Can you breathe yet?

A year on from the murder of George Floyd and has anything changed? Can my sisters and brothers breathe yet? This is what I have been thinking about this week. On the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd I had the most incredibly moving experience, well, two experiences really, but related at a very deep level.

In the past decade the Church of England has really got to grips with the training that is offered to Deans and other members of the Chapters of Cathedrals. That has been an excellent initiative and whilst I have often been a bit critical of some of the training we have been offered it has always stimulated a great deal of thinking. The latest round of training I was invited to take part in was all about increasing diversity in our cathedrals.

This happened to take place last Tuesday, the first anniversary, and then in the evening I was due to welcome Chine McDonald to the Cathedral to be in conversation with the Archdeacon of Croydon, Dr Rosemarie Mallett, about Chine’s new book ‘God is not a white man’. The one reinforced the other, the training and the conversation, the stories we shared, the deeper reflection.

In preparation for the training we were invited to read or watch a number of things, inclusing teh recent Panorama programme on racism in the Church of England. We were then asked to reflect on what we had seen.

It was a shocking experience, watching the Panorama programme.  It was shocking because we heard individual stories from those who had experienced racism first hand.  But it was not new in the sense that we have been on a journey around this subject for a long time and the Cathedral has been a long time on this journey.

Inclusive Church was founded in 2003 and the then Dean of Southwark, Colin Slee, was one of the founding members and preached at the launch service in Putney.  We immediately signed up as a Chapter – we were shamelessly inclusive.  And we would shamelessly use a capital I as well as a lower case i when talking about ourselves.  But, to be brutally honest, we were talking about LGBT issues and to be honest we were really talking about gay men. 

Now I am Dean, the boy who had grown up in multi-cultural Leicester, who was formed by the first black priest I had ever met, challenged into changing my sloppy ways of thinking when I came to Southwark, wanting to be included as the person I am in the church I loved and had given my life to.  So we arrived at this descriptor, value statement for our life as a community.

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

Out of that we have three words which we print on our Pride T-shirts –

Inclusive : Faithful :Radical

It describes our intention, not sadly not yet our reality.

How dare we use such words of our self when it is not true – or, at least, as not true as it should be, as Jesus would want it to be?  Of course, we can say we are on a journey and we are, but it is a long journey and that was partly what I saw on the Panorama programme.

I am always fascinated by the length of the route that the Israelites took from slavery to freedom – forty years in the wilderness, doubling back on themselves when things got a little too hot to handle, satisfied with unsatisfying food, until Joshua, not Moses, crossed the Jordan and with stepping stones showing the way, they followed.  They could have got there a lot more quickly but for good and bad reasons they didn’t.  It took Joshua and the stepping stones, which they would lift from the riverbed onto the bank as a lasting memorial, to actually deliver them on to another shore. (Joshua 4.3)

When your children ask in time to come, “What do those stones mean to you?” then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. (Joshua 4.6-7)

Listening to the real stories, listening to Chine and the challenge of black theology to our out of step way of thinking of and imagining God, allowing the reality that others live to impact me during the day and then watching again the footage of that terrible evening in Minneapolis when a police officer knelt on my brother’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds and he cried out to be allowed to breathe, I realised the enormity of the task that we face, in the Cathedral, as a wider community, as society and the memorial stones we need to mark the journey.

So I am looking for those stepping stones that will take us from slavery to freedom, to a better place in which we can all breathe and be the person God calls us to be.

There is a long way to go. This was my #BlackLivesMatter prayer and I am still praying it. 

God of all, who loves each of us for who we are, to whom each life matters, who counts the hairs on our head who knows when a sparrow falls; teach us to love as you love to respect, to honour, to care and to protect each of our sisters and brothers, that your embracing, including kingdom may come now and your love be known by all, always. Amen.

Black lives matter

It is very easy, I find, to be distracted. My brother was a boat boy when he was little. For those not quite so familiar with catholic ritual, the boat boy, or girl, is a little child who will walk alongside the thurifer holding the ‘boat’ of incense grains, the container from which the priest spoons the incense onto the hot coals. In his little red cassock and white cotta and wearing his white linen gloves he looked angelic. But he wasn’t a boy who could stay still for long, he would get bored standing alongside the thurifer as the service proceeded and would often have to be taken out into the sacristy where his antics would be less distracting to the worshippers!

The departure of the former President of the United States on Wednesday, and all that had led up to the Inauguration of President Biden, could easily have distracted us from what was a real moment of history. I can’t forget the privilege of watching Barak Obama taking the oaths on those famous steps and being amazed at the first black president. This year, this occasion, I was especially moved when it came to the turn of Vice-President Kamala Harris to move forward, behind the protective screens, to take her oath. So many firsts – the first woman, the first African-American woman, the first Asian-American to occupy this office. It was a moment to savor, a moment from which nothing should distract us, not the antics of Trump with his mob of supporters, not the pandemic that is raging all around us, nothing should distract us from this particular moment in history as glass ceilings were shattered.

Amanda Gorman reciting her poem, young, gifted and black

Then to hear Amanda Gorman reciting her poem, young, gifted and black, an iconic person eloquently speaking into the situation, into her divided nation, into her rich heritage.

When day comes, we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The opening words of her poem call on the light to shine, to spotlight that from which we should not be distracted.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.

Her words were so powerfully hopeful. And all of this less than a year since George Floyd was so brutally murdered in front of the cameras, when his cries to be allowed to breathe were ignored by his uniformed assailants. The #BlackLivesMatter campaign has changed our conversation and the inauguration of Vice-President Harris and the poetry of Amanda Gorman must be allowed to shine out from the ‘never-ending shade’.

Black lives matter. That is why the Diocese of Southwark and our Cathedral are committed to doing all we can to counter the anti-vax misinformation that is now threatening our UKME (BAME) sisters and brothers. The diocese has published a short film made by Bishop Karowei Dorgu, the Bishop of Woolwich, who was a GP before he was ordained, and the Ven Dr Rosemarie Mallett, the Archdeacon of Croydon, both of whom challenge the misinformation and are encouraging everyone, but most especially those who at present are not taking up the vaccine as they should do to do so. After all, we all know that the UKME communities have been disproportionally affected in this pandemic. Black lives matter and we all need to get behind this campaign.

You can view the film here.

There is a wonderful passage in the Book of Ecclsiasticus – you may be familar with it (Ecclesiasticus 38.1-8)

Honour physicians for their services,
   for the Lord created them;
for their gift of healing comes from the Most High,
   and they are rewarded by the king.
The skill of physicians makes them distinguished,
   and in the presence of the great they are admired.
The Lord created medicines out of the earth,
   and the sensible will not despise them.
Was not water made sweet with a tree
   in order that its power might be known?
And he gave skill to human beings
   that he might be glorified in his marvellous works.
By them the physician heals and takes away pain;
   the pharmacist makes a mixture from them.
God’s works will never be finished;
   and from him health spreads over all the earth.

‘From him health spreads over all the earth’. Nothing should distract us from doing the right thing, and for each of our sisters and brothers. I am praying again our #BlackLivesMatter prayer and I invite you to join me.

God of all,
who loves each of us for who we are,
to whom each life matters,
who counts the hairs on our head
who knows when a sparrow falls;
teach us to love as you love
to respect, to honour, to care
and to protect
each of our sisters and brothers,
that your embracing,
including kingdom
may come now
and your love be known
by all, always.
Amen.

The empty plinth

The empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square has provided some wonderful inspiration to artists to imagine what or who could stand there.  It cries out for someone, something to occupy it; it is, after all, so unusual to see an empty plinth.  But maybe it won’t be so lonely, so unusual a sight, perhaps we just need to move into a future of empty plinths.

Colston 2

The image of the figure of Edward Colston being cast ignominiously into the very harbour from which he was trading will become, I suspect, one of those iconic images and one of those iconic moments.  Many of us remember where we were when we heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated, many remember seeing Nelson Mandela walk free from Robben Island, many remember the first step taken on the moon, many remember watching the scenes from Berlin as the wall began to be torn down, many of us remember watching in horror as planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and it fell.  All of these were life changing, iconic moments, seismic shifts in our world understanding, our personal consciousness.  Time will tell, but was the sight of Colston being dragged from his plinth one of those moments?

Stalin2

Last year I went for a city break in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.  I can recommend it and in fact I am taking a pilgrimage from Southwark Cathedral there next year (all being well). Having looked at the Roman ruins and having done the churches and mosques we decided to get on a bus and head out to the Museum of Socialist Art.  The museum was opened in 2011 and its collection is formed in great part of a collection of statues that were removed from their plinths around the capital and the rest of the country and placed instead, as historical artifacts, and art of a particular style, in a parkland.  There are no plinths.

Stalin

We spent ages walking among these figures, no longer looking down on us from a great and lauded height, no longer oppressive but instead impressive works – there is a big difference.  Some were brutal in style but nowhere near as brutal as they must have been when they were glowering down from a great height onto the oppressed populace.

The prophet Micah writes

‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;’
(Micah 4.3)

Swords and spears though come in many shapes and sizes, and forms.  We have come to a realisation in this past week that statuary, public monuments can be weaponised, that they can be used as swords in the fights that we have as humanity and whilst this might become a distraction from the core message of #blacklivesmatter it is nevertheless worth thinking about.  Swords need to be beaten into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks.  I was taken back to Sofia and those huge lumps of rock, that could have been broken down to create hardcore for building the new Bulgaria, to the statues that could have been melted down to be formed into something else.  But they weren’t, they were kept, but taken from their plinths.

Outside of the United Nations building in New York is a sculpture called ‘Let us beat swords into plowshares’ by Yevgeny Vuchetich.  It shows exactly what the prophet was speaking of.  A powerful image.

Schwerter_zu_Pflugscharen_-_Jewgeni_Wutschetitsch_-_Geschenk_der_Sowjetunion_an_die_UNO_-_1959

So more plinths are becoming empty.  In the Cathedral parish the statue of Thomas Guy, the founder of Guy’s Hospital is now being questioned and is boxed up in its position in the centre of the courtyard in which it has stood for so long.  I do not know what its fate will be, nor the fate of so many statues and sculptures that are the target of anger at the moment.

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes this

Don’t stop after beating the swords
into ploughshares, don’t stop! Go on beating
and make musical instruments out of them.
Whoever wants to make war again
will have to turn them into ploughshares first.

There are so many questions that we have to answer – how do we tell our story, how do we teach our history? How do we deal with the dark side of the past that doesn’t just hide it away? How do we live in our communities now and not make our past a weapon of continuing oppression? But the question I have been thinking about is whether plinths are of any use at all.  Should we be giving up on the idea that we place people on pedestals, at all.  OK, so it has been done since, well, forever.  But does that mean that we continue to do it?  Does any of us really deserve to be up there on the empty plinth?

In William Cowper’s poem that we sing as hymn, ‘O for a closer walk with God’, we have the verse

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.

There was one who was ‘lifted up’ that he might draw all people to himself.  The cross was a plinth, a pedestal like no other, and at the resurrection even that was empty.

God of peace, God of justice,
help me to understand the past
in the present
for the future.
Amen.

Use of the Bible

I have to confess something, get it off my chest, after all they say confession is good for the soul.  The thing is that whilst not being particularly academic and having a short attention span for the works of Aquinas and Schillebeeckx and the like I did OK in my exams whilst I was training for ordination.  That is apart from one particular paper with the intriguing title ‘Use of the Bible’.  I remember a question on readings that you could use for a Harvest Festival – I think you had to have a rationale for your choice, that kind of thing.  Anyway, when it came time for the results to be published I was summoned to the Principal’s office.  Fr Benedict Green CR was Principal at that time, a slightly off putting though terrifically kind person who had little in the way of small talk.  My capacity only for small talk left him normally underwhelmed.

Open Bible

So I knocked on the door and entered his study.  There he was in his cassock and grey scapular.  It was about the ‘Use of the Bible’ exam.  To cut a long story short I had escaped failing it by half a percent!  Not that it stood in the way of ordination and nor has it stood in the way of so many years of putting services together and choosing suitable readings, including for Harvest Festivals!  But I did leave his room feeling slightly told off, that I didn’t really know how to use the Bible.

It has been a shocking two weeks.  The death of George Floyd in Minnesota has shocked the world but also highlighted what our BAME sisters and brothers have known all the time, that insidious racism is never far away.  It is systemic, institutionalised, a poison in our societies and a scandal of monumental proportions.  The peaceful response in the States and around the world has been justified (the looting and wanton destruction of property is another matter, though it shows the depth of anger that this has provoked and unleashed).

And in that divisive, violent situation the President of the USA takes a walk from the White House, his route being cleared by more divisive and violent action as protesters are cleared from his path with the use of tear gas and he stands outside St John’s Episcopal Church (Anglican Church) holding a copy of the Bible aloft.  It was the most terrible image I think I have ever seen of the use, the misuse, of the Bible.

I am not the first to say that if, rather than holding it, he had the courage to open it he would have read there the truth that would challenge his every action.

What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6.8)

The Bible is not a weapon to be held in the way he did, not a talisman to ward off evil, it is God’s word to us, so that, in the words of the Prayer Book Collect for Advent 2

‘we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life’

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is equally clear

The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4.12)

But it isn’t just President Trump who is at fault.  I ‘use’ the Bible to my own ends, grabbing verses here and there, to prove MY point.  Others grab texts to prove THEIR point.  We weaponise the word of God, we misuse the Bible in so many ways.  We have used it to justify the very slavery whose effect is continuing to be felt by those who hate people of colour and by those people of colour who still feel the yoke of oppression on their necks.  We have used the Bible to justify homophobia, to keep women ‘in their place’, to justify the rape of creation, or fuel antisemitism.

Trinity Sunday is when we read scripture to discover something of the true nature of God, we use the Bible to shed light on the glorious mystery of the God we have come to know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.  May we do that in a life-giving way, for as Paul writes to Timothy

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3.16-17)

I hope I never see another human being treated in the way George Floyd was, I hope I never see the Bible used as President Trump used it.

BLM

This is the prayer I have written in response to #BlackLivesMatter

God of all,
who loves each of us for who we are,
to whom each life matters,
who counts the hairs on our head
who knows when a sparrow falls;
teach us to love as you love
to respect, to honour, to care
and to protect
each of our sisters and brothers,
that your embracing,
including kingdom
may come now
and your love be known
by all, always.
Amen.

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

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

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark