Keep awake!

It’s Advent Sunday and in the gospel for today Jesus tells us to ‘Keep awake!’ It’s an important call to be awake to the reality around us, to be awake to the reality of God, to be awake to the needs of our neighbours. As we were approaching the beginning of Advent we had three events at the Cathedral that spoke to me about this call that we would be hearing as we began the countdown to Christmas.

We have been served by some excellent MPs in the constituencies in this diocese. One of those who really encouraged communities and individuals was Tessa Jowell. She was the member for the Dulwich area for 23 years campaigning on behalf of local people and much loved, even by those who hadn’t voted for her. She was inspirational, but she was also inspirational in the way that she died as much as in the way she lived. The same passion that she lived by was present in the way she approached her death. She was open about it, campaigning for better help and care for those who suffered from brain cancer as she did. She died in 2018 and her daughter Jess was instrumental in setting up the Tessa Jowell Foundation to continue her work on behalf of those who were also diagnosed with that form of cancer.

We were privileged to host the memorial service for Tessa in the Cathedral in 2019 and then on Thursday evening to be the venue for a huge fundraising dinner which had the aim of extending the work of the Foundation to those children who suffer from the same cancer. It was an inspirational evening. There was music and laughter and a real buzz of excitement and commitment around the cause. There was also huge generosity and it was humbling to sit there as significant pledges were made in the auction that will make this new work possible. Being awake to the need for the care of those who face cancer was at the heart of what we were doing.

The window inspired by the young people

Then on Friday an event brought a number of constituencies together. The Clewer Initiative works to highlight and combat modern day slavery. They approached us to see if we wanted to be involved in their campaign. It was something that we really felt called to do. So a coalition was set up which brought together our Cathedral Education Centre with the Diocesan Board of Education, the Worshipful Company of Glaziers, John Reyntiens and his stained glass studio and students from two secondary schools in the diocese. Together they created a window which tells the story of the scandal of modern day slavery and highlights where we might encounter those who are enslaved – in car washes, nail bars, as well as in the sex industry. At the same event some documents and objects relating to the slave trade in the eighteenth century were also on display. Amongst them was a chilling piece of paper, written in the most beautiful hand, a conveyancing document listing the names of all the slaves on a plantation in the Caribbean. The youngest on the list was just 4 years old. Setting our own complicity in the slave trade then alongside our own ignorance about the slave trade now was powerful.

What was so great was seeing the students, some with their parents, identifying their own work which had been translated by skilled artists in stained glass to create an incredible panel. Being awake to the issue of modern day slavery was at the heart of what we were doing.

On Friday evening into Saturday morning a crowd of people slept out at the Cathedral. It was the annual Robes SleepOut, the first proper one we had been able to do since the pandemic. People young and old arrived at the Cathedral on Friday evening, armed with their equipment for the night, ready to sleep out, knowing that what they were doing would make a big difference to those who, often through no fault of their own, are forced to live on our streets. They were hoping not to stay awake through the night but being awake to the needs of the homeless was at the heart of what we were doing.

And why? Why should we be bothered about addressing the issue of brain cancer, modern day slavery and homelessness in the Cathedral. Isn’t this more woke than awake? As we said Compline in the Cathedral before we settled down for the night in our sleeping bags, on cardboard, under the stars on a cold but clear November evening, we heard those familiar words of Jesus from Matthew 25

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25.37-40)

‘You did it to me’, the one facing brain cancer, the enslaved and frightened, the one on the streets, each revealing something of the divine, in themselves, in their living, in their suffering. We stay awake to each of them, their needs should keep us awake.

Loving God, may I see you in each of those around me and stay awake to their need. Amen.


A lost decade

We were all waiting for the statement that the Chancellor was due to make last week. In some ways there were few surprises, a great deal of what was presented had been trailed in one way or another. But I suppose it was understanding the whole package and the massive implications for all of our lives that was a shock. I think it was in the report of the OBR that the point was made that the standard of living would fall back to what we had ten years ago. Someone described it as a ‘lost decade’.

It just set me thinking, this idea of what has been lost. I often find myself thinking about something a friend of mine said in a homily at the end of a BAP, a Bishops’ Advisory Panel, that had the task of recommending to bishops who should go forward towards ordination. People were ready to go home, they had shared a lot with the panel, some would be recommended and be overjoyed; some would not be recommended and probably disappointed.

The passage he was speaking about was the feeding of the five thousand. But it wasn’t the situation that presented itself to Jesus, nor his reaction to the need before him, nor the miracle itself that he spoke about. Instead it was what happened at the end, when every one had eaten and their hunger and need had been satisfied.

Jesus says to the disciples ‘gather the fragments that nothing may be lost.’ (John 6.12) Nothing was to be lost, nothing was to be wasted, even the crumbs were valuable, all was to be gathered up. In the economy of God, not a sparrow falls to the ground without divine knowledge, every hair on our head is counted. The dead are raised, life is eternal, those who have gone before us are not lost to us.

The last decade has been an important one for me personally, it is ten years since I became Dean. Those ten years have seen supreme joy and desperate grief, they have seen growth in good times and the diminishment that came with the pandemic. The decade has been both a blessing and a challenge but it has all been a pilgrimage, a journey with God. And God won’t allow any of that to be lost.

The dramatic reduction in our standard of living, the challenges in the economy, the implications for our own personal finances, it is all real, it is all worrying, it all brings stress with it. But the last ten years, the last decade has not been lost because with God even the crumbs are collected and fill the baskets.

God of our past, our present and our future, hold us that nothing may be lost. Amen.

‘They who sing once pray twice’

I must have been around seven years old. I had become a bit bored with Sunday School and what I really enjoyed was being in church for the whole of the Parish Mass. Someone, I don’t know who it was, had suggested to my mum that I might like to join the choir. I thought that this sounded like a great idea and so I said ‘yes’. But it wasn’t as easy as that. The curate had to come round to the house to see my mum and me. Did I understand that it was a commitment that I was making? I distinctly remember him sitting with us in our front room – well he was the curate – and asking me to promise that I would take being in the choir very seriously, come to choir practice as well as sing at the services. I said that I would promise that.

So I joined the choir at All Saints, Wigston Magna and I was in that choir until I left to spend a year working away before I went off to be formed for the priesthood at Mirfield. It was, all in all, a great experience and it helped me to understand vocation, in the general sense, and my own vocation in particular.

Now, I mention all of this because during the week I received an email to tell me that someone had died. Last week I was reflecting on just what Fr Crispin Harrison CR gave to me whilst I was at the College of the Resurrection, a love of liturgy and a sense of its importance, but the person who died in the last few days also contributed to that.

The choir at the church was run by a couple, Alec and Eileen Gillies, though of course to me they were Mr and Mrs Gillies and always will be. He had a strong but gentle Scottish accent, I thought they were old but presumably they weren’t. Mr Gillies was the choirmaster but also played the organ and Mrs Gillies sang and also played the organ. It was Mrs Gillies who I heard had died, at the grand age of 101! May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

Not our choir – but we looked just like this!

At that stage it was a traditional parish church choir. We all wore cassocks and surplices. The ladies wore a kind of hat and a white thing at their necks – I have no idea what it is called. There were a few men on the back row but it was predominantly women, sopranos and altos and plenty of children, boys and girls. We sang the usual parish church stuff – for the Mass in the morning and for Evensong each Sunday. Rehearsal time was around the psalms and the anthems that we had to learn; we weren’t a choir to sing a Viennese setting of the Mass or the kind of settings of the canticles that I am used to now.

The choir was a member of the RSCM, the Royal School of Church Music, so I worked for my badge and we wore those proudly. Each year we gathered with the other parish church choirs in the Diocese of Leicester for the RSCM Festival which was held in the Cathedral. The day always followed the same pattern, arriving at the Cathedral – at that stage they hadn’t fond a king and the place was a bit dark and seemed to be in a back street near a bus station. The afternoon was a big rehearsal – but that was quite easy as the Gillies’ had taught us all the stuff in the special festival book that the RSCM then produced. Then we went off to tea in the Coop Hall on the High Street. There was an upper room where we sat at long tables. The meal, in fact the whole day, was presided over by the large quantity of spinsters who were members of the choir, Miss Wade and Miss Loombs in particular. They maintained discipline, telling us off if we got silly, making us eat the sandwiches before we had the cake.

Then it was back to the Cathedral, putting our robes on and singing the Festival Service. It was a highlight of the year. But every Sunday was wonderful, singing all the music, processing, sometimes carrying the cross when I got a bit bigger, sitting beyond the mediaeval screen that church is blessed with and being close to the action in the sanctuary and just enjoying the care of two lovely people like Mr and Mrs Gillies.

I look at our choristers, the boys and the girls, who work so hard, much more talented than I ever was or am, committed, professional, and I wonder if they realise just what they are doing, what a privilege music making is and how essential it is to the whole of the liturgy and the worship of the people. I look at those coming along to receive their RSCM awards. Now, I have the privilege of putting the medal over their heads and seeing the look of pride on their faces. It’s sad, however, when I go to so many parishes where the choir stalls are empty or have been removed; all that remains is an old choir photo in a vestry or a poster from the Addington Palace days of the RSCM, ghosts of a former musical past – all gone – and all that vocational experience for young and old, all gone.

It was St Augustine who said ‘They who sing once pray twice’. It’s true and in the Bible, and not least in the Book of Revelation, heaven is pictured as full of the sound of singing.

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,
‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!
’ (Revelation 5.11-12)

I pray that Mrs Gillies may be adding to the sound of that song and simply want to say to her, thank you. You have no idea what you did for me and so many others like me. This is the RSCM prayer that they taught us to pray and which I always, invariably, pray with our choir.

Bless, O Lord, us thy servants who minister in thy temple: Grant that what we sing with our lips we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts we may show forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Just a lad from Brighouse

It was with real sadness that I learnt last week of the death of Fr Crispin Harrison CR. Crispin was on the staff of the College of the Resurrection when I arrived back in the autumn of 1980 to begin the three year process of formation for priestly ministry. Crispin was the Registrar and so, I suppose, had some responsibility for seeing us established within the College community and ready to take the exams we would have to sit – but I can’t remember any of that to be honest.

Fr Crispin Harrison CR

I was a ‘Leeds man’ which meant that for the first two years I had to head off, each morning, for Leeds University, to attend the lectures there and then to head back at the end of the day to re-join the common life that was part and parcel of being at the College. This meant that I didn’t have the opportunity to be taught by members of the College staff until my final and third year.

But, of course we did get to know all the staff of the college which at that stage consisted of Fr Benedict Green CR as Principal, Fr Denys Lloyd as Vice-Principal, Fr Crispin as Registrar, Fr Jack Nicholls as the pastoral tutor and Fr Michael Kitchener as a tutor in doctrine. The Bursar was Br Jonathan CR and that was that as far as I can remember it. In the refectory each of the members of academic staff had their own table and we were meant to circulate around them so that you didn’t site with your favourite father at every meal. Sitting with Benedict was a bit frightening – he had little small talk. Denys’ table was always a riot, as was Jack’s. Michael was a bit serious, though you could pull his leg easily and Crispin? Well he was like Winnie the Pooh who might just fall asleep at any moment after eating too much honey.

I remember Crispin with enormous affection. He was so nice and you can’t ask for much more than that. He was lovely to my parents who shared his surname – and so they always asked after this other ‘Harrison’, a lad from nearby Brighouse, baptised with the name of Michael but taking the name Crispin on entering the Community.

During my final year I attended Crispin’s lectures on liturgy. You all know me well enough to know that it is the liturgy that really excites me. Yes, I am interested in theology and the Bible; yes I am passionate about spirituality but it has been the liturgy that has always been my inspiration and my way into God. All of that began long before I was driven up Stocks Bank Road and to the College of the Resurrection and, indeed, it was one of the principal reasons for going to the College. I just knew that I would be fed by the liturgical life and that, being thus fed, I would grow. I had been raised in a ‘liturgical’ church, where things were done well and people – ordained and lay – knew what they were doing and why they were doing it. Bob Hawkins, our Head Server, led a conducted Mass for the children each month when he described what was happening as the priest presided. That was my first series of liturgy lectures.

But life at Mirfield was one long lesson in liturgy, witnessing it, participating in it, taking an active part in it, rehearsing for it. We learnt about how to preach by listening to people who could preach. We learnt how to preside by watching people who knew how to preside. But it was people like Crispin who then gave us the background theory and history and got us to ask the question why. For those lectures, mostly in what was then the Reading Room at the College, I give thanks.

All of that was given to me by Crispin and others has helped to shape my ministry, from being given projects to do with regard to the liturgy in the church in Manston, Leeds where I served my title, to moving to a parish with three churches and numerous services using a variety of Rites, to being a Bishop’s Chaplain and then a Cathedral Precentor and latterly the Dean. But in all of that I have been teaching about and organising liturgy, helping others, I hope, to understand that little bit more, trying to encourage good and informed and thoughtful practice. I’ve helped organise the worship for more conferences than I care to remember, the big one off events for celebrations both in Ripon and Southwark Dioceses, on race courses, showgrounds and even in the gardens of Lambeth Palace and of course in September in a massive school hall. All of that began with listening to Crispin’s gentle voice describing the principles of liturgy and for that I will always be thankful.

At the heart of all of this liturgy is what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews so powerfully describes

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. … But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12.18-19, 22-24)

It is that encounter with the heavenly Jerusalem, with the eloquent blood that was shed and with Jesus and the sacramental life of the church which is at the heart of all liturgy – and thank you, Crispin, for teaching me that.

As it says in the prayer that Bob taught us to pray at the end of the liturgy and as I still pray, may Fr Crispin have that unhindered experience of the heavenly liturgy to which he pointed us. May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Now we leave your altar, Lord, where your Son we have adored, let our thanks again arise for this Holy Sacrifice. And if thoughts have entered in which have mixed our prayer with sin, let your Son’s pure blood and grace all our sinfulness efface. Sweet it is to worship here, soon may that bright day appear, when your glory we shall see and unhindered worship thee. Amen.

Taking a breath

There were a lot of blogs during the pilgrimage to Bulgaria that ended on Wednesday. I hope you enjoyed them. I also hope that you’ll forgive me if I just take a breath this weekend. If you didn’t get a chance to read about the journey through Bulgaria I hope you can do that. I’ll get back to you next Sunday.

The beautiful Golgotha Chapel at the monastery at Troyan

Loving God, bless us in our working, bless us in our resting. Amen.

You need hands

100 years ago – 16 October 1922 – Max Bygraves was born on Paradise Street in Rotherhithe, just down the road from Southwark Cathedral. But being born a Roman Catholic he was a chorister not at Southwark but at Westminster Cathedral. He went on to be one of those all-round entertainers, the real stars of the 20th century. One of the songs he made popular was ‘You need hands’ and that came to mind today, the last full day of our pilgrimage in Bulgaria.

You may have never heard the lyrics but this is how the song begins

You need hands to hold someone you care for
You need hands to show that you’re sincere
When you feel nobody wants to know you
You need hands to brush away the tears

When you hold a brand new baby
You need tender hands to guide them on their way

The beauty of Troyan Monastery

We were visiting Troyan Monastery, set in lovely mountains and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Its claim to fame is that it is the home of a copy of a miracle working icon, the original is in one of the monasteries on Mount Athos. A monk was carrying it and the story goes that Our Lady made it very clear, by not allowing him to continue his journey, that this was the place where the icon was to reside. The particular thing about the icon is that Mary appears to have three hands. The reason for that is another long story about a saint who had his hand chopped off because of what he wrote. But after asking for Mary’s help his hand was restored overnight and so he had an extra hand placed on the icon.

The miraculous icon – count the silver hands

Whatever the stories, the monastery is a beautiful place, peaceful, long wooden corridors off which all the monks cells are to be found, cared for gardens, geraniums hanging from the balconies that surround the central courtyard in which the church stands. Behind the main buildings is a little chapel that houses a spring of water.

The chapel of the spring

But it is the hands that will stay with me, especially as this pilgrimage ends. One of the things that I notice about pilgrim groups is the way in which people care for one another, giving a hand, supporting, caring, consoling, all the things that we use our hands for.

Lunch in the sun at the end of the journey

At the end of St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus meets the disciples at the Mount of Olives. This part of their journey, their pilgrimage was over, and so Jesus sends them off with his blessing and Luke says this

[Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. (Luke 24.50)

As Max Bygraves sang , ‘You need hands to thank the Lord for living
And for giving us this day.’ It is with thanksgiving that we return home tomorrow, to continue our pilgrimage and to reach out to others, for as St Therea of Avila so powerfully said ‘Christ has no other hands but yours.’

Lord Jesus, whose nail pierced hands continue to bless, may our hands be your hands. Amen.

A kingdom divided against itself

We have had two nights in a rather wonderful city. Veliko Tarnovo is set within a whole series of hills. It has lovely old streets as well as some more contemporary shopping areas, but all very beautiful. This was for a period of time the mediaeval capital of Bulgaria and is dominated by the remains of that regal past.

A city set on a hill

Just as in Durham a meandering river creates something of a defensible ‘island’ on which a castle and cathedral could be built, so here in this town. The river snakes through the mountains and creates not just one but a whole series of ‘islands’. One of these became the religious centre of the nation. Seventeen churches were built on it, and the body of St Ivan Rilski – remember him – was transferred here – and in the process was discovered to be incorrupt – until he was moved back to Rila Monastery. On another ‘island’ the merchants had their homes; in the places beyond the walls the ordinary people lived. But on the ‘royal hill’, called Tsarevets the King lived, as did the Patriarch and the other leaders. It must have been incredible – it still is.

A regal sight

You approach up a steep cobbled road, though gate houses, where there were once drawbridges and a portcullis. There were buildings for all the purposes of the state, a palace and on the summit a Patriarchal Church which has been rebuilt. The other buildings, destroyed by the conquering Ottomans, have been restored above ground level and they give you a good idea of what the place was like.

The rebuilt Patriarchal Church

But it wasn’t just the Ottomans who were to blame for the downfall of the place. The fact was that the royal family became divided, with rival claims on the crown. I was reminded of what Jesus said

‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.’ Matthew 12.25

Looking at politics at the moment the warnings in the Gospels and of history can’t be ignored!

Modern frescos

When the Patriarchal Church was rebuilt the country was dominated not by Ottomans but by the Soviet Union. It was decided not to have the church decorated with conventional orthodox icons, but with murals that reflected the brutalist style in favour at the time. They are startling and a bit ‘Marmite’. Some of the pilgrims thought them dark and menacing; some thought them powerful and exciting. I loved them and particularly the image of the mother and child at the east end. The artist depicted the gospel stories as his icon painting predecessors had done but in a new way which managed to be allowed by an atheist governing regime.

The Last Supper

Contrast this with the Church of St Peter and Paul in the valley. Even the dedication tells you that this place is different and has a different story to tell. Whereas disunity led to the royal house up the hill falling, here the church witnesses to unity. A relationship had been developed with the local Orthodox church and the western Catholic church. The Pope at the time declared a Uniate statement and so formalised the relationship – hence this ‘western’ dedication. Inside amongst the frescos is one of St Christopher, a saint revered in the west, not in the east. Above a side altar is an image of the pieta, again, not part of the traditional orthodox iconography. An amazing witness in complex ecclesiastical times.

Christ with Our Lady and St John the Baptist

We then travelled to the top of the surrounding hills and to the village of Arbanassi, the Church of the Nativity – amazing frescos but no photos allowed – and a fine merchant’s house with what we now recognise, elegance, divans, lovely ceilings and a level of sophistication in living that witnesses to a remarkable people in what has always been a Christian village.

The exterior of the Church of the Nativity

It was a half day tour with time for exploring for those who wanted to see more of the old streets of the town. This followed a delightful lunch in the home of twin sisters – vegetable soup, stuffed peppers and baked vermicelli with honey and lemon rind – absolutely delicious. They were living a family life different to that on the royal hill, for as the psalmist wrote

How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
(Psalm 133.1)

Our delightful hosts

Amen to that!

Roses grow on you

I remember a black and white TV commercial for Cadbury’s Roses that was on in the sixties. Roses was a selection of chocolates that at Christmas used to come in a lovely tin that your grandma would use forever for holding a cake she’d baked. Anyway, the advert starred a comedian at the time, Norman Vaughan, who sits on a chair and takes a chocolate from a box of Roses on a table. He talks about the various flavours and roses appear on his suit. He gives a thumbs up and a rose appears on his thumb. The memorable line of the advert was ‘Roses grow on you’.

Beautiful decorations in the rose oil distillery

Roses grown in abundance in a valley that lies between two mountain ranges here in Bulgaria. The fields are full of Damask roses bushes – now harvested of their blooms – but ready for next year’s precious crop. They call it ‘liquid gold’, the oil that is distilled from the roses. The roses themselves, as their name suggests, arrived in the country from Syria, many centuries ago. We went to a distillery where they showed us the process of producing the oil and then we tasted something of what was produced – I tried a gorgeous rose honey that tasted just like liquid Turkish Delight.

Looking across the valleys

I wish I’d known how you really produce rose oil when I was a child. We used to make ‘perfume’ for our mum, picking roses petals and putting them in water and presenting the concoction to her. I think I missed out a few vital stages in the process! She’d put a dab of the brown water behind her ears to make us feel happy. I love it when I’m at a city dinner where a rose water bowl is often passed around the table after the meal and before the speeches, a large bowl, with iced water and rose petals. You touch with the cool, fragrant water with your napkin and dab your wrists, behind your ears, and cool down.

On the coach I read from the Song of Songs

I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. (Song of Songs 2.1)

Inside the cultic shrine

Before and after the roses we visited remains of the Thracian past of this lovely country. In the morning it was an incredible pagan cultic shrine, with its beehive shaped roof and amazing pilasters and carving, all 4th century BC. In the afternoon it was a tomb, an entrance just like the eye of the needle and about as challenging to pass through and murals adorning the ceiling of the inner chamber.

Through the eye of the needle

A pilgrimage journey is always special; this day certainly was and we literally emerged from it smelling of roses!

God of beauty, may the fragrance of your love fill the whole world. Amen.

Elegance and holiness

The city of Plovdiv is an amazing place. It has been inhabited since prehistoric times but then since the 5th century BC, first by the Thracians, then by the Macedonians, then by the Romans, through the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, eras of independent rule, through Soviet times to its current life as a recent City of Culture. It really is a lovely place to visit and in which to spend time.

One of the Roman gates

The day began for us walking through one of the original Roman gates and then visiting some of the elegant 18th and 19th century merchants’ dwellings. The homes they built have an undeniable elegance, a modest opulence. These were well travelled people who brought together traditions from the Ottoman Empire, from the growing influence of Vienna, from their own Bulgarian culture and what was created is simply lovely. The painted rooms contain frescos showing how well travelled these people were – it’s a bit like we might put photos under fridge magnets – they had their rooms decorated with reminders of the places they had been to, the communities with which they had trade relationships. All of this is set in rooms painted in colours that should be adopted by Farrow and Ball, earthy, natural, a perfect backdrop to their lives.

Plovdiv elegance

Among all of this and scattered everywhere throughout the city are extensive Roman remains – a wonderful amphitheatre, the remains of a Circus, walls and pillars at street corners, in the parks, amongst the modern stores – this city called Philippoplis by the Greeks and Trimontium by the Romans.

Lunch for a few of us was in a really local restaurant. I treated myself to Tripe Soup, not something I would normally choose, but served with garlic in vinegar just to spice it up a bit – delicious. Then it was coffee in one of the big squares, fountains playing and crowds of people enjoying themselves in the autumn sunshine.

You can get Tripe Soup here

From there we travelled into the hills to the lovely Bachkovo Monastery. It was founded in 1083 but what you see are the churches and monastic buildings which were the result of rebuilding in the 17th century following attacks by the Ottoman rulers. The narthex of the oldest church is stunning. The ceiling is made into something that is reminiscent of the evening sky. I was reminded of the song ‘Starry starry night’ by Don McLean about the paintings of Van Gogh. The stars shone down on us as we looked up in awe and wonder.

Part of a Jesse tree ceiling

There was elegance all around, in the houses in the old city, in the buildings built to the glory of God, in the hills surrounding us now dressed in the reds and golds of autumn. As the psalmist wrote

All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
and all your faithful shall bless you.
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom.
(Psalm 145.10-11)

Bulgarian hospitality

We like to think of ourselves as hospitable. It’s a principle that comes through strongly in scripture from the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah towards their three visitors, to the meal which Jesus shared with his disciples in the Upper Room and the hospitality he himself received in the homes and at the tables of so many others.

There was a standout moment for the pilgrims yesterday. But I’ll come to that in a moment. It was in fact a day of a long journey, from Bansko, what is now a ski resort near the border with Greece, to Plovdiv, the second largest city in the country, just off the main road across the Thracian plain on the way to the Black Sea.

The centre of Bansko with the mountains behind

In Bansko we saw both a lovely nineteenth century church, built during the Ottoman period, decorated beautifully and set within defensive walls – the walls were built before the church – and a large merchant’s house, with its carved ceilings and divans, and a strange squat loo over a drop, reminiscent of a mediaeval castle, but I suppose effective unless you were downstairs in the garden!

Beautiful decorations in the merchant’s house

We left that town and travelled into the countryside for lunch. Afterwards we would go to a small village of Dobarsko with another lovely church, small, mostly below street level, a jewel box of iconography. Sadly you can’t take pictures in most of the churches so I can’t share images of the images – but believe me it was stunning.

But it was lunch that was the ‘highlight’ of the day. We pulled up at a corner house which was in fact a small guest house, to be greeted by four ladies dressed in national costume, singing and smiling. We got off the coach and were summoned inside. It was a bit like a living out of the children’s TV programme of years ago – ‘Mr Ben’. Mr Ben went into a costumiers each day, bowler hat and suit on and went behind a curtain and emerged as … well something different every day.

Greeted by a gnome

In this house a side room contained national costume, for women, men and children and these smiling ladies made us all put on the outfits, in fact they dressed us in the outfits. The women emerged wearing headscarfs, beautifully embroidered blouses and skirts, with aprons; we men emerged with decorated shirts, waistcoats and hats. There was a pact that I couln’t put an image of us out on social media!!

The only photo I’m allowed to post

Then they suggested we all went into the road and danced with them. As huge lorries careered past the house a group of brave souls did as bidden; I hid under an outside staircase – I would not be a ‘Strictly’ contestant. There was much laughter – mostly from our hosts, who were having a great time. Then the costumes were off and the meal was served, very nice too. But then the ladies – they were still in their national dress – emerged with an accordion and serenaded us throughout the meal. What they were singing about I have absolutely no idea.

It was like ‘Come Dine with Me’ where, for some unknown reason, the host lays on some friends in a garage who perform some rock numbers for their inebriated guests … I forgot to mention that before the food we were served shot glasses filled with some kind of homemade and lethal schnapps!

It was incredible. Our hosts were delightful. We were all laughing, even those like me who would rather not be ‘entertained’, and we left there well fed and happy – and that must be the definition of hospitality.

God, you welcome us to your table and feed with us with the bread of life. May we welcome others with equal generosity. 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