Keep awake!

It’s Advent Sunday and in the gospel for today Jesus tells us to ‘Keep awake!’ It’s an important call to be awake to the reality around us, to be awake to the reality of God, to be awake to the needs of our neighbours. As we were approaching the beginning of Advent we had three events at the Cathedral that spoke to me about this call that we would be hearing as we began the countdown to Christmas.

We have been served by some excellent MPs in the constituencies in this diocese. One of those who really encouraged communities and individuals was Tessa Jowell. She was the member for the Dulwich area for 23 years campaigning on behalf of local people and much loved, even by those who hadn’t voted for her. She was inspirational, but she was also inspirational in the way that she died as much as in the way she lived. The same passion that she lived by was present in the way she approached her death. She was open about it, campaigning for better help and care for those who suffered from brain cancer as she did. She died in 2018 and her daughter Jess was instrumental in setting up the Tessa Jowell Foundation to continue her work on behalf of those who were also diagnosed with that form of cancer.

We were privileged to host the memorial service for Tessa in the Cathedral in 2019 and then on Thursday evening to be the venue for a huge fundraising dinner which had the aim of extending the work of the Foundation to those children who suffer from the same cancer. It was an inspirational evening. There was music and laughter and a real buzz of excitement and commitment around the cause. There was also huge generosity and it was humbling to sit there as significant pledges were made in the auction that will make this new work possible. Being awake to the need for the care of those who face cancer was at the heart of what we were doing.

The window inspired by the young people

Then on Friday an event brought a number of constituencies together. The Clewer Initiative works to highlight and combat modern day slavery. They approached us to see if we wanted to be involved in their campaign. It was something that we really felt called to do. So a coalition was set up which brought together our Cathedral Education Centre with the Diocesan Board of Education, the Worshipful Company of Glaziers, John Reyntiens and his stained glass studio and students from two secondary schools in the diocese. Together they created a window which tells the story of the scandal of modern day slavery and highlights where we might encounter those who are enslaved – in car washes, nail bars, as well as in the sex industry. At the same event some documents and objects relating to the slave trade in the eighteenth century were also on display. Amongst them was a chilling piece of paper, written in the most beautiful hand, a conveyancing document listing the names of all the slaves on a plantation in the Caribbean. The youngest on the list was just 4 years old. Setting our own complicity in the slave trade then alongside our own ignorance about the slave trade now was powerful.

What was so great was seeing the students, some with their parents, identifying their own work which had been translated by skilled artists in stained glass to create an incredible panel. Being awake to the issue of modern day slavery was at the heart of what we were doing.

On Friday evening into Saturday morning a crowd of people slept out at the Cathedral. It was the annual Robes SleepOut, the first proper one we had been able to do since the pandemic. People young and old arrived at the Cathedral on Friday evening, armed with their equipment for the night, ready to sleep out, knowing that what they were doing would make a big difference to those who, often through no fault of their own, are forced to live on our streets. They were hoping not to stay awake through the night but being awake to the needs of the homeless was at the heart of what we were doing.

And why? Why should we be bothered about addressing the issue of brain cancer, modern day slavery and homelessness in the Cathedral. Isn’t this more woke than awake? As we said Compline in the Cathedral before we settled down for the night in our sleeping bags, on cardboard, under the stars on a cold but clear November evening, we heard those familiar words of Jesus from Matthew 25

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25.37-40)

‘You did it to me’, the one facing brain cancer, the enslaved and frightened, the one on the streets, each revealing something of the divine, in themselves, in their living, in their suffering. We stay awake to each of them, their needs should keep us awake.

Loving God, may I see you in each of those around me and stay awake to their need. Amen.

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A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

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Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark