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?

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‘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.

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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.
Amen.

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What’s been happening?

If you want to know what I’ve been up to this week visit my General Synod blog.  Follow this link here.

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PS see if you can spot me in this photo! I am there. Sorry, no prizes.

A touch of green

You know it’s heading towards spring when all the papers for the February meeting of the General Synod land through your letter box (you can get them electronically but I still like them printed – sorry) and your realise that the chamber in Westminster is becoming you.  The other way you know is just by stepping outside. So I ventured into the Deanery garden to find some bulbs coming through the soil.  Spring is on the way.  The fresh green of new life will very quickly reassert itself over the brown of winter.  And, as if to join in with what is happening around us, the church has moved from gold to green, from the end of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons into what is known as Ordinary Time.

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This is the first Sunday ‘back in green’ and it is good to see it.  This is the miracle of liturgy and tradition, echoing life in the worship of God.  The green we see at the altar mirrors the green I see emerging, triumphant in my garden.  Life reasserts itself.

If you are interested in that other prelude to the arrival of spring I will be keeping a General Synod blog going.  You can find a link on this page.  As ever it’s a mixed agenda – our relationship with the Methodist Church, the work of the Crown Nominations Commission (I know quite a bit about that after serving 8 years on it), food waste and that really important debate on valuing people with Down’s Syndrome. Synod can get very absorbed with the inner workings of the church and the niceties of doctrine and practice but ‘the green blade rising’ as that lovely Easter hymn describes it, reminds me that life is the most important thing that we should be concerned about.  So that is a debate I will be fascinated by.  After all Jesus said

‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’. (John 10.10)

Abundant life, lived by all – that is the Gospel – for all people, of all abilities.

So enjoy the green, for about ten days, for Lent is fast on its tail and pray for us who gather in Synod at the end of this week.

Creator God,
breathe fresh life into me,
into the church,
into the world.
Amen.

Cathedrals

This Sunday the gospel reading was the account of the wedding at Cana in Galilee (John 2.1-11).  It was also the first time the congregation at Southwark Cathedral had gathered since the publication of the draft report of the ‘Cathedrals Working Group’ – and I was preaching.  This is what I said.  

The newly released film ‘Darkest Hour’ is giving people the opportunity to think again about the leadership that Winston Churchill gave to this nation. One thing that you can say for him is that he knew the power of language, when to use it and how it could change things at critical moments. His skill with rhetoric forced you to listen to him. One of the many things that he said that’s often quoted and often by those in leadership positions is

‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’

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There was certainly a crisis going on in the little town of Cana in Galilee. A wedding was happening. Mary was there as a guest and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited. The celebrations were in full swing and everyone was having a fantastic time. And then, disaster happens. Someone looked under the table where all the wine had been stashed and there was nothing left – the guests had drunk the place dry. But everyone was still in party mood.

Mary intervenes. ‘Do whatever he tells you’ she says to the servants and Jesus tells them to take water and deliver it to the maître d’. On tasting the water he found that it was wine and of the best kind – and of such a quantity – 120 to 180 gallons of it – staggering. And then the Steward, not knowing what’d happened makes a great declaration

‘You have kept the good wine until now.’

It’s interesting that nowhere in this story does John use the word miracle. It was a miracle, a miracle of creation, but John avoids that word for one which has, for him, great significance in telling the story of Jesus. He chooses instead the word ‘sign’.

The story concludes

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

John in telling the story of Jesus does it in a very different way to that of the other three gospel writers. They try to give us a history, Jesus did this, then he did that, then he did the other – one thing after another. But John wants to take us deeper, into the mystery, into the theology, into just who Jesus was, who Jesus is, and the truth of that can lie below the surface.

And so he looks for signs, pointers, indicators of the true nature of Jesus, the divine nature of Jesus – and he finds seven, beginning with this act of creation in Cana and ending with the raising of Lazarus to new life, a day of resurrection if you like. So John gives us a new account of creation, held in seven signs, just as in seven days.

Jesus had not let the crisis go to waste. He’d acted in such a way that his glory was revealed and something of the true nature of God and of the kingdom, of which in himself he was the sign, was understood by his disciples who, looking on in awe, believe in him.

There’s been something of a crisis for cathedrals. It’s interesting because in fact, as the report of the Working Group on Cathedrals which was published last Thursday points out, Cathedrals are one of the success stories of the Church of England. (You can find the report here.)

The report begins like this

Cathedrals are spectacular and wonderful expressions of the mission of God in his world. There is much to celebrate, guard and nurture in the life of cathedrals.

‘Spectacular and wonderful’ – it sounds like Cana all over again!

Cathedrals continue to grow, more people are increasingly attending services in cathedrals, we’re engaged in mission, we’re working with local, civic society, people look to us for spiritual leadership and the role we play in community. In terms of what the wider church wants the local church to do cathedrals are in general doing it. We are, to use Archbishop Justin’s phrase when he was Dean of Liverpool

‘a safe place to do risky things in Christ’s service.’

But there was a crisis last year as things went seriously wrong in two cathedrals – in Peterborough and in Exeter. Because of the rather wonderful Elizabethan settlement which creates a separation of powers between cathedrals and bishops, maintains a creative tension in which much that is good and risky for the church and the kingdom can be done, bishops have limited authority in their cathedral. That is until there’s a crisis and then they can make a Visitation. And when they make a Visitation what they decide has to be done by the Chapter – it’s the moment of their greatest authority as far as we’re concerned.

The result of Visitations in both Peterborough and Exeter was that it was decided that there needed to be a thorough examination of both governance, the way in which cathedrals are run, and financial controls, the way in which we manage our money, and recommendations made about how both of these could be tightened up and improved for the future, in all cathedrals.

All the Deans had the opportunity to have a one-to-one conversation with the chair of the Working Group, the Bishop of Stepney, Adrian Newman, and of course I took that opportunity. The group also sought opinions and facts from a wide variety of stakeholders inside and outside of cathedrals – and there are many people with positive and not so positive views about the place of cathedrals in the Church of England as she now is.

And so out of that crisis this draft report has come and we’re now in a period of consultation. The Chapter has decided to seek your opinions and to help us to do that an open meeting for the congregation has been organised for Sunday 11 February after the Choral Eucharist for those of you who do have a view on these matters. We’re also having a special meeting of the Chapter to which members of the Cathedral Council and other committees and groups have been invited. You can also feed your opinions through your Wardens, Matthew and Daniel, or through any of the clergy.

The report contains quite a lot of recommendations and some of them would involve pretty major changes to the way in which things are done, here but perhaps not to the same extent as in some other cathedrals.

But as well as absorbing the fine details of the report we have to heed the words of Mary to the servants in the Gospel for today ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

What we try to do, and I’m now speaking specifically of this cathedral, is to do the will of God, to listen to the Lord, to do whatever he tells us. We have a strong identity, a strong brand amongst cathedrals. Whether they like it or not people tend to know what Southwark Cathedral stands for – we describe it so well in our vision statement which is at the top of the notice sheet every week and I hope is absorbed by you

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

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We believe that that is the way that the water is turned into wine, we believe that is the way in which we can be a sign post, a pointer to the reality of the kingdom, being faithful to what the Lord wants us to do. But that doesn’t mean that on a day-to-day basis, as a Chapter, as your Dean, there are not things that we can or should do better or differently.

Like all cathedrals we need to take this report very seriously and take our part in this process of consultation and the subsequent debates that will take place and the implementation of whatever the wider church discerns is the way forward.

Cathedrals are a gift to the church and to the nation. We know that to be true. But perhaps we shouldn’t let this particular crisis go to waste, just as Jesus didn’t let that crisis at the wedding go to waste. Water can be made into wine, in our lives, in our communities, in our nation, in our churches even in our cathedrals, if we listen to what he tells us – and perhaps, you never know, the best wine is yet to come!

God of new wine,
take the our offering
and transform it
until its tastes
of the kingdom.
Amen.

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.

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.

Sheffield

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.

General Synod - London

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.

Empfang des Eheringes

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.

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