Farewell 2017

Like you, perhaps, I’ve been thinking over this last year.  It hasn’t been an easy one and I’m not weeping as we approach the beginning of 2018.  So just a quick review of each month as far as it has been for me.

January – the bells came back to Southwark Cathedral.  That was a fantastic event and a great service when the Bishop baptised two of them and rededicated the rest.  I think it was seeing those twelve bells, dressed and lined up down the nave which is the lasting impression.  Or could it have been meeting the Revd Kate Bottley who then came with the ‘Songs of Praise’ crew to film them being raised to their place in the tower?

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With lovely Kate

February – I went off for a tour of Zimbabwe with Bishop Christopher, the Archdeacon of Southwark and the Bishop’s Press Officer.  I’d been to Southwark Cathedral’s own link Diocese of Masvingo but never to the whole of the country.  Amazing.  But who would have thought that this same year we would see the fall of President Mugabe and the Archbishop of York replacing his dog-collar?  The highlight though, I have to say, in the midst of all that amazing hospitality and wonderful worship, was visiting St Augustine’s Penhalonga, where the Community of the Resurrection had been based, and walking into a church I knew so well from photographs and now seeing it in all is splendour.

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The basilica of the bush

March – the Consecration of Karowei Dorgu as Bishop of Woolwich was a wonderful occasion.  The lack of diversity amongst the bishops was being addressed as far as gender was concerned but not with regard to ethnicity. Bishop Karowei was, and is, a clear sign of hope.  But then that same month the attack on Westminster Bridge and the killing of people there and then of PC Keith Palmer, doing his job, defending our democracy, was a shock to the system.  Hope all of a sudden seemed to be under attack.

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If the hat fits …

April – a month that should have been focused on Holy Week and Easter began with us hosting the funeral of PC Keith Palmer in Southwark Cathedral.  Cressida Dick became the Commissioner that same day so that she was in post to represent the whole of the Metropolitan Police Service at the funeral.  It fell to me to preach.  It is hard to describe what that feels like, knowing the streets and bridges were full of people, listening.  All I could do was remember that this was a funeral and that Keith’s widow and daughter would be there, listening.

May – one of the joys of life over the last eight years has been to serve the Society of Catholic Priests as their Rector General.  So it fell to me to visit SCP in Ireland and to encourage those few priests there who would identify as coming from the ‘catholic’ tradition.  It was a great visit.  What a wonderful country and people!  Later in the year, however, my time as Rector General came to an end.  But what a privilege it has been to visit and speak to members of our Society – women and men, black and white, gay and straight, single and partnered, with differing abilities – serving the church faithfully in the places to which God has called them.

June – the month began as any other and then the evening of 3rd June would see an event which would affect the whole of the remainder of the year.  The terrorist attack that evening on London Bridge and the Borough Market left 8 people dead and 48 people injured.  It also left a community scarred and changed.  Being unable to get into the Cathedral for almost a week meant that we had to learn how to be ‘the Cathedral’ differently; the local community came together with a new strength; we learnt about each other as people.  It has changed me – for the better I hope – and given me a new appreciation of my Muslim brothers and sisters.  Speaking at Friday Prayers at our local mosque in the week after the attack was a privilege I never thought would be mine and then hosting the long planned Grand Iftar in the Cathedral ten days after the attack has created new relationships and a greater understanding.  But at such cost!

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Three of the great Street Pastors who cared for us after the attack

July – General Synod is always a feature of my year but in 2017 the Synod in York became very significant.  Had the tide turned? Was there a different feel? The debates on welcoming transgender people and the banning of conversion therapy with regard to homosexual (in evangelical speak ‘same-sex attracted people) in church were powerful, brave and decisive. The irony was that at the same time a group of 50 people including 15 priests from Southwark Cathedral and the Diocese were marching in the London Pride parade, with pride.  It was a delicious and painful irony, a vignette of where we are as a church.

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Marching with Pride

August – I turned 60 at the end of July.  That was a fantastic occasion – great to see so many friends and family as we celebrated.  And then it was off to Spain for my usual ten days in the sun, catching up on reading and simply relaxing.  The highlight? I suppose visiting the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona now that it is almost complete.  Bonkers it is, but impressive bonkers.

September – it’s always one of those getting back to work months and this September was like that.  The terrorist attack in June meant that I was unable to lead the Cathedral Pilgrimage in the steps of Martin Luther, to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  But in September we held a reunion for all the pilgrims – so I got to see the photos and hear the stories!

October – as part of my first sabbatical in 2006 I visited Tamil Nadu in India – I’d always wanted to go back to that country and see another area.  A group of us had planned for a long time to do this and so in October eight of us, plus our organiser and guide, headed off for 15 days in Rajasthan.  It was everything we had hoped for – lovely people, wonderful sights, new experiences, delicious food, warmth and sunshine and something memorable.  For me it was the Taj Mahal, the scaffolding removed and there, resplendent, perfect, a monument to love and unsurpassed by the skill of humanity.

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Stunning

November – we use the nave of the Cathedral in many ways and occasionally for grand dinners.  One such dinner happened in November.  The chairs were cleared and round tables installed, the flowers were arranged and the lighting perfected, the candles lit and people gathered.  The event was the retirement of one of the Partners at EY (Ernst and Young) who have offices not far from the Cathedral.  Why mention this?  Well, the person retiring lives with a bad stammer but had not let this prevent him living his life and progressing in his profession and had set up a stammering network in the firm which is the largest such network in the UK. He spoke and sang at the dinner and with such confidence – it was very moving, and humbling.  And why at Southwark? Because at a memorial service for a colleague that we hosted he was asked to read and doing so was the beginning of a journey which has brought him to where he is, and praying in that holy place is one thing that has sustained him throughout.  Tremendous.

December – it is my favourite month and I make no secret of that.  We welcomed thousands of people to the Cathedral for carol services and concerts, as we do every year.  But this year people wanted to remember the events I have mentioned, but also Finsbury Park Mosque, the Manchester Arena, Grenfell Tower and the atrocities and the disasters that have happened in so many communities around the world during the year and that have given this year its particular feel and flavour.  All of it was brought to that vulnerable baby in the crib, all our own vulnerability that we have learnt so much of together, in the hard times and the good times of 2017 and that knowledge that God has been with us and God is with us.

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Ending the year in the Borough Market

 

So where do we go from here? There is only one direction and that is forwards.  It has been hard but it has not been all bad.  But all I can do is remember the words of perhaps the most famous poem for the turn of the year, the one that caught the public attention and the popular imagination when King George VI quoted it in his 1939 Christmas broadcast to the British Empire. It was written a number of years earlier by Minnie Louise Haskins.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

And that is my prayer and that is my intention – to put my hand in God’s hand as we walk into 2018.

Hand of God, hold us.
Hope of God, sustain us.
Vision of God, direct us.
Love of God, enfold us.
Peace of God, fill us.
Amen.

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Anno Domini

I’m pleased that it is 2017, not for any particular reason, just that it isn’t 2016.  I’ll turn 60 this year so it will be an important one for me personally. But apart from that and, presumably, Article 50 being triggered, I have no idea what will be happening. I’m not given to horoscopes or reading Nostradamus, in fact one of the things I remember from my confirmation classes when I was 11 was being told to include ‘I have read the horoscope’ as part of my examination of conscience before Confession! But I’d quite happily forget 2016.

2017

Obviously Brexit and Trump were low points as far as I was concerned and a real wake up call, a challenge to my assumed confidence that ‘things can only get better’ to use D:Ream’s words. But there was so much in the year that cast a heavy pall over life.  Within all the gloom, of course, the election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London was a bright spark.  Leading him into Southwark Cathedral as he began his mayoralty in our sacred Christian space was a highlight of the year.  But I think all of us became wearied by the endless news of the deaths of celebrities.  It really did seem relentless.  From David Bowie right through to Debbie Reynolds it seemed as though there was a cull of the famous and the infamous underway.

I realised of course that I’m of an age when people I know die and that those who were stars when I was growing up are getting old.  I also realised that my generation has lived in an age of celebrity, of pop stars and TV stars as well as the stars of the silver screen celebrated by the previous generation. Celebrity has been the mood music of our generation and the song is changing.  There are so many people who are now defined as celebrities that, of course, their deaths are more numerous as well.  If, back in 1968, Warhol was right that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”, then each of us has celebratory status and our deaths are worthy of noting.

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Some of those who died in 2016

 

In these last few days my own mother has died.  Jill Harrison was no celebrity, well, not beyond her family circle.  For us she was everything.  She was 85 when she died but the last 15 years were marred by the effects left by a severe stroke.  That took from her all her former abilities – handicrafts, cooking, even reading.  She was a proud homemaker who had been able to stay at home rather than go out to work for the whole of her married life.  It was strange to be asked at the Registry, as my father and I registered her death, what her profession had been.  We said ‘Costing Clerk’ which was true but she hadn’t done that since they married.  But we value paid work above the hard work raising a family and so that went on the Death Certificate, ‘Costing Clerk (Retired)’. I ask you!

Mum had been deteriorating rapidly over the last two weeks.  I’d been up and given her the Last Rites already (she was always frightened she would die without them) but I brought the Blessed Sacrament and Holy Oil with me when I arrived back in my parents’ village on Christmas Day.  On Boxing Day we had a little service round her bed.  She was unable to receive the Sacrament but we did on here behalf, I gave her Absolution and anointed her.  Then we sang ‘Away in a manger’ and she mouthed the words.  I gave her a final blessing and she closed her eyes and went to sleep.  She never really woke up again and on the Feast of the Holy Innocents she died. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

The term Anno Domini, abbreviated AD in our calendars, is an interesting one.  The pattern of dating the years from the supposed year of Christ’s birth, devised by Dionysius Exiguus of Scythia Minor (hardly a celebrity on anyone’s list – though maybe he should be) wasn’t established until 525 AD and wasn’t widely used until 800.  Before that, other calendars were used and still are. But there is something very powerful in thinking that the birth of Jesus really was the beginning of a new era of history, the Janus moment if you like, from which we look back and look forward, from which you begin to date things.  But then we all do that.  In future we will say as a family each Christmas ‘It’s one year’, ‘Its five years’, ‘Its ten years’ … ‘since Mum died’. There are always endings and beginnings, turning points in our own histories and turning points in our global history, the events that are significant to a few and to many.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews begins his wonderful book with time and eternity embracing verses.

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. (Hebrews 1.1-2)

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‘In these last days he has spoken to us by a Son’

 

God has spoken in time and embraced our time, our years, our events, large and small. God is with us in the certainties and the uncertainties as we face the future and in this ‘Year of Our Lord 2017’. May it be a year of blessing for each one of us.

God of time and eternity,
as you have blessed the past
and share in the present
so bless our future.
Amen.

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