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.”

cathedralflare

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.

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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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