Red lines

It’s interesting to think about where you draw the line. I went along to the Bridge Theatre last week, just as the bishops of the Anglican Communion were gathering in Canterbury for the Lambeth Conference. I had heard about the play that was being performed there and was quite keen to see it – ‘The Southbury Child’ by Stephen Beresford. The set was simple; a large table as in many vicarage kitchens, unmatching chairs, mugs in which to serve tea to guests, piles of paper to be dealt with. And in this humdrum and familiar setting – especially to clergy and their families – the drama is played it. I don’t want to give the story away but it centres on a child’s funeral and a request by the grieving mother that the church be decorated with balloons, because the child loved balloons and it would make the church look jolly and welcoming.

For the priest it was a red line he was unprepared to cross, whatever the cost. The play looks at the costs, the price, and who pays it, and, of course, the back story to the marriage and the family relationships all come out. There are reasons for the red lines we choose, reasons why we will defend, often the indefensible, that are hard for others to understand.

My predecessor had his red lines. I remember arriving back one day and being asked to see the Dean. I was then the Canon Precentor and I was told that the singing of ‘Jerusalem’ was banned in Southwark Cathedral and, by the way, anything by Graham Kendrick. Some of you may remember that episode in our lives. Colin had to go on the radio to defend his decision; I had to make it work as best I could given that most schools wanted to sing ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Shine Jesus shine’, whatever its theological virtues, or lacks, was enormously popular. But it was a red line.

I suppose I have them, but of course mine are entirely reasonable and easily explained, as far as I am concerned. I went into the vestry the other day. It had been very hot. The Head Verger told me that one of the diocesan dignitaries, we love these titles don’t we, had asked not to wear a chasuble for a service they were presiding at. The vergers told the person that that was a red line for the Dean. However much he would sweat full vestments had to be worn. If it was good enough for the early martyrs of the church it is good enough for us! As such a notorious liberal with seemingly no standards or principles – according to some – it was good to know that I have some red lines!

My blog last week went a bit viral. I thought it might, commenting as I did on the ‘Lambeth Calls’ document and the reference to Lambeth 1:10 from 1998. I was pleased therefore when the announcement came of some significant changes, particularly that bishops would be allowed to vote that they do not accept it. Since then, of course, there has been push back. We are being told that 75% of those present support Lambeth 1:10, there seem to move moves afoot to bring it back on the agenda. Even more disturbingly some of the bishops have now refused to take communion with those who have a same-sex partner, or who support equal marriage, or … well, the categories seem a bit blurred and include a lot of those there.

It is all very disturbing. What is the Communion about if we are not actually in communion, able to receive communion, one bread, one cup? Why is the Eucharist being weaponised in this way? Why, oh why, is sexuality the red line for the church, the ‘balloon’ issue for the Communion?

I am writing this, as I always do, on Saturday, ready for Sunday. It’s the commemoration today (30 July) of William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson, the three, among many, who we remember campaigned for the abolition of slavery. We know, because it is all part of the #BlackLivesMatter and contested heritage debates, all part of the Queen Anne’s Bounty discussions, all part of the history of USPG and so many other church bodies, all part of the history of Bristol and its cathedral, that the church was up to its neck and beyond in slavery and we know that bishops defended slavery with recourse to scripture. We know that it was a red line at that time, that there was huge resistance to what Wilberforce and his companions, and others in parliament were wanting. Yet, somehow the Holy Spirit spoke through the arguments and wisdom and right and justice prevailed and that red line disappeared.

Human dignity is a matter of justice, who I am, who you are, loved and created by God is a reality. Denying what God has done, out of love, drawing red lines across the lines of God’s grace is a scandal, as is refusing to take the bread and the cup that Jesus holds out to us, his friends, and even to the one who would betray him.

The play is well worth seeing; ok not all of it is true to life, true to the vicarage kitchen, but it points to the way in which the red lines we draw are destructive and divisive. It seems to me, and as you all know I never claim to be a biblical scholar, simply a child of God, that Paul, speaking to the Romans describes a love that knows no bounds, a divine love in which no lines are drawn.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8.35-39)

But I will still insist on full vestments – and isn’t that really the problem? I need to look at my own red lines as much as the next person.

God of boundless grace, draw us with your cords of love into the freedom of your kingdom and into that deeper and fuller communion with you, which is life in all its fullness. Amen.


Rising above it

You get a lovely view over Jerusalem from the top of the Mount of Olives.  It’s a watershed, not a metaphorical one, just an actual one.  On one side you have the comparatively lush Jerusalem, on the other side Bethany and beyond it the wilderness.  On the one side you have the city with its domes and towers and walls and on the other side you have a barren landscape reaching down to the Dead Sea.  It was a good place for Jesus to take the disciples and it is always a good place to take any group of pilgrims to the Holy Land.  You stand on this spot and you see all before you.

Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. (Luke 24.50-51)


The London Eye, the top of the Shard, even the tower of Southwark Cathedral are all wonderful vantage points from which to get a bigger picture.  They are all, even the cathedral tower, locked down to us at the moment (you can’t socially distance on our one spiral staircase!).  So on Ascension Day we were unable to do what we would normally do, climb the tower to sing the Ascension Day hymn and read the reading from Acts from the top, with the city spread out around us.  For centuries the tower of the Priory of St Mary Overie, then the parish church and now the Cathedral, was the highest point around.  The famous views of London by Claes Visscher in 1600 and Wenceslas Holler in 1647 and the like (reflected in the opening titles of each episode of ‘Upstart Crow’ – have you noticed the cathedral?) shows this wonderfully.  The tower on the south bank and the towers and steeples on the north bank punctuate the skyline and raise the eye to heaven.  Now we have to rely on many hideous tall buildings to do that in an entirely secular and, in the main, less elegant way.

So I was sorry not to get my early morning ascent of the tower this year.  It provides another view.  I was delighted to receive in my inbox a few days ago this amazing picture taken from an aircraft flying over a pollution free London.  What moved me, looking at it, was seeing the curve of the horizon in the distance.  It places London in context, it places Southwark in context, it places me in context.


The challenge of lockdown is that our world contracts to the space that we are in.  So many people live in small flats or houses, no outside space, a world closing in on them.  And as week rolls into week that must be hard to cope with.  But the ascension of the Lord takes us out of that, takes Jesus out of those confines.  He could have ascended from anywhere, he didn’t need some kind of launchpad.  So he took them to the hill for another reason rather than just getting a good lift off.  And I think that reason was so that they could understand that you, we, he needs the bigger picture, the larger perspective than the view from the locked in, locked down room that they were inhabiting.

There was an amusing joke circulating on Twitter over Ascension, that it was the day when Jesus began ‘working from home’. But for me the ascension is so much more than Jesus somehow returning home, it is more about Jesus being not in the particular place, but in every place, Jesus not being here, there, but everywhere, Jesus being the universal King that we celebrate towards the end of the year, Jesus encouraging us to look , out, above, beyond the immediate.

Those words of Jesus to his disciples must have been baffling

‘I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away.’ (John 16.7)

But perhaps from the top of the hill they began to make sense.  We also need that wider, bigger perspective as this lockdown continues.  That is why we have been inviting our friends from across the Anglican Communion to send us messages.  We have heard from Jerusalem and Kenya, Madagascar and Canada, Texas and San Francisco, all different perspectives, different views to widen our view.  You can view them all here.  This Wednesday the next ‘Message’ will come from Zimbabwe.

John Donne’s seventh and final Sacred Poem, ‘Ascension’, helped me make sense of it all, a bigger view.

Salute the last and everlasting day,
Joy at th’ uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose true tears, or tribulation
Have purely wash’d, or burnt your drossy clay.
Behold, the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;
Nor doth He by ascending show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.
O strong Ram, which hast batter’d heaven for me!
Mild Lamb which with Thy Blood hast mark’d the path!
Bright Torch, which shinest, that I the way may see!
O, with Thy own Blood quench Thy own just wrath;
And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.

‘That I the way may see’. A bigger picture than the locked down room.

Jesus, raise my eyes,
the immediate,
that I may see
as you

Out of Africa

Those graphics we have been shown over the last week of a heatwave heading in our direction were very colourful and dramatic.  It was all heading our way, we kept being told, ‘out of Africa’. Well, as you read this I will be heading into Africa.

All Church of England dioceses are encouraged to make links with Anglican dioceses and provinces around the world.  They are enormously important for being able to understand more the nature of the Communion of which we are part (very important as we head for the next Lambeth Conference which will be taking place in exactly a year).  When I was a priest in Leeds our links were with what is still called the Church of Ceylon.  People regularly visited the two dioceses on that beautiful island, Colombo and Kuranegala, and in fact the priest I worked with was able to spend a substantial amount of time out there experiencing ministry in a different place.

Southwark has been linked for many years with the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe which is part of the Province of Central Africa.  Since 2002 there are five dioceses in that country, Harare linked with Rochester Diocese and the other four – Matabeleland, Central Zimbabwe, Manicaland and Masvingo linked with Southwark.  The cathedral is linked with the last in that list, and the newest, Masvingo.  That is where I am heading.


Fr Shearly Cripps outside his hut that is now his shrine

Because of the particular problems facing the people of Zimbabwe at the moment – shortages of almost every kind – this will be a small visit, just me, with Bishop Christopher and Canon Wendy Robins.  We don’t want to be too much of a burden on our very generous hosts.  I emailed Bishop Godfrey, the Bishop of Masvingo, a few weeks ago.  I had been reading more reports from our friends in ArtPeace, the project that produces the lovely stone carvings we sell in the shop, and the stories of shortages, drought and violence are very disturbing.  Knowing what Zimbabwean hospitality looks like I said to +Godfrey ‘please, you don’t need to kill the fatted calf for me, a bowl of sadza (the corn meal porridge) is all I need.’  I received a very firm reply, ‘We always kill the fatted calf for our guests however hard the times.’

It will be a humbling visit.  Hope, generosity, hospitality, I will see it all.  We will be visiting parishes and churches, schools, clinics and projects, some of which we help to fund, some that the local people resource themselves.  We will share in the Mass, we will sing and I will sway along with the rhythms of the drums.  The Mothers’ Union will be out in force, the mainstay of the church. The whole visit will culminate in the Shearly Cripps Festival at Moronda Mashuna, the Five Wounds, where people from all over will gather to celebrate the life of Fr Arthur Shearly Cripps who came out to Africa from England at the turn of the 20th century and gave his life to the people.

So, pray for me as I pray for you.  I will report as much as I can whilst I am there, it all depends on access to data of course, and pray with us for the people of Zimbabwe.

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

Living stones

I’ve been in Rome this weekend.  Southwark Cathedral is fortunate to have what are often missing from congregations – people in the 20-40 age bracket.  A group called ‘Connected’ was formed some years ago to keep such people connected and encouraged and it was members of that group that I have come to Rome with to have a good weekend but also to experience something of what Rome has to offer.

The weekend began with a visit to the fantastic church of St Clemente, a church on three levels, the church at street level, the original church beneath it and the remains of the Mithraic temple beneath that.  It gives a very good impression of the layers of history that are here and the way in which successive generations have built, literally, on the past.  That first day also included what was very exciting and new to me – a visit to the Scavi.  These are the excavations beneath the basilica of St Peter in the Vatican.

At St Clemente

Getting tickets is not that easy to be honest and we felt very blessed to be able to go beneath the church. It is only really in the last century that the work was done to bring to light what was on the site on which that Constantine constructed his basilica.  Basically what was there was a pagan necropolis in which Peter, after his martyrdom, was buried. The excavations revealed what the church has accepted as the original site of the apostle’s burial.  What was most amazing was to walk down a street in the necropolis and see the huge mausoleums on either side, which once stood at ground level but are now the third level of the basilica.  But in that city of the dead we could hear the sound of worshipping above as the noise of singing percolated down.  It was fantastic – the dead stones were echoing the sound of the living!

But another part of the time in this city has not been taken up with looking at excavations and stones.  Instead we’ve engaged with the Anglican Communion in this city with a visit to the Anglican Centre and Sunday worship at the Anglican Church of All Saints Rome.  Both of those experiences have helped us to understand the importance of our own presence as a church, as a communion in this city and also how alive the church is here.

When I’m in the Holy Land I’ve been used to hearing talk of the ‘living stones’. It’s the way that the Christian community in the Holy Land chooses to talk about itself. We’re not just there to look at the ancient sites, but the living church.  The phrase of course comes from St Peter’s First letter to the church.

‘You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.’ (1 Peter 2.5)

At the Anglican Centre we heard from the Director about all the work involved both in engaging with the Roman Cathoc church formally and informally and the way in which Anglicans from around the world and across the traditions find their way to the centre and a welcome and home there.  And we experienced the same at All Saints, meeting people who are living in Rome but also visitors from across the world – from Ireland to Zimbabwe, Uganda to the USA. We were all there worshipping together.  

The city of the dead was impressive but Rome is the city of the living church and it is the living church through which the spirit breathes that is the really wonderful thing to see – and to be part of.

Living God, bless the living stones of your living church. Amen.

Can we agree to disagree?

It was an interesting year, last year.  For one reason or another I spent quite a lot of time thinking about leadership, my personality type and how I and others work together.  It wasn’t that I’d not thought about some of these things – in many ways I think I’m quite self aware.  Part of that has come from having a Spiritual Director and making my confession (fairly) regularly over many years.  Doing that and talking to somebody about my relationship with God, my prayer life, my inner and outer life and by confronting the ‘sin which clings so closely’ (Hebrews 12.1) has enabled me to know something of my strengths and something of my weaknesses.

It was a really good and helpful year as one set of training and discussion built upon another.  But whatever I did something that I know that I’m ‘guilty’ of became clearer and was constantly confirmed – I am conflict averse.

There are some people who love a good ‘dust up’, we all know them and there are others, like me, who will tie themselves in knots to avoid a fight.  When I see conflict approaching I try to deflect it, avoid it or solve it before it arrives – and I wish I did more of the last of those things than in truth I do. The problem with deflection or avoidance, as we well know, is that problems become even greater if not dealt with honestly and often creatively as soon as they arrive.

This week I will be sharing in something else which I hope will further help me not just to know even more clearly that I have to have the courage, under God, to address the conflict that confronts us all in a whole variety of circumstances but also how we might deal with its reality as a community.

One of the things that Archbishop Justin has been encouraging us to do is to imagine what ‘good disagreement’ looks like in the church.  And we should know what that is like from our history.  Any reading of the scriptures makes you quickly realise that disagreement, if not outright conflict, has been part of the story of faith.  On occasions we read how this has been dealt with well and it’s reading that which has to be an encouragement to us today.

The Council of Jerusalem

The Council of Jerusalem


I love the account in the Acts of the Apostles which tells of Paul and Barnabas coming back to Jerusalem to address the meeting of the Council.  The message had got back that the uncircumcised were becoming part of the church but that didn’t fit well with those who in those early days were trying to maintain historic Jewish discipline on certain issues, such as circumcision, with membership of the Christian church. It was a fundamental dispute, the same kind of dispute that we see being played out by Christians today, not least within the Anglican Communion.

The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. (Acts 15.12)

In respectful silence the whole assembly listened to what was being said and in that environment of prayer and discernment Peter and James spoke.  A decision was made and a letter sent to the gentile Christians which is powerful and which delivered such good news

‘It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials.’ (Acts 15.28)

The church both listened to the Spirit and also had the confidence to make a decision – ‘it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.’ We can easily imagine that those opposed might not have been wholly convinced but with good disagreement the church moved forward in mission and ministry. Indeed, the issues that confront us today are in a similar way around purity and faithfulness to the tradition and openness to the promptings of the Spirit – not that the two should always be seen in opposition.


The book we’re reading in preparation for our conversations


So I’m excited about this week. If it gives me further insights into my own leadership, all well and good, but if it gives me confidence to work positively and creatively to create good disagreement, without being frightened by that, even better. And wherever disagreement exists – in our communities, in our relationships, in our workplace, in our local church – I’m sure that there are lessons to learnt that can help us to help peace and reconciliation flourish in good ways.

as you faced conflict
and transformed it,
give us the courage
to confront disagreement
where we find it
and to seek your will
in all things.

Walking the walk

It’s a couple of years now since I went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Those who know me will also know that I didn’t walk the Camino but in a very ‘inclusive’ way took a group by coach – people who might not have been able to do the walking but wanted to do the travelling.  The downside is that you don’t receive the certificate to say that you travelled the Camino but that was as little compared with the joy of arriving in that wonderful city.

Apart from the places we visited on the way (and you can read all of this in my blog ‘Southwark Camino’) one of the real joys was seeing the people who were doing it properly.  They were walking that ancient route that generations had been taking before them.  Some were in groups – clusters of people all with their pilgrim shell hanging from their rucksack – others were in pairs and many were alone.  But you didn’t travel far without seeing the next pilgrims.


Pointing the way on the Camino


The wonderful thing about the Camino is the signposting that goes on along the way.  There are markers to show that you are on the right way and heading in the right direction. The shell is the symbol but picked out in yellow on the marker stones it looks like a sunrise, pointing you to your destination. I would love to do the walk, to meet people on the way, to catch some up, to let others go ahead, to fall behind when I was tired, to stop when I needed to see something. And when I got going again I would always know that there were people on the journey with me, that I was not alone.

The word we often use for the people with whom we walk is ‘companions’ and, as you know, the word derives from Middle English roots meaning ‘one who breaks bread with another.’  It’s a powerful word for Christians who are a community of bread-breakers, bread-sharers and it shows how much communion, companion and journey are linked for us.

The communique at the conclusion of last week’s meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion included the sentence

‘It is our unanimous desire to walk together.’

I suppose that, given what I’ve said in reflecting on the Camino, that this is a positive note in what I felt was a very negative outcome.  I had been one of the 100+ senior Anglicans to sign the open letter calling on the Primates to repent of the way in which LGBT people have been and are being treated and it was good to hear and I was grateful to Archbishop Justin for apologising from his own position. But I came away from reading the statement and hearing the Press Conference feeling that the wrong people were being called to repentance.


The Primates gather at Canterbury


I signed the letter – I’m not a huge fan of open letters to be honest – because, I believe, there is a mission imperative in this country, as in other places in the west, to move on this issue.  I took part in the Shared Conversations for the same reason. The recent report that attendance at Church of England churches is still declining cannot simply be laid at the door of our inability or unwillingness to deal with the issues of equal marriage and same-sex attraction but those issues and our inability to deal maturely with them is an indication that we might well be on a journey but we are so out of step, so far behind where others are, that people who used to walk with us are now walking alone and seem to be happy about that.

The Episcopal Church (TEC), I believe, has boldly attempted to do the right thing, to respond to where God is in that society and to present a compassionate face to the world, which, in this ‘Year of Mercy’, is our common calling.  The churches in Africa, the Middle East, the Southern Cone and elsewhere have other serious issues to attend to – poverty, violence, persecution – (though the way LGBT people are treated in some other countries is scandalous and the church can easily stand by or tacitly support it by saying and doing nothing) and of course they must address them as must we.

People say its no good just to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk but we seem to have the reverse problem. Our words and actions and beliefs and decisions are all out of kilter and we cannot move forward like this.

Two of the verses from the popular song ‘Brother, sister, let me serve you’ stand out for me.

We are pilgrims on a journey,
and companions on the road;
we are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the night-time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.

I want to walk, I want to journey, I don’t want to abandon any with whom we have been travelling, I want to be a true companion, the Christ-light holder but I’m just not sure about where we are heading and whether the desire is to catch others up who seem to be ahead of us or that we’re expecting others to backtrack and join us on the same path, as though they took the wrong fork at a junction.  I’ve been so impressed by the reaction so far of TEC and its leaders and their commitment to the LGBT members of the church not to abandon them, not to go back on decisions already made.  So what is this journey, this walk about, where do we imagine we’re going?


We are pilgrims on a journey


For me, one of the most moving and painfully realistic passages from the Gospels is John 6.66-69.

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’

Even for some of those walking with Jesus the journey was too much, the implications too great, the reality too painful. We shouldn’t expect it to be any different for ourselves.

God of our journey,
bless us as we continue to walk together,
be the signpost on the way,
be the light in the dark stretches,
be the goal and destination,
and be the bread to sustain us
as companions.

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

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark