Common Ground

If you happened to go to any of the forty-two cathedrals in England last week you might have found them rather short of staff, or seen retired clergy taking all of the services and you may have wondered what on earth was going on.  In fact, the very first National Cathedrals’ Conference was taking place in Manchester and each of us had been encouraged to take a good delegation to that gathering.  The organisers didn’t want just clergy, they wanted the breadth of life of the cathedrals to be represented.  So from Southwark Cathedral we took ten people, half were ordained, half were lay.


It was a bold thing to do, to bring together such a large group of people, for quite a long time, at no small cost, financial and otherwise, to listen and to talk.  We were hosted by Manchester Cathedral, set at the heart of the city alongside Harvey Nic’s and Selfridge’s but looking across the river at the post-industrial landscape that now exists in that city.

I was fascinated by all the bees that are around the place.  Whoever decided on the ‘Bee in the City’ initiative it certainly has taken off.  Everywhere there were bees, in street art, in the form of chocolate, badges, even on the new choir stalls in the Cathedral.  The bee represents the history of hard work in the city, people busy as bees, worker bees in this once productive powerhouse of the north.

The theme of the conference was ‘Sacred Space : Common Ground’ and, as you can imagine, a variety of speakers tried to tease out what this meant and for each of us whether we were musicians, or vergers, or administrators, or events organisers, or even clergy!

As ever though with things in the Church of England what is not said is often more important than what is.  Until the last morning there was an elephant in the room and a rather large and threatening elephant at that, a bull stung by a bee. We sat there thinking about so many aspects of life that we hold in common but we all knew that there was a huge task looming and that is the implementation of the Cathedrals Working Group report which came to the General Synod in July and is now back with the cathedrals and the lawyers.

To be perfectly honest I am a bit of a convert to the report.  I had been very cynical about the whole thing, but the debate in Synod and actually considering carefully how we could improve things, even in such a wonderful place as Southwark Cathedral (!), has made me realise that there is much that could be useful to us.  But the challenge is how do we make the recommendations in the report fit forty-two very different institutions and foundations.

The title of this conference ‘Common Ground’ could give you the impression that cathedrals are all pretty similar, that we stand on common ground.  Superficially of course that might seem true.  We all have a Dean, we all have Chapters, we all have Choral Evensong and an increasing number of us now have cats and, of course, we all have a Diocesan Bishop looking through the door they symbolically knocked on, wondering if they can come in! But there it ends.  You cannot compare Bradford and St Paul’s (except that David Ison has been dean of both).  You cannot compare Truro and York, Newcastle and Norwich. You cannot compare Southwark and Derby. But like Cinders ugly sisters we are being invited to force our feet into a pair of shoes that may ultimately pinch!

So the task that lies before us is to decide what actually is common ground and how we negotiate what isn’t common about the place we are and how we can nuance the recommendations of the report to enhance the ministry and mission that we offer.  To be fair, some of that started to come out in the final sessions of the conference and the Southwark delegation left Manchester fired up with ideas of how we can take things forward.

Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP was one of the reflectors on the conference and he brought his wisdom to bear at a number of points.  In the final plenary he said to us ‘Cathedrals should be the home of all the homes, in which all the communities come together.’ It was a powerful vision and a stimulus to some further work on the ecclesiology of cathedrals.  But his thoughts rose out of those words of Jesus from St John’s Gospel

‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.’ (John 14.2)

Cathedrals can be seen as those many dwelling-places, those many ‘mansions’ as some translations express it.  Together we create ‘Sacred Space : Common Ground’ but in forty-two quite different ways, in forty-two quite different places, for forty-two quite different sets of challenges.  The question we face is, will the desire of the centre for consistent practice, for commonality, squeeze out the possibility of creative and life-giving difference and distinctiveness in the local place?  We need to be busy bees in the weeks and months ahead.

Holy Trinity,
may we reflect your oneness
and celebrate your distinctiveness.


Clock watching

I am amazed that so many younger people (do I call them Millennials?) no longer wear a watch! How do they survive I ask myself.  Perhaps they look at their phone, perhaps they don’t bother.  But I’m always looking at my wrist, what’s the time, how long till, how much time have I got left, how much longer?

Hall Clock

My hall clock

So I was intrigued to be invited last week to a private view of a new installation at the Tate Modern called ‘The Clock’ by Christian Marclay.  It opened to the public this weekend and it will be fascinating to see the reaction.  As I sat there in the auditorium I thought that this would be a perfect place to bring Lord Cut-Glass from Dylan Thomas’ play ‘Under Milk Wood’ whose constant refrain is ‘Tick-tock; tick-tock’.

Lord Cut-Glass, in his kitchen full of time … listens to the voices of his sixty-six clocks, one for each year of his loony age, and watches, with love, their black-and-white moony loudlipped faces tocking the earth away: slow clocks, quick clocks, pendulumed heart-knocks, china, alarm, grandfather, cuckoo; clocks shaped like Noah’s whirring Ark, clocks that bicker in marble ships, clocks in the wombs of glass women, hourglass chimers,
tu-wit-tu-woo clocks, clocks that pluck tunes, Vesuvius clocks all black bells and lava, Niagara clocks that cataract their ticks, old time-weeping clocks with ebony beards, clocks with no hands for ever drumming out time without ever knowing what time it is. 

‘The Clock’ is brilliant – a 24 hour long filmed composed of clips from films, each clip showing a clock.  The clever thing is that the clock you see is exactly the right time for now, it is an installation in real time. So you get clips from every kind of film, some familiar, some not but each one with a clock somewhere showing 9.45, 9.46, 9.47, and so on as the minutes tick by.  You don’t need your watch as you sit there, clock watching, because the real time is always before you.

The Clock

I loved the cleverness and the simplicity and the fact that my life is so much clock-watching.  The Tate have a few 24 hour openings during the time that the installation is in place, so that, if you had the time and the will, you could sit there and watch the clock, all day.  And even if I couldn’t do that I would love to see what kind of films have a scene with a clock displaying the time 5.24am!

Students of New Testament Greek, learn that whilst there are four words for our one word ‘love’ there are two words for ‘time’ – kairos and chronos. Chronos is what you are watching when you sit in the Tate Modern glued to the clock.  It is sequential time, seconds, minutes, hours.  But kairos is the opportune time, the right time.  It was a kairos moment when a baby’s cry was heard from within a stable in Bethlehem. As St Paul says to the Galatians

But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law.‘ (Galatians 4.4)

But Paul here cleverly balances the right time with the use of the word chronos for time.  It wasn’t just the ‘fullness’ of time, as some translations have it, it was real, sequential time, measured time, into which Jesus enters.  Yet it remains at heart a kairos moment in chronos.

We kill time, we waste time, we lose time, we do all kinds of things to time, but God enters time and resets the clock.  If you are around London before the 20 January I encourage you to go and spend some time, watching the clock, in the experience of chronos there could be kairos.

Lord of time and of eternity,
bless the now moment of today
as you bless the forever moment of tomorrow.

Over ‘ere

There is a great deal in a name of course, not just surnames, though they’re interesting, but also place names.  Just finding out what they mean can uncover a really interesting story.

This weekend we are celebrating at Southwark Cathedral the first of our two Patronal Festivals which both fall in this part of the year.  The proper title for the church is the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie – a bit of a mouthful and only really used on posh occasions – so much better known as Southwark Cathedral.  The St Saviour – which really means Holy Saviour, which means Jesus – we celebrate on the Feast of Christ the King which is the last Sunday of the church year.  That was a title we acquired following the dissolution of the monasteries during the Reformation.  The parish that was created was called St Saviour’s and the eagle-eyed walking around SE1 will find reminders of that – St Saviour’s House on Union Street and the Parish Library on Southwark Bridge Road called St Saviour’s.

But the priory which disappeared at the Reformation had been called St Mary Overie (or Overy – no one can quite agree, but I spell it the first way and, well, I am the Dean!) As far as we know that was the pre-Augustinian name for the convent and then monastic house that stood on the site.

St Mary Overie

The image of St Mary Overie from Southwark Cathedral

The St Mary is of course obvious.  We are talking about, as the Acts of the Apostles titles her, ‘Mary the Mother of Jesus’ (Acts 1.14) It makes for a good double dedication – Jesus and Mary.  But what is not so obvious is this word ‘Overie’.

As far as I understand it, and this is what I tell people when I am introducing them to the place or giving a tour, the word is a corruption of a Saxon word or words.  I think it means ‘over the river’ but I like to translate it (erroneously and just for fun) ‘over ‘ere’. The truth is that there are a number of St Mary churches in the City of London.  But they are over there and we are over ‘ere.  The word, added to our patrons name described where we were, where we are and the set apartness of this church and community.

This was brought home to me when I took our guests who are presently with us from our twin diocese in Zimbabwe, the Diocese of Masvingo, on a tour of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on Bankside (just by the Deanery).  To be perfectly honest I had never been on the tour and was really delighted to have the excuse to take some others there.  Our guide took us into the theatre, that great O, which holds audience and actors and performance in that great space.  He explained to us why the theatre was here on Bankside and why this was the district of London where the theatres principally settled before their suppression in the Commonwealth period and their flourishing in a new form at the Restoration.

The history has a great deal to do with the fact that we are over ‘ere and not over there.  Over there, in the City, it was respectable, over ‘ere was dirty and dangerous, the place where it was safe to play away from home. And that gets into the DNA of the place as a whole.  However much modern London bleeds across the river into SE1 it can never be over there, it will always be over ‘ere and the church will always be the reminder of that.  We don’t stand on the ground of wealth and privilege and power that is represented by the City of London but we stand on the marginalised shore.

The Gospels play with this concept and particularly in relation to a place called Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan.

‘This took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan where John was baptizing.’ (John 1.28)

Jesus crosses the river that represented the place from which the returning Jews gained freedom after exile and encounters John the Baptist who is baptising there.  It is there, on the other side of the river, that John identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God, standing among the people who have crossed the river to hear the challenging call to repentance from this strange fellow, this wild man dressed in camel hair.  Perhaps John was too much for the other side of the Jordan, his prophetic words were better spoken from a place from which he could look with an uncompromised eye.

Perhaps being ‘over ‘ere’ means that we have the opportunity, the space, the freedom to be prophetic, to be on a different shore, to stand on different soil, to look from another place.  And perhaps it is a model for the whole church, to be ‘over ‘ere’ in the liminal, marginal place.

I often go back to the poem that the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, wrote about Southwark, a poem she called ‘A human haunt’. It captures so much of what the place means to me.

St Mary Overie, St Saviour, Southwark,
over the river, a human haunt in stone,
thousand years here, the sweet Thames well recalls.
Who came? Nuns, brothers, in good faith, saints,
poets – John Gower, whose blind head, look, rests
on the pillow of his books; Chaucer, imagining
the pilgrims’ first steps on the endless written road
we follow now, good readers; Shakespeare,
with twenty cold shillings for a funeral bell-
players, publicans, paupers, politicians, princes,
all to this same, persistent, changing space,
between fire and water, theatre and marketplace;
us, lighting our candles in the calm cathedral,
future ghosts, eating our picnic on a bench.

History has placed us here, ‘over ‘ere’; it’s for us to speak and minister and listen from where we are, wherever we are.

God, who in Jesus,
came from there to here,
bless our ministry in the place where we are set
with prophetic passion to stand our ground.

Dad dancing

Watching the Prime Minister attempting a few moves during her visit last week to three African countries brought back too many uncomfortable memories.  Of course it really was a no win situation for her unless she had proved to be the most natural and fantastic dancer in those kitten heels.  If she had stood completely still while the rhythm of the drums and the passion of the dancers was all around her then she would have been criticised for that.  And if she had a go and gave into the desire to join in, well, she was pilloried for that.  I suppose that is all inevitable.


It is the season for weddings, even though we have just moved into September, and I have been involved in a few this year.  If, as a vicar, you accept the invitation to the wedding reception then you have to realise what you are letting yourself in for.  Its fine if the couple are people you really know, from a family you really know and like.  But if your relationship is anything less than that and for some reason you RSVP ‘yes’ to the invitation then you can be in for an agonizing few hours.  Inevitably you are seated at the meal next to someone who once went to church.  People imagine that vicars only like talking to people who go to church – it is not true.  Then of course there are the speeches, half an hour of your life spent listening to stories about people that you really don’t know, appalling jokes and the unveiling of opinions that would be startling in any setting.  Old family wounds are reopened and embarrassment surges round the room.  But then the ‘disco’ begins, the dancing, and that person next to you who once went to church and who has drunk a whole bottle of white wine during the meal tries to drag you onto the dance floor.  ‘Come on Vicar.  I bet you’re a lovely dancer!’.  The fact is I’m not and no amount of alcohol seems to help that.  But inevitably you’re out there, the cheers and the rhythmic clapping begin and a space opens up, like in ‘Saturday Night Fever’, in which you can display your moves.  Mrs May, I sympathise.

But vicars get involved in dancing in more places than wedding receptions – and I’m not talking here about the Revd Richard Coles on ‘Strictly’. So often at a big service there is a music group, there are worship songs, gospel music, and it really is foot tapping stuff.  But allowing the foot tapping to verge into swaying to verge into full blown dancing, well that is a danger to be aware of.  There is only one occasion when I saw it work brilliantly.

I was on an Anglican Communion Conference being held in Johannesburg on the theme of the Millennium Development Goals (remember them?!).  Each day the Eucharist was arranged by the delegates from a particular part of the Communion.  On the last day it was the turn of Central and South America.  Some how, from somewhere they magicked up a marimba band and, as we stood for the opening of the service, the band started up and all the clergy and the bishops danced into the chapel.  It was absolutely amazing and there was not a hint of ‘dad dancing’ as these mitred and coped bishops swirled and stepped their way towards the altar.  I swayed a bit but I kept it firmly under control.

There is a story in 2 Samuel 6 which touches on all of this.  The Ark of the Covenant had been captured by the Philistines.  But King David and his troops had recaptured it.  Finally it was making its way back to Jerusalem, to be in its rightful place at the heart of the nation, as it should be.  The people were over joyed and David was triumphant.  So we are told

David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. (2 Samuel 6.14-15)

But not everyone was impressed by this display of dancing prowess.

As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart. (2 Samuel 6.16)

There is a long tradition of being despised because you allow yourself to be caught up in the dance.  And Sydney Carter catches something of that in that wonderful but, I suspect, less often sung hymn of his, ‘Lord of the Dance’

I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame:
The holy people said it was a shame.
They whipped and they stripped and they hung me on high,
And they left me there on a cross to die:

By all accounts Carter was influenced by seeing the dancing images of the Hindu god Shiva and imagined Christ into that pose.  He wrote about it

[Jesus] dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.


Shiva dancing

I sang the song yesterday at a wedding – I won’t tell you if later on I danced.  But maybe Mrs May was right, maybe you just have to give into the rhythm and try the steps and dance with Jesus the shape and pattern of life, whatever else others make of it.

may I dance with you.
the dance of life,
the dance of love.

Deal or no deal

Once it was just a game show in the afternoon with Noel Edmonds and a bunch of people stood behind a load of boxes.  The mysterious person on the other end of the phone, the banter with Noel, the desire of the person to make sure that their box contained a fantastic amount of money, all added to the tension.  Would they accept the Bankers’ deal and if they did and when they pulled that red tag and revealed what was in their box, would they have made the right decision?  Noel asks the now famous question – ‘Deal or no deal’ – and then often, tantalizingly, would cut straight to the adverts and we would be left, me included, doing the ironing in front of the tele on my day off, hanging in limbo – would they do a deal?


Fortunately most game shows don’t become reality.  We see elements of ‘Blankety Blank’ around, there is a continuous ‘Generation Game’ going on, and yes, things can often seem ‘Pointless’.  But no one would have predicted that Noel Edmonds, all hair and jumpers, would become a prophetic figure (though I suppose John the Baptist was all hair and camel coloured clothing)!

But we are now living the game.

A couple of summers ago, on the beach, I read the ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy, a series of dystopian novels by Suzanne Collins. In those books a game show is a reality show.  Communities compete for food by sacrificing their young people harvested in a process of selection called ‘The Reaping’.  The books, though intended for a teenage audience, are disturbing because of the way in which the game becomes the reality – and the trilogy is about how this is all resisted and defeated.

So, thinking has been done around a ‘No deal’ outcome at the end of the Brexit process and this week has seen the publication of the first 24 of a proposed 80 papers setting out the implications of ‘No deal’. For some reason we were told that the BLT sandwich would be safe (I hadn’t realised that was also in danger) but that medicines might not be and credit cards might not work so easily and … and …

On the news some people in the street were asked what they thought. Most of the opinions broadcast were that they didn’t believe anyone about anything.  That was for me the most depressing thing and the greatest sadness of the political turmoil we are going through nationally and internationally.  No one is trusted, there is no longer a thing called truth and we don’t believe anyone.  So how will that work?

Perhaps I’m just a naive fool but I have always lived on the basis of believing people and trusting them until I have evidence to convince me otherwise.  It’s a great shock when you realise that some one has been lying to you, that some one you thought genuine and honest has been taking you for a ride – but we have this great presumption of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and I have applied that across to other things.  Perhaps I have been wrong.

It’s like some horrible game that we are in, except that it is reality and that it is all our lives that are in the box before us on Noel’s table!

Things were not always easy for Jesus.  We see that in the Gospel reading that I have been thinking about in preparation for Trinity 13, the conclusion to the long passage from John 6 that we have been reading at the Eucharist for the past four weeks.  The chapter begins with the feeding of the five thousand and then moves on to Jesus speaking in the synagogue in Capernaum about himself being the ‘Living Bread’.  Those who eat of this bread – his flesh – will never be hungry; those who drink of this wine – his blood – will never be thirsty.  A dispute breaks out.  People cannot accept what he says – after all, he is known to them and so what is this talk about coming down from heaven?  He’s from Nazareth! And then the language of flesh and blood is crude, offensive and too much to take.  It is so bad that some of those who had been following him walk away.  they can no longer follow him, they can no longer believe in him.

Jesus looks at who are left and in one of the most poignant moments for me in the gospels asks

‘Do you also wish to go away?’ (John 6.67)

It is Simon Peter who answers on behalf of the others and with words that I keep coming back to every time faith becomes a bit too hard, every time priesthood becomes a bit too demanding, every time disappointment knocks my confidence

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6.68)

There is no one else, Jesus is the only one I can trust and believe and follow and give my life to and I know, I know, that he will not let me down and that he will feed me and quench my thirst and be my shepherd and be the door of the fold and be my light, my resurrection and my life and be everything that he promises to be, that his words are not just trustworthy and true but they are eternal words, that span heaven, that span time, that define reality.

So like so many of us I don’t know what to believe about ‘Deal or no Deal’ (though I’m still a proud Remainer) but I know what to believe about Jesus. In him I trust – it’s just the others!

Lord Jesus,
eternal and life-giving Word,
walk with us through the uncertainty of life
with the certainty of your love.


It’s just over 50 years since Aretha Franklin first sang the song that we have all been remembering her for since her death last week – ‘Respect’.  It was a great song and a great subject to sing about. Half a century on I wonder whether we are any better at showing respect to people than we were when she sang so powerfully out of her own experience as a woman of colour in a deeply racist and gendered society.


Twenty years later Erasure were singing a similar song, ‘A little respect’. Their words also still resonate

We can make love not war
And live at peace with our hearts

We can sing so well about these things but actually living it out is another matter and it doesn’t help when the leaders, who we are meant to be looking up, to show little respect.  They set the tone and unfortunately can easily give permission for other people to be dis-respectful.  Twitter is not a tool for diplomacy, that is clear, and part of diplomacy is about showing respect even to those with whom we disagree.

What I see in Jesus, and the tone that he sets for me, is someone who respected those others failed to respect.  The challenge to Simon the Pharisee in St Luke’s Gospel on his lack of hospitality was contrasted by the way in which the woman who was disrespected by so many others, showed huge respect to Jesus.

‘Do you see this woman?’ [said Jesus to Simon] ‘I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet.You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. (Luke 7.44-46)

Simon was a respectable man, and respected in his community, but he had forgotten how to show respect until the unrespectable demonstrated it.

Aretha Franklin’s death has reminded me of this fundamental principle by which to live and to do as that later song suggested

make love not war
And live at peace with our hearts

And we do that when we live at peace with our neighbours, showing them the respect they deserve, whoever they are.

Loving God,
may I treat my sisters and brothers with respect
and challenge those places where respect is lacking.

The silly season

The weather always provides a good amount of news for the papers during August. Photos of happy families on packed beaches, hot tourists taking refuge in cool fountains – it’s the stuff of summer journalism. Or at least it was. I thought that August was meant to be the ‘silly season’, that nothing would fill up my diary, that there would be no meetings, that everyone would be involved in something much more important than doing the serious business of the rest of the year by having fun. So, having my holiday in Spain earlier than I would normally do I returned to the Cathedral this week with a diary full of meetings and a ‘To Do List’ as long as my arm.  What had happened to rob me of the ‘silly’ space that I was expecting?


One of my holiday snaps from this year

The problem was that the weather, which should be silly, became serious as records were being broken, forests were on fire, lives and livelihoods threatened and it looked and felt as though global warming had arrived.  Brexit, which has all the elements of silliness, is also now too serious to joke about.  The Prime Minister was forced to cut short her holiday and invade the holiday home of the French Prime Minister, making him get dressed up to meet her and dragging him away from the pool.  And Boris Johnson who, really, is very silly, became simply offensive.  There is no escaping the reality of life it seems this year.

One of the treats that we used to have as kids when we went for our week by the sea whether that was Cromer or Torquay or Shanklin was to be treated to a summer special version of our favourite comic.  Those great newsagents that used to occupy the fronts of all our seaside towns, the ones stocked with comics for the kids and extra thick editions of the ‘Woman’s Weekly’ with lots of extra knitting patterns for mum to attempt on the beach, which had buckets and spades in bright colours, moulds to make your sandcastles with, little windmills and a pack of flags (no EU flag amongst them in those days) to decorate them with and of course a counter full of sweets and rock and a fridge with a choc-ice for mum and an orange lolly for the kids, would be a treasure-trove for the whole of the week.  It was lovely.

Those summer special comics had your favourite characters – Minnie the Minx, Desperate Dan, all the rest – getting up to extra silly summer related things – lots of trouble and lots of telling off by parents and policemen.

It was another world.

So I am delighted that in the midst of unstoppable fires, searing heat, Brexit and burkas we at Southwark Cathedral have been able to bring a little bit of joy to millions of people around the world.  Yes, Doorkins has gone viral!  We had a message from a HuffPost journalist on Friday.  ‘Why had Doorkins suddenly entered the news?’ Well for no real reason apart from that a BBC journalist asked to come along with a  cameraman to do a piece on her that might be useful on a slow news day.  The piece was first posted online and then broadcast and the interest in the Cathedral cat exploded.  She is now big in Japan and across South America.  Her Twitter followers have increased exponentially. The book about her is no longer available on Amazon and our visitor numbers at the Cathedral have shot up.  Everyone, so it seems, wants to see this cute little cat.

southwark-may-10th-17-45-doorkins (1)

Not so silly cat

So is Doorkins all that is left of the silly season this year? Well perhaps even she can’t simply be categorized as just silly.  The thing that seems to have captured people’s imagination is her story.  The newspaper’s have all accurately quoted me when I said

“I hope that when in the future people see the corbel of Doorkins and ask “Why on earth is a cat here?” somebody will be around to tell the story of a little lonely stray cat who wondered into a church and found herself at home. And maybe they’ll wander in and find themselves at home as well.”

That is the non-silly news.  It’s all about the radical hospitality of God, who made space for animals, two-by-two, when judgment was passed on humanity and who welcomes each and every one of us into the house and to the table.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says

‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’ (Hebrews 13.2)

I’m not suggesting that Doorkins is an angel, she’s a cat! But angels are principally messengers and our Doorkins is an eloquent messenger, reminding us that each of us has a place in God’s house.  It may sound a bit silly, but it’s true.

God of hospitality,
as you welcome the least to the greatest
may we reflect your generous love
with open hearts and open arms.

If …

When I was studying for my history ‘O Level’ the syllabus required us to look at ‘modern history’. For younger readers of this blog that meant up to about 1960.  So we spent quite a long time on the lead up to and the execution of the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations, the Wall Street Crash, FDR and the New Deal, the rise of Hitler, the Second World War and we ended up with the Korean War and a bit of Vietnam.  It was all quite exciting and made a change from earlier years looking at the Tudors and Stuarts and the Repeal of the Corn Laws!  The one great thing about studying 20th century history was being able to look at copies of newspapers from the time, other writings and some newsreel footage and put the whole thing in context.  There was always the feeling among some that, to use Alan Bennett’s wonderful definition of the subject from his play ‘The History Boys’ that as the character Rudge says

‘How do I define history? It’s just one f****n’ thing after another.’

League of Nations Tenth Season

An early meeting of the League of Nations

But I was captivated by the whole thing and in those days devoured history books of one kind or another. Then, as you grow a bit longer in the tooth you realise why you spend so much time reading about Russia or Korea or any of these far-flung places, because history is not so much about yesterday but today.

You could see the Bible as an historical book but those of us who look at it as a scared text know that it is about now as much as it is about then, that time and history fold into each other in a way that means that yesterday is as important as today and that tomorrow is the child of yesterday.  As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. (Hebrews 13.8)

I’m not a great fan of Rudyard Kipling but I enjoyed the ‘Just So Stories’ when I was younger and I still occasionally re-read them and ‘The Jungle Book’ continues to draw the crowds to theatres and cinemas around the world.  Kipling for all his pith helmet ways is interesting in helping me to understand something of that period of colonial history of which he was both part and a chronicler.  His attitudes are not my attitudes but he is part of my history and no amount of denial on my part can make that less true.  The poem ‘If..’ which has made the headlines this week has inspired many generations of young men to step up to the mark in a particular way – it hasn’t been my motivation, that is founded in the gospels, but I can see that it can be ‘inspirational’.  So the decision of some students in Manchester to whitewash the wall on which it had been painted and replace it with another poem misses the point, I think, of what art and history is about.  Kipling’s text has been replaced by the 1978 poem ‘Still I Rise’ by the US poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. That is a poem and a poet I love – Angelou is an inspiration where, for me, Kipling is not.  His may not have been the right poem on that pillar in the university and hers may be better but that misses the point.

This week two things have really disturbed me.  One was the decision by the Israeli Government to remove Arabic as an official language from the State of Israel and to begin to create a system which has something of the smell of apartheid.  The other was the clear rise of the ‘No Deal’ option in relation to Brexit.  Both of these ignore the lessons of history – the struggle in South Africa and what was Rhodesia and the lessons from the 20th century about how Europe can function better than it did.

Holocaust denial is condemned and in some places the subject of criminal prosecution because it allows people to whitewash over history and once we are allowed to ignore it then we are given the freedom to repeat the horrors and the injustice and the sins of the past.  If we forget, or choose to forget, then we know that history will, almost inevitably, repeat itself.

There is a most beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah which I always associate with this idea of forgetting.

Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.
(Isaiah 49.15-16)


Even if I forget, God will not forget.  Our history, our reality is written on the palm of God’s hands, not even our sins, not even our forgetfulness can get rid of the memory, we are carried by the divine hands into eternity. Willful, purposeful forgetting is a dangerous business – those who remember history, even, perhaps especially, unpalatable history know that that is true.  We must be careful what we choose to paint over.

God of yesterday, of today, of forever,
may I not fear the lessons of the past
but use them as tools to make a better tomorrow.

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.

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