A touch of doubt

It’s that Sunday when we remember again ‘Doubting Thomas’ and there’ll be many sermons, I suspect, encouraging us not to worry about the doubts that we have.  I’ve said a lot about that over the past weeks and during Holy Week about that subject whilst we had Susie MacMurray’s art installation, ‘Doubt’ hanging as a cloud over our heads.  So this is a very short blog.  But I just wanted to share with you one lovely thing – well, I thought it was lovely.

Doubt 4

A little bit of doubt amongst the blooms

The Easter Garden at Southwark Cathedral has had to be, for various reasons, relocated and so it has given members of the Flower Guild the space to do something a bit different.  Where it has ended up happens to be right next to my stall and I was looking down at the daffodils and primulas (not very Jerusalem authentic I suspect) and the olive trees (better!) and I saw amongst it all some of the netting that had been rescued from the cloud when it had been taken down on Holy Saturday.  Hidden there, a little bit of doubt, the permission to ask the questions that as people of faith we should ask, we need to ask, the questions that Paul asks about resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 – and goes on to answer.

We need honest, not simplistic engagement with the gospel and with Jesus and the sight of the remnant of the cloud against the empty cross and amongst the spring blooms gave me encouragement to continue in my own deepening of faith through asking questions.

Bless us Lord
in our believeing
in our questioning;
bless us in our doubting
in our questing;
bless us in our journey of faith.


Triduum – The tomb

The tomb of Jesus has been in the news recently.  Whilst I was in Jerusalem on sabbatical the unheard of thing happened.  The tomb was closed to visitors for two days.  Not in recent history had this happened and it came after a long period of negotiation between the various denominations that have rights and vested interests in this most sacred place.  The tomb itself is located in what is called the Aedicule which is the free standing chapel under the rotunda.  I can’t say that it’s my favourite structure.  But what made it even more ugly than I think it is was the metalwork cage that seemed to surround it, to keep it together.  That was put in place during the period of the British Mandate in order to keep the structure in one piece.  But even that, for all its ugliness, was beginning to fail.  The Aedicule had been rebuilt in 1809-10 in the style described as Ottomon Baroque but it surrounded the original tomb which had become isolated from the mountain of which it was originally part.  The place where the body of Jesus was laid had been clad in marble to protect it from holy souvenir hunters.  But when the cladding was removed on 26 October and the material that lay beneath it removed, it was found by nightfall on 28 October that the original limestone burial bed was intact. This suggested to the archaeologists working on the project that the tomb location has not changed through time and confirmed the existence of the original limestone cave walls within the Aedicule.

The tomb was then sealed up and, when I went in as soon as it was open to pilgrims again, all I could see was fresh mortar between the marble panels.  But now, all the restoration work has been completed and the Aedicule is in a sound state to welcome millions more across its threshold, into the first chamber and then the burial place itself. It will be from this restored Aedicule that the Holy Fire will emerge for the first time this Easter.

The wraps coming off the restored Aedicule

But, to be honest, it still is a mammoth task of the imagination to imagine that this chapel, freestanding, under the dome was part of a cave in a rock into which had been carved a tomb.

Mark tells us all about it.

Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. (Mark 15.46)

Matthew tells us exactly the same thing as does Luke.  It’s John who adds a few more details

Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. (John 19.41)

But whether it was in a garden or not it’s clear that the tomb was hewn into the rock but the pilgrim can feel very disconnected with that.  But behind the Aedicule in the wall of the rotunda, close to the Coptic altar that clings to the back of the tomb is a little doorway that leads to somewhere more hidden and holy.

If you go through you find a kokhim complex, a series of passages cut into the rock in which are tombs (there is fantastic example alongside the road down the Mount of Olives which is signposted as the Tomb of the Prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi).  Pilgrims clamber through the small opening and with a torch can make out the chambers, cold empty holes cut into the rock.  Some say that this was where Joseph of Arimathea, the same Joseph you gave his tomb to Jesus, was buried.  We don’t know that.  But what this place does help us do is to make a bit of a connection with what the original tomb of Jesus might have been like.

The emptiness of these tombs, the sense of abandonment that surrounds them is, of course, important.  The tomb is just the tomb, the place of resurrection, but abandoned, vacated, left behind. The very emptiness is a challenge to death and you get a sense of that in this great poem by John Donne called ‘DEATH, be not proud, though some have called thee’, one of his Holy Sonnets.

DEATH, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

It’s a really, aggressive, almost cheeky, confident response to death, with that final cry of victory ‘Death, thou shalt die’. What could be stronger. So, however good the Aedicule now looks, it has to be an empty experience for the pilgrims who enter it if it is to speak properly of the resurrection to which it testifies. Those who bow and enter through its door must leave almost disappointed – there is nothing in it.

Abandoned .. empty

The stark ending to St Mark’s Gospel always has the ring of authenticity about it. The angel says to the women who have entered the tomb

‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16.6-8)

We won’t find Jesus in the tomb – we must always meet him in the ‘Galilee’ of the world.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

My Holy Week – The Eighth Day

Yes, I know, it’s not Holy Week but that’s my point. This Sunday is one of my favourite days in the year. We call it ‘Low Sunday’ for some reason but in many ways it’s as high and celebratory as last Sunday, as Easter Day itself. This is the eighth day, we have come full circle, back to where we began. But there is no sense of deja-vu, this is a new beginning in itself. That’s why it’s so sad when people seem to think that this is a Sunday they can legitimately have off, as though arriving at Easter Day was such an effort that they need to put their spiritual feet up, turn off the alarm and go back to sleep. There is no such thing as a Low Sunday. Every Sunday is a feast of the resurrection, every Sunday is an eighth day, a recapitulation of the resurrection – and it is thrilling.

That sense of repetition is found in St John’s account of what happened this day.

‘A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them.’ (John 20.26)

Thomas meets Jesus on the eighth day

Thomas meets Jesus on the eighth day

They were there again, in that room where everything seemed to happen. But as John goes on to say ‘the doors were still shut’. But Jesus breaks into that space and says ‘Peace be with you.’ It was the same greeting as on the first day and Thomas was there to hear it.

The church exists in this eighth day. We’re people of the new creation and whilst the first day of the week is important it is always the eighth day for us when new creation, resurrection happens.

I’m sorry that Octaves in the life of the church seem to have diminished in importance. The Easter Octave remains quite powerful, the Christmas one seems to be less so – and that is it, no more Octaves in the calendar. But this cycle of eight days of celebration that we can have serves to reinforce this point that the Christian week extends beyond the week, that we haven’t finished celebrating until we revisit the feast, revisit the place, for as Eliot says in his poem ‘Little Gidding’

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

So this for me has been a week of celebration, Easter Week, brought full circle to this Octave Day and then beyond. For we’re called to live in the new, not the old creation, in the new, not the old dispensation, in the new not the old covenant and to know that peace which Jesus brings again and again into the spaces where he finds us.

Lord, easter me,
recreate me,
not only on the first,
not only on the eighth,
but on every day.

My Holy Week – Easter Day

It was being verged into the Cathedral to preside and preach at the 9.00am Eucharist when it struck me. The forecast had not been so good for today – rain, heavy showers, even thunder it said on my phone. But we had been able to go into the churchyard during the Vigil and the Bishop had lit and blessed the new fire there – and the rain held off. But as I walked into the Cathedral for the next eucharist the sun had risen to a point where it was shining directly through the east window with such brilliance. It was almost blinding in its intensity and surprised me – I hadn’t realised the sky had cleared and the sun was shining. There was something so thrilling about it and whatever the rest of the day held, weather-wise, that was a blessing in itself.


The day has continued in that way. At the Choral Eucharist there was hardly a seat to be had in the Cathedral, everywhere there were people. What was amazing was that people had remembered to change their clocks, to lose an hour and still come to the Cathedral. I looked down the nave and into the transepts and it was like the world in miniature – people of all ages, people from all backgrounds, women and men, old and young, people who I knew, people who I didn’t -and all eager to celebrate Easter. The liturgy and the music were wonderful but even they, as powerful as they were, were carried by the energy that all these people brought into the place.

We always conclude that service by giving bags of Easter eggs out, principally to all the children there but also to all those who’ve contributed in some way to Holy Week. The Friends of the Cathedral had prepared 300 bags – and they all went. So many children, including the boy and girl choristers, so many volunteers – servers, Stewards, the flower arrangers, the Hospitality Team – and some paid members of staff, musicians, vergers, all making the Cathedral what it is.

Afterwards I was loitering at the west end as clergy do, saying goodbye and a happy Easter to people. A woman came up to me. ‘I told everyone I was leaving the Church of England for another denomination. I announced it. But I came here today and I’m staying, I’m not going.’ She went on to talk about the inclusive nature of the place, of the sense of joy, of the energy that she had experienced as she worshipped with us. It felt like those moments that clergy and other preachers are familiar with when one person comes up to you after a service and says ‘Your sermon spoke to me today – it was exactly what I needed to hear’ – and no one else makes a comment. That happens more often than you would perhaps imagine. It’s as though, sometimes, what we do is for one person, for one individual – and that’s fine and that’s how it should be – as though the whole community is ministering to, holding one person who needs to be held, then, at that moment.

It reminded me of the deeply personal approach that Jesus takes with Mary Magdalene. She was so locked into her grief, she was so distraught that only her name, spoken by the Lord, could bring her out of it and awaken her to joy.

‘Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).’ (John 20.16)

It was as though, at that moment, Easter happened for her and she was rescued by the Risen Christ and set on the apostolic path to help bring others to the faith that now filled her renewed and reborn heart.

Mary Magdalene in the garden of despair

Mary Magdalene in the garden of despair

That rising sun was so powerful for me that just for a moment it was my Easter, as this has been my Holy Week. But of course it is our Easter, it has been our Holy Week in which each of us, in our rich diversity, is ministered to as beloved sons and daughters, brothers and sisters by the one who was born and who rose ‘for us and for our salvation’.

It has been a wonderful Holy Week, brim full of blessing. Thank you for sharing it with me.

Alleluia. Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

There is no other song, there is no other prayer worthy of this day.

My Holy Week – Holy Saturday

I get so frustrated when people call this Easter Saturday.  That’s a week away.  This is Holy Saturday! Get it right!

In an ideal world, of course, it should be a day for peace and contemplation, for considering the harrowing of hell, coming to terms with the fact that Jesus died and was buried and that his friends had to leave the tomb with the job half done because the Sabbath was fast approaching. It should be the day for reflecting on how the eleven felt. They had been thirteen and within the space of a day two of their number had gone – Jesus, nailed to the tree, Judas hanging from a tree, one at the hands of others, one at his own hands.  On Thursday night they were all together in this room and now there were two empty places around the table.  I should have been thinking about all those things and they are rich themes to reflect on.


Most clergy and most people intimately involved in the business of church don’t have that luxury. Holy Saturday is often church spring clean day.  Everything was stripped out at the end of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday.  Anything decorative and removable was put in the sacristy or the hall.  Before it can be put back it has to be cleaned, polished, repaired.  The church, if it normally smells of incense, suddenly smells of polish and Brasso and Silvo.  Mots of dust can be seen in the shafts of light coming through the windows.  Hassocks are beaten, carpets hoovered, the seldom cleaned places exposed by the stripping on Thursday need to be dealt with.  At the same time ‘the flower ladies’ (but they may be men) are in and they want their space.  They need to soak their Oasis, they need more space than the Vicar ever gives them to arrange all the lilies donated by people in memory of loved ones who died last year. The Sunday School are in setting up the Easter Garden – but they soon get bored and run around the churchyard and get under people’s feet and the Easter garden is left again to the head of Sunday School – setting out the Primulas around some rocks and hoping it looks a bit like the sepulchre.

It’s a full-on Saturday, yet even though it’s busy it has its own holiness.  The harrowing of hell is mirrored in the harrowing of the vestry, and the victory over sin becomes a more prosaic victory over the dust ‘that clings so closely’.

Of course, as a Dean, I have an army of people to do all of that and I’m very grateful to them.  But don’t worry, I have been doing my own preparations.  Part of that was writing two sermons for tomorrow – one for the Dawn Vigil and one for the 9 o’clock. The truth is that I find it much easier to write a Good Friday sermon than one for Easter Day.  As someone said to me ‘Being at the College of  the Resurrection, it should be easy for you.’ But it isn’t.  I always worry about what to say at Easter and I hope I have it right.  But I also wonder why I find it such a challenge – maybe it’s because I feel that I experience in my life more of Good Friday than I do of Easter Day – or is it too honest to say that?

Then I too got hooked by spring cleaning.  For some reason I decided to tackle the Utility Room which is in the cellar of the Deanery.  It had become a bit of a dumping ground.  So on with the Marigolds (goodness there’s a lot of product placement in this blog!) and out with the Flash and into rubbish bags went all the junk.  I sorted out all the cleaning products – why I have I bought so many window cleaning sprays? why have I more bottles of Parozone than anyone could need? – and was able to stand back and see a job, reasonably well done. It was very fulfilling and maybe that’s why this is Holy Saturday because we make ready in such practical ways for Easter. The Old English poem, ‘The Descent into Hell’ concludes like this

The young warrior awoke,
dauntless from the dust, majesty arose,
victorious and wise.

Perhaps defeating the dust is where the holiness lies.


Part of the depiction of hell from Chaldon church


Now though, jobs done, sermon written, Easter wreath on the door, Easter tree decorated with wooden eggs in the hall, I can at last sit down and think about an early night.  The clocks go forward and the Dawn Vigil it at 6.00am! But actually I’m now feeling a tinge of excitement!

Jesus, meet us in the dawn
as you met Mary
and fill us with that same
Easter joy
that changed her life.

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