More tea, Vicar?

Whilst ‘Asparagus-gate’ continued to rattle on in Worcester Cathedral I was getting ready to bless in Southwark Cathedral the First Flush Darjeeling tea for one of the stall holders in the Borough Market.  Would I face the same criticism? I read the reports of the service held in Worcester.  It seemed that the objection was to the ‘pantomime’ of having someone in the procession dressed as an asparagus shoot.  I’ve actually seen more bizarre forms of dress in Cathedral processions than that but, well, there you go! But I was ok.  It seemed that it wasn’t the fact that asparagus was being blessed, or God was being thanked for (though someone asked about a similar liturgy for Sprouts) but that it looked as though God, through the liturgy, was being ridiculed. I breathed a sigh of relief.  No one was going to be dressed as a tea leaf or a teabag and the liturgy that I had written for the occasion was as orthodox as I could make it.

tea-510547

‘More tea, Vicar?’

 

Obviously the challenge was the reading – the Bible is light on hot drinks – but it is clear that we are to bring the first fruits of the harvest to God, to make an offering and to give thanks. So we read this.

The Lord said to Aaron, ‘All the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the choice produce that they give to the LORD, I have given to you. The first fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring to the LORD, shall be yours; everyone who is clean in your house may eat of it. Every devoted thing in Israel shall be yours.’ (Numbers 18.12-14)

It was a lovely occasion and Ratan, the stallholder of Tea2You in the Borough Market, who had been out into the hills where tea grows in northern India to select the best of the harvest spoke eloquently about it.  I quoted another cleric, the Revd Sydney Smith, who wrote in his memoir in the early years of the 19th century

“Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.”

Hear, hear, Reverend Sir! Lots to give thanks for and especially for we clerics who get plied with gallons of the hot brown liquid as we make our pastoral visits, or at least that was the case when I was in the parish.  Developing a strong bladder to see you through an afternoon’s pastoral visiting, which is what we did every day when I was first ordained, was a necessary stage in proper clerical formation. ‘Never refuse a cup of tea’, I was told ‘and never ask to use the bathroom in someone’s house!’ Conceding to both rules was a physical impossibility for me.  But as Oscar Wilde says in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

‘Tea is the only simple pleasure left to us.’

And so when I was presented with the newly harvested tea in the Cathedral I prayed that all who drank it might be

‘calmed, strengthened
and comforted.’

A simple prayer for a simple pleasure.

Whilst all of this was going on we had been hosting the annual residential meeting of the Deans’ Conference. This gathering of the English Anglican Deans moves around the country year-on-year and this time it was the privilege of St Paul’s and Southwark to co-host it.  Moving around gives us the opportunity to see what ministry in our different cathedrals looks like.  This is important always but especially when the ministry and especially the governance and finances of all the English Cathedrals are under some measure of scrutiny and consideration as the Archbishops’ Working Party begins its deliberations. Some in the press put 2 and 2 together and, with a display of worse numerical dexterity than some Deans are being accused of, came up with 5! The Deans were holding a crisis meeting to talk about failing finances. It couldn’t have been further from the truth.  Of course, the Working Party and the issues around it were discussed but not in some febrile atmosphere. Instead we all look forward to seeing what positive findings the members of the Working Party come up with.

So most of our time was spent looking at the world in which St Paul’s and Southwark seek to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and minister to all his people – London, north and south of the river. To do that we visited what we called the ‘Five Estates’ taken from the famous ‘three estates’ of France’s Ancien Régime. We began with finance by visiting Canary Wharf and the offices of J P Morgan.  That involved a fascinating visit to the trading floor as well as a conversation about Brexit, the markets and the ethics of global finance.  Then to the Corporation of the City of London that ancient and unique local authority.  We had a session with a team from the London Borough of Southwark including both the Chief Executive and Leader of the Council to talk about physical and social regeneration and wellbeing as part of that.  Then we moved to the offices of NewsUK located alongside Southwark Cathedral and spent a fascinating time with members of the editorial, reporting and commentating team of the Times.  What is news? What is truth? What is fact? were our topics of conversation.  And in all of that we talked about how our two cathedrals respond in this fast-paced, fast changing world.

london-skyline-silhouette-01-01-01

London

 

The Dean of St Paul’s invited me to preach at the final Eucharist of the Conference celebrated at the high altar in St Paul’s.  It was the (transferred) Feast of St Mellitus, the first Bishop of London.  I concluded my sermon in this way, speaking of what I see the role of the Dean to be, pondering on the question suggested by the readings for the Mass as to whether we were to be builders or shepherds.

‘We have to be what the time and the place need, what Jesus needs of us. And he needs us first and foremost to be disciples, he needs us first and foremost to be priests. It’s our discipleship which helps us to walk with others, it’s our priesthood that enables our ministry to others. What will make a difference is not how high the tower gets but what happens in the pulpit and what happens at the altar, that’s what’ll make a difference, the difference, a place buzzing with theology, a people encountering God in the most sublime worship, a community meeting the risen Jesus in broken bread.

That’s the real Christian project and I believe Cathedrals have to be flagships of that, champions, exemplars of that in a church crying out for confident, radical, inclusive Christian commitment that’s life changing, faith enhancing. We can build it and shepherd it but it will be in people’s lives that we see our real priestly work bearing fruit, fruit that will last.

Whatever we take away from this time we’ve had together in London and Southwark I hope and pray that we’ll take away a renewed commitment and confidence in the task, wherever we are and whatever that particular task is, but knowing that we can only build on one set of foundations, those of Jesus Christ and shepherd only one flock, his.’

That may include blessing asparagus or tea; it may involve walking the City trading floors, debating truth with journalists or looking to the wellbeing of communities undergoing regeneration.  It will involve being the Body of Christ, visibly and passionately and welcoming the faithful and the yet to be faithful, through ever open doors.

God of the Church,
bless our cathedrals
and the communities
they serve,
welcome,
and bless
in your name.
Amen.

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Sticks and stones

Children call out in the playground (well, they used to, I’m not sure if they still do)

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’

In one sense of course it’s true. Physical abuse hurts physically, name calling and the use of words and language may cause more psychological, emotional damage but the pain can be just as real. I’ve been interested, not really surprised, but interested to see the kind of response that the events of last weekend provoked. Certainly this ‘Living God’ blog has never had such a high readership, my email box was full of messages and the majority of these were very supportive. The number of my ‘followers’ on Twitter increased rapidly and other messages expressing things like ‘we are so proud of what happened’, ‘you did the right thing’ were wonderful to receive. Yet there were the other kind of messages, the emails and Tweets from those for whom a Muslim mayor in a Christian cathedral was not good news, those who see that kind of thing as undermining of national character and even undermining of the holiness of God.

Mayor Sadiq Khan in the Cathedral

Mayor Sadiq Khan in the Cathedral

Of course, for me it will have been a few days in a kind of spotlight and then very quickly it is yesterday’s news and something much more interesting is going on. This blog will get its usual number of hits and some of my more recent Twitter followers will discover that the news about the Cathedral cat, my views on Eurovision and my daily prayer is not really what they want to follow!

But it has given me an insight into what it must be like to be the victim of more constant abuse and unwanted attention, what it must be like to be the focus of other people’s hatred just for being who you are and daring to come out of the box that they would like to keep you in. The letter that I signed with others and which was printed in the last edition of the Church Times criticising the language that ‘Christian Concern’ used in relation to Mayor Sadiq Khan and not just the language but the erroneous ‘facts’ used to attempt to discredit him shows that groups of Christians are as willing to engage in name calling as any other part of society.

Making Mayors seems to be a weekly occurrence just at the moment in Southwark Cathedral. Yesterday we played host to the London Borough of Southwark, in which the Cathedral is set, who each year bring their Mayor-Making and Civic Awards to the Cathedral. In the very place in which Sadiq Kahn signed-in as Mayor of London a week ago, the new Mayor of Southwark was elected in a special council meeting and her mayoral year inaugurated.

Before that happened the Civic Awards were granted. Sixteen individuals and groups from across the Borough were recognised for their work on behalf of the community. The awards were given by the outgoing Mayor and her three predecessors. I sat there with them watching it and was struck by the fact that of those four mayors one was a Hindu, one was a Muslim and two were Christians. Each had served the borough and its citizens with real distinction and I remembered that we had recently celebrated Sam King MBE who was the first black mayor of the borough. Jamaican born, Sam arrived in the UK in 1948 on the Empire Windrush, and settled in Southwark. He was a tireless campaigner for the community and went on to help set up the first Notting Hill Carnival, and was also a driving force behind the first black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette. After six months serving as a local councillor in Southwark, he was elected as Mayor of Southwark in 1983, aged 57. What he began has continued and we are better for it.

The awards were given and then the outgoing Mayor, Councillor Dora Dixon-Fyle MBE, gave a special award to Shaun Dellenty for his wonderful work in setting up ‘Inclusion for All’ a programme tacking homophobic bullying in our schools. Shaun is an openly gay deputy head in the neighbourhood who was himself the victim of homophobic bullying and doesn’t want future generations of children to suffer in the same way. His local work has gone national and it was wonderful to see that honoured in this special award in the Cathedral.

Shaun Dellenty is honoured in the Cathedral

Shaun Dellenty is honoured in the Cathedral

Plenty of things were said about Jesus, to his face, behind his back and things that would end up crucifying him. In Matthew 11 we read this
Jesus said ‘To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’
( Matthew 11.16-19)

Sticks and stones and words. We fling so much about. But Jesus has a better word to say and a word that gives life, for he is that Word.

Lord,
may my words this week
seek to build and not destroy
affirm not undermine
celebrate not denigrate
and be words
that speak of you.
Amen.

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