercy of God; there is no firmer ground on which I can stand.  Yet those words remain with me though because, of course, that person may be right and I might simply be deluded by a liberal, inclusive reading of the Gospel.

So I was glad to read something written by the 19th century Danish Philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard.  He said,

‘If others go to hell, then I will too.  But I do not believe that; on the contrary I believe that all will be saved, myself with them – something which arouses my deepest amazement.’

As we stand at the advent of eternity that is something for me to hold on to.  Heaven, hell, death and judgement, there is real truth in all of them but there is even greater and more fundamental truth in what we will be preparing for over these last days that lead us up to Christmas.

In a stable in a small town in way off Palestine a young woman will give birth to a baby.  And she and her husband will name him Jesus, just as the angel had told them to, because he will save his people from their sins.

That is the truth come from above as we glimpse eternity in God’s gift of God’s self, heaven is open, hell is destroyed, death is defeated and judgement becomes the consuming fire of love.

God of our eternity, God of our now,
bring us to heaven
save us from hell
carry us through death
forgive us in judgement
and all for your love’s sake.
Amen.

Leadership

I have to apologise to you.  For a number of reasons it has been a tough week.  It has meant that I just didn’t have time to think about and then write a proper blog. I hope you will forgive me.  So I thought I could just share the sermon I’ve preached today at Southwark Cathedral. The only part of it that you won’t be able to participate in is the auction we held after the Choral Eucharist.  But you can still make a donation to the Robes Project if you haven’t yet had an opportunity to do so.  This is the link to my JustGiving page.

The readings for today were Isaiah 35.1-10, James 5.7-10 and Matthew 11.2-11.


We talk a great deal about leadership nowadays, and not just in relation to our political parties and their leaders! The church has become, let’s say, a little obsessed with models of leadership.  We deans are now sent off on leadership courses to hone those skills that will make us effective leaders – leaders of high functioning teams, as they’re called, leaders of communities, people who can give a reliable lead in good times or bad.  A few years ago, I was on a course that was being run in Cambridge by the Judge Business School, a very mini-MBA which had been designed to help us think about just such skills.

It was the week before Holy Week, Passion Week as we’d call it, and so at the back of all of our minds was what would be happening when we got back to our cathedrals from the Sunday onwards, the Palm Procession, Maundy Thursday, the Watch until midnight, the three hours around the cross on Good Friday, the stillness of Holy Saturday and then the joy at dawn of Easter Day.  It was all there, in our minds, as we then looked at various leadership styles.

Our lecturer told us how he was at one stage embedded with the Cambridge Blues – his word not mine; how he’d been observing how they worked in the Camp Bastion equivalent of the MASH military hospital tent; he showed us film of football coaching.  To be honest it all left me cold.  Not that there wasn’t great leadership going on, the cox getting everyone to row in unison, in the same direction, the triage going on in the emergency room, the motivation happening on the pitch.  I got all of that – but what about Jesus, what kind of leader was he?

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John and Jesus in the window of the Harvard Chapel in Southwark Cathedral

John is in prison.  Herod had had enough.  John was a thorn in his side, constantly pointing the finger, speaking too much truth to power.  As in so many regimes throughout history, especially those who imagine they have a mandate to do whatever they want to do, he didn’t want criticism, he didn’t like to hear the truth being spoken or have his decisions questioned. He particularly didn’t like his private life or his morals being scrutinised in the public arena.

John fell foul of all of this.  The gospels tell us nothing really of what went on. We know that John, this great Advent figure, was baptising by the Jordan and we know that the crowds headed out to hear his uncompromising preaching and we know that in those crowds it wasn’t just the poor who were hearing this prophet preach – that there were soldiers and lawyers and tax collectors in the crowd, a whole cross section of society that were being stirred up.

We then know that John was beheaded by Herod, at a party, and that Herod’s relationship with his brother’s wife was a huge factor in all of this.  And we get this snippet when John sends his disciples, who’ve been visiting him in prison, to find out just who this Jesus is, whether or not he was the Messiah for whom everyone was looking.

They find Jesus and he tells them to simply look at what he’s doing.

The First Reading spoke about the coming of the kingdom of God and what a difference that would make – to everything.  Isaiah is giving us a vision of a world transformed and the things that are mentioned – the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing – are the very things that Jesus points out to the disciples of John.

‘If you want to know me’, Jesus is saying to them and to us, ‘if you really want to know me, look at what I’m doing, look at the effect I’m having in people’s lives, look and see who I am.’

Jesus was the fulfilment of everything that’d been prophesied, Jesus is the fulfilment of the promises of God, Jesus is the leader for humanity to follow.

Both John and Jesus played their roles, John as the prophet, the forth-teller and Jesus as – well it was still hard for people to know.

As John’s disciples leave, Jesus challenges those who were following him about their expectations as far as John was concerned.  What’d they been expecting when they went out into the desert to find him and listen to him?  A reed, a ruler – a weak figure easily swayed, a strong figure with the trappings of power?  They had huge expectations and John was not what they were expecting, but there were still none greater than he.

Thursday saw a seismic shift in our politics.  Outside of this city the political map has substantially changed and we have to recognise that fact.  There’s been plenty of analysis going on since that exit poll was announced.  To be honest I was gutted by the result and that is me simply being honest with you.  There are some big questions to be answered and not just by the leaders of the other parties who failed this nation so badly.  The style of the Prime Minister’s leadership is apparently just what so many people in the country were looking for and those who would not normally vote Tory have, in Mr Johnson’s words, ‘lent him’ their vote.  We now wait and see. I hope they are not disappointed.

For those of us who have a strong view on what the world should be like, those of us who hold to the vision of which Isaiah speaks and the Baptist proclaimed, those of us who believe that religion is not just about heaven, ‘pie in the sky when you die’ but realising that heaven on earth for all people, whoever, wherever they are, then the work for us has only just begun.

When John sent his friends to find Jesus he was still doing that work of vigilance even from a difficult place, even from the prison cell.  And they take back the report of what they see, what they see being done, what a difference is being made to people’s lives.  They take back the message that the poor are hearing good news.

So this is a call to us to be vigilant.  It’s hard for governments that have a big majority, almost as hard as those that have no majority.  We wait to see what kind of leader the Prime Minister really will be and whether the support that has been lent to him really will be recognised in policies and actions that will improve the lives of the many and not the few.  And we have to hold government at every level to that and keep on doing what we do and do so well.

We’ll be having an auction after this Eucharist.  It’s an auction of the prizes that we couldn’t auction before the sleepout for the Robes Project.  That sleepout was cancelled because of the second terrorist attack in this area.  But the work of Robes goes on because the needs of the homeless do not go away.  I know that you’ll support that auction and that work as generously as you’re able.  And our witness to the homeless and our witness to the glorious diversity of this city and our witness to reconciliation and peace and justice will go on.  We need to give leadership to that, all of us.

We do it, of course, because we follow a leader like no other.  What we didn’t talk about on that leadership course was what it means to be a leader who is also a follower and a follower of a leader who will take you to the cross on that royal road, of which Isaiah speaks, that royal road to the kingdom of God.  This is our leader, our wounded healer, our crucified king, despised, rejected of men, the baby in the manger, the man on the cross, the bread in our hands, our resurrection and our life.

Who is he?  Look at what he does, look at what he does for us, look at what he does for you, what he does for me.  We follow him because in Jesus we have a leader who will never let us down.

Jesus,
may I follow
where you lead.
Amen.

Speaking into it

My family has a long tradition of talking too much – it’s somewhere in the double helix of our DNA!  Back in the days when you could be caned at school or have the board rubber whistle past your ear, my mother, was still being punished for talking in class right up to the time when she matriculated.  I have one of those agonising memories of being made to stand in the middle of the classroom (when humiliation had replaced corporal punishment) during a VIth form study period for talking on the back row when we were meant to be working in silence! But some strokes of the cane or a bit of humiliation cured neither my mum nor me of this desperate need to talk.  And I can see the same in many members of my family.  When we get together we all seem to be talking and very few are listening!

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Everyone looks well behaved here!

But, to be honest, it has stood me in good stead.  I and the Cathedral community at Southwark are very grateful to all those who sent messages of support to us during last weekend when we were faced with another terrorist attack in the London Bridge area.  As I said then, it all served to reopen old wounds and stir memories, uncover hurts that still need healing.  On Friday, after returning from our local mosque where I had been for Friday Prayers, I joined people gathered in the nave of the Cathedral at the time when the attack took place and we stood, not talking, but in silence, remembering Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones who were killed and all of those who were in any way caught up in what happened.

But especially around the weekend and immediately afterwards the media were on our doorstep and wanting to talk to me about what had happened.  Colleagues were concerned for me, all these demands being made, how was I doing, I needed to look after myself.  I knew they were right to have those concerns, so I did a bit of thinking about all of that and came to the realisation that for me talking is therapeutic, talking is how I begin to make a bit of sense of things.  I don’t think  I am very different to many other people, it’s just that I was given numerous opportunities to tell the story and to articulate what we were feeling as a community, to put into words things that are at times very difficult to express or describe.  But when you are asked the question, you have to find the words.,

We have a team of trained listeners in the Cathedral and it was good to see that they were being well used last Sunday after the Choral Eucharist.  People just needed to talk and they needed someone who was prepared simply to listen.  The speaking and the listening have to go together – and listening in a good way, attentive, focused, careful.

So I am grateful to the BBC and ITV and Sky and even the Sydney Morning Herald, among others, for doing that bit of therapy for me, asking me the questions and then listening, enabling me to express my own feelings and, I hope, speak of what others are feeling after listening to what they have said.

Whilst all of this has been going on we have been having carol services and carol concerts – I’m in my element, I love Christmas! – and so I have already heard the Prologue to St John’s Gospel read on a few occasions.  And what has struck me is John’s use of the Greek word ‘logos’ which we translate as Word.

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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1.1)

In Greek, the word for the written word is ‘lexis’ but for the spoken word it is ‘logos’.  The incarnation that we celebrate is of the word spoken into our being, the word that God spoke over creation in the very beginning, taking flesh and speaking.  And what is so powerful for me is that the spoken word becomes flesh as a child who must learn to speak, the logos begins by speaking words of complete vulnerability that only his mother can begin to understand.

The poet Carol Ann Duffy in her poem ‘The Virgin punishing the infant’ reflects a little on this.

He spoke early.  Not the goo goo goo of infancy
but I am God.

And God finds a voice and speaks the logos into the world – and for once we listen.

Logos of God,
speak to me,
speak through me.
Amen.

Déjà vu

The conditions were going to be perfect.  The forecast was for a cold but dry night.  I could just about cope with that.  Plenty of people had signed up for the annual Robes Sleep Out and my own fundraising was going really well.  So as I headed back from leading a retreat on the ‘Four Last Things’ – heaven, hell, death and judgement – at the Society of Mary & Martha at Sheldon (a great place if you have never been there) – I was getting quite excited. This was Advent weekend and we were on the brink of all our festivities happening in the lead up to Christmas.

london-bridge

So I was unpacking and putting on my dog collar when someone texted me to tell me that something was happening on London Bridge.  Déjà vu is a strange feeling when we experience it – ‘I have been here before’ – but we know that it is some strange psychological reaction to a number of random things coming together and passes as quickly as it comes.  But this was different – I had been here before.

I headed off to the Cathedral and crowds of people were heading towards me.  I kept going.  In Clink Street people were running away from the area where the Cathedral is.  I kept going and managed to get to the doors of the Cathedral just as they were being locked.  We often practice a ‘lock-down’, the theory was now being put into practice.  The doors were locked behind me.

The nave was the gathering place.  There were people there who had come to the Friends’ Christmas Fair which had just opened, other visitors to the Cathedral, staff and volunteers all there, unsure what was happening.  A visiting organist began playing some gentle music.  We waited to see what would happen.  Finally we were told by the police to evacuate the building.

We moved as directed to the edge of the Borough Market.  Local people were distressed, we had been here before, just two and a half years ago, and, I know it sounds pathetic, but we didn’t think that it would happen again – you just don’t. Lightening doesn’t strike twice.

We had to make a decision.  The sleepout would have to be cancelled.  It was with huge regret that we did this, but there was no option.  In fact it wasn’t until late in the evening that the police cordon moved and we were able to get to the Cathedral at all.  A huge disappointment but nothing by comparison with what had happened on the bridge.

That bridge which has seen so much of London’s history again witnesses another episode in our life. Now that more is coming to light about what took place in Fishmongers’ Hall, the bravery of people there and then subsequently on the edge of the bridge itself, the response of the police, the killing of the assailant and then the reports of the death of two of those who were injured make you realise that whilst it felt like history repeating itself this was a different event.

But the result was the same.  People dead, lives scared, physically, mentally, emotionally, heroism displayed and the realisation, again, that the unimaginable forces of evil that we have to face up and recognise are around.  As I waited in the streets with others, not knowing what was happening, I was able to talk to local people.  We were all shocked and coming to a recognition that the effects of the events of not so long ago were just below the surface.  And if it was like that for us what was it like for the families of the eight people who were killed on 3 June 2017?

I am sure all my sponsors and all those who sponsored us for the sleepout will understand that there was nothing else we could do.  The work of Robes, our night-shelter and day time drop-in will continue.  But there is other work to do, helping people to come to terms with what has happened in our community yet again.

We talk so much about the values that define us as a community, in the cathedral and beyond, and all of that remains true.  We remain committed to openness and inclusion, to celebrating diversity and not fearing it, to never seeing the stranger as a threat but a welcome guest, knowing always that goodness and love and peace and hope are so much stronger than anything that evil can do.

This is what I see every time I look at Jesus, who lived what he taught and made himself vulnerable in doing so, but ultimately life and love won.  Goodness can never be defeated.

This is the prayer I wrote on Friday evening.  I will continue to pray it.

God of unfailing compassion,
make us strong in the face of terror,
loving in the presence of hatred,
bold in our diversity,
always knowing
that your hand holds us
and your life sustains us,
today, tonight and always.
Amen.

Settling

I wasn’t really a big fan of ‘Little House on the Prairie’; I preferred ‘Children on the Oregon Trail’ by Anna Rutgers van der Loeff.  It’s a story based on the remarkable journey made by the Sager children through the north-west of America in the pioneering days of 1844. John Sager is 13 when his family leave Mississippi for the Far West. When tragedy strikes and John’s parents die, he’s left to look after his six younger siblings. It was all wagons and ‘Red Indians’ (it was quite an old book when I read it as a child) and full of adventures.  But both of those stories, and others like them, put into our minds the idea of those intrepid people who headed west, into an unknown land, to settle what, with a colonial mindset, they believed to be their land. But the wagons and the log cabins and the gingham aprons, and cowboys on horseback are only one idea of what it means to be a settler.

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Settlers

It was disturbing to hear last week the news that the USA administration has declared that the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are no longer illegal but legal.  Until now even the USA with its pro-Israeli agenda had defined the settlements as illegal developments on land held against international law.  Whilst the UN and other nations hold firm in their opinion we have to recognise that in this, as in many things, the expressed opinion of the USA has an effect.

I have written before on this blog about the reality of the settlements that pilgrims see when they’re in the Holy Land.  Forget the Sager children and their covered wagon; forget the Ingalls family and Michael Landon in the TV series of ‘Little House’; when you see these settlements what you see is urbanization, small cities that are sprouting, like mushrooms, at an alarming rate.

Jesus said ‘A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.’ (Matthew 5.14)  Settlements are generally built on hills, like defensive emplacements looking down on the Palestinian villages and towns that have been there for ever.  Take Bethany for instance.  This town of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, the bolt hole of Jesus, is now divided by the Separation Wall – Jesus couldn’t make the Palm Sunday journey he made any longer and neither can pilgrims travelling in his wake – and the whole town is looked down on, literally, by a huge sprawling settlement.

You can spot a settlement.  New buildings, green watered lawns, security on the roads entering them, served by a new fast road network on which Palestinian drivers and cars are not allowed to travel. When I was in the Holy Land last year helping on a course from St George’s College we spent part of a day visiting the 70 year old Palestinian Refugee Camp run by UNHCR in Bethlehem and then the more recently built Settlement outside of the city.  In both we met local people living in very different situations, mere miles apart, yet worlds apart.  The resident of the refugee camp was living with that identity, waiting for the return his ancestral home and land lost in 1948 and the settler was living with that identity, defiant, with a sense of biblical entitlement, with a pioneering spirit and intolerance to match.

Settlement

The view from the Shepherds’ Fields

As, just a few days ago, we sat at the Shepherds’ Fields looking across the valley from the hill that we were on to the one opposite, we reflected on the growth of the settlements that we could see.  Those who’d been pilgrims ten years ago remembered those hills as bare.  Now they are anything but and as you can see from this photograph the buildings are moving relentlessly to the east and into the wilderness.  But this was not land that was waiting to be settled, this was ancestral land, olive groves, grazing land, land that Boaz had farmed, that shepherds had watched their flocks on, that angels had hovered over as they sang of the birth of the Prince of Peace.

The reality that we have to face is that Palestinian towns are being encircled by settlements and that this will make a Two-State Solution almost impossible to achieve in a few years time.  It is sad, and more than sad.

God of justice,
we hold before you
the land through which your Son walked,
the fields in which he sat,
the towns that he knew.
May there be justice and peace for all.
Amen.

Back home

We had a great pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  But what a shock coming home! Ten days in the heat had made me unprepared for the drop in temperature that met us as we left Heathrow airport.  But I’m sure I’ll get used to it fairly quickly. The other shock, of course, was the number of emails that were waiting in the Inbox.  I try to monitor it as far as I can but leading a pilgrimage is a full-time privilege so I was unable to keep those emails turned over.  But the Inbox is back to manageable levels, and the washing has almost be done and the bags almost unpacked, so re-entry into normal life has all but happened.

I’m a great one for looking back, however, in the ‘This time last week I was doing this’ kind of way.  So I have been thinking back over the things we did.  Rather unfairly I was asking fellow pilgrims what their highlights had been as we were beginning our journey home and maybe that was a bit too early for them to answer properly.  But I have been asking myself that same question since returning.

Hebron

Street art in Hebron

To be honest, I think the highlight for me was being able to spend a day in Hebron.  The current advice on the Foreign Office website says this about visiting the city.

There is a closed military zone in the H2 area of Hebron (around Ash-Shuhada Street and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs), where there is a risk of a hostile reaction from members of extremist groups.

Well, we walked down that street and we visited the mosque and the synagogue in the Tomb.  In fact it was Layla from the Hebron Women’s Cooperative who escorted us down the street and showed us what the effect of the arrival of the Settlers on the local population had been. Former shops and homes on what was once a busy street are now locked and boarded up.  Soldiers are on duty to make sure that people don’t stray where tehy shouldn’t – someone had been shot in the legs the week before for doing just that, we were told. Layla then led us through the souk and past the shop which sold the work by the women who are members of the cooperative and to her home.

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Ash-Shuhada Street

She had prepared Maghluba for us, a traditional Palestinian dish.  The word literally means “upside down” in Arabic and it is impressively turned out onto a large dish so that the whole family can dig in.  There was chicken and rice and onion, cauliflower, carrot, all perfectly cooked and gently and beautifully flavoured.  It was real home cooking and, as nice as hotel food is, you can’t beat what the family eats.

Waiting for lunch

Waiting for the Maghluba to be turned out

We sat there, some on cushions on the floor, others of us (the less supple) on chairs and simply enjoyed Layla’s lovely and generous hospitality.  It was calm inside her home and the tension on the streets seemed like another world.  Here we were, being looked after in the city where hospitality was given by our father Abraham and our mother Sarah to the three angels.  They didn’t have Maghluba, as far as we know, but the spirit of generosity was the same, and God was made known.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13.2)

Sometimes angels entertain us as well!

Loving God,
thank you for those
who open their homes to others.
Amen.

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015

LIVING GOD

Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

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

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark