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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Handing on the mitre

With the Church of England if you do something once it’s a dangerous innovation, if you do it twice its a precious tradition! So when the Archbishop of York handed a beautiful mitre to the newly consecrated Bishop Karowei Dorgu at the end of the service in Southwark Cathedral on Friday was he being wildly innovative or simply responding to a tradition?

Dorgu

Bishop Wilfred Wood and Archbishop Sentamu place the mitre on Bishop Karowei

 

It was a bit of both to be honest. The mitre in question had been given to Bishop Wilfred Wood, a former Bishop of Croydon, now retired.  When he was due to retire he passed this mitre, beautifully embroidered by the sisters of the long gone St Peter’s Convent in Woking, encrusted with precious stones, to Bishop John Sentamu.  Bishop Wilfred was the first black bishop in the Church of England; Bishop, now Archbishop, Sentamu was the second.  He was consecrated twenty years ago. Bishop Wilfred had told him that on his retirement he should hand the mitre to another BAME bishop – it is twenty years later that there is one.  As Archbishop Sentamu was at pains to assure the congregation he wasn’t retiring but he wanted to mark the event by handing on the mitre anyway with the understanding that as soon as another BAME bishop is consecrated, Bishop Karowei will hand on the mitre.

It’s like an ecclesiastical, episcopal relay race, handing on the baton.  But it was a very wonderful moment in a  wonderful service that was a great celebration that the church had ordained another black bishop but also a sobering moment to consider that it was in 1985 that Wilfred Wood was made a bishop and that it is 32 years later that we have a third black bishop.  We have to do better than this and not for some  reason of ‘political correctness’ but because unless people see themselves reflected in the church at all levels, in all kinds of leadership positions she will never reflect the beautiful and diverse nature of many of our congregations and the reality of the kingdom of God.

So this handing on of the mitre was an innovation in that it had not be done in a service before but it has become a symbolic tradition, a powerful moment.

It took me to that great moment in the Elijah-Elisha saga in the Second Book of Kings.  Elijah, that fire-brand amongst the prophets, knows his days are numbered so he sets off as God directs.  Elisha, his protégé, follows him and despite numerous people and amongst them Elijah, telling him to leave him, he continues to follow.  His reason? When they had crossed the Jordan, Elisha says to his Master

‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ Elijah responded, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’ (2 Kings 2.9-10)

Then, all of a sudden, horses of fire and a chariot of fire whisk Elijah away into heaven.  Elisha watches and as his Master disappears

‘He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him.’ (2 Kings 2.13)

It’s a powerful moment, a symbolic moment and as he strikes the waters of the Jordan with the mantle and they divide he knows that God has filled him with that double share for which he had asked.

Elijah

Elisha catches the mantle

 

But the question that this story and the handing on of the mitre asks of me is whether I and, more importantly, whether we, are ready to catch the mantle and to assume the responsibility for revealing the kingdom of God.

In the synagogue in Nazareth, at the very beginning of his public ministry, Jesus takes the scroll and reads a passage from the prophet Isaiah. St Luke tells us all about it. We often describe it as Jesus proclaiming the manifesto for his ministry.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4.18-19)

The spirit, like the mantle of God, has rested on him and it fits. That seamless robe that he’ll wear until it is ripped from him at the cross, is the mantle that he catches and lives out and proclaims and reveals in everything that he does and everything that he says.

A contemporary poet, Hilary Marckx, in a poem called ‘Pick up the mantle’ writes

Under that mantle we speak
for justice, for hope, for life, for Jesus,
we speak for all those who have no voice,
and we surely speak the Good News
that freedom/liberation/deliverance
is on the way—here!

It’s a powerful call to us to step up to the plate, to take responsibility, to stand in the shoes and wrap the mantle around us. Yet I think that in an age of individualism and isolationism in politics it can be counter cultural for some to think in this way. But the mantle isn’t just about politics, it’s about being prepared to take on all the roles of leadership that exist within society, within the church, watching, as Elisha was asked to watch and catching the moment, being there, involved, attentive and taking the part that we need to take part.

I’m on General Synod. The average Synod member is male, white, grey haired and probably retired. Young people are a rare commodity, black people are an even rarer commodity but when they speak they’re listened to because you don’t have to wait for older white people to be carried up into heaven, there’s kingdom building to be done now and in our churches are the people to do it. We need the prophets, we need the teachers, we need the priests, the witnesses, the proclaimers, the modellers of the diverse and real church who’ll clothe themselves in the mantle of Christ and make the kingdom known.

Marckx concludes their poem in this way.

The mantle is not of a glorious nature,
but it is of an eternal nature…
Go ahead, pick it up and put it on…
it will fit you well.

The mitre fitted well on the head of Bishop Karowei and I welcome this innovative tradition and glad that it began in Southwark Cathedral.  May that mitre rest on many more heads and the mantle lie across many shoulders.

Jesus, as the Spirit rested on you,
may it rest on us.
Amen.

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