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.

100% Christmas

I love having the radio on.  My first choice is Radio 4.  It’s what I go to sleep to and what I wake up to – sleep happens between ‘Today in Parliament’ and ‘Today’. But I can’t work to that – too much talking to ignore.  So I usually listen to Classic FM, Radio 3 is a bit too demanding for me at times whereas the oft repeated tunes on Classic FM are comforting.  But in December I treat myself to a change and move over to Magic.  Why? Well, I have to sign lots and lots of Christmas cards and whilst doing that I find nothing nicer than listening to all those old Christmas hits that Magic fills the airwaves (if that term is right in the digital age) with and especially at this time of the year.  From last week Magic went ‘100% Christmas’ and that, believe me, is no exaggeration.

If so much Slade and Band Aid and Michael Buble and Andy Williams fills you with horror – well you have been warned.  But I’ve been enjoying it.


The Chairman of PwC reads at their carol service

I’ve also been enjoying all the carol services and carol concerts that I’ve been doing.  The vergers pin a long list of all the special services in December to the back of the vestry door and they mark them off as we go through them like a condemned person in a cell! Livery Companies, schools, charities, the big firms, community groups – they all come through the place, packing out the cathedral at lunchtime, in the afternoon, in the evening.  People, many I suspect who don’t go to church regularly, there to listen to scripture and sing carols and say their prayers.  I have said on this blog before that I believe carol services are a wonderful mission opportunity.  People are in church ready to listen and eager to participate.  This is the good soil of which Jesus spoke

‘Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’’ (Matthew 13.8)

All the elements that make up any carol service are the seed that has the potential for growth.  Those who are a bit sniffy about such services should think again.


A great Christmas book

So I’m a bit immersed in Christmas I’m afraid and even the book group of which I’m a member has been reading a very Christmassy book.  We chose Jeanette Winterson’s collection of short stories and recipes  ‘Christmas Days’.  Twelve stories, twelve recipes each prefaced by a little personal tale.  It is a fantastic book and would provide a wonderful way of celebrating the Twelve Days when they arrive.

So in my world all of this is lovely and exciting.  But my question to myself is, who stole Advent, or did I give it away? There is a challenge to me in Dr Seuss’ book ‘The Grinch who stole Christmas.’

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!” 

There is a lot more to Christmas but part of that is always discovered in Advent.  The vergers’ list begins to tail off at the end of this week and we will get a little bit of Advent back.  Perhaps then I should switch off Magic and sing instead

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

may I find the space
for eager expectation
in the coming days
and at Christmas
know the fulfillment
of your promises.


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.


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.


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.

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

Who stole Advent?

Almost 60 years ago, so back in November 1957, ‘Dr Seuss’ of the ‘Cat in the Hat’ fame published another great book, ‘How the Grinch stole Christmas’.  The Grinch is a bitter, grouchy, cave-dwelling green monster with a heart “two sizes too small” who steals everything associated with Christmas.  But Christmas won out and was still celebrated and so the Grinch returns everything and shares in Christmas.  Christmas always wins out!


One of the things that you have to be prepared to relinquish if you work in a Cathedral is the season of Advent.  Well, to be fair we get tantalising tastes of it – an early morning Mass dressed in Sarum blue, a Choral Evensong, the Advent study groups on the ‘Four Last Things’. But the rest of the time is taken up with wall-to-wall carol services, Christmas parties and mince pies.  Next door to the Deanery, since 19 November, in front of Tate Modern we have had a Christmas Market .  We listen to carols and Bing Crosby broadcast to the crowds to get them in the mood, we breathe in the fumes of Mulled Wine (surely the worst thing you can do to wine) and smell the hog being roasted. The Borough Market is full of poultry, brussels and chestnuts and the pubs are full.

In some ways it suits me down to the ground.  I absolutely love Christmas.  I adore the fact that I have to have the Christmas Trees up in the Deanery early on in December.  The head of our Cathedral Flower Guild came and dressed the trees (yes, trees) on 2 December.  The baubles are already dusty! And to those of my sniffy friends who insist that decorations go up on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and come down before Epiphany I can respond with a pitiful look and the explanation ‘Well, I know but you can’t entertain people at this season without a tree up’.  I don’t deserve any sympathy – I love it.

This year we have 36 carol services or concerts in the Cathedral before Christmas.  We are welcoming charities, businesses, schools from across the community as we do each year.  NewsUK, Barclays Bank, Marie Curie, Mercy Ships, the Mayor of London, law firms, Livery Companies, they are all coming and many more besides.  Thousands of people who perhaps don’t darken the doors of a church at any other time come along for a good sing of carols and will listen to four, five, six even nine readings from the Bible and a homily and lap it up.  Carol services are for us one of the great mission opportunities of the year when we can talk about Jesus and do some theology (John 1.1-14 is a complex read) and people want to be there.  Ok, the carols play roughshod with reality (‘no crying did he make’) and we shove Matthew, Luke and John into one narrative which is simply an abuse of scripture.  But what an opportunity we have!


Carol Sing-In at Southwark


However, the victim of all of this is Advent, we lose perhaps one of the most beautiful, rich, deep, significant seasons of the year.  At Choral Evensong last week we sang that lovely hymn ‘When came in flesh the incarnate Word’ with words by Joseph Anstice and a tune attributed to Purcell. The mellow and thoughtful music and words that make you think are magnificent.  My favourite is this verse

As mild to meek eyed love and faith,
Only more strong to save;
Strengthened by having bowed to death,
By having burst the grave.

It reminded me that Advent is about more than Christmas, it’s about passion, death and resurrection, about the wounded God who will come again, the kind of thing that a carol service cannot embrace. But can I ever get Advent back?  Well, not whilst I’m in a  Cathedral, that much is certain. Why would we turn 20,000 people away during these days? But at the same time how do we hold on to Advent?

I’m not sure I have a good answer to that.  But perhaps the question I began with ‘Who stole Advent?’ is the wrong one. It wasn’t a monster with a heart “two sizes too small” who took it from us but it is the church simply responding to reality.  We can play Canute and try to command the tide to turn but, as we know, he ended up with wet feet and we can’t afford to lose more friends or credibility. We can refuse to respond to the world about us and look bitter and grouchy.  Or we can offer Advent in a new way, to the world, to the community that God has a big heart for, with divine generosity.  It makes the morsels of Advent even more tasty and my encounters with the prophet Isaiah even more delicious.  To use what is now a ‘Downing Street’ phrase, we can have our cake and eat it, even if it is Christmas cake in Advent! To God be the glory.

Advent God,
bless us in our anticipation,
bless us in our celebration,
as you give joy to the world
in Jesus.


It hardly seems possible but there months have gone since the ‘last post’ on this Living God blog.  But it is.  Time passes very quickly and seems to concertina until it seems no time at all since I embarked on three months of sabbatical leave.  But today I was back at Southwark Cathedral as we celebrated Advent Sunday and the beginning of another Christian year and this season of preparation for Christmas.  It has been a fantastic three months and those who have been following my sabbatical blog will know some of the things that I got up to.  For those who didn’t get a chance to read it you can see all the blogs here.

One of the final things that I did in Jerusalem, where I spent half of the sabbatical, was to attend an Act of Remembrance at the Commonwealth War Cemetery on Mount Scopos.  In the early heat of the day we sat amongst the beautifully kept war graves and the Last Post and Reveille sounded out across the Jerusalem hills. This Advent Sunday is something of a reveille call for me, waking me up, bringing me back, alerting me to the things I have to do, reengaging me with the ministry at the Cathedral.


Bugler and piper on Mount Scopus


That was really the thrust of my first sermon back at the Cathedral and so I post the text here.  I’m looking forward to resuming this blog and my Twitter prayers.  The sabbatical has been energizing and renewing and so, woken up and alert, I look forward to what lies ahead.

The readings for this Sunday are as follows: Isaiah 2.1-5; Romans 13.11-14; Matthew 24.36-44

Do you wake up naturally or do you need an alarm clock to get you up, someone shaking you, the smell of tea or coffee by your bed, or the sound of the ‘Today’ programme easing you out of your slumbers and into the harsh reality of the world? We all wake up differently – some are blessed to be able to leap from their beds with enthusiasm, new every morning, and some need dragging from their pit.

The poet Dylan Thomas in his play for voices, ‘Under Milk Wood’, paints for us pictures in words of the getting up routines of the people in the village of Llareggub.

The Reverend Eli Jenkins, in Bethesda House, gropes out of bed into his preacher’s black, combs back his bard’s white hair, forgets to wash, pads barefoot downstairs, opens the front door, stands in the doorway and, looking out at the day and up at the eternal hill, and hearing the sea break and the gab of birds, remembers his own verses and tells them softly to empty Coronation Street that is rising and raising its blinds.


Mary Ann Sailors, opening her bedroom window above the taproom calls out to the heavens
‘I’m eighty-five years three months and a day!’

It’s Advent Sunday and I can’t believe it. A couple of weeks ago I was in Jerusalem and it felt like summer. I come back to London and the streets are full of lights and the windows full of trees and it feels like winter and it looks like Christmas.

One of the last things I did before I left Jerusalem was to sit on the Mount of Olives and look at the view that Jesus and his disciples were looking at when he gave them the dire warning that we heard in the gospel. Well, it wasn’t the same view of course – no Dome of the Rock, no mosque, no Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jesus’ day, but some of it was the same.

What Jesus was saying to the disciples, what St Paul was saying to the Romans, is the call of the alarm clock, ‘Wake up’.

‘It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’.

We begin a new Christian year today and what a year the last one was. To be honest I felt I must have been sleep walking, deluding myself about the nature of our society, about what the values were that define us, what the values were that motivate us, what kind of communities and societies we wanted to build for the whole of our society. In our Mayoral election I saw a glimpse of an affirmation of that but everything that’s happened subsequently has suggested to me that I was deluded.

The first part of my sabbatical I spent in Canada, perhaps the most liberal, accepting, inclusive and polite society I’ve ever encountered. That was in September and everyone we met was looking south across the border with the States and wondering what on earth was going on – but imagining, from their urbane liberal perspective, that the right thing would happen, that common sense and common values would prevail.

In Jerusalem at the Anglican Cathedral with its guest house and college loads of people from the States were coming and going. By October they were beginning to be anxious but it was going to be alright.

But the shock of Brexit became the shock of Trump and the image of the anti-elitists, Farage and Trump, standing by the gold-plated lift in Trump Tower said it all.


No comment


‘It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’.

I’ve been reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s fantastic biography of ‘Jerusalem’. When Jesus was predicting the destruction of the city it wasn’t, to be honest, something unusual that he was talking about – Jerusalem, as Montefiore describes in his book, is a city that’s been destroyed and rebuilt in almost every generation. Something, somewhere as iconic and wonderful and central and holy, the city of God on earth, is supremely vulnerable. The stones and the structures make no difference – things are vulnerable and tomorrow not one stone can be left standing on another. I think that we all now recognise the fragility of so much that we’ve trusted was stable and lasting and had the touch of the eternal about it. But there’s been a wakeup call and we have to respond.

Isaiah of course gives us a vision, not of desolation, not of destruction, not of the negative but of the positive, of building, establishing something good. The city will be built, something to look up to, the weapons for killing will become tools for planting. People will come to the mountain eager that God ‘may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’

His is a fantastic word for us today as we embark on this new year of grace, as we wake up and realise that each new day and each new season and each New Year is laden with possibility. The wonderful thing about Jerusalem is that it was never really left a desolate heap of ruins for long, people came back, time and time again, Jews, Christians, Muslims, to rebuild it because it mattered, because it’s an icon in itself and more than humankind can imagine, it’s the City of Peace.


Jerusalem – city of peace


The wakeup call that we’ve all had – and that’s regardless of the way in which we’ve voted, or the way that we’d have voted in the States – is that we need to work together on what the values are, the values that drive our society, the values that undergird the vision of what and who we want to be.

We’ve been clear what they are in this cathedral and I’m delighted to be back to continue with you and my colleagues to pursue them. Remember what we’ve said and committed ourselves to.

Southwark Cathedral an inclusive Christian community growing in orthodox faith and radical love.

We’re still inclusive and we need to be so even more than ever before. The fear of the other has been given a new legitimacy and is being articulated all around us. We have a better, God-given vision of the mountain to which all head, equally, as sisters and brothers.

We’re still committed to the faith that we’ve received and which is the ground in which we grow. Our faith in God is the bedrock on which we build this house of the Lord.

The love that we express and live, the embracing of one another, is even more radical. We’ve always been a community unafraid to challenge the zeitgeist now we have to be even more challenging and even less afraid to be the prophetic community that we know God calls us to be.

This is no time for sleeping, my brothers and sisters. This new year is God-given and in a few weeks’ time we’ll see how God gives, as in a manger we see a baby and recognise God with us. He will be rejected, cut down, destroyed, but his life and his words will not be defeated and out of the rubble he builds us, his living stones, into a true temple to glorify God.

This is no time for sleeping, it’s the time for rising and eating and breaking the fast and in the strength of the food that God gives, his own flesh, his own blood, this Eucharistic banquet, we can be the people that he’s called us to be, in the church he wants us to be, for the people that he calls us to serve, in such a time as this.

Wake us, Lord, from our sleep,
alert us to the world around us,
that with your passion
we may include those others would exclude,
love those others may hate
and witness to our faith
in a faithless world,
for Jesus’ sake.

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

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

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

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark