Under a cloud

Christina Rossetti wrote a poem about clouds, called ‘Clouds’.

White sheep, white sheep,
On a blue hill,
When the wind stops,
You all stand still.
When the wind blows,
You walk away slow.
White sheep, white sheep,
Where do you go?

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‘White sheep, white sheep’

 

The cloud that hangs in the choir of Southwark Cathedral and will do for the whole of the season of Lent is nothing like the white fluffy clouds that chase like sheep across a blue sky as we walk the downs, nothing like the high pale cloud that keeps the heat down on a summer ‘s day.  The cloud that hangs in the Cathedral has something dark and menacing about it.  As you enter the Cathedral it is as if something has exploded and left a large black cloud hanging, get nearer and it alters the light, it is heavy, not light, a clack sheep amongst Rossetti’s ‘white sheep, on a blue hill’.

Like a lot of installation art, this piece by Susie MacMurray is to be experienced as much as looked at. You need to come into the Cathedral and look at it from a distance and then dare to approach it, to sit under the cloud and feel its brooding weight,

Clouds feature a great deal in scripture and in the Christian tradition. Popular imagination might expect faith to be lived out in bright clear sunshine but from that moment when Moses climbed the holy mountain, shrouded in cloud, and experienced the presence of God, it has been a familiar experience and theme. The Gospel writers described a similar event in the Transfiguration of Jesus and as Jesus died on the cross the clouds brought night into day and the onlookers were plunged into darkness. All of these things and much more are captured in this installation.

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A brooding presence

 

But it is called ‘Doubt’ and that directs us towards another direction of Christian thinking and experience. The mediaeval mystical tradition in this country did not shy away from the cloud which can exist in the world of faith. In ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ a 14th century book written anonymously the writer says ‘Beat with a sharp dart of longing love upon this cloud of unknowing which is between you and your God.’

The cloud that Susie MacMurray has created and which dominates the chancel and high altar sanctuary during Lent and Holy Week, draws us into this apophatic tradition. We recognise our doubts and sense the darkness but beat both ‘with a sharp dart of longing love.’

I invite you to experience it with us. I will be spending a long time under it this Lent and exploring my own doubt, and it’s opposite, faith. And I’m sure I will, after Good Friday, be longing for the cloud to lift and the bright light of Easter to shine.

God of mystery,
when the cloud descends,
when you seem unknown,
when doubts assail me
and darkness surrounds me,
lift the mist, break into the darkness
and let your light shine
in me
and through me.
Amen.

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What’s been happening?

If you want to know what I’ve been up to this week visit my General Synod blog.  Follow this link here.

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PS see if you can spot me in this photo! I am there. Sorry, no prizes.

A lady called Dorcas

I have just received the latest news from Zimbabwe about our friends at ArtPeace.  Those of you who follow this blog may remember that as part of our commitment to our sisters and brothers in Zimbabwe we sell stone carving in our shop produced by artists in this project. The money goes directly to them.

As part of the relationship that we have built up we receive regular updates about the situation in the country and some stories about some of the people involved.  I asked if I could share this particular story with you and they were happy that I do this.  I was especially touched as the name ‘Dorcas’ and the story of the woman in the Acts of the Apostles who has that name (Acts 9.36-42) mean a great deal to me.  The love that the biblical Dorcas received and the love that she showed to her neighbours is deeply affecting.  I hope that our friend in Zimbabwe receives similar love.

This is her story.

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Dorcas – a proud woman in a difficult situation

‘This lady called Dorcas, lives in the wet lands between Tafara and Mabvuku suburbs. Her family were evicted from a farm in Bindura by a government minister after their employer was removed from the farm. They now live in poverty. Her husband ran away leaving her with 2 children and she is 6 months pregnant. I was touched by her story. She said since they were evicted to this wet area, they were promised cement and bricks to build a better foundation for their cabin house but without success. They, including Grandma Ruth, sleep on a plastic sheet on top of a mud floor to prevent blankets from getting wet – hence the need to lift their cabin off the wet ground.’

Keep Dorcas, her children and her unborn child in your prayers.

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

A touch of green

You know it’s heading towards spring when all the papers for the February meeting of the General Synod land through your letter box (you can get them electronically but I still like them printed – sorry) and your realise that the chamber in Westminster is becoming you.  The other way you know is just by stepping outside. So I ventured into the Deanery garden to find some bulbs coming through the soil.  Spring is on the way.  The fresh green of new life will very quickly reassert itself over the brown of winter.  And, as if to join in with what is happening around us, the church has moved from gold to green, from the end of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons into what is known as Ordinary Time.

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This is the first Sunday ‘back in green’ and it is good to see it.  This is the miracle of liturgy and tradition, echoing life in the worship of God.  The green we see at the altar mirrors the green I see emerging, triumphant in my garden.  Life reasserts itself.

If you are interested in that other prelude to the arrival of spring I will be keeping a General Synod blog going.  You can find a link on this page.  As ever it’s a mixed agenda – our relationship with the Methodist Church, the work of the Crown Nominations Commission (I know quite a bit about that after serving 8 years on it), food waste and that really important debate on valuing people with Down’s Syndrome. Synod can get very absorbed with the inner workings of the church and the niceties of doctrine and practice but ‘the green blade rising’ as that lovely Easter hymn describes it, reminds me that life is the most important thing that we should be concerned about.  So that is a debate I will be fascinated by.  After all Jesus said

‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’. (John 10.10)

Abundant life, lived by all – that is the Gospel – for all people, of all abilities.

So enjoy the green, for about ten days, for Lent is fast on its tail and pray for us who gather in Synod at the end of this week.

Creator God,
breathe fresh life into me,
into the church,
into the world.
Amen.

The still unspeaking and unspoken Word

It feels as though I’ve been celebrating Candlemas for over a week!  Well I suppose I have given the way the lectionary and ordo seem to work nowadays.  But it is a great feast to keep going back to and so much in it to think about.  I was invited to preside and preach at a Candlemas Eucharist at our Diocesan Office and this is the homily I preached.

The last vestiges of Christmas disappear with this feast.  The tree has long gone, the baubles packed away, carefully, in their boxes, the lights wound so as not to be tangled when we try to use them next year; my friends, the the fairy is no more!  But the crib remained, in church, in our homes, the reminder that though the world has moved on we’re still celebrating God’s greatest act of love, God’s greatest gift to a needy world.

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Ready for next year

Christmas is now celebrated by the world before Christmas Day and as soon as the last cracker has been pulled it seems as though it’s all over.  But the church celebrates Christmas at Christmas and the celebration lasts until Candlemas, the fortieth day.

Mary and Joseph are good and law-obedient Jewish parents and so they take their first born son to the Temple in Jerusalem to do what the law requires.  Every first born son has to be bought back from God, redeemed, by sacrifice.  So, child in one arm and sacrifice in the other they step into the place where God abides and are met by these two old people – Simeon and Anna – who’ve spent their lives watching and waiting for this very moment.  Christmas has come for them, at the very last moment, on the very last day, Christmas has come for them, before the last vestige of the feast has gone, before the crib is packed away – and in the last gasp of celebration Simeon exclaims

‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’

They’ve been waiting, patiently, for the light to shine in the darkness, they’ve been waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem, and here, in this bundle, in the arms of a virgin mother, the world’s contradiction lies, light, redemption, salvation, the spoken word of God in flesh.

T S Eliot in his poem ‘A Song for Simeon’ imagines the old man speaking – and in that imagining he says

Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation

The Christmas proclamation is that the ‘Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ but that word is still ‘unspeaking and unspoken’. Jesus has not yet spoken a word, we’ve not yet heard the sound of his voice.  But we will.  His words will heal the sick, absolve from sin, raise the dead.  His words will bring down the powerful and exalt the humble. His words will bring joy to many and sorrow to some. His words will be whispered in prayer amongst the trees of a grove, or ring out in screams from the tree of the cross.  Even death will not silence his words as the whispered name of Mary in a dawn-dewed garden will announce his resurrection.

But at the moment he is the ‘still unspeaking and unspoken Word’.

The curtain falls on Christmas.  But it doesn’t.  We are above all things the church of the incarnation.

Roy Wood, the lead singer of the glam rock band Wizzard famously hit the number one slot back in 1973 when he sang out words we hear year by year

Oh well I wish it could be Christmas everyday
When the kids start singing and the band begins to play
Oh I wish it could be Christmas everyday
Let the bells ring out for Christmas.

My brothers and sisters, the good news is that it is.  We live the incarnation and the word speaks; the light shines in the darkness and we are redeemed.  As the Southwark Diocese website says, we are

Loving God, walking with Jesus, led by the Spirit

We live and breathe what Christmas means, that God is with us, that the light has broken into the darkness of the world, that this Eucharist is the touching place with God and that the unspeaking, unspoken word is heard in the voice of the church, in the voice of each Christian, in your voice. The best of Christmas is yet to come!

Lord Jesus, silent light of silent night,
speak, for we wait to hear your voice,
speak, and let the Word be heard.
Amen.

 

Small is beautiful

Even though I am, as you might say, ‘vertically challenged’, I’m not size-ist; some of my best friends are too tall! It’s just that size isn’t everything.  After all, as some people say, ‘They don’t make diamonds as big as bricks’? Well, that’s only partly true.  Watching Her Majesty The Queen on the recently broadcast BBC programme ‘The Coronation’ talking about the Cullinan Diamond and the ‘chips’ she was wearing as a broach makes you realise that there are some big rocks out there!

The latest project at Southwark Cathedral has been the re-roofing of the choir and repairs to deteriorating masonry at a high level on that part of the Cathedral.  We have been fortunate enough to get funding to do the work from the Government’s ‘First World War Centenary Cathedral Repairs Fund’ as well as some generous individual donors.  One of the great aspects of the project has been working with student stone carvers from the City & Guilds in Kennington, south London.  They worked over the summer in a temporary lodge they set up in the churchyard, carving decorative bosses to replace those that time, weather and pollution had destroyed.  It was amazing to see them working and the skill and passion they brought to the task.  But last week I had the opportunity to see them again.

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Stone carvers hard at work

The project had now reached the point where the new bosses had been set below the parapet.  The students had returned to make sure that they sat well into the profile of the older masonry.  It was delicate work; one hard tap and the intricate foliage could be damaged! So I climbed the scaffolding and saw the work in progress.

To be honest I’m not great with heights or ladders – but this was one of those not to be missed experiences. The work was tremendous – but a surprise awaited me. There on a corner of the building, in some of the old masonry, was carved a tiny head of a bishop.  You can’t see it from the ground yet it is there.  Someone, for fun maybe, had ‘doodled’ on the edge of a piece of stone and created this tiny masterpiece for the sheer joy of doing it.

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Do you recognise this bishop?

 

There is something so special about what is small and unexpected, a tiny gift, like the hazelnut in the hand of Julian of Norwich.  Who was this big-eared bishop? We don’t know but he has been there looking down on London Bridge for hundreds of years.  We don’t know who carved him, we don’t know why.  But, like a tiny, precious gift to the unsuspecting visitor, he is there – a gift from the past in the present.

The prophet Isaiah, speaking God’s words to us, says

‘I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands’ (Isaiah 49.16)

It’s staggering to think that in the vastness of creation my very being is carved into the hands of God, little me, like the face of an unknown, big-eared bishop, who time has forgotten.  But we are not forgotten to God whose divine hands bear the imprint of our being.

We don’t need big gestures to make a difference – even something small can be beautiful and bring unexpected joy.

God of the vastness of the universe,
of the smallness of the atom,
small as I am
enfold me in the palm of your hand
and remember me.
Amen.

Cathedrals

This Sunday the gospel reading was the account of the wedding at Cana in Galilee (John 2.1-11).  It was also the first time the congregation at Southwark Cathedral had gathered since the publication of the draft report of the ‘Cathedrals Working Group’ – and I was preaching.  This is what I said.  

The newly released film ‘Darkest Hour’ is giving people the opportunity to think again about the leadership that Winston Churchill gave to this nation. One thing that you can say for him is that he knew the power of language, when to use it and how it could change things at critical moments. His skill with rhetoric forced you to listen to him. One of the many things that he said that’s often quoted and often by those in leadership positions is

‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’

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There was certainly a crisis going on in the little town of Cana in Galilee. A wedding was happening. Mary was there as a guest and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited. The celebrations were in full swing and everyone was having a fantastic time. And then, disaster happens. Someone looked under the table where all the wine had been stashed and there was nothing left – the guests had drunk the place dry. But everyone was still in party mood.

Mary intervenes. ‘Do whatever he tells you’ she says to the servants and Jesus tells them to take water and deliver it to the maître d’. On tasting the water he found that it was wine and of the best kind – and of such a quantity – 120 to 180 gallons of it – staggering. And then the Steward, not knowing what’d happened makes a great declaration

‘You have kept the good wine until now.’

It’s interesting that nowhere in this story does John use the word miracle. It was a miracle, a miracle of creation, but John avoids that word for one which has, for him, great significance in telling the story of Jesus. He chooses instead the word ‘sign’.

The story concludes

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

John in telling the story of Jesus does it in a very different way to that of the other three gospel writers. They try to give us a history, Jesus did this, then he did that, then he did the other – one thing after another. But John wants to take us deeper, into the mystery, into the theology, into just who Jesus was, who Jesus is, and the truth of that can lie below the surface.

And so he looks for signs, pointers, indicators of the true nature of Jesus, the divine nature of Jesus – and he finds seven, beginning with this act of creation in Cana and ending with the raising of Lazarus to new life, a day of resurrection if you like. So John gives us a new account of creation, held in seven signs, just as in seven days.

Jesus had not let the crisis go to waste. He’d acted in such a way that his glory was revealed and something of the true nature of God and of the kingdom, of which in himself he was the sign, was understood by his disciples who, looking on in awe, believe in him.

There’s been something of a crisis for cathedrals. It’s interesting because in fact, as the report of the Working Group on Cathedrals which was published last Thursday points out, Cathedrals are one of the success stories of the Church of England. (You can find the report here.)

The report begins like this

Cathedrals are spectacular and wonderful expressions of the mission of God in his world. There is much to celebrate, guard and nurture in the life of cathedrals.

‘Spectacular and wonderful’ – it sounds like Cana all over again!

Cathedrals continue to grow, more people are increasingly attending services in cathedrals, we’re engaged in mission, we’re working with local, civic society, people look to us for spiritual leadership and the role we play in community. In terms of what the wider church wants the local church to do cathedrals are in general doing it. We are, to use Archbishop Justin’s phrase when he was Dean of Liverpool

‘a safe place to do risky things in Christ’s service.’

But there was a crisis last year as things went seriously wrong in two cathedrals – in Peterborough and in Exeter. Because of the rather wonderful Elizabethan settlement which creates a separation of powers between cathedrals and bishops, maintains a creative tension in which much that is good and risky for the church and the kingdom can be done, bishops have limited authority in their cathedral. That is until there’s a crisis and then they can make a Visitation. And when they make a Visitation what they decide has to be done by the Chapter – it’s the moment of their greatest authority as far as we’re concerned.

The result of Visitations in both Peterborough and Exeter was that it was decided that there needed to be a thorough examination of both governance, the way in which cathedrals are run, and financial controls, the way in which we manage our money, and recommendations made about how both of these could be tightened up and improved for the future, in all cathedrals.

All the Deans had the opportunity to have a one-to-one conversation with the chair of the Working Group, the Bishop of Stepney, Adrian Newman, and of course I took that opportunity. The group also sought opinions and facts from a wide variety of stakeholders inside and outside of cathedrals – and there are many people with positive and not so positive views about the place of cathedrals in the Church of England as she now is.

And so out of that crisis this draft report has come and we’re now in a period of consultation. The Chapter has decided to seek your opinions and to help us to do that an open meeting for the congregation has been organised for Sunday 11 February after the Choral Eucharist for those of you who do have a view on these matters. We’re also having a special meeting of the Chapter to which members of the Cathedral Council and other committees and groups have been invited. You can also feed your opinions through your Wardens, Matthew and Daniel, or through any of the clergy.

The report contains quite a lot of recommendations and some of them would involve pretty major changes to the way in which things are done, here but perhaps not to the same extent as in some other cathedrals.

But as well as absorbing the fine details of the report we have to heed the words of Mary to the servants in the Gospel for today ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

What we try to do, and I’m now speaking specifically of this cathedral, is to do the will of God, to listen to the Lord, to do whatever he tells us. We have a strong identity, a strong brand amongst cathedrals. Whether they like it or not people tend to know what Southwark Cathedral stands for – we describe it so well in our vision statement which is at the top of the notice sheet every week and I hope is absorbed by you

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

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We believe that that is the way that the water is turned into wine, we believe that is the way in which we can be a sign post, a pointer to the reality of the kingdom, being faithful to what the Lord wants us to do. But that doesn’t mean that on a day-to-day basis, as a Chapter, as your Dean, there are not things that we can or should do better or differently.

Like all cathedrals we need to take this report very seriously and take our part in this process of consultation and the subsequent debates that will take place and the implementation of whatever the wider church discerns is the way forward.

Cathedrals are a gift to the church and to the nation. We know that to be true. But perhaps we shouldn’t let this particular crisis go to waste, just as Jesus didn’t let that crisis at the wedding go to waste. Water can be made into wine, in our lives, in our communities, in our nation, in our churches even in our cathedrals, if we listen to what he tells us – and perhaps, you never know, the best wine is yet to come!

God of new wine,
take the our offering
and transform it
until its tastes
of the kingdom.
Amen.

Posturing

My Lord Archbishop,

My wife and I worshipped at Southwark Cathedral on Sunday morning last [19th August] and I write to ask you to be so good as to inform me if the practices to which we were there made a party are now accepted for our Church. I refer especially to the posturings at the altar out of sight of the congregation and the mumblings out of their hearing. I thought it was one of the accepted principles of the Reformed Church of England that the congregation should have fully and intelligently in all the worship at this service. At Southwark the congregation can neither see nor hear what is going on at the altar. We feel as many others do that if we wanted that sort of thing we could and should go, not to an Anglican cathedral, but to Brompton Oratory.

I am yours faithfully

Percy Hurd

This was 1934 and Sir Percy Hurd was at that time the Member of Parliament for the constituency of Devizes. The correspondence begun by this letter of complaint sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury continues for some weeks and it is all to be found in the archives of Lambeth Palace Library.  The Archbishop’s Chaplain at that time tried to do the right thing, to bat the complaint in the direction of the Bishop of Southwark, but the MP would have none of that. ‘We have nothing to do with the Bishop of Southwark’ he wrote. ‘As members of Parliament we are concerned with the Church in its corporate capacity and as represented for us in yourself.’ The correspondence stumbles on until September 1934 when the Chaplain basically tells the MP that there will be no more communication on the matter.

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Sir Percy Hurd, a fine looking gentleman

There was obviously a great deal of posturing going on and it wasn’t all in the High Altar sanctuary at Southwark Cathedral!  Sir Percy obviously had a few axes to grind. One axe seemed to be against the newly introduced 1928 Prayer Book which had failed to gain parliamentary approval but was being used in places, such as the Cathedral, where some of the ‘inadequacies’ in the Book of Common Prayer as some Anglo-Catholics would have it, were sorted out.  Interestingly we, like many cathedrals I suspect, still use the 1928 Prayer Book, day by day. But he was probably opposed as well to some of the catholic practices that were becoming more common in the post-war (First World War) Church of England.  Perhaps there was a lot of ‘bowing and scraping’ going on up at the altar.  Sir Ninian Comper, the Cathedral Architect and a great mediaeval revivalist had certainly dressed the High Altar Sanctuary for the part.  The walls and pillars were draped in pink damask (the material was made into the copes that the Archdeacons in the diocese now wear, a kind of Maria act from the ‘Sound of Music’ with those curtains!) and the reredos was now modelled on the Pala d’Oro in St Mark’s Venice.  Cloth of gold Eucharistic vestments had been designed and made and it would have all looked very splendid.

The mumblings could have been about the difficulty of hearing from the nave if services were held at the High Altar, but that was nothing new.  So maybe Sir Percy heard some more pious, private mumblings going on, the ‘Secret Prayers’ that many priests say during the Eucharist.  They are meant to be said sotto voce but they can appear, I suppose, like mumblings and mysterious incantations.

But there is posturing and there are mumbling that put us in touch with important elements of the Feast of the Incarnation that we are still celebrating.  It is right that we use our whole selves in worship, we bring our whole body, our five senses into prayer.  We see and touch and taste and smell and hear.  True liturgy invokes all those senses and that sixth sense that recognises the divine in the midst.  So one of the Epiphany hymns that we have been singing begins with this verse

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
Bow down before Him, His glory proclaim;
With gold of obedience, and incense of lowliness,
Kneel and adore Him: the Lord is His name!

Worship, such as the worship of the Magi in the presence of the Christ Child, involves bowing and kneeling and adoration.  It feels to me like the natural response to being in the presence of the divine.  The Magi point us to this reality of ‘God among us’, of the Word made flesh, through their posture, for as St Matthew says

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. (Matthew 2.11)

They saw the child and they knelt in homage, and so do we.

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‘Kneel and adore him’

 

And then, those mutterings.  One of the things that High Church priests were accused of doing when the ritual trials were going on at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries was around the mixing of the chalice.  We no longer fight about this in the Church of England since we discovered sex! In fact, it seems so normal perhaps few people realise it was a problem.  In most offertory processions that I see perfectly reasonable, law-abiding people bring forward cruets of wine and water.  It’s the mixing of those in the chalice, this so called ritualistic practice, that caused the problem.  But what is the prayer that the priest says as they do this?

It’s a prayer that takes us to the heart of the doctrine of the incarnation, and something that we remember every time we celebrate the Eucharist. The priest will ‘mumble’

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.

As mumblings go its pretty wonderful, I think.

So, Sir Percy, if you’re still looking for an apology I’m afraid you’re not getting one from me. We will continue to offer worship in Southwark Cathedral worthy of that holy house in Bethlehem, worthy of the God who dwells with us, worthy of Jesus, the Word made flesh before whom we kneel in wondrous adoration. We can do nothing less.

Holy God,
you bring us to our knees
in humble adoration.
Accept the worship we offer
as we accept the love you show for us
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Star gazing

I was Confirmed when I was eleven.  This meant that for a few months beforehand I, with the rest of those being prepared for the sacrament, had to go along to the Vicar’s study, once a week, to learn the Catechism.  But as part of that we also had to be prepared to make our first Confession.  That involved learning what sin was all about, or at least having a better idea of what God thought of as sin as opposed to what your parents and the next-door neighbour told you off for (bouncing a ball off the neighbours wall didn’t seem to be on God’s list of venial or mortal sins but very much annoyed Mrs Joiner!).

So, in order to give us a clue, Fr Davies gave us all a list of sins we might have committed, a checklist of badness for an eleven year old in the Sixties! To be honest, I hadn’t even dreamt of doing most of the things that were suggested to us but one thing I did recognise.  There amongst murder and robbery was ‘I have read my horoscope’. These were days before Russell Grant and Mystic Meg but I had committed this sin, I had seen the horoscopes in my parents’ Daily Express and I had read what was going to happen to Leos on that day (my star sign). In order not to break the Seal of the Confessional I can say no more except that I changed my ways from that day onwards.

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Leo at the Jantar Mantar

In reflecting back on 2017 I said that during my India trip the most impressive thing we saw was the Taj Mahal. That was true. But the most unusual and, I suppose, surprising was a place called Jantar Mantar in Jaipur.  This is what can best be described as an 18th century astronomical park, a collection of 19 monumental astronomical instruments in the open air that were built to enable, amongst other things, horoscopes of the greatest accuracy to be prepared for every person.  Walking into this ‘park’ is like walking into a modern sculpture exhibition.  The ‘instruments’ are of staggering beauty and incredible accuracy (the sundial tells the time within 20 seconds) and in recognition of this it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I couldn’t help thinking about this place and wandering over, with only a little sense of guilt, to the instrument which measured the Leo star sign, as we keep the Feast of the Epiphany.  Whatever else those Wise Men were that St Matthew tells us about, they were clearly star gazers, people who, like the builders of the Janta Manta, kept an eye on the heavens as a way of understanding what was happening on the earth.

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Guided by a star

 

St Ephrem the Syrian was a prolific hymn writer of the 4th century who, I suspect, with his middle-eastern heritage, was more comfortable with star gazing than was my Parish Priest from Leicester!  In a hymn for Epiphany he writes this

Blessed is your birth that stirred up the universe!

The whole of creation was caught up in the events in a stable in Bethlehem, not only the hearts of local shepherds were stirred by angels singing and a baby in a manger, the universe itself was stirred.  The stars themselves told the Good News of the incarnation and in the Book of the Revelation Jesus names himself after them.

‘I am .. the bright morning star.’ (Revelation 22.16)

Jesus is our star sign, the one and only star worth watching for, the one to whom we look to for past and future, as Alpha and Omega and following that star is a journey worth making.

I’m still not reading my horoscope, even after visiting the wonderful and impressive  Jantar Mantar and even though I rejoice in the journey of the Magi, but I do want to keep my eye fixed on Jesus as the guiding star.

Arguably the most famous poem for Epiphany if that by T S Eliot called ‘The Journey of the Magi’ with that memorable opening ‘A cold coming we had of it’. Eliot’s inspiration was the sermon preached at Whitehall on Christmas Day 1620 before James I by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (whose tomb is to be found beside the High Altar at Southwark Cathedral).  The Bishop, at the end of his sermon, fixed his listeners attention on the star.

‘In the old Ritual of the Church we find that on the cover of the canister, wherein was the Sacrament of His Body, there was a star engraven, to shew us that now the star leads us thither, to His body there. And what shall I say now, but according as St. John saith, and the star, and the wise men say, O Come. And He, Whose the star is, and to Whom the wise men came, saith, O Come. And let them who are disposed, O Come.’

The star led Wise Men to Jesus, it will lead us too; it led them to his fragile, life-giving body, it leads us too.

Jesus, bright Morning Star,
draw us to crib and altar,
that we may worship and adore you.
Amen.

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.

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