Common Ground

If you happened to go to any of the forty-two cathedrals in England last week you might have found them rather short of staff, or seen retired clergy taking all of the services and you may have wondered what on earth was going on.  In fact, the very first National Cathedrals’ Conference was taking place in Manchester and each of us had been encouraged to take a good delegation to that gathering.  The organisers didn’t want just clergy, they wanted the breadth of life of the cathedrals to be represented.  So from Southwark Cathedral we took ten people, half were ordained, half were lay.

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It was a bold thing to do, to bring together such a large group of people, for quite a long time, at no small cost, financial and otherwise, to listen and to talk.  We were hosted by Manchester Cathedral, set at the heart of the city alongside Harvey Nic’s and Selfridge’s but looking across the river at the post-industrial landscape that now exists in that city.

I was fascinated by all the bees that are around the place.  Whoever decided on the ‘Bee in the City’ initiative it certainly has taken off.  Everywhere there were bees, in street art, in the form of chocolate, badges, even on the new choir stalls in the Cathedral.  The bee represents the history of hard work in the city, people busy as bees, worker bees in this once productive powerhouse of the north.

The theme of the conference was ‘Sacred Space : Common Ground’ and, as you can imagine, a variety of speakers tried to tease out what this meant and for each of us whether we were musicians, or vergers, or administrators, or events organisers, or even clergy!

As ever though with things in the Church of England what is not said is often more important than what is.  Until the last morning there was an elephant in the room and a rather large and threatening elephant at that, a bull stung by a bee. We sat there thinking about so many aspects of life that we hold in common but we all knew that there was a huge task looming and that is the implementation of the Cathedrals Working Group report which came to the General Synod in July and is now back with the cathedrals and the lawyers.

To be perfectly honest I am a bit of a convert to the report.  I had been very cynical about the whole thing, but the debate in Synod and actually considering carefully how we could improve things, even in such a wonderful place as Southwark Cathedral (!), has made me realise that there is much that could be useful to us.  But the challenge is how do we make the recommendations in the report fit forty-two very different institutions and foundations.

The title of this conference ‘Common Ground’ could give you the impression that cathedrals are all pretty similar, that we stand on common ground.  Superficially of course that might seem true.  We all have a Dean, we all have Chapters, we all have Choral Evensong and an increasing number of us now have cats and, of course, we all have a Diocesan Bishop looking through the door they symbolically knocked on, wondering if they can come in! But there it ends.  You cannot compare Bradford and St Paul’s (except that David Ison has been dean of both).  You cannot compare Truro and York, Newcastle and Norwich. You cannot compare Southwark and Derby. But like Cinders ugly sisters we are being invited to force our feet into a pair of shoes that may ultimately pinch!

So the task that lies before us is to decide what actually is common ground and how we negotiate what isn’t common about the place we are and how we can nuance the recommendations of the report to enhance the ministry and mission that we offer.  To be fair, some of that started to come out in the final sessions of the conference and the Southwark delegation left Manchester fired up with ideas of how we can take things forward.

Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP was one of the reflectors on the conference and he brought his wisdom to bear at a number of points.  In the final plenary he said to us ‘Cathedrals should be the home of all the homes, in which all the communities come together.’ It was a powerful vision and a stimulus to some further work on the ecclesiology of cathedrals.  But his thoughts rose out of those words of Jesus from St John’s Gospel

‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.’ (John 14.2)

Cathedrals can be seen as those many dwelling-places, those many ‘mansions’ as some translations express it.  Together we create ‘Sacred Space : Common Ground’ but in forty-two quite different ways, in forty-two quite different places, for forty-two quite different sets of challenges.  The question we face is, will the desire of the centre for consistent practice, for commonality, squeeze out the possibility of creative and life-giving difference and distinctiveness in the local place?  We need to be busy bees in the weeks and months ahead.

Holy Trinity,
may we reflect your oneness
and celebrate your distinctiveness.
Amen.

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A cloud on the horizon

We’ve all had that experience, lying on the beach, soaking up the rays, and then suddenly seeing on the horizon some cloud bubbling up.  Will it head in our direction, will we be running from the beach, towel in hand, escaping the downpour? The prophet Elijah had a similar experience, though he wasn’t sunbathing at the time.  Instead it was a time of drought in the land of Israel. Elijah predicted to Ahab that the drought would end and the heavens open and rain would be heard.  But there was no sign of it.  So Elijah keeps on sending his servant up to the top of the mountain to look for the cloud.

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‘Look, a little cloud …’

 

On the seventh time of looking the servant cries out

‘Look, a little cloud no bigger than a person’s hand is rising out of the sea.’ (1 Kings 18.44)

Like the cloud viewed from the beach, what looked small on the horizon, something the size of a person’s hand, suddenly becomes one of those big clouds that bring rain (or snow) and so it was for Elijah and Ahab.

There was a wonderful picture during the beginning of last weeks ‘snowmageddon’ which showed half of London under a heavy snow-laden cloud, half still in sunshine.  But the cloud delivered what it promised!

We are living with a large cloud in Southwark Cathedral during this season of Lent.  Susie MacMurray’s installation, ‘Doubt’, is causing a lot of interest and discussion.  For some it is too oppressive and depressing and I can understand that; for others it is a welcome invitation to think about their own clouds and also a permission-giving way of thinking about doubt.  But perhaps it has come at just the right time as a cloud hangs not just in Southwark but over all Cathedrals.

Those who try to keep up to date with the life of cathedrals, the real life Barchesters and Lindchesters of the Church of England, will be aware that last year there was a little local difficulty in two of our forty-two great cathedrals.  Problems were encountered at both Peterborough and Exeter which have had very serious consequences in those wonderful places and the ripples have caught the rest of the forty.  In order to look at some of the underlying issues which helped to create the situation in those two places and have contributed to something of the financial difficulties in many more, the Archbishops established a Working Group under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Stepney (himself a former Dean) to look at the issues of governance and financial control.

The deadline for responding to the draft report from the Working Group, which was published at the beginning of January, was last Wednesday.  All over the country people were trying to squeeze and conform their responses into the straightjacket of an online response form, to reflect the subtlety and nuance of what they needed to say in a system that allowed for neither. But in one way or another I suspect all of us have managed it, for better or worse.

In order to gauge opinion at Southwark the Chapter organised two meetings, one for the congregation, another for an expanded joint meeting of Chapter and Council (the Council has become something of an endangered species in this draft report). There was much that both meetings saw as positive, but much that we at Southwark were already doing, around financial scrutiny and reporting, around Safeguarding and resilience.

But there is a cloud ‘the size of a person’s hand’ rising from the sea.

Anthony Trollope explained how Barchester looked in his imagination

“Let us presume that Barchester is a quiet town in the West of England, more remarkable for the beauty of its cathedral and the antiquity of its monuments than for any commercial prosperity; that the west end of Barchester is the cathedral close, and that the aristocracy of Barchester are the bishop, dean, and canons, with their respective wives and daughters.”

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The ‘aristocracy’ ,as he describes it, is clerical, bishop, dean and canons.  That was the way it was and that is the way it is.  We employ many wonderful lay people at Southwark without whom nothing would happen (the world is very different from Trollope’s day) and our governance structures are filled with talented lay people.  But it is the bishop, dean and canons who have the task of leadership and in a particular and subtle way.

The bishop is not the dean and takes their seat in the cathedral with the dean’s permission. The dean is not a canon who hold their own office and are given in their licence ‘a voice on Chapter’ which is more than simply being heard. It is a delicate structure formed over the last 450 years since the Elizabethan Settlement, adapted and changed, but essentially holding to that ideal that Trollope’s ecclesiastical aristocracy have the responsibility of governing and leading the cathedral.

So want is the small cloud? I think somewhere underlying some of the proposals, especially around the role of the dean and the role of the bishop and the role of the canons is a fundamental anti-clericalism that is creeping into the church on the back of a passion for a more ‘managed’ style of church.  It is thought, and probably with some justification, that you don’t find those ‘business’ qualities circled by a dog-collar but are found in those in the ‘real’ world.  So the logic is to move the power into the hands of those who know what they are doing.

This is a cloud that could bring a storm. For the cathedrals nor dioceses are ‘businesses’, our business is God and everything else that we do, which, yes, involves running enterprise sides to our life, is subservient to the principle duty of the bishop, dean and canons, to worship God and to lead others in that worship.  That is where all cathedrals, even those who fail some of the ‘business’ tests, are serving the church, and God, wonderfully well.  You only have to look through our doors to know that that is true.

So what do we do now? Well, the on-line responses will be analysed and a final report produced.  When, I do not know.  But I shall keep climbing that mountain to see what is happening to the cloud! Until then I will pray the prayer of a great defender of the Anglican catholic church in the early seventeenth century, Archbishop William Laud.  This is his prayer, and mine.

Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Saviour. Amen.

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.

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.

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

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

Led by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark