Symbolic acts

Almost ten years ago Archbishop John Sentamu was on the BBC’s ‘Andrew Marr Show’ and cut up his dog collar saying that he wouldn’t wear it again until Mugabe was no longer President of Zimbabwe.  It was a powerful and symbolic act that captured the imagination of people. Since then I’ve seen the Archbishop on many occasions – at services, in the closed rooms of the Crown Nominations Commission, at his home at Bishopthorpe in York, at Synod in that city or in Westminster – and I can honestly say that he has never had a bit of plastic around his neck.  However important the occasion, whoever was in the congregation, the absence of that bit of gleaming white plastic was obvious.  Perhaps now the collar will be reinserted.

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There goes the collar! (Picture BBC)

 

It has been a rollercoaster of emotions, these days since it looked as though Mugabe would be going immediately and then appeared to be hanging on and then, finally, in the face of impeachment, went.  My thoughts and prayers have been with my friends in that wonderful but beleaguered country.

I’ve been thinking about the priests from Zimbabwe that I spent time with at St George’s College in Jerusalem last November.  We were studying together, clergy from the Diocese of Southwark and clergy from our link dioceses of Matabeleland, Central Zimbabwe, Manicaland and Masvingo, with clergy as well from the Diocese of Harare.  It was great getting to know each other on the neutral territory of the Holy Land and a great preparation for my return to Zimbabwe in February of this year.  With Bishop Christopher, the Bishop of Southwark, as well as the Archdeacon of Southwark, Jane Steen and the Director of Communications, Wendy Robins, we travelled around each of those five dioceses, an opportunity for me to see all the cathedrals as well as visiting a variety of projects.  As ever it was amazing to witness the resilience and sheer joy and hopefulness of the people.  Their generosity knew no bounds as they fed us like honoured guests with food, I suspect, that they could hardly spare.

But what I have also been thinking about in these days has been assembly at Cathedral School.  Each week one of the clergy from the Cathedral goes into our parish primary school, to do, as clergy across the church do, lead assembly.  Assemblies and expectations of the clergy have changed in the 34 years I have been ordained when I began leading assembly at St James’ Middle School, in Manston on the outskirts of Leeds.  We may have taken in a visual aid but that was it – the rest relied upon us talking.  But now I have to go armed with a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate what I’m going to do.  It’s not a bad thing and I really enjoy both preparing and delivering the assemblies.  But whatever it is that we are thinking about we conclude with a prayer for Zimbabwe.  The children have learnt it off by heart and with hands together and eyes closed they say a variant of the Prayer for Africa.

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

That regular praying for Zimbabwe which takes place in the Cathedral School and at the map of Zimbabwe in the nave of the Cathedral, is not a symbolic act, of course, not like the statement made by the Archbishop, destroying his collar.  As we pray we believe that it will make a difference.  And it has, certainly to our friends in Zimbabwe.  I have told them about assembly and about all the children caught up in prayer.  And then I filmed a bunch of children at one of the schools in Masvingo greeting the Southwark children with a rapturous greeting. The children back home loved it – they saw the faces of the children they were praying for!

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Children from one of our link schools

 

I love the Letter of James.  It always feels to me that it could have been written yesterday, so relevant, so direct, so challenging, whether it be about how the rich treat the poor, how the tongue can run away with itself, or where our priorities lie.  And then in the final chapter James talks about prayer.

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest. (James 5.16b-18)

That fervent prayer made a difference and we believe that prayer, beyond being symbolic of our love and concern, is effective, it changes things.  Sometimes that is hard to see, very hard to see, but I do not lose faith that in God’s season things change and the harvest comes.

Whether or not ++Sentamu takes up his collar again we will continue to pray that prayer. As the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, said

‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.’

The people of Zimbabwe have stepped out, now their leaders have to step up and we need to pray for them and journey with them. So join the children of Cathedral School and pray with us.

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

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Handing on the mitre

With the Church of England if you do something once it’s a dangerous innovation, if you do it twice its a precious tradition! So when the Archbishop of York handed a beautiful mitre to the newly consecrated Bishop Karowei Dorgu at the end of the service in Southwark Cathedral on Friday was he being wildly innovative or simply responding to a tradition?

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Bishop Wilfred Wood and Archbishop Sentamu place the mitre on Bishop Karowei

 

It was a bit of both to be honest. The mitre in question had been given to Bishop Wilfred Wood, a former Bishop of Croydon, now retired.  When he was due to retire he passed this mitre, beautifully embroidered by the sisters of the long gone St Peter’s Convent in Woking, encrusted with precious stones, to Bishop John Sentamu.  Bishop Wilfred was the first black bishop in the Church of England; Bishop, now Archbishop, Sentamu was the second.  He was consecrated twenty years ago. Bishop Wilfred had told him that on his retirement he should hand the mitre to another BAME bishop – it is twenty years later that there is one.  As Archbishop Sentamu was at pains to assure the congregation he wasn’t retiring but he wanted to mark the event by handing on the mitre anyway with the understanding that as soon as another BAME bishop is consecrated, Bishop Karowei will hand on the mitre.

It’s like an ecclesiastical, episcopal relay race, handing on the baton.  But it was a very wonderful moment in a  wonderful service that was a great celebration that the church had ordained another black bishop but also a sobering moment to consider that it was in 1985 that Wilfred Wood was made a bishop and that it is 32 years later that we have a third black bishop.  We have to do better than this and not for some  reason of ‘political correctness’ but because unless people see themselves reflected in the church at all levels, in all kinds of leadership positions she will never reflect the beautiful and diverse nature of many of our congregations and the reality of the kingdom of God.

So this handing on of the mitre was an innovation in that it had not be done in a service before but it has become a symbolic tradition, a powerful moment.

It took me to that great moment in the Elijah-Elisha saga in the Second Book of Kings.  Elijah, that fire-brand amongst the prophets, knows his days are numbered so he sets off as God directs.  Elisha, his protégé, follows him and despite numerous people and amongst them Elijah, telling him to leave him, he continues to follow.  His reason? When they had crossed the Jordan, Elisha says to his Master

‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ Elijah responded, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’ (2 Kings 2.9-10)

Then, all of a sudden, horses of fire and a chariot of fire whisk Elijah away into heaven.  Elisha watches and as his Master disappears

‘He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him.’ (2 Kings 2.13)

It’s a powerful moment, a symbolic moment and as he strikes the waters of the Jordan with the mantle and they divide he knows that God has filled him with that double share for which he had asked.

Elijah

Elisha catches the mantle

 

But the question that this story and the handing on of the mitre asks of me is whether I and, more importantly, whether we, are ready to catch the mantle and to assume the responsibility for revealing the kingdom of God.

In the synagogue in Nazareth, at the very beginning of his public ministry, Jesus takes the scroll and reads a passage from the prophet Isaiah. St Luke tells us all about it. We often describe it as Jesus proclaiming the manifesto for his ministry.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4.18-19)

The spirit, like the mantle of God, has rested on him and it fits. That seamless robe that he’ll wear until it is ripped from him at the cross, is the mantle that he catches and lives out and proclaims and reveals in everything that he does and everything that he says.

A contemporary poet, Hilary Marckx, in a poem called ‘Pick up the mantle’ writes

Under that mantle we speak
for justice, for hope, for life, for Jesus,
we speak for all those who have no voice,
and we surely speak the Good News
that freedom/liberation/deliverance
is on the way—here!

It’s a powerful call to us to step up to the plate, to take responsibility, to stand in the shoes and wrap the mantle around us. Yet I think that in an age of individualism and isolationism in politics it can be counter cultural for some to think in this way. But the mantle isn’t just about politics, it’s about being prepared to take on all the roles of leadership that exist within society, within the church, watching, as Elisha was asked to watch and catching the moment, being there, involved, attentive and taking the part that we need to take part.

I’m on General Synod. The average Synod member is male, white, grey haired and probably retired. Young people are a rare commodity, black people are an even rarer commodity but when they speak they’re listened to because you don’t have to wait for older white people to be carried up into heaven, there’s kingdom building to be done now and in our churches are the people to do it. We need the prophets, we need the teachers, we need the priests, the witnesses, the proclaimers, the modellers of the diverse and real church who’ll clothe themselves in the mantle of Christ and make the kingdom known.

Marckx concludes their poem in this way.

The mantle is not of a glorious nature,
but it is of an eternal nature…
Go ahead, pick it up and put it on…
it will fit you well.

The mitre fitted well on the head of Bishop Karowei and I welcome this innovative tradition and glad that it began in Southwark Cathedral.  May that mitre rest on many more heads and the mantle lie across many shoulders.

Jesus, as the Spirit rested on you,
may it rest on us.
Amen.

Living prayer

On the BBC’s Sunday programme this morning (24 August) I heard a report about Archbishop Sentamu embarking on another week of prayer and fasting in York Minster. I know that he has done similar things before and caught the public imagination by what he was doing. The bit of the report that I caught spoke about the power that prayer can have when we face situations as we are doing in the Middle East at the moment. We wring our hands not knowing what we can do – and then someone suggests praying, and we wonder ‘Is that really enough?’ It seems so minimal when we imagine that real engagement in the issue would be something much more practical. So I was delighted that the Archbishop, through his own commitment to prayer, is reminding us that praying is a powerful response.

The Nasrani Solidarity candle

The Nasrani Solidarity candle

Sunday was also the day when we launched at Southwark Cathedral our Nasrani Solidarity candle. The candles are being made from the leftover candle ends from churches in the diocese that would often just be discarded or put in a box in the Sacristy for … well, no one knows why! Amongst the left over candles there are often large remains of last years’ paschal candles. All these candles are blessed by use, but the paschal candles in particular have been set apart to be for us ‘the light of Christ’, which is what we sing as the candle is carried into the dark church at the Easter Vigil. So it seems perfect to be able to use these candles to signify our solidarity in prayer with those who are going through so much darkness and yet are remaining committed to Christ.

Each candle has on it the Arabic initial letter for ‘Nasrani’, which I have mentioned before, the letter that members of the Islamic State are painting on the outside of Christian homes to identify them. It reminds me of what happened at the Passover when Moses instructed the people to mark their doorposts and the lintel of their home with the blood of the sacrificial lamb so that the angel would pass over the house and they would be saved. In a grim reversal of this miracle the houses marked with the Nasrani symbol is a prelude to persecution and probable death rather than freedom and life for the Hebrews fleeing Egypt.

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The good news is that the candles sold out on day one and a fresh supply has to be made. All the profits are being sent to support the work of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East. So the candle provides both a way of praying and providing practical support. The prayer supplied with the candle, as a suggestion of what we might pray as we light it in our own home, is from Evening Prayer – the Third Collect in the Book of Common Prayer, but the version we using comes from Common Worship.

Lighten our darkness,
Lord, we pray,
and in your great mercy
defend us from all perils and dangers of this night,
for the love of your only Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Amen.

Archbishop Sentamu’s challenge to me has been to take the power of prayer even more seriously. Of course, I believe in prayer; but do I really believe that prayer can change the situation that my brothers and sisters face in Iraq; what my brothers and sisters in Gaza are facing; what my brothers and sisters in northern Nigeria are facing; what my brothers and sisters in parts of west Africa are facing from the Ebola virus. There is so much that I should be praying fervently for and with that strong faith which knows that God will move mountains.

St Thérèse of Lisieux

St Thérèse of Lisieux

I turn to St Thérèse of Lisieux who believed in the power of prayer and devoted her short life to prayer. She felt called to the missionary life and, I believe, to priesthood – but neither was open to her. So she embraced the vocation to the enclosed life of the Carmelite and gave herself to prayer and sacrifice for priests and for the missions. She wrote

“My whole strength lies in prayer and sacrifice, these are my invincible arms; they can move hearts far better than words, I know it by experience.”

In the book Deuteronomy it says

The eternal God is your refuge,
and underneath are the everlasting arms.

(Deut 33.27)

What Thérèse shows us is that the ‘invisible’, ‘everlasting’ arms are prayer and that sacrifice which is part of true prayer – giving ourselves to the task, to the work, and knowing that prayer and work are inseparable and that praying is not a weak response but one of the strongest.

Living God,
may my prayer live
and may I trust
that underneath
are your everlasting arms.
Amen.

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