Fearing the fast

It’s that time of the year again. Ash Wednesday is almost upon us and, whilst it is almost as late in the year that it can be, I still feel totally unprepared for keeping the six weeks fast that will lead us through Lent to the joys of Easter. It never gets any easier, certainly not for me. Over the years I’ve tried everything in a quest to keep a good Lent and there have been some long term successes.

One demon I conquered!

Like many post-war families we ate a lot of sugar as we were growing up. I remember mum struggling back from the shops each week with two or three 2lb bags of Granulated Sugar in her shopping bags which would last the five of us in the family until the next shop. How did we get through it? Well, two spoons in each cup of tea, liberal sprinklings on all cereal, even sweetened cereal, and of course custard every day as swell as loads of sugar heavy cakes and puddings. In addition to the normal sugar there was caster and icing, and mum preferred Demerara in her coffee. Surprisingly we were not over weight (it must have been carrying that weight of sugar from the shops that burnt it off!). But one Lent when I was a teenager I decided that that would be the year when I gave up sugar or at least the spoonfuls in my drinks and the dusting on my cereal. When Easter Day came there was no way that I could go back to my former sweetened regime!

Since then I’ve given up alcohol (of course), the TV (I locked my TV in a wardrobe one year), meat – but none has had a long term effect and I wonder whether any of it did much for my soul, my relationship with God or my deeper engagement with the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord.

But there is still something about the discipline of doing something that I want to engage with but not from a perspective of some kind of punishment. I was re-reading Robert Herrick’s poem ‘To keep a true Lent’

IS this a fast, to keep 
                The larder lean ? 
                            And clean 
From fat of veals and sheep ? 

Is it to quit the dish 
                Of flesh, yet still 
                            To fill 
The platter high with fish ? 

Is it to fast an hour, 
                Or ragg’d to go, 
                            Or show 
A downcast look and sour ? 

No ;  ‘tis a fast to dole 
                Thy sheaf of wheat, 
                            And meat, 
Unto the hungry soul. 

It is to fast from strife, 
                From old debate 
                            And hate ; 
To circumcise thy life. 

To show a heart grief-rent ; 
                To starve thy sin, 
                            Not bin ; 
And that’s to keep thy Lent. 

It seems to me so positive a way of looking at the season. It encourages me to think differently. ‘To starve thy sin’ – what a great way of looking at it.

So, I have been thinking of trying something different. And I thought if I share it with you then I might feel even more committed to doing it!

The first thing is about fasting. The more I witness what my Muslim friends do the more humbled I am. My fasting is, frankly, pathetic. But what if I were to fast each Friday of Lent, to drink just water during the day, and then to have a simple meal in the evening? Now that sounds doable.

The second thing is each week of Lent. My thought is to dedicate each week to a different discipline – one week no alcohol, the next week no meat, the next week no TV, the next week no radio, the next week no social media, the final week? Well, I still need to decide that. You know, I think I could do that and do it positively. I’m almost, to be honest, excited at the prospect. It feels like short stages on a long journey rather than setting out on a walk that seems endless and beyond my self discipline.

Surely that is something more like what Jesus says to his disciples when he is talking about fasting.

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Matthew 6.16-18)

I mustn’t fear the fast, I mustn’t look dismal, I must see it as positive steps on a journey. That is my agenda for this Lent. Pray for me; I will pray for you.

God, sustain me through the fast; bring me from Lent to Easter with a joyful heart. Amen.


In memoriam

When I arrived at the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield to begin my training for the priesthood there were various bits of induction that we had to undergo. As far as I remember, we seemed to spend a lot of time learning how to serve at the various services – that was very important because every one was very particular that things were done correctly. We also learnt to sing plainsong. That meant a rehearsal on regular occasions at first and then once a week going though all the chants and antiphons for the forthcoming days. We learnt about what living the ‘Common Life’ meant, how we were to live considerately with one another. We were given our various roles and responsibilities in the College. You aspired to be one of the College Officers but began as one of the many gardeners or with various cleaning responsibilities – I had a number of loos to look after at first. It was a lot to take in before you began studying the things that you needed to study!

But one of the other things that happened is that you were assigned to one of the priests, usually one of the brethren of the Community of the Resurrection, who would then be your Spiritual Director and Confessor. It was expected that you would make your confession and that you would meet regularly with your Director. It wasn’t just that both of these roles were something that was important in developing in the spiritual life and building resilience for priestly ministry, it was also because there was a lot that was happening to you as you began to go deeper into God.

I was thinking about this for a couple of reasons. One was because we were reading the other day Psalm 42 in which verse 9 says

‘Deep calls to deep in the thunder of your waterfalls.’

And the other reason was that the priest to whom I was assigned died a few days ago.

I was told to meet Fr Simon Holden who would look after me. I continued to meet with him until he moved from the Mother House and I, still being in the area, needed to change to someone who was still at Mirfield. But going along to see Simon over the years was a real joy and an inspiration and, looking back, helped form so much of what has subsequently been important to me.

A rather traditional view of the Sacrament of Reconciliation

One of the things that Simon said over and over again was that God loved me. He must have seen in me something that really needed to hear that simple truth, that God loved me for who I was and who I am. It was his gospel for me, his good news for me. And it was good news. And being ordained and then going into parishes and the Cathedral and other areas of ministry it is something that I have discovered lots of people need to know, lots of people who have gone to church for a long time as well as those who have recently arrived in the community of faith. It was a going deeper into the reality of God who is love. But then, as now, so much of how we hear faith interpreted was condemning. This was affirming, and in its own way challenging. As I was understanding myself and who I was as a child of God, Simon was telling me what God told Peter on the roof of the house of Simon the Tanner in Jaffa

‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ (Acts 9.15)

It is too easy for us to hate what God has created as good, to call profane what God has made clean. But Simon would not allow that and his repeating time after time of this simple truth that ‘God loves you’ changed my view of God and changed my view of myself. It was a lesson I would never forget and as I look back at the sermons I have preached from being a curate onwards, Simon’s message to me is there beneath it all.

So I thank God for Simon for that profound and life changing truth and I thank God for something else as well. As the church thinks about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Seal of the Confessional and safeguarding, something I have spent a great deal of time thinking about in the last few years as a member of the Church of England’s working party on the subject, I give thanks that it was Simon who taught me how to hear confessions as I was making my confession.

I still use a handwritten card as a prompt for the words that I have to say. I wrote it all out as I was preparing the leave the College. I remember asking Simon if he could dictate the words to me as I wrote them down. At that stage there were no ‘official’ texts available in the CofE so we learnt from our spiritual teachers. There was a particular prayer that Simon always said after the absolution, the traditional words ‘I absolve you’, ‘ego te absolvo’. He would pray

The passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of Our Lady and all the saints, whatever good you have done or evil you have suffered be to you for the remission of sin, the increase of grace and the reward of everlasting life.

Those who have made their confession to me and received absolution will have heard those same words, they were handed to me as gift and I happily hand them on. They thrilled my heart then, they thrill it now.

Our teachers always give us gifts, but not just to keep to ourself. Thank you Fr Simon for these gifts, to know the love of God and to know that all is grace, even the good I have done and the evil I have suffered, all is caught up in the loving purposes of God as I now pray that you are caught in the everlasting arms of the one you taught me is love.

Simon, may you rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.

In memory of David Edwards

Today we hosted the memorial service for the late David Edwards.  The Very Revd Dr David Edwards OBE was Provost of Southwark from 1981-1994.  He was a prolific writer and contributor to the Church Times.  Under his care of SCM press they had published John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’.  We heard some wonderful tributes to David as scholar and teacher, priest and pastor and friend from Paul Handley, the current Editor of the Church Times, Bishop Peter Price, formerly of Bath and Wells who had been a Canon of Southwark with David and Baroness Perry of Southwark a former Cathedral Warden and a dear friend.  It was my privilege to preach and this is the text. The reading was Ephesians 1.15-23


As all of you will probably know, one of the many joys of Southwark Cathedral is that it’s the final resting place of an iconic Anglican, one of the greatest and most influential scholars of that time when the true nature of the Church of England, of Anglicanism was being formed.  Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop Andrewes, lies here alongside the High Altar in his rather splendidly decorated tomb – or at least we hope that he lies there because he’s been moved around the building on a number of occasions.  Each year, as we celebrate his feast day we stand as close as we can to where he was first buried and read a passage about him from something written by his pupil and friend Henry Isaacson.

Never any man took such pains, or at least spent so much time in study, as this reverend prelate; from the hour he arose, his private devotions finished, to the time he was called to dinner, which, by his own order, was not till twelve at noon at the soonest, he kept close at his book, and would not be interrupted by any that came to speak with him, or upon any occasion, public prayer excepted. Insomuch that he would be so displeased with scholars that attempted to speak with him in a morning, that he would say ‘he doubted they were no true scholars that came to speak with him before noon’.

I can never hear that reading without thinking of David, a successor of Andrewes in this place and, like him, and as we’ve been celebrating this afternoon, a scholar and teacher, a priest and a pastor, a friend and a father.  As we’ve been reminded David was a prolific writer and a scholar of his age. He was a man at his studies, encouraging always the church, and by that I mean the whole church, to engage in theology, the true knowledge of God, to look at history, the story of God and his people in the world and to do both in a way that was relevant to the age.

At the end of the preface which David contributed to the 50th anniversary edition of John Robinson’s book ‘Honest to God’ he poses, after describing the publishing and theological phenomenon that caught him and SCM by surprise, a very straightforward question

‘So what will you make of it now?’

The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians in the passage that we’ve heard read, speaks of our growing in knowledge of God, and that as a fundamental part of the Christian life.  The writer uses a beautiful phrase to describe part of this process when they say

‘with the eyes of your heart enlightened’

A deeper understanding of the things of God, a theology that speaks to the heart and sheds light that dispels the darkness of ignorance, the darkness of not knowing.  It’s that task in which the theologian plays their part, that task that the opener of the scriptures, the explainer of history, the discoverer of science, the person of reason, the philosopher of an age always seeks to do, so that enlightenment happens, so that we see and understand more in the very depth of our being, so that ‘deep calls to deep’ as the psalmist describes it, in the life of the believer.

I worry about where we place theology in the life of the church today.  Is there room for a bishop like Andrewes, at his devotions and at his study for a good part of each day; is there room for a dean like David, who similarly followed a pattern of prayer and study, doing the heavy lifting of theology on behalf of the church, be that through the medium of the pulpit or of print, in church or in the Church Times?

Nowadays deans are sent off to Cambridge not to be deepened in theological skills but in leadership, in which we’re encouraged to look across the river from here not for inspiration from the many steeples and towers that extend our vision heavenwards but to the glass and steel towers and corporate headquarters that are crowding them out.  It’s leadership and governance and management and financial reporting and targets that are the skill set of the church today, it’s evaluation and peer review that set the standards for what we do.  There’s little space or time for theology and especially not academic theology not the kind of stuff that David gave his life to, certainly not on the bench of bishops and increasingly not amongst the deans.

So we need to ask that question that David asked of the legacy of John Robinson, what do we make of it now? What do we make of a church that seemingly turns its back on theology?

Fashions come and fashions go and that affects the church as much as anything else.  Things will, I’m sure, come full circle but in the meantime that deeper enlightenment is not what we would want it to be.  And that of course affects who we are in this place as much anyone else.

David was one of those who helped create what came to be known as ‘South Bank Religion’.  With Mervyn Stockwood and John Robinson and others there was an engagement with radical thinking that set people talking, the man on the Clapham Omnibus as much as anyone else, and created a movement that made talking of God relevant to the age.  This Cathedral stood at the heart of that movement and is still, in the imagination of some, part of it.  But as we who are here today day in, day out, know that radical theological edge is more fantasy than reality and, to be honest, we’re the poorer for it.

But of that radical theology, David, in his preface says this

‘radical’ does not necessarily mean ‘revolutionary’; it may mean going back to one’s roots to see whether they are still healthy, without any prior assumption about the right answer.

If this service, this act of thanksgiving does anything beyond giving us the opportunity to pay tribute to the life of a great man, I hope that it can serve to draw us back to those roots, to that healthy rootedness and draw us back to the Jesus who we seek to know, the fruit of the root and stock of Jesse as we will be constantly reminding ourselves in the Advent and Christmas seasons that lie just around the corner.  We should be praying that the spirit of ‘wisdom and revelation’ of which Ephesians speaks, rests upon the whole church, not just here in Southwark but in every place in which we seek to make Christ known.

That was why Andrewes was at his studies in Winchester House on Clink Street, that was why David was at his studies in Provost’s Lodging on Bankside, doing the theological task of wisdom and revelation for the enlightenment of the whole people of God, those who’ve heard the gospel and those who’ve yet to hear it.  But whilst ever theology is subservient to leadership in the church … well, all we can do is trust in the God who out of sheer grace and goodness has seen the church through to this day and will see it through for many days yet to come.  But David’s question will always echo around the church and we must take it seriously

‘So what will you make of it now?’

Loving God, we thank you for the wisdom and the insight that David brought to the church, for his courage in publishing and in preaching, his dedication to study, his ability to stretch minds and challenge complacencies.  We thank you for his books, for his sermons, for his lectures and for all the ways in which he broadened, deepened and challenged our understanding and love of you. Amen.

Living God in Jerusalem – Setting off

Having just returned from Romania I’m now off to the Holy Land. You may question the sanity of this. As I sit waiting for my flight I’m inclined to question it as well. But I’m looking forward to being back in Jerusalem and at St George’s College and excited about helping to lead a course over the next two weeks, helping people discover the land that Jesus knew, the land in which he walked, the land in which he rose to new life, the land in which the church came to birth.

I promise not to blog all the time. You have enough ‘stuff’ to deal with. But I will share anything I think you’d be interested in. Please keep me in your prayers, and the people at the College and the participants on the course. And pray with the psalmist, as we did in Morning Prayer today, for the peace of Jerusalem.

Let there be peace upon Israel.‘ Ps 125.5

As if for the first time

In the past few weeks across the church #newrevs has been trending on social media.  This is ordination season and so brand new deacons and priests have been sent out by bishops to their parishes.  I was thankful to celebrate 35 years in orders at the beginning of July (I was ordained deacon in 1983) and it was lovely to see all the hopeful excited new ministers emerging from their ordinations with a freshness reflected in their surplices.

The ordination of priests inevitably is followed by a flurry of ‘First Masses’. A typical Anglo-Catholic will send out their Ember Card, the card asking for your prayers as they prepare for ordination, with the additional notice that they will preside at the eucharist, celebrate the Mass (whatever language you choose to use) on such and such a day and time and you are very welcome. The First Mass stands alongside the ordination as a pivotal moment in the new priests life.


Over the years – apart from mine own – I’ve gone to many such celebrations and shared in the joy of not just the new priest but their family and friends and the people in the parish as well as their clergy friends as they begin this particular part of their priestly ministry.  Many will have been preparing for a long time for the moment – in their heads since the moment that they and the church accepted the call to priestly ministry – but also then as the diaconate year moves into its second half thinking about how they will say Mass.

For quite a few years I have run a course in the diocese for the deacons who will be ordained priest.  It’s of course a very mixed group often encompassing the full range of traditions that are reflected in our diverse, broad CofE. But whilst tongue in cheek I tell them I’m going to tell them the correct way in which to preside at the eucharist, in my heart I know that I believe that to be true, not in an arrogant ‘I’m right you’re wrong’ way I hope but simply because I believe so wholeheartedly that the eucharist is where the church is truly being the church and the priest, presiding at this ecclesial gathering enables the people to meet the Lord in word and sacrament.

So those to be ordained will be thinking about the ‘manual acts’ what you do with your hands, and the ‘secret prayers’, the sotto voce devotions made at various points in the liturgy, their tone of voice and their tone of presiding.

Then the day comes and all is in place – the silver is sparkling, the linens are crisp and white, the wine is chilling (not for the service but for the reception afterwards), there are bunches of red roses for Our Lady and the new priest’s mother and the servers and the choir and the readers and the preacher (a vital part of the service – have you managed to secure the enviable, best preacher you could inveigle into preaching for you) are all rehearsed and ready.  It’s a showpiece and there is nothing wrong in that.

For those from other traditions this all sounds, frankly, weird or wrong.  Those for whom the eucharist holds a less central place in their understanding of the church, of redemption, of the Christian life, etc, etc, the idea that you would elevate presiding to such a level and in such a way speaks of a kind of idolatry of the Mass.  But I think that I would describe the variety of reactions that are made more in terms of whether presiding at the Eucharist is seen as functional or ontological – and for catholics it is the latter.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews talks a great deal about the nature of Christian priesthood as opposed to Aaronic.  But the writer at one point in the letter is constantly quoting one line from a psalm

The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110.4)

What is bestowed in ordination through the grace of the Holy Spirit is not for a moment but for all time. “You are a priest forever.” You are changed forever, there has been an ontological shift and at the altar we see this most clearly as the priest stands in the place of Christ and brings the past and the future into the present in the once and forever liturgy of the church.

But this has implications for every other eucharist at which a priest presides.  Yes the first time is a real celebration and it is great to have a party afterwards but what about the second and the tenth and the one hundredth and the thousandth and the countless ministry of the aged priest who continues to approach the altar? The true reality is that every priest should approach the altar as if for the first time.

We learn a great deal by watching how other priests preside. When I was being formed for priestly ministry at the College of the Resurrection I would watch what the brethren of the Community did.  And one I will never forget is Fr Ronald Haines.  This is what I wrote about him in a retreat I led for those about to be priested

We students watched to see who the President was.  There were two particular delights.  One was the Superior of the Community who with an agonized solemnity would preside with huge gravitas.  The other was Fr Haines. When I was in College I suppose he must have been priested for over 40 years – a good long time.  But the thing was – and this is the lesson that he taught me, that he taught us – that he celebrated every Eucharist as though it was his first and as though it was his last.  Every celebration at which he presided had that sense of deep wonder, of being the most important event of that day, for him, for us.  There was a precision, a delicacy, a slight hesitancy about what he did that made it totally fresh, alive, and deeply moving.  It was a privilege to be at those Eucharists and because you knew that for this priest it was also a privilege – that he was taking nothing for granted – that it was total gift to him and that that total gift was what he was giving to us – it was still more of a privilege.

And I think it is the same for each of us, whether we are ordained or not, to come and as in T S Eliot’s lovely phrase in his poem ‘Little Gidding’

‘And know the place for the first time.’

At the altar we encompass time and place, at once in that Upper Room with the disciples and yet before an eternal and heavenly altar before the Lamb of God, and yet here, in the local, in the now, in the divine present in which the ordinary stuff of life becomes the most extraordinary encounter and communion with the Living God.  That is why each time we step from any sacristy, any vestry we should do so with fear and trembling but with the deepest joy.

Lord Jesus Christ,
we thank you that in this wonderful sacrament
you have given us the memorial of your passion:
grant us so to reverence the sacred mysteries
of your body and blood
that we may know within ourselves
and show forth in our lives
the fruit of your redemption,
for you are alive and reign, now and for ever. Amen.

The cat and the corbel

Following the recent article in the Evening Standard about Doorkins, our cathedral cat, and the corbel that has been made of her we have received so many messages about her.  One of these included a specially written poem by John Elliot, a fan in Barnard Castle.  With his permission this is his poem.



Astute cathedral deans declare
That problems come with mouse or rat:
They need a feline living there;
And Doorkins is the Southwark cat.
Magnificat, her other name,
Conferred by clergymen, whose ways
Show us that jokes are all the same
And have not changed since we sang that
Our souls would magnify the cat.

They know that she’ll pay for her keep
By killing vermin in the church.
She finds a comfy place to sleep
And keeps watch from her favourite perch.
Her face displays a look of bliss:
She knows the service will not stop.
There’s merchandise reflecting this
For sale in the cathedral shop.
This cat and human synergy
Is very clear for all to see.

Thanks John.

I’m at Synod


There won’t be the usual Living God blog this weekend.  I’m at the meeting of the General Synod in York. So if you want to see what we are up to visit my General Synod blog here.

Celebrating mums

It’s Mothering Sunday – yes, that is what it is called, not Mothers’ Day – we keep it on a Sunday because we are giving thanks to God for our mums and it’s about ‘mothering’ not just about how lovely our mums are.  Anyway, whatever we call it around the country people will have emerged from morning services clutching some straggly daffodils, perhaps tied with a bit of ribbon, that have either been handed over in church by child (of any age) to mother or will be if they survive the battering journey home.  We have a wonderful Flower Guild at Southwark Cathedral and Pat (Gold at Chelsea) has the task with some others of getting our bunches of daffs ready.  She kept calling me during the week.  ‘The snow has done dreadful things to the daffodils; I might not be able to get any; I’m just warning you.’ What a nightmare! Mothering Sunday without daffodils!


Worry not.  I went into one of the ancillary rooms on Friday and there was Pat with two other members of the Guild putting the bunches together.  Phew! Pulled back from the jaws of disaster. That would have been a real cloud hanging over us (unlike our Lent art installation) if we’d had no flowers.

I was back at Mirfield during the week, staying at the Community and College of the Resurrection.  It’s my yearly visit, three days in that wonderful atmosphere sharing again the common life that is such a feature of the place and made it, for me, the most wonderful environment to be formed for priesthood.  I go at this time of the year as I have a task to do that I need a bit of space to achieve.  On Easter Day my Annual Report is made available.  It has to be written – and that was the task, and a few other bits of writing, like the five ‘thoughts’ I had to prepare which are to be broadcast on Premier Radio each day during Holy Week.  Anyway, I got all of that done.

But on the Wednesday it was the Feast of Ss Perpetua, Felicity and their companions.  The priest who was presiding at the Mass, in her homily, told me something about these early Christian martyrs of which I was previously unaware.

I knew that the account of this martyrdom which took place in Carthage in around 203 AD was remarkable in lots of ways.  It was remarkable in that the detailed and rather gory account of what happened to them spread through the Christian world with a speed which would challenge our modern communications.  The document that recorded it was one of the most powerful and influential of the time.


St Perpetua and St Felicity


But what was also incredible was the story it told of how Christians lived which was counter-cultural.  Vibia Perpetua was a married noblewoman, said to have been 22 years old at the time of her death; Felicity was her slave imprisoned with her. Her companions were another slave named Revocatus, two free men Saturninus and Secundulus, and a man named Saturus, who voluntarily went before the magistrate and proclaimed himself a Christian. They were catechumens and so were preparing for baptism but proudly called themselves Christians and spoke fearlessly in the name of Jesus.  The account of their martyrdom made it clear that they were, in effect, baptised in their own blood. But what this mixed bunch of people reveals to us is that Christians were ignoring the current social conventions of only mixing with people of their own class.  Here a noblewoman and free men stand alongside slaves and share the same fate.  Christians worshipped in truly inclusive communities that were startling to others.

What I didn’t know was that at the time of their martyrdom Perpetua was nursing an infant and Felicity was pregnant.  These were two young mothers who stood in the arena and despite the demands of motherhood did what they believed to be right.

The mums we celebrate today have perhaps not had to do anything like Perpetua and Felicity but too many mums around the world do have to make stark choices and sacrificial decisions.  The images on our screens of a mother trying to feed her child from breasts that hold no milk, searching for a scrap of food that her child, not she, will eat, struggling to keep the fruit of her womb alive, are distressing and moving.  Whether on the outskirts of Damascus or in the Yemen it is women, it is mothers who bear so much of the pain.

In a couple of weeks time we will be with Mary at the foot of the cross, Mary going through her own martyrdom, a sword piercing her heart in fulfilment of old Simeon’s prophecy as she watched the fruit of her womb die.

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2.34-35)

Mary, Perpetua, Felicity, the unnamed mothers on our screens, and our own mothers also, all to be celebrated on such a day as this which calls not for an excess of sentimentality but healthy honesty and realism about just what it does mean to be a mother – and a father.

God, mother, father, of us all
bless those who are our mothers
and strengthen those whose mothering
leads them into suffering.

A cloud on the horizon

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

elijah cloud

‘Look, a little cloud …’


On the seventh time of looking the servant cries out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony Trollope explained how Barchester looked in his imagination

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Under a cloud

Christina Rossetti wrote a poem about clouds, called ‘Clouds’.

White sheep, white sheep,
On a blue hill,
When the wind stops,
You all stand still.
When the wind blows,
You walk away slow.
White sheep, white sheep,
Where do you go?


‘White sheep, white sheep’


The cloud that hangs in the choir of Southwark Cathedral and will do for the whole of the season of Lent is nothing like the white fluffy clouds that chase like sheep across a blue sky as we walk the downs, nothing like the high pale cloud that keeps the heat down on a summer ‘s day.  The cloud that hangs in the Cathedral has something dark and menacing about it.  As you enter the Cathedral it is as if something has exploded and left a large black cloud hanging, get nearer and it alters the light, it is heavy, not light, a clack sheep amongst Rossetti’s ‘white sheep, on a blue hill’.

Like a lot of installation art, this piece by Susie MacMurray is to be experienced as much as looked at. You need to come into the Cathedral and look at it from a distance and then dare to approach it, to sit under the cloud and feel its brooding weight,

Clouds feature a great deal in scripture and in the Christian tradition. Popular imagination might expect faith to be lived out in bright clear sunshine but from that moment when Moses climbed the holy mountain, shrouded in cloud, and experienced the presence of God, it has been a familiar experience and theme. The Gospel writers described a similar event in the Transfiguration of Jesus and as Jesus died on the cross the clouds brought night into day and the onlookers were plunged into darkness. All of these things and much more are captured in this installation.


A brooding presence


But it is called ‘Doubt’ and that directs us towards another direction of Christian thinking and experience. The mediaeval mystical tradition in this country did not shy away from the cloud which can exist in the world of faith. In ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ a 14th century book written anonymously the writer says ‘Beat with a sharp dart of longing love upon this cloud of unknowing which is between you and your God.’

The cloud that Susie MacMurray has created and which dominates the chancel and high altar sanctuary during Lent and Holy Week, draws us into this apophatic tradition. We recognise our doubts and sense the darkness but beat both ‘with a sharp dart of longing love.’

I invite you to experience it with us. I will be spending a long time under it this Lent and exploring my own doubt, and it’s opposite, faith. And I’m sure I will, after Good Friday, be longing for the cloud to lift and the bright light of Easter to shine.

God of mystery,
when the cloud descends,
when you seem unknown,
when doubts assail me
and darkness surrounds me,
lift the mist, break into the darkness
and let your light shine
in me
and through me.

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

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

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

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark