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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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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