Dressing up

I loved being in Infant School.  The school was just around the corner from where we lived in Wigston, on the outskirts of Leicester.  The school, infant and primary, was called Waterleys, though it was no where near water!  Going to school at that stage in your life is such an adventure of discovery, learning to read and write and count, learning about the world and relationships, learning about yourself.  We had, of course, a corner in the classroom where there was a Wendy House and we could act out home life and I can’t remember we boys not being allowed to play whatever role that we wanted to adopt, and I’m sure, knowing myself, I would have been happy playing with the dolls like I did at home with my sister.

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What we didn’t have, as far as I can remember, was a dressing-up box.  Now I see children with their parents in the supermarket dressed as Spider-Man or a princess, or a character from ‘Frozen’ or another Disney film, having chosen that ‘costume’ as their preferred clothing and perhaps acting out in their head the character that they have chosen to be.

At home we were allowed to put on mum’s coat and shoes and shuffle around in high-heels and fall over and laugh and it was all very natural.  So I was delighted with the news last week that in Church of England Schools children can choose from the dressing-up box exactly what they want to wear, cowboy outfit or princess, it doesn’t matter.  I simply don’t see it as about gender neutrality or creating gender confusion, as some have suggested, some negative challenge to who we fundamentally are but more about that fantastic journey of discovery that growing up should be – and putting on clothes is part of that.

There used to be a lovely children’s programme on the BBC called ‘Mr Ben’.  The eponymous hero had a penchant for ‘dressing up’.  So each episode began with the bowler-hatted, black-suited city gent, Mr Ben, leaving his house at 52 Festive Road and arriving at the costume shop where the moustachioed owner would lead him to the changing room where a costume would await him.  Then Mr Ben emerged as a different character and had an adventure.  What was going on I do not know – but this was 1971!

As a catholic, of course, I love dressing up.  So on the day that the CofE announced that tiaras were ok for boys we had a special service in the Cathedral in which new vestments were blessed by the Bishop and after he had blessed them we got dressed up.  The members of our Guild of Broderers (the posh name for embroiderers) had been working since 2012 on this set of Jubilee Vestments, for the diocese to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  It had taken so long because of the amount of embroidery involved and because, as volunteers, they only come to the Cathedral one day a week.  But the final set of Eucharistic vestments were complete – the chasuble and dalmatics – and that was what was blessed. You can see lots of photos of the event here.

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The Bishop of Southwark wearing the Jubilee cope

 

The things that we wear in church are of course ‘gender-neutral’ it doesn’t matter who the deacon, the priest, the bishop is, the vestments are the same because they are not about pointing to the person wearing them, precisely not so, but pointing to Christ. But we begin this process of dressing up, not in the rich priestly vestments but in the simple baptismal robe, the vestment of the people of God and that is truly gender-neutral, as St Paul points out to the Christians in Galatia.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.27-28)

In the Old Testament we are given details of how Aaron is dressed for his priestly ministry – the details about what he wore were important to the people of God then as what we wear is important to the people of God now, whether or not people like to wear formal vestments.  Dress becomes a defining characteristic of how we understand ourselves, not as people, but as church.  George Herbert reflects on this in his poem ‘Aaron’

Holiness on the head,
Light and perfections on the breast,
Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest:
Thus are true Aarons drest.

Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest:
Poor priest, thus am I drest.

Only another head
I have, another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In him I am well drest.

Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me ev’n dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new-drest.

So, holy in my head,
Perfect and light in my dear breast,
My doctrine tun’d by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come people; Aaron’s drest.

Learning to inhabit the costume, to wear the clothes, to live the adventure, that is what growing up is about, that is what growing up in Christ is about – and perhaps it all starts in that dressing-up box at the corner of the classroom and reaching out to choose … well, whatever you choose to choose.

Clothe us, Christ,
in the livery of life
and make us wear well
the clothes you place upon us
and the clothes we choose to wear.
Amen.

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Standing in the garden

In between The Deanery and the house next door in which Sir Christopher Wren is supposed to have lodged during the building of St Paul’s Cathedral so that he could watch it rising like a phoenix from the ashes, from the vantage point of the other side of the river – but didn’t (Gillian Tindall in her book ‘The House by the Thames’ debunks this local myth), is the narrowest street in London.  It’s called ‘Cardinal Cap Alley’ and for various reasons it isn’t usually open to the public as it now goes nowhere.  But it used to be one of the capillaries that linked up this mediaeval community and provided a quick route between the theatres, the inns and the stews.  The latter were the brothels where the ‘Winchester Geese’ did their business.

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A Bankside encounter

 

Having debunked one myth I’m probably now going to promote many more but that’s the nature of this area.  Did the alley take it’s name from an inn that stood where my neighbours house now stands; is it a cheeky reference to the nickname of a prophylactic the more discerning customers of the Geese might use?

One thing is clear.  This area was ‘The Liberty’ of the Bishops of Winchester.  They had control of the area, had their own prison, ‘The Clink’, licensed the theatres, the bear pits, the inns, the prostitutes and presumably raked in a good level of income to enhance their standing as Prince Bishops of the church. The Geese were so named because of the uniform that they were required to wear as licensed traders under the Bishop’s protection. They scurried around the area, cowls up, heads down, like geese.

But when death came, as it did at an early age for many, in pregnancy, in childbirth, they were not so protected.  Whilst the church could benefit from pimping off their wages whilst they were alive it could not condone their way of life and so mothers and unborn children were buried in unconsecrated ground just outside the parish.  It’s scandalous – not the business of the women, but the attitude and actions of the church.

It’s just another example of the dysfunctional attitude that we have to sex.

Each Feast of St Mary Magdalene we now go in procession from the Cathedral to the Crossbones Graveyard, as it’s called, on Redcross Way where the women are buried.  The fact that we do this is not, to be honest, the work of the church but the work of many years by local playwright and performer, John Constable, who with a faithful and dedicated band of supporters have campaigned on behalf of these women and on behalf of this unconsecrated burial ground, trying to hold developers back from further abusing it.  A few years ago TFL handed it over as a ‘meanwhile’ garden and the local Bankside Open Spaces Trust have helped to create a garden where we can remember these women.

So we go in procession to express our regret for the past and our remembrance of the women. It’s a powerful occasion on the day in which we remember a woman, herself surrounded with myth and gossip and innuendo who met with Jesus in a garden and became the first witness of the resurrection.  In the garden we read Malcom Guite’s ‘Sonnet for Mary Magdalene’ which begins

Men called you light so as to load you down,
And burden you with their own weight of sin,
A woman forced to cover and contain
Those seven devils sent by Everyman.

But engaging in this ‘Act of Regret: Restoration: Remembrance’ as we call it is not just about those women and their children, as important as that is, but it’s also about trying to witness to the work that needs to be done in and by the church in relation to our attitude to sex.  The church is obsessed with it and with any obsession this is really dangerous.  It eats up our energy, occupies our mind, corrupts the soul of the church and distracts us from what we should be obsessed with – proclaiming a gospel of liberation and love and life.  We have to engage with the issues of trafficking and sex workers and the way in which so often the modern victims are treated no differently to their mediaeval sisters – and I suspect – brothers – used and abused and then left without the blessing of God which we continue to withhold from people.

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Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the garden

 

It is just not healthy – our obsessions and our attitudes.  But Jesus comes to Mary Magdalene and restores her to health.  St Luke tells us this

Soon afterwards Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. (Luke 8.1-3)

Whatever the demons were Mary had been brought into new life and was a disciple, loved and part of the community.  She was a disciple who would become the Apostle to the Apostles. Whether or not she was the woman with the long, loose hair, the woman caught in adultery, the scandalous woman at the meal, whoever she was Jesus with that loving and embracing attitude, that lived out conviction that no one was excluded but all were included, that breaker of conventions who would touch and be touched, who would embrace opprobrium to save others from it, says to her in the first light, in the garden

‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). (John 20.16)

He was her teacher for he had taught her to love herself, who had loved others for so long. Perhaps we can learn to do both and to love ourselves and others into life. As we pray in the garden graveyard in Southwark

Lord Jesus,
hear our prayers
and as you received the love of Mary
hold in your presence
the souls of all who have gone before us
and give them peace.
Amen.

I’m in York

Just in case you were waiting for a Living God blog today, I’m at the meeting of the General Synod in York. So, please, follow me on my General Synod blog and you will catch up with what we are up to.

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.

Messy church

A couple of weeks ago Southwark Cathedral was full of children having a ‘messy celebration’. By all accounts it was a really wonderful morning.  The children decorated an altar cloth and a chasuble which the Bishop of Croydon then wore for the Eucharist.  It was wonderful and what was even more wonderful, so our vergers told me the next day, was that everyone cleared up the mess that they had made.  So often people walk away from mess, leaving it for someone else to clear up.  It’s like those awful mornings after a really good party.  You come down and find the place full of stuff to be cleared away.  The messy celebration was nothing like that.

Whatever you think about Bishop Philip North and the events of the past few weeks, whether you think that he would have made a good Bishop of Sheffield or not, whether you think the CNC was right to nominate him to the Crown for this See, or not, whether you think that he had exactly the skills that the diocese needed at this moment in its life, or not, we are in a mess.

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‘Another nice mess …’

As kids we loved watching Laurel and Hardy movies, the tremendous slapstick, the improbable plots in the films and the regular line that Hardy would say to Laurel, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”

The Church of England is good at some things – processions, hierarchy and getting into incredible messes and having public fights.  Even though I’m Rector General of another Anglican catholic ‘Society’, The Society of Catholic Priests (SCP) which in Europe, North America and Australia supports the ordination of people regardless of gender or sexuality, I have kept quiet about the whole business as far as the blog world and Twitter-sphere are concerned.  One thing that stopped me – apart from there being far too many opinions flying around – was my membership of the Crown Nominations Commission.  I have to stress that I was not a member of the Sheffield Commission and so know absolutely nothing about their deliberations.  But I do know how complex the processes are that the members of the CNC have to engage in and how strongly held opinions can too easily intervene in a process that you would hope responds only to the promptings of God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit!

But whatever happened and whatever has happened we are now left with a situation which seems to have blown those Five Guiding Principles that we gathered around as a church, out of the water or at the very least led people to ask the question as to whether they mean anything at all.

I had the privilege of being a member of the General Synod that finally voted to allow women to be ordained to the episcopate.  It was those principles which were the key to unlocking the impasse that had defeated us on previous occasions from moving forwards in the way that many of us believed God wanted us to do.  That phrase ‘mutual flourishing’ that was included in those Principles was one that I personally rejoiced in – but does it have cash value and is it possible?  The ‘North Affair’ is the first real test of this in relation to a Diocesan Bishop and it looks like a mess that is going to be very difficult to clear up.

The thing is that on the issue of ordained women at all levels of the church and the issue of the place of LGBTI+ people at every level of the church and the recognition and celebration of their faithful, committed relationships, we have been encouraged to disagree well.  At the moment it looks like we are only able to disagree badly.

There are no winners in what has happened in the Diocese of Sheffield and to Philip North, just as there were no winners when my dear friend and colleague Jeffrey John was forced to stand down from being Bishop of Reading.  There has to be a better way, there must be a better way.

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The city of Sheffield

Perhaps though I’m just being naïve, perhaps the Five Guiding Principles are unworkable and especially in relation to the appointment of Diocesan Bishops who need to be, of their very nature, ‘a focus of unity’, not just for the clergy, not just for the laity, not just for the church but also for civic society, in the public square and some of what we saw in civic Sheffield was utter disbelief at a church in disarray and displaying, what can appear to be discrimination, and celebrating it.

I think it was also more than unfortunate that the ‘passports’, the ID cards for priests who are members of The Society, reassuring those who need to be reassured that their orders are valid because no woman has been involved in their ordination, were issued whilst the storm around Philip was raging.  To those, like me, who have tried not to talk about a ‘Doctrine of Taint’ being in the mind of some who hold that woman cannot be priests and, even when ordained, are not priests, it seems to suggest that there might be some very unpleasant opinions around that we might not want to flourish.

I have said too much; I am very sad that we are where we are, none of us is flourishing at the moment and Jesus must weep over us. My only consolation and hope is that from the very beginning God brought order out of chaos.  May he do it again and forgive us in the doing of it.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Amen.

The echo of a vision

It was a hard week, last week.  If you haven’t read my various blogs from the General Synod then you can find a link through on the sidebar.  But no doubt you will have heard about the debate on Wednesday in response to the report from the House of Bishops on sexuality and same-sex marriage.  Since then a number of things have happened.  The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have issued a statement – you can read that here – and various bishops have issued Pastoral Letters, including one by the Bishop of Southwark which you can read here.

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A silent vigil at the start of Wednesday

 

Other groups will be preparing their statements, making their assessments of what was said, reflecting on the vote, lauding or criticising the House of Clergy, suggesting its the best outcome or the worst.

One thing that encouraged me, however, was hearing Archbishop Justin’s speech, the last one in the Take Note debate on the report, much of which found its way into the Archbishops’ Pastoral Letter.

The letter says

‘We need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church …. The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our common humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ – all of us, without exception, without exclusion.’

There was something of an echo of a vision in this.  I know that makes no sense, but bear with me, please.  You may remember that at Southwark Cathedral we’ve been working on new vision and priorities for the next season of our life.  The vision statement that we finally arrived at is this

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

That is the vision and in what the Archbishop said there were clear echoes of what the community at the Cathedral has pledged itself to be and pledged itself to working together to be more perfectly.  So I was delighted.  It means though that we really have to move forward and to get on with the work and the witness to which we believe God is directing us.

However, that will not be easy because there will be many in the Diocese for whom we have care and concern, for whom we are the Mother Church, who will not agree with us, who will have serious disagreements with us.  At the end of the day this all boils down to how you regard Scripture and what authority it has in the life of the church.  The Archdeacon of Southwark, Dr Jane Steen, in her first speech in Synod, compared the way in which the Church of England coped with the remarriage of those previously married who have a former partner still alive, even though Jesus is very explicit in his teaching on the subject.  Nevertheless, in 1992 the House of Bishops issued guidelines to help the clergy make a decision about whether such a marriage could take place in church and those same clergy were given latitude in their decision on the grounds of their own conscience based on the reading of Scripture.  Why can’t the same apply in deciding whether or not to bless a same-gender relationship?

Well, talking to some who do take a different position they suggest that Scripture envisages and allows for the fact that relationships fail but that the issue of committed relationships is part of the created order, because there it is in Genesis 2

‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.’ (Genesis 2.24)

This critical verse is then repeated in Matthew 19.5, Mark 10.7 and Ephesians 5.31.  That really does make this an authoritative text for many.  It’s interesting that the debate has moved on to focus on the issue of marriage rather than the issue of homosexuality.  Perhaps people are beginning to accept that LGBTI people really do exist but cannot accept that they can live in blessed relationships because such a relationship is contrary to scripture, contrary to creation, and thereby is sinful and what is sinful cannot be called holy by blessing it.

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With this ring …

 

So that is where we seem to be and its going to take some radical love within the church to move that one forward.  But the end point of the discussions seems to have been identified and that is the really good thing that has come out of the Synod debate – that ‘we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church.’ That is the task and that is the goal.

I was at Premier Radio’s studios on Friday recording some ‘thoughts for the day’ but also being interviewed for another programme.  That involved, in ‘Desert Island Discs’ style, choosing three favourite pieces of music.  I won’t give it all away but one of them was a hymn written by Fr Faber.  Frederick William Faber was ordained a priest of the Church of England before converting to Roman Catholicism.  He was a Victorian and a friend of John Henry Newman.  But he’s best known for his hymns.  The one that I chose is ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.’

It was written in 1862 but it seems so modern and relevant and its sentiments seem to echo the vision that we have in Southwark and that we now have in the Church of England as a consequence of last week. One verse says

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man’s mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

It’s a fantastic expression of the vision, an echo from another age into ours.  We now need the grace and the guts to get on with the task.

Lord,
direct your church
as we seek to embrace the vision
and sing songs that echo with your love.
Amen.

Blessing

We have a couple of really exciting days ahead of us at Southwark Cathedral.  Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, is the day on which we gather on London Bridge with the Parish of St Magnus the Martyr, our neighbour across the river on the other side of the bridge.  For as long as the bridge and the Christian church has existed in London our two churches have had the care of the bridge and its residents (during the mediaeval period). We live out that responsibility by meeting where our parish boundaries meet and have a short service during which a cross is thrown into the river as a sign of blessing.  The river has been such a feature of the lives of both churches as has the bridge and that concern for both continues in this very public act.

The icon of the Baptism of Jesus at Southwark Cathedral

The icon of the Baptism of Jesus at Southwark Cathedral

On the following day we will be blessing the twelve bells that were removed from the Cathedral tower in July and have now returned.  Two have been recast and so will be baptised but all will be blessed by the Bishop of Southwark.  Bells have rung out from the tower since before the fifteenth century when we know that the original ring of seven was augmented for the royal wedding that took place in 1424 in the Priory of St Mary Overie.

At that time, the Bishop of Winchester, of which Southwark was his liberty, was Cardinal Beaufort.  His niece, Joan, was to marry King James I of Scots and, as at that time he was in prison in the Tower of London, he was let out in order to come across the bridge and to the Priory to be married.  And the bells rang out as their marriage was blessed.

Priests get called on to bless all kinds of things.  In the next few weeks I’m going into the Borough Market to bless the ‘First Flush Darjeeling’, very special tea that is sold at one of the stalls.  What reading we will have for that goodness only knows.  But I’m delighted to be able to do it, just as I’m delighted to bless the First Loaf at Lammas and bless anything else that is shoved in front of me.  After the Mass on Epiphany a young women asked me to bless two prayer books she had bought in the Cathedral Shop for a friend, lovely.

So we wait with anticipation to see what the House of Bishops will recommend to General Synod and the church at our meeting in February.  After the Shared Conversations – which had gone so well as far as I was concerned – they went off to deliberate what we might do and be able to offer to those in our congregations, as well as those in every part of our society, who wish to marry their same-sex partner and do so with a blessing.

It just seems odd to me that I can bless a river, bells, books, tea, bread, cats and dogs and not two people who love each other. Perhaps if I can’t bless two people, who happen to be of the same gender and who have decided that they want to spend the whole of their life together in a loving committed faithful relationship I shouldn’t bless anything.

Jesus blessing the world and all creation

Jesus blessing the world and all creation

God seems to treat us all equally, for as Jesus says of God in St Matthew’s Gospel

‘He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’ (Matthew 5.45)

and as I cast out indiscriminate blessing from the altar at the end of every Eucharist it falls in the same way.  But perhaps we are going to have to think differently about blessing in the future and, against the will and action of God, bless only those who REALLY deserve it.

God,
you bless without distinction,
love without discrimination,
may your church
bravely reflect your nature.
Amen.

The last post

Every ten years I, like many other clergy, get the opportunity for a sabbatical.  My last one was in 2006 when I went to the States, South Africa and India.  It was a really important three months for me and I’m amazed at how often I still refer back to the things that I experienced then. But what that means is that I can have another sabbatical and that is what I am going to be doing in the autumn.

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The Last Post

However, with unusually efficient diary planning (that is not one of my strong points as anyone who knows me will be able to confirm) my summer holiday will almost segue with the beginning of the sabbatical. The term ‘sabbatical’ of course has its roots in the keeping of the sabbath and the sabbath rest that we look to as the ultimate gift of God to his people. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is hot on that towards the beginning of his letter

‘So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labours as God did from his.’ (Hebrews 4.9-10)

If it was good enough for God then it’s good enough for us.  So the real privilege is that I will be having the whole of September, October and November off.  I will be back for the ROBES Sleepout at the end of November but that will be the only break into this time of rest.

The reality is of course that it isn’t just an opportunity to lie on a sofa, watch ‘Jeremy Kyle’ and do nothing.  Instead I have the space to do again as I did in 2006 things that I want to do but simply haven’t the space and time to do. The plans, therefore, are that in September I will be in Canada visiting some great cities and seeing the Anglican church in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.  That will be a real treat and will involve the 4 day train journey across the country from the west coast to the Great Lakes.

Then in October and the first part of November I will be in Jerusalem staying at the college at St George’s Anglican Cathedral. I’ve been to the Holy Land on many many occasions but never on my own.  I’m normally leading a group of pilgrims, shepherding them onto coaches, off coaches and out of gift shop queues. So it will be odd to be there onmy own doing things at my own pace.

But the principal reason for going there is that I have a plan.

When pilgrims stand on the belvedere at the church of St Peter-in-Gallicantu their guide will invariably point out a Greek monastery quite close by. ‘That is in the site of Hakeldama, the Field of Blood’ they say. We nod and take our photos and move on. There isn’t time to go down, there isn’t time to do everything.

Hakeldama

The monastery at Hakeldama

As pilgrims head up the road from the Church of All Nations to Mount Sion the guide will say ‘On your left is Absalom’s Tomb’; they may say ‘That is the monastery on the site of the martyrdom of St Stephen’ but as with Hakeldama there is no time to stop and visit.

Most pilgrims visit the same holy sites during their once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is right that they do that because we have to see the Church of the Holy Nativity, the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the various places, Nazareth, Tabgha and suchlike in Galilee. But I am conscious that there are other holy places that we never see and yet probably have a great deal to say to the pilgrim who has already been to the ‘Top Ten’.

Two experiences in the last pilgrimage I went on earler this year have convinced me of this. The first was visiting Jacob’s Well in Nablus. In over twenty visits with pilgrim groups I had never been to this place and the opportunity to do so opened up and we visited it. It became a highlight of the pilgrimage for the whole group.

The second was in a throw-away comment from the bishop with whom I was co-leading the pilgrimage about a church that stands on the place where Mary and Joseph realised that Jesus was not with them after their visit to Jerusalem. I wanted to go and I want to go.

I have tried to find out what holy places I am missing out on. It is hard, if not impossible to do. Our focus is so much on the principal sites that we lose sight of the others. So I want to spend time visiting some of the ‘hidden and holy’ places.

My hope is that I can experience them, take some photographs, spend some time making a few notes and then writing up the experience with the intention of producing a book or website to help other pilgrims encounter the ‘hidden and holy’ because these places are also in our own communities and that is where the project comes back home – discovering the ‘hidden and holy’ where we are.

Then, finally, on my return I’ll spend a week in retreat, time to reflect on all these things.

So it’s all really exciting.  But the real thing I wanted to say is that I’ll be taking a sabbatical from this ‘Living God’ blog. There will be a sabbatical blog (look out for that please) because I don’t think I can resist the opportunity to share with others the experiences I will be having and reflecting on them and praying through them. So, as I titled this blog, this is the ‘Last Post’ ….. but only until December when I will resume thinking about what Living God means for us at Southwark Cathedral and beyond.

 I love Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Last Post’ with those wonderful final lines

If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.

I hope that my sabbatical can help me look backwards and forwards, with the God of past, present and future. So this may be the last post for now but not the last word.

God of daily work
and sabbath rest,
bless all we have done,
all we do,
all that we will do,
with your strength,
in your grace,
by your love.
Amen.

Requiem for Fr Jacques

This morning, on the day of his funeral, we held a Requiem Mass at Southwark Cathedral for Fr Jacques Hamel. This is what I said in introduction.

Rest in peace and rise in glory

Rest in peace and rise in glory

For over 20 years we have been twinned with the Cathedral in Rouen. At the beginning of the twinning agreement which we recommitted ourselves to on the 20th anniversary of our relationship in 2014 we said

We, members of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Rouen and the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of Saint Saviour and Saint Mary Overie, Southwark declare that:
We give thanks as children of the same and only God and Father, brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ our Saviour, quickened by the same Holy Spirit.

It is in the spirit of those bonds of faith, friendship and affection and bound to one another in prayer and our common service of God and all our brothers and sisters, that we gather here this morning. This afternoon, in the Cathedral in Rouen the family and friends of Fr Jacques Hamel will gather for his funeral. As the day begins we gather here.

Fr Jacques was a faithful and much loved priest who was simply doing what priests are called to do, stand at the altar and represent the people to God and God to the people and in that very act he was killed. We hardly need to pray for his soul for we are confident that God has gathered him into the divine embrace.

But for ourselves and for our communities and for the people of Rouen and of France and, indeed the people of the world, we must pray. Those who commit terrible acts against others and believe they are serving the purposes of God are wrong. We must not allow ourselves to be terrorised. Christians believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ goodness, love and life are already victorious, for as St Paul says to us ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God’ not even death itself.

So as we gather we remember the love and mercy of our God who never abandons us and we call to mind those times when we have abandoned God.

And so we pray with the community on the day of Fr Jacques’ funeral.

Almighty God,
you bring life out of death,
light out of darkness,
hope out of despair;
as you gather Jacques
in your divine embrace
hold all your people
in your unfailing love;
for the sake of your Son,
our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Amen.

A city of martyrs

Southwark Cathedral has had a twinning relationship with the Cathedral Church of Notre Dame de Rouen for over twenty-five years.  It grew out of a personal friendship between the then Administrator of the Cathedral in Rouen and the Vice-Provost at Southwark. But from those beginnings, grounded in personal friendship and respect, has grown a much wider and deeper relationship. These kind of associations that we make with other parts of the Anglican Communion – Southwark Cathedral is linked with the Diocese of Masvingo as part of the wider diocesan link with the Anglican church in Zimbabwe – or other denominations or other parts of the world – we are also linked with the Cathedral in Bergen, a Norwegian Lutheran cathedral – are sometimes strong and meaningful, at other times struggling to find a purpose.

The relationship that we have with Rouen is an interesting one.  Any Anglican-Roman Catholic link hits up against the fact of not being in communion at one stage or another and is always much discussed.  I’ve been to a number of big events in Rouen – last year the enthronement of the new Archbishop – and seated in splendour and treated with honour – but unable to make my communion. I understand it and I respect it and I know that the desire, the passion for unity, comes out of the pain of disunity which itself is fuelled by the literal hunger for communion.

Yet, the relationship goes from strength to strength and becomes more real as it becomes embedded in true friendship.  Yet there are interesting historic links as well.  Just over a thousand years ago King Olav of the Norwegians, left London, after pulling down London Bridge next to the church which is now Southwark Cathedral, and was baptised in Rouen Cathedral. He then went from his Norman cousins in Rouen back to his own land where he converted his people to Christianity.

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Joan of Arc by Sir John Everett Millais

In 1431 at the age of around 19 Joan of Arc was condemned to death as a heretic and committed to the flames in the market place in Rouen.  At that time Cardinal Henry Beaufort was Bishop of Winchester and living in the Palace alongside the Priory of St Mary Overie (now Southwark Cathedral). In 1431 Beaufort was present to observe some of the heresy trial sessions In Rouen presided over by Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais. He was present at the execution and so we’re told that wept as he viewed the horrible scene as she was burned at the stake. His arms and cardinal cap are carved into the stonework of the south transept of our cathedral.

So the links go back in history but are made real and alive today.

When we heard of the brutal killing of Fr Jacques Hamel whilst saying Mass last week in Rouen we were all horrified.  This was a new level of terrorism. Christians, many, many Christians, have already been murdered by the so-called Islamic State. Indeed, when I was last making my way through the Coptic Church on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, there was a banner above the door showing the killing of twenty-one Coptic martyrs last year. But this murder was closer to home, this was in the city of our friends, this was an elderly priest doing what priests do on behalf of the world, offering the sacrifice of the Mass and being sacrificed as he did so.

It bore the marks of the killing of Blessed Oscar Romero in 1980, gunned down as he said Mass. The motivations of the killers in both instances might have been different but the effect was the same.

This is when, however, the relationships that we have become so much more real. Messages of prayer and support have been sent to Rouen from Southwark; messages of thanks and nuggets of news have been sent back. One member of the congregation has told me that all Muslims are being encouraged to attend a church in the city this Sunday as a sign of solidarity; others have told me that Muslim and Christian neighbours have been spending time together. One friend in the congregation sent me this message

‘These 3 days, the mass has been said for Fr Jacques in the Cathedral with about 400 people each day. Muslims are invited to come to masses on Sunday to share prayer with Roman Catholics. Let us hope this drama will help building peace. One in faith and prayer.’

In the midst of the trauma there are signs of hope.

The artist Monet who lived and worked close by to the city produced beautiful pictures of the towers at the west end of Rouen Cathedral; they are bathed in different colours. Now once more the city is bathed in the red of martyrdom, a colour it has borne historically.  We stand with them at this time.

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Rouen Cathedral bathed in Monet’s many hues

 

Fr Jacques’ funeral is in the Cathedral in Rouen on Tuesday.  We will offer a Requiem Mass for him in Southwark Cathedral that morning.  Communion, instead of dividing us will unite us, we will break bread together. As we pray for Fr Jacques and that love and mercy of God for him, which needs no prayers to secure, we pray for our sisters and brothers in Rouen, Christian and Muslim, ordained and lay, in that city of martyrs, witnessing to the God who transcends and transforms all things, the God of the Mass, the God of the meal, the God of broken bread and wine outpoured, the God of fast and feast. May priests still offer that ‘one true, pure, immortal sacrifice’ for the peace of the world and may we all receive the bread of heaven that gives true life to the world.

Lord, accept the sacrifice we offer
of bread and lives
as we accept the sacrifice you offer,
yourself,
bread and life.
Amen.

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sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

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