Bringing Nazareth home

I didn’t bring any souvenirs home with me this time from the Holy land. To be honest I have bought a great amount of stuff over the years and in almost every one of my cupboards there are things from the Holy Land – many lovely things. But as we now think about moving from Southwark and the Deanery – the advert for Dean of Southwark will be in the Church Times next Friday – we know that we are going to have to offload a great many of our possessions. So there was no point in buying more. I was given something that I will treasure. It was from L’Arche in Bethlehem. There the members of that community use local wool to create felt and out of that felt they make the most beautiful things, including some very cute nativity scenes. As we left, having visited the project and seen some of the members of the community making felt, I was given a soft, felt crib. Absolutely charming.

You don’t need to bring physical things home when you have been on pilgrimage, although over the centuries that is what pilgrims have done. On this, as on every occasion, I have brought home memories and impressions, happy memories and powerful impressions. One of the places that I always love visiting is the basilica at Nazareth. With its downturned lily roof over the centre of the church and the remains of Mary’s House at the lowest of three levels in the church it is absolutely lovely. There is a sense of stillness in the place as pilgrims enter into quite a dark ground floor level, the walls punctuated with windows made of coloured abstract glass. Above is the main church, below are the remains. There is always a queue of people waiting to file past, to see the place where, perhaps, maybe, Gabriel visited Mary, and the most wonderful ‘Yes’ was heard to God’s gracious invitation.

The image of Our Lady from the people of Japan

Yesterday was the Feast of the Annunciation, a moment of joy poking into the austerity of Lent and giving a chance for a celebration before the veiling for Passiontide took place. We had a Choral Eucharist on the eve of the feast and that gave me an opportunity to preach, not on the day but looking forward to the day. But it took me straight to Nazareth and what I had experienced with the pilgrims, what I had really brought home with me. These were the readings for the Mass, Isaiah 7.10-14 and
Luke 1.26-38 and this is what I said.

It was evening; the day was almost over. Just an ordinary day, just an ordinary evening like any other. And tomorrow? Well, tomorrow would be another ordinary day, doing what every day involved, collecting water, preparing food, mending clothes, learning to be a woman, learning to be a woman who would soon be a bride. Today and tomorrow and the next day she would be alongside her mother, watching how she lived, cared for her husband, lived according to the law as women were required to do. Tomorrow would be another day.

But as we know, gathered as we are on this eve of the Feast of the Annunciation, tomorrow would be no ordinary day for Mary, or her mother, or the man to whom she was betrothed, or their neighbours, or the other women at the well, or you, or me, or the world. Into Mary’s tomorrow God’s angel steps with good news for every day and all time. Her tomorrow would be the day to which the prophets had looked, as we heard in our First Reading, her tomorrow would be the day for which humanity, creation waited, with breath-holding anticipation.

Look at the image of Mary on the cover of the order of service. There are so many images of Mary, this is just one of countless depictions of her.

A couple of weeks ago seventy of us where in Nazareth at the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The great church stands over the remains of Mary’s House but in the cloister around the church, and on the walls within it, are depictions of Mary from around the world. From Japan, to Nigeria, from Mexico to Ukraine, from Spain to England, Mary has been shown as a woman from that tradition, from that heritage, representing in herself womanhood, motherhood, the second Eve, the mother of all that is.

But in our picture the artist has caught her in a moment of surprise. Whilst the western church thinks of Mary at home, in private, in her room, encountering the angel as intruder into her space, the orthodox tradition is that she was at the well, collecting water, with the other women, when the angel appeared when the annunciation occured. In the midst of the everyday Mary is surprised by God.

But her look is not one of fear but of gentle, benign acceptance, ‘Let it be with me according to your word’ – ‘and the word was made flesh and dwelt among us’, the word spoken to her became the Word which was born of her.

In his sonnet for the Feast of the Annunciation, Malcolm Guite says this

But on this day a young girl stopped to see
With open eyes and heart. She heard the voice;
The promise of His glory yet to be,
As time stood still for her to make a choice;
Gabriel knelt and not a feather stirred,
The Word himself was waiting on her word.

She was open to the surprise of God, which would take her from the ordinary routine into an extraordinary place. That moment as she looks at the kneeling angel, by the well, in her home, passing stranger or unannounced intruder, is when time stops and all creation waits for her yes.

But for this evening she simply blows out the lamp and lays down to sleep and maybe hears in the distance the flutter of angel’s wings. Be ready to be surprised by God.

This time last year I was promoting my book for Passiontide and Holy Week – ‘The Hour is Come’. It is still available and is as applicable to your keeping of this season now as then. So if you haven’t read it, please do. We have copies in the Cathedral Shop and you can buy it online here

I will be preaching Holy Week at the Cathedral – my last opportunity to do so – so please do join us in person or online, every day from Palm Sunday onwards and ‘Lift High the Cross’ with me.

We beseech you, O Lord,
pour your grace into our hearts,
that as we have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ
by the message of an angel,
so by his cross and passion
we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


I do like to be beside the seaside

I’m in Bridlington. This isn’t for work – although I am preaching at St Saviour’s in Scarborough – but my real reason for being away from Southwark Cathedral is to spend time in Bridlington with a good friend who has been celebrating his 80th birthday. Where as some would just concentrate in the birthday itself, John wanted to make a weekend of it, so that all of his vast range of friends could join him in celebration. So here I am, enjoying the sea air, enjoying making new friends and enjoying celebrating the birthday of a really good friend.

Bridlington, on the east coast of Yorkshire

I met John back in 1982 when I was visiting the parish in Leeds which would become the place where I would be a curate for four years. Since then we have been friends and it is hard to believe that he has reached this milestone. John has been a faithful servant of the church for most of his life, never ordained but doing almost everything to support the life of the parishes in which he has lived. Now he is treasurer of his PCC and produces the weekly noticesheet and serves at the altar. It is people like John who are the bedrock of the church, the laity without whose sacrificial and ongoing ministry the church would not be able to function or flourish.

Each year in the Diocese of Southwark we have a season celebrating the ministry of lay people and it has been good to hear from some in the cathedral who do amazing work. It is the calling of the people of God to exercise their God-given gifts to enable mission and ministry as it says in the Letter to the Ephesians

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4.11-12)

So whilst I’m celebrating John’s birthday, here, beside the seaside, I’m also celebrating all the holy people of God, the John’s in every place who help the church be the church.

Loving God, for all your saints we give you thanks and praise. Amen.

Open arms

It’s just over 50 years since Idi Amin decided to throw the Ugandan Asians from their homes and their country, to force them to leave their livelihoods and their lives behind. They had 90 days to leave, to pack everything up and get out of the country. One of the places that they decided to go to was Leicester and, as a 15 year old boy, I remember them arriving in the city where I was born and was living.

I can remember some of the conversations around the meal table at home at the time. I can’t pretend that they were totally positive, but something needed to happen in Leicester and the arrival of this particular group of people – educated, intelligent, hard working, business-like, was the blessing that the city needed. You can’t rely on digging up the bones of a lost king or, as has just happened, finding the remains of a pagan temple under your cathedral, to make a city great. It has to come from more than that.

‘he opened wide his arms for us on the cross’

One of the features of life in Leicester was clothing manufacturing. My mum was a costings clerk in a factory that made for M&S and British Home Stores. My grandma had worked for a time in another clothing factory in the city doing the hard, hot work on a press. Lots of our neighbours were involved in ‘home-working’, which meant that at breakfast time a man and a van would arrive with a big bag of socks from the Wolsey sock factory. Their job, in their kitchen, sometimes their garage, was to iron the transfers onto the the socks, ready for the man and the van to come back at the end of the day to collect them.

But times were changing. M&S began to source clothes from cheaper markets overseas; tastes were changing. Some of the factories in Leicester began to contract and even close down. It was a tough time for the city and then the blessing arrived, families ready to make a new life and set up new businesses, people with the skills that were needed, in the right place at the right time.

My first job was folding shirts in a factory in Leicester, ready for putting in the cellophane bags to be sent off to M&S. It was just a holiday job. My real Saturday and holiday job was working for WHSmith in Gallowtree Gate in the city. It was a big shop on a number of floors. I began on the ground floor, looking after the news stand. This involved putting the papers and magazines on display, keeping the stand tidy and helping customers find what they were looking for. It also meant going on the till sometimes. There was, what I thought was, a design flaw in the store in that the newspapers were next to the doors, so every time that people came in on a windy day all the papers blew off the shelves and I had the job of tidying it up. I loved it.

Through the windows behind the till, near these doors, I could look out on Leicester Market. It was, I believe, the biggest outdoor market in the country, a lively bustling place that sold most things. But as I looked out the stall that I could see in front of me had the name ‘Lineker’s’ above it and ‘Choice Fruiterers’ emblazoned for all to see. Linekers was one of the best places to buy your fruit from. The polished apples were arranged along the front, tissue paper between them – my grandma always asked for her pound from those, not the less shiny ones thrown behind – it was a joy to see. Barry and Margaret Lineker took a pride in their stall, later on a ‘Pick your Own’ stall, that was something of a Leicester institution, and I suppose their son, Gary, must have helped out on a Saturday, although he was three years younger than me, and we went to different schools and, as you can imagine, I was seen nowhere near a football pitch.

But what we did share was an experience in Leicester of what the arrival of people, desperate to make a new life and a new home, can actually do, that it is a blessing and not a threat. Nowadays, Leicester is a city with a majority UKME population. The failing manufacturing industries were bought up and turned around. The new arrivals soon became deeply embedded in the life of the city, standing for public office and achieving it.

I obviously say all of this as the row continues about the content of Gary’s tweets and the language that he used in criticising the Government’s latest asylum plans and whether or not as the presenter of MOTD he should be free to express his opinions in this way. It should be no surprise to any one reading this that I agree with his main point, that I am proud of him speaking out, using his voice for the voiceless. Ok, I think we always have to be careful comparing anything to Germany in the 1930’s, but that has become a bit of a distraction from the most important thing, that the present proposals are not good enough.

Ok, the Ugandan Asians didn’t arrive by boats across the Channel. Mechanisms were put in place by the government of the day to enable them to leave Uganda and make their home here. But the lack of legal routes into this country for people fleeing their homes to protect their lives and the lives of their children is a national disgrace. We have helped create the problem, which the traffickers have capitalised on. The fear of the ‘other’, the ‘stranger’ has been whipped up and developed until it has become a national obsession. The stranger is not an enemy, the stranger is already our neighbour, our friend, and can be our blessing.

Everywhere I look in both the Old and New Testaments all I read is about the way in which strangers, aliens and neighbours are treated and in every instance it is with compassion. Take this, for instance, from the Book of Leviticus, the book that sets out the laws by which the Israelites would live

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19.34)

It could not be clearer.

I walk into Southwark Cathedral and see, behind the pulpit a figure of Christ. It’s the work of the artist, Fenwick Lawson, and it represents powerfully for me those words from the Eucharistic Prayer we so often use

‘he opened wide his arms for us on the cross;’

It is the God with open arms who welcomes us into the divine embrace. That embrace is for all, for the known and the stranger, for the ones we try to ‘other’, and especially those we would like to reject. We must speak out of what we know, out of truth and not out of fear.

God of open embrace, may we welcome all who come, all who arrive and share your love with them as they share their gifts with us. Amen.


Please excuse a very brief Living God. I’m trying to get ready to help lead a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. We leave tomorrow – 72 of us – from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark and the Anglican Diocese of Southwark. The last time we did this we were literally just ahead of the Covid pandemic. We were ushered quickly out of the country on one of the last flights that left. As we had been travelling round, places were being closed and our itinerary was always in flux. I am hoping for something simpler this time, although already plans have changed as a consequence of the terrible events in Nabulus where we had been due to visit.

I will be letting you know how things are going; keep a look out for that please. So, instead of a long blog, I thought I’d just share the text of my Ash Wednesday homily. The lections were Joel 2.1-2,12-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20b – 6.10; Matthew 6.1-6,16-21.

It was the first job of the morning, to sweep from the grate the ash from yesterday’s fire. My grandma would do it carefully so as not to send the grey ash circling round the room, settling on all the surfaces like a grey pall that she would then have to dust off. The grate was swept clean and the ash emptied into the pail, perhaps to spread on an icy path, perhaps to spread in the garden. The ash was the by-product of the heat we’d enjoyed.

We take the palm crosses from last year’s joyous Palm Sunday procession and burn them and grind them and they make a fine dark ash. On the very place where we were marked with holy oil with the sign of the cross at our baptism another cross is imposed. That first cross is invisible to the naked eye – we know it’s there, indelible, part of our nature. The ash cross is for all to see, the mark marking us out on this day, as Christians, as sinners, as repentant and repenting.

Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning

The prophet Joel calls us back to what we would call that baptismal grace, that baptismal place when we received the first cross, the first mark, that place of innocent wholeness. But our sins have marred us and so we return, to begin again. This ashing is, as it were, a sacramental, deeply symbolic act. It is an outward and visible sign of what is going on, in the deeper, unseen places of our self, in our hearts. As Jesus says to the crowds in today’s Gospel

‘and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’

The Father, our Father, will reward us in that new life, found in the cross and found in Jesus, who knowing no sin, embraced sin to defeat it for you and me.

We burn the crosses, to create the ash, to mark our heads, to seek that forgiveness that we find in the cross, to be restored to that first place of baptismal grace, to be as God would have us be, created us to be.

But if I were to ask you today to create the ash from what you would wish to leave behind on this Ash Day, this Ash Wednesday, what would it be? What would you burn? Eliot writes

Ash on an old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended

What roses would we burn to create the ash, the dust, suspended? What in my life do I need to consign to the flames, so that I can be rid of it, so that I begin again, without it? What would you burn to make the ash, to mark your head, to show before God?

Nanna got up off her knees and wiped her grey ashy hands on her apron. No more ash. She could build a new fire and begin again.

Loving God, may the fire of your love cleanse and refresh us and fill us with the life-giving warmth of your presence. Amen.

Dress up!

I’ve had the privilege to go to a great many memorial services during my years at Southwark Cathedral. Some have been after tragic circumstances – the Bali bombings, the Sri Lankan tsunami, as well as our own terrorist incident, of course. Others have been for notable people in their own field, property developers, traders in one commodity or another. Some have had a significant role in politics, or the City. Others have been more on the celebrity end of life, people like John Mortimer of ‘Rumple’ fame. None, though, has quite achieved the ‘A’ list, glamour level that the memorial event we held in the Cathedral last Thursday rose to.

The event, it was more of a sparkling showcase rather than a service, was in celebration of Dame Vivienne Westwood. The guest list was a roll call of the rich, fabulous and famous. I won’t name drop them all, though it was a joy to meet and chat to Jeff Banks, who is an old ‘Dustonian’, a former student at St Dunstan’s College in the diocese, and is a Catford boy with wonderful tales to tell of growing up there. But walking past me were Victoria Beckham, the enigmatic Anna Wintour with her trademark dark glasses, Will Young, who I did catch a word with, and of course the amazing Helena Bonham Carter. To be perfectly honest I didn’t know who most of the people were. I don’t say that with any false arrogance; it’s a world I just have no understanding or knowledge of. Not being a reader of the ‘Mail Online’ I just don’t know who modern day celebrities are.

The ticket that even I had received with which to gain admittance, had a quote from Dame Vivienne on it. It said, ‘When in doubt dress up!’. Looking down from the pulpit, where I was dressed in a simple red piped cassock, tailored by Watts & Co, London, and a cincture in stylish purple watered silk from the ecclesiastical couturiers, Barbiconi in Rome, that people had taken that as permission to come in their very best. Many of them were obviously wearing ‘Westwood’ creations, there was a good deal of tartan, some distinctive fastenings and something slightly anarchic. Showing off what Dame Vivienne had created was a bit like the scene that we read of in the Acts of the Apostles. The wonderful Dorcas had died

All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. (Acts 9.39)

Peter raises Dorcas, otherwise known as Tabitha, back to life. Acts tells us that she was ‘devoted to good works and acts of charity’ and was obviously the seamstress, tailor, maker of garments in the community. What we heard about in this memorial service was not so much about the clothes that Dame Vivienne made, though we did hear a lot about that but more about her passions for political change, for equality, justice, for care of the environment, for care of creation, her anti-capitalist, pro-democracy beliefs. In a lovely video in which she spoke to us about growing up in Derbyshire she talked of those early days of punk and anarchy, with Malcolm McLaren, and how out of that had grown this passion to challenge and change the staus quo.

As I commented in my welcome, given the famous ‘God save the Queen’ T-Shirt she created with the image of Her Late Majesty on it, it was more than ironic that the King and the Queen Consort were represented at the event and, of course, that she ended up as a dame. We could see it as being absorbed by the establishment or we could also see it as the manner that in subtle ways the establishment also begins to change when you provide with new and different clothes, if what Erasmus said ‘“vestis virum facit”, ‘clothes make the man’, is true.

Of course, we never need an excuse to dress up in church – we’re renowned for it. Only the best is good enough for God, the silks and the damasks, the gold and the silver, the touch of glamour that can sparkle like the touch of heaven. But in a deeply counter-cultural way we dress up not just so that we can party in a holy kind of way but so that we can lose ourselves in the vestments, so we can draw less attention to ourselves, not more, so that I am less me, not more. But those who dress us, people like Dame Vivienne, whether in those early rebellious days with Malcolm McLaren or in later years as she dressed the famous and the glamourous, help us to emerge from the ordinary and to be adorned for life, to give us the confidence to be who we really are, to be fully the person we want to be.

The poet George Herbert wrote this poem entitled, ‘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 dres

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.

‘In him I am well drest’. That line speaks to me as I contemplate being ‘clothed in Christ’ a phrase we use in the Sacrament of Baptism which echoes words of Paul in Colossians 3. We put on Christ, in him we are well dressed.

The crowd who had packed the cathedral dispersed, glad to have been there, grateful to Dame Vivienne for so much. I took off my cassock to reveal a clerical shirt from J Wippell & Co Ltd, teamed up with a black suit from Marks & Spencer. I’m comfortable in these clothes. It’s good to get dressed up and great if at the end of it you can look at your most beautiful and glamourous. But the clothes that really make the difference are ‘compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience’ (Colossians 3.12) and they will never go out of fashion, and Dame Vivienne knew that too.

Loving God, clothe me with your self that I may be who you created me to be. Amen.

Catch up on Synod

I’ve done a lot of blogging last week and I hope you caught it as it emerged from General Synod. If you didn’t you can find it here. So I hope you will excuse a Sunday off ‘Living God’ as I write my final General Synod reflection which will emerge in the next couple of days.

Have a holy Sunday. Amen.

Behind the nets

I’ve never been someone who has been a huge fan of net curtains. I know that they have been very popular over the years but I have never seen the need to have them – I’m more concerned about seeing out rather than others seeing in to be honest. ‘Netgate’ on Bankside came to a conclusion last week when the Supreme Court decided in favour of the residents of the ‘Pavilions’ which stand alongside the extension to my neighbour, Tate Modern. If you haven’t followed the story it is basically about visitors to the gallery at the top of the Tate extension being given a direct and uninterrupted view into the apartments opposite. Like all posh apartments nowadays there is a lot of glass and not so much wall and so just walking past at street level you are treated to a good view of people’s lives being lived out behind the plate glass.

However, for those on a level with the viewing gallery they were directly on show. When I visited and looked across I thought it was fascinating, like a piece of modern installation art, a view into the lives of not so ordinary people. But whilst the viewers were amused, the residents weren’t. So they went to court and initially they lost out to the Tate with the judge suggesting that they put up net curtains if they didn’t want to be seen! I ask you! If he had suggested voile that would have been one thing but net curtains has a very different ring to it.

I think that is as far as the argument can go with this latest judgement and so the Tate are left with managing the viewing gallery and visitors will no longer have a window into people’s lives and the residents can have the privacy they crave in their curtain-free lives.

Yet in reality none of us has that much privacy, we have given most of it away. It was good to hear that the data on loyalty cards might provide an early indication for some women of ovarian cancer – but it just shows you how even our shopping habits and decisions can be manipulated for other uses. We post our pictures, Tweet our views, Facebook our opinions, Instagram our meals, TikTok our moves, seek our next partner, swiping between people (so I’m told) until the facts that someone has shared about themselves fit what we are looking for in a person to love. There are no real net curtains in social media- the only real privacy can be achieved by deciding not to be on it.

Queen Elizabeth I said something really important when there were those around who wanted to make what could be life-threatening decisions about people and their religious beliefs

‘I would not open windows into men’s souls.’

Whether or not the words are actually hers the powerful sentiment expressed is an important one when we consider our privacy.

General Synod meets this week. The Group of Sessions begins on Monday and ends on Thursday. It will be my last Synod after first being elected to it in 2005. There is plenty on the agenda and I will be blogging about it during the week on my General Synod blog here. But of course, the thing that will dominate people’s attention inside and outside of the Synod chamber at Westminster will be LLF – Living in Love and Faith – and the bishops’ response to it. For the last two weeks so much has been said for and against what has been said and proposed. There is hardly anyone I have met, who is not a bishop, who is happy with where things stand – and I imagine there are many bishops who are not that happy either. So people will be heading to London from all over the country knowing that we will be in for a turbulent few days.

Looking through the windows into people’s lives and commenting on how they live is, of course, very tempting and can be entertaining. But there is also something prurient about the way in which we pick through the stuff of people’s sexuality, intimate relationships, desires and loves. It will be necessary for some in the Synod to get up and share a huge amount about who they are and why they hold the views and live the life they do – and these won’t all be LGBTQI+ people trying to move the conversation in a certain direction, others will open windows into their lives as well. It will be as uncomfortable as me standing on the Tate viewing gallery and staring in at what is going on in someone’s living room, uninvited, unwanted and intrusive.

As Moses tended his father-in-law’s flock he noticed a bush burning. He was intrigued and moved closer to take a better look – and as he was taking a better, closer look there was a voice which said to him

‘Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ (Exodus 3.5)

Our lives are holy ground, we should tread carefully and look away, in respect.

Holy God, you know me and love me. May I show true respect for my sister and brother, and give them the space they need to be who they are. Amen.


It’s a lovely word – sublime – and not one I often use. ‘Of very great excellence or beauty’ is what the dictionary tells me it means. So it was exciting to know that today I was going to visit ‘The Sublime House’ in Rouen. The reason I am here is that this is the first farewell occasion of this year as I prepare for my retirement from Southwark Cathedral in July. There are a number of places I want to go to outside of the Diocese of Southwark to say farewell and thank you. The first of these is the congregation at Rouen Cathedral. We have had a covenant relationship with the Cathedral of Notre Dame for over 25 years. It has been a blessing to us.

The relationship grew out of the personal friendship that my predecessor as Sub Dean, or more precisely Vice-Provost, Canon Roy White had with Pere L’Arche who was the Dean of Rouen Cathedral. Out of their fraternal bonds grew this desire to actually commit ourselves as congregations to working together to achieve, or at least move towards achieving, that unity for which Christ prayed

‘that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me’ (John 17.22-23)

It is part of that sublime – that word again – High Priestly Prayer that Jesus prays as he moved towards his Passion. At that moment his desire for us is voiced to the Father, that we may be one. And in response to that prayer we have once more kept the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

I have been to Rouen many, many times. Sometimes it has been with groups of people from our congregation, sometimes with the boys or the girls of the choir, sometimes on my own. In 2014 we came with people from Bergen Cathedral, our other formal ecumenical link, to celebrate 1000 years since the baptism of King, now Saint, Olave in Rouen Cathedral and the subsequent and consequential conversion of the Norwegian people. Each time we have come we have discovered more about this wonderful and ancient city.

Part of the walls of the house

So it was lovely yesterday to be taken to a place which I have never visited before. It’s called the Sublime House because of something written in graffiti on one of the walls of the ‘house’. This building constructed in the early 12th century lies now beneath the car park of the Palais de Justice. When work was being carried out on the restoration of the Palais in 1976, the remains of this building were discovered. It is Romanesque in design and construction and a substantial part of it remains. It was set in the mediaeval Jewish Quarter still marked in street names in the immediate area. But whether this was a synagogue, a rabbinical school, or a private house for a wealthy member of the Jewish community in Rouen which was also used for other ritual and community purposes, is not known.

The street name is a reminder of the Jewish Quarter

However, there are carvings at the base of pillars which speak of verses in the psalms – ‘the lion and the adder’ of Psalm 91 – and also graffiti in Hebrew script, the most important of which says

‘This house shall be so high until the Rock shall have mercy on Zion’

Which in French is translated ‘Que cette maison soit sublime’ and hence the name, ‘La maison sublime.’

You can just make out the ‘sublime’ graffiti

We stood there in what remains of the ‘house’, walls so substantial, built to last, to hold something of the Jewish community here and remembered that the position of Jews in French society, as across much of Europe, deteriorated in the 13th century until they were expelled from France in 1306. The property held by the Jewish community was taken, as was this ‘house’.

The day before we stood in this sublime space had been Holocaust Memorial Day when we remembered once again what happened to our Jewish sisters and brothers during the Second World War and the six million who were killed. We also have to acknowledge the disturbing rise once again of anti-Semitism in so many places and the ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine which is once again having devastating consequences on both communities. Our prayers for Christian unity bumped up again our prayers for a deeper understanding between Jew and Christian, and between the peoples of the Abrahamic faiths and between peoples of all faiths and none.

‘The lion and the adder shalt thou trample underfoot’

The Sublime House stands empty, a monument, but the words scratched into the stone by a scholar, or a worshipper, or someone just looking to the restoration of Jerusalem spoke to us all. As the Psalmist said in Psalm 122

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’ Amen.

Servants of the servants

To be honest, I wanted to write something in response to the bishops’ statement following the Living in Love and Faith process and the draft liturgical resources that have been published in the last few days. But on reflection, there has been a lot on social media already and, at the moment, I don’t want to add to it. Instead, I need time to think about what I think and I also want to hear what General Synod has to say. So, don’t worry, I’m not ignoring what is going on, I just need more time on this one.

So, instead, I thought you might like to read what I said in my sermon at the Diocesan Servers’ Festival held in the Cathedral yesterday. It was another stage in getting back to normal and good to welcome servers from churches across the diocese who serve and enable us to worship, real servants of the servants. The readings were 1 Samuel 3.1-10 and John 2:1-11.

“My name is Samuel. I think I may be ten, but I don’t really know. Eli says that I’ve been here for six years with him and I was only little when my mother left me here, but I don’t know how old I really am. I see my mother each year, she brings me a new robe to wear, though I grow a lot faster than she imagines, and I never really ask her why I’m here, or when I came, or how it all happened. I just cling to her and love the moment of seeing her. You may wonder if, deep down, I think she loves me – after all she gave me away, her little boy. But when I look into her eyes, each year, on my one day off, I know she loves me.

Yes, one day off. I hear other boys playing outside, in the square, calling out, singing songs to each other. But I’ve never had time to play with them. Eli is quite old now and I have a responsible job. In the morning I unlock the door to the temple, then I check that all the lamps are lit, then I make sure that everything is clean and tidy. Then I bring to Eli food to eat and wine to drink. Then I check the lamps again and tidy up after the people have been in to make their offerings. And finally, late at night, I can lock the door and roll out my mattress against the door, and lie down, but only after I’ve checked that the lamps won’t go out overnight, that there’s lots of oil in them to keep them burning.

As I go about my work, I hear in my head some of the words of the song my mother sings to me every time she visits

‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones.’ “

Eli and the boy Samuel

“My name is Samuel. You don’t need to know how old I am, all you need to know is that I have a good business, a very good business, that my inn is well run and very popular. I have the reputation of never watering down the wine, never running out of anything and serving the best food in the district – succulent lamb, fresh tasty bread and juicy olives. People come to me if they want to celebrate, because I have a big room and, as I say, a fine reputation for good food and wine and the best place to hold a party. ‘We’ll have the wedding at Samuel’s place’ is what people say.

Well, that was my reputation until today. It was a normal wedding booking. People were coming to Cana, where my inn is, from all over the district. The bride and groom were very popular and the family was big. There were even people here from Nazareth.

All went well at first. The bridesmaids escorted the groom, their lamps well lit. The doors closed and the party began. I don’t know how long your weddings last but ours can last for days – and people eat and drink a lot. So, I have to have everything well planned. But things went wrong this time. Whether it was that group of fishermen and carpenters who came with a young man and his mother from Nazareth, I don’t know, all I do know is that all of a sudden one of the servants ran to tell me that the wine had run out. My reputation was in danger, my whole business threatened. To be honest I didn’t know what to do.

Then … it was amazing … but the servants came back and said that everything was ok; that I had no reason to worry. They had more wine, in fact a heck of a lot more wine, suddenly from nowhere. All my six water jars were full of it. I tasted it, it was delicious, much better than the wine I’d been serving at first. I asked what had happened but all they could do was quote from the prophet Isaiah

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.”

Two Samuels – of course we don’t know the name of the Steward of the wedding feast at Cana, but he might have been called Samuel! But both of them, the boy and the man were in the business of serving. That was what they did, and both were really proud of it.

Neither of their jobs, their lives were glamorous and in many ways they had to stay out of the limelight. For the boy Samuel it was Eli who had centre stage; for Samuel my steward it was the bride and groom who were the guests of honour. But neither sought to be the centre of attention – they just wanted to serve.

What you all do is amazing. You enable worship to happen. Like Samuel checking the candles; like the steward checking the bread and wine; like Samuel serving the priest, like the steward serving the guests. Being an altar server is a high calling because it’s an enabling ministry. Because of what you do people can come along to church and be caught up in the worship that’s offered, caught up in the praise offered to God, caught up in that atmosphere of prayer, caught up in the meal that looks towards the heavenly banquet.

You may feel that you don’t do much – that you only carry a candle, only swing the incense, only hold the cross, only point in a book – but that’s an essential task that you’re doing – and each task adds together to create liturgy – the work of the people of God, the worship of the God who is love.

There are some words that we sing as a hymn that were written way back in the very early fourth century by St Ephrem who lived in the area of Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. He was a deacon, not a priest, and so called to a ministry of ordained service and he wrote this.

Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands
that holy things have taken.

Those are your hands, the hands of the lamp-trimmers and the door openers; the hands of the bread holders and the wine pourers, your hands are made holy because you handle holy things on behalf of the holy people of God. Like Samuel and Samuel you are servers, servers of God, servers of God’s people and you help those of us who are priests and bishops to draw people into the foretaste of the heavenly banquet in which Jesus provides not just the wine but also the bread, his body and blood, which never fails but sustains us into eternity.

God bless your hands; God bless your ministry; God bless you, servers.

Loving God, bless us as we serve, bless us as we worship, bless us as we come before you in true humility. Amen.

Golden years

David Bowie had a hit, a long time ago, with his song ‘Golden Years’, with that opening line

Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere.

Golden anniversaries, jubilees, celebrations, are important milestones whether they for a marriage, of ordination, of a royal reign, even of a life. 50 golden years is a long time and seeing our way through them is something really worth celebrating. It’s another ten years before I can celebrate my golden jubilee of ordination but it is always lovely when you are invited to join someone who is able to celebrate a life time of devotion. So I was delighted when some time ago Sister Joyce CSF asked me whether she could have a celebration in the Cathedral for the 50th anniversary of her life profession as a Franciscan. Of course, I said yes. Joyce is a valued member of the congregation and has been a Chapter member and much more besides and so it was exciting to think that we could be alongside her as she both celebrated these golden years and as she renewed those vows during the Eucharist.

An early photo of Sister Joyce CSF, when they still wore veils!

All of that happened yesterday and it really was a golden opportunity to give thanks for golden years, that to some might look like life ‘taking you nowhere’ but for those who have something of an understanding of the religious life, knowing that nothing could be further from the truth.

I mention the Community of the Resurrection a great deal in this blog and those who follow it will know that I valued my years in the College and the subsequent years of association with the Community really highly. They have given so much more to me than I have been able to give to them. But it is not just CR that has paid an important part in my life.

I was fortunate that the church I was brought up in, a place I have also often mentioned, All Saints Wigston Magna, over the years produced many vocations to the religious life. As children we were used to seeing one nun or another back on furlough – a word that since the pandemic has taken on a different significance for me. There was a sister at Wantage, one at Clewer, one in East Hanningfield. They had strange names to a child’s ears – Sr Mary Columba, things like that – and these strings of letters after their name, something for the cognoscenti to get their minds around – CSMV – the Community of St Mary the Virgin; CSJB – the Community of St John the Baptist; CSP – the Community of the Sacred Passion. The nuns looked of indeterminate age, the normal signs of aging hidden beneath a wimple and a veil, no sign of a wrinkled neck to give the game away, just slightly gnarled feet in sandals, making their way past we children peering through the fretwork in the choir stalls, preparing to receive the Sacrament in reverent awe.

Summer would involve a trip to see one or other of them – Clewer, vast, almost like a prison block to my eyes; Wantage, with the beautiful carvings by Mother Maribel, the lovely statue of Our Lady and the child Jesus that I adored; East Hanningfield with its array of Nissen hut holding vast quantities of prosthetic limbs to help those suffering from leprosy who the sisters served. It was another world as was the experience of chapel – the slow processions of veiled figures in and out, the high-pitched quiet and careful chanting, the posh accents that anglican nuns seemed to have. Then there was the sparse tea that we were given, tea and plain biscuits, but served with girlish laughter and a smile. I loved it and every moment has stuck in my memory.

Yet in all of this I hadn’t had experience of the Franciscans, until I came to Southwark and discovered in the Cathedral a chapel dedicated to St Francis and St Elizabeth and began to learn about First, Second and Third Order and about the straightforward and attractive simplicity of the community.

At first the sisters were living in a house just south of the centre of Brixton. I was on the rota to go and preside at the Eucharist for them, a real joy. Then they had to vacate that house and the diocese found them a place in the old St Alphege Clergy House not far from the Cathedral round the corner from where the Sisters of the Reparation to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament (CRJBS) had lived. That is where they still are and I am still on the rota to go along on a Thursday as I did last week. Whilst there are some sandals, there are no veils and wimples, but the atmosphere is as calm as I experienced as a child and the life as simple and I still get tea after the service even though it is at breakfast time – though there is cereal offered instead of biscuits!

At the front of the order of Service for Sr Joyce’s celebration were two poems. This one struck me as particularly beautiful. It’s called The Summer Day by Mary Oliver.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Offering that ‘wild and precious life’ in obedience to the call of God, offering that ‘wild and precious life’ into the context of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, or whatever language the particular community uses, offering that ‘wild and precious life’ in response to the call of Jesus to ‘Come, follow me’ is incredible and amazing. And thank God that people do it and, like Joyce, celebrating 50 years, can stay the course and run the race and live the life and that people like you and me can touch the fringe of it and find it life-giving.

To God be the glory. Amen.

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

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


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark