The Crown

With the coming of this new year I’m eagerly anticipating the launch of Series 3 of ‘The Crown’. It will be great to see the wonderful Olivia Colman – fresh from taking on Queen Anne in ‘The Favourite’ – playing Her Majesty The Queen after Claire Foy.  Wearing a crown is becoming a bit of a theme for her at the moment.

I decided this year to do my own Christmas Crackers – well, when I say that not quite like my mother did who made them one year from scratch!  I bought empty ones and put my own, specially selected, gifts so that each person got something useful rather than a tape measure, plastic comb or magic fish that can tell your personality! But the empty crackers did come complete not just with a snap but with a joke and a hat.  So at Christmas dinner we pulled them, the gifts rolled out, the jokes were told and the hats went on our heads.  But I suddenly realised that the hat that we are traditionally given to wear in our crackers is a crown.


The famous Galette des Rois

Some years ago I had a couple of occasions when my post-Christmas break coincided with the Feast of the Epiphany.  One of those breaks was spent in northern France and the other was in in the capital of Majorca, Palma.  Both celebrated Epiphany with enthusiasm but slightly differently.  In France we took the opportunity to taste the lovely Galette des Rois, the King’s Cake, which is traditionally eaten on the Feast and throughout the month.  In the windows of the pâtisseries can be seen these frangipane tarts finished off with a paper crown.  As with our own tradition of putting a silver threepenny bit into our pudding, these galettes contain a féve, a charm, and the finder of it gets to wear the crown.

In Palma, Majorca the celebration of the Feast begins in the harbour.  Three resplendently dressed and crowned kings arrive by boat and climb onto floats that then tour the centre of the city.  As they go along they throw handfuls of sweets out to the children who crowd the pavements to see them. The arrival of the kings reminded me of that lovely carol we sing

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.

That’s a traditional English carol from the 17th century.  As Bethlehem is landlocked it was either written by someone who had no idea of geography or the ships referred to are actually camels, often known as ‘ships of the desert’ (their rocking motion certainly makes me feel sea sick).

But all of these traditions continue to promote the popular notion that we are talking about the arrival of kings to the stable in Bethlehem.  That is further reinforced as we sing together that most popular carol ‘We three kings’ and listen to the choir singing the amazing anthem ‘Three kings from Persian lands’ by Peter Cornelius.  It’s enough to make the preacher throw their hands up in horror!  After all, the Bible doesn’t mention kings at all, certainly not St Matthew who is the one who gives us this story.


Magi – and no crowns in sight!

It’s Magi that we are talking about, wise men, astrologers, readers of the stars and of the signs, maybe Zoroastrians, perhaps from Persia, certainly not crown wearing kings.  There may have been three but Matthew mentions no such number, it’s just that three gifts are mentioned – gold, frankincense and myrrh – and that is where the traditional number came from.

But there was a king, it’s just he wasn’t dressed as one.  Matthew tells us

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.  (Matthew 2.11)

On arriving at Herod’s court they had mentioned that they were looking for a king; in the stable they found him.

T S Eliot’s famous poem, drawing so heavily on the sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes to His Majesty’s court at Whitehall in 1622, concludes like this

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.

These wise men saw that the old crowns and the old kingdoms were passing away, the old dispensation was finished.  They had seen a new king and the signs of a new kingdom.  So it’s ok to take the hat that falls from the cracker, the crown on the galette and to wear it – but not in memory of kings who were not kings but in celebration of the one who is the true king of the true kingdom, Christ the King.

This is the alternative Collect for the Feast of the Epiphany from the Church of England’s ‘Common Worship’.

Creator of the heavens,
who led the Magi by a star
to worship the Christ-child:
guide and sustain us,
that we may find our journey’s end
in Jesus Christ our Lord.


An Epiphany gift

One of the many joys of being Dean of Southwark is the wonderful talent that is to be found in members of the congregation.  I never cease to be amazed, and thankful.  One of our very regular 9 o’clockers, Sue Reardon Smith, sent me one of her poems for Epiphany and I asked her if I could share it with you.  She said yes and so here it is, an Epiphany gift from her to us. Sue commented to me that still so long after writing it she can remember that service.



They offered him gifts of gold,
frankincense and myrrh.
Through the glass doors
he came, cascading
his worldly goods in
a shower of plastic bags.
He shouted the gospel,
sidesmen herding him
like an errant sheep
away from the altar.
Sinking into a pew
intoning out of step
he stayed out the service.
Peace be with you.
One man shook his hand.
Last to kneel for the Eucharist,
his woollen hat removed
revealed a bristling
Christmas-shelter haircut.
They knelt and paid him homage.
Back down the aisle
clutching at pew ends,
behind thick glasses
he wept.
They left for their own country.
He just left.

Sue Reardon Smith
9th January 2008


My Lord Archbishop,

My wife and I worshipped at Southwark Cathedral on Sunday morning last [19th August] and I write to ask you to be so good as to inform me if the practices to which we were there made a party are now accepted for our Church. I refer especially to the posturings at the altar out of sight of the congregation and the mumblings out of their hearing. I thought it was one of the accepted principles of the Reformed Church of England that the congregation should have fully and intelligently in all the worship at this service. At Southwark the congregation can neither see nor hear what is going on at the altar. We feel as many others do that if we wanted that sort of thing we could and should go, not to an Anglican cathedral, but to Brompton Oratory.

I am yours faithfully

Percy Hurd

This was 1934 and Sir Percy Hurd was at that time the Member of Parliament for the constituency of Devizes. The correspondence begun by this letter of complaint sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury continues for some weeks and it is all to be found in the archives of Lambeth Palace Library.  The Archbishop’s Chaplain at that time tried to do the right thing, to bat the complaint in the direction of the Bishop of Southwark, but the MP would have none of that. ‘We have nothing to do with the Bishop of Southwark’ he wrote. ‘As members of Parliament we are concerned with the Church in its corporate capacity and as represented for us in yourself.’ The correspondence stumbles on until September 1934 when the Chaplain basically tells the MP that there will be no more communication on the matter.


Sir Percy Hurd, a fine looking gentleman

There was obviously a great deal of posturing going on and it wasn’t all in the High Altar sanctuary at Southwark Cathedral!  Sir Percy obviously had a few axes to grind. One axe seemed to be against the newly introduced 1928 Prayer Book which had failed to gain parliamentary approval but was being used in places, such as the Cathedral, where some of the ‘inadequacies’ in the Book of Common Prayer as some Anglo-Catholics would have it, were sorted out.  Interestingly we, like many cathedrals I suspect, still use the 1928 Prayer Book, day by day. But he was probably opposed as well to some of the catholic practices that were becoming more common in the post-war (First World War) Church of England.  Perhaps there was a lot of ‘bowing and scraping’ going on up at the altar.  Sir Ninian Comper, the Cathedral Architect and a great mediaeval revivalist had certainly dressed the High Altar Sanctuary for the part.  The walls and pillars were draped in pink damask (the material was made into the copes that the Archdeacons in the diocese now wear, a kind of Maria act from the ‘Sound of Music’ with those curtains!) and the reredos was now modelled on the Pala d’Oro in St Mark’s Venice.  Cloth of gold Eucharistic vestments had been designed and made and it would have all looked very splendid.

The mumblings could have been about the difficulty of hearing from the nave if services were held at the High Altar, but that was nothing new.  So maybe Sir Percy heard some more pious, private mumblings going on, the ‘Secret Prayers’ that many priests say during the Eucharist.  They are meant to be said sotto voce but they can appear, I suppose, like mumblings and mysterious incantations.

But there is posturing and there are mumbling that put us in touch with important elements of the Feast of the Incarnation that we are still celebrating.  It is right that we use our whole selves in worship, we bring our whole body, our five senses into prayer.  We see and touch and taste and smell and hear.  True liturgy invokes all those senses and that sixth sense that recognises the divine in the midst.  So one of the Epiphany hymns that we have been singing begins with this verse

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!
Bow down before Him, His glory proclaim;
With gold of obedience, and incense of lowliness,
Kneel and adore Him: the Lord is His name!

Worship, such as the worship of the Magi in the presence of the Christ Child, involves bowing and kneeling and adoration.  It feels to me like the natural response to being in the presence of the divine.  The Magi point us to this reality of ‘God among us’, of the Word made flesh, through their posture, for as St Matthew says

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. (Matthew 2.11)

They saw the child and they knelt in homage, and so do we.


‘Kneel and adore him’


And then, those mutterings.  One of the things that High Church priests were accused of doing when the ritual trials were going on at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries was around the mixing of the chalice.  We no longer fight about this in the Church of England since we discovered sex! In fact, it seems so normal perhaps few people realise it was a problem.  In most offertory processions that I see perfectly reasonable, law-abiding people bring forward cruets of wine and water.  It’s the mixing of those in the chalice, this so called ritualistic practice, that caused the problem.  But what is the prayer that the priest says as they do this?

It’s a prayer that takes us to the heart of the doctrine of the incarnation, and something that we remember every time we celebrate the Eucharist. The priest will ‘mumble’

By the mystery of this water and wine
may we come to share in the divinity of Christ
who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

As mumblings go its pretty wonderful, I think.

So, Sir Percy, if you’re still looking for an apology I’m afraid you’re not getting one from me. We will continue to offer worship in Southwark Cathedral worthy of that holy house in Bethlehem, worthy of the God who dwells with us, worthy of Jesus, the Word made flesh before whom we kneel in wondrous adoration. We can do nothing less.

Holy God,
you bring us to our knees
in humble adoration.
Accept the worship we offer
as we accept the love you show for us
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Star gazing

I was Confirmed when I was eleven.  This meant that for a few months beforehand I, with the rest of those being prepared for the sacrament, had to go along to the Vicar’s study, once a week, to learn the Catechism.  But as part of that we also had to be prepared to make our first Confession.  That involved learning what sin was all about, or at least having a better idea of what God thought of as sin as opposed to what your parents and the next-door neighbour told you off for (bouncing a ball off the neighbours wall didn’t seem to be on God’s list of venial or mortal sins but very much annoyed Mrs Joiner!).

So, in order to give us a clue, Fr Davies gave us all a list of sins we might have committed, a checklist of badness for an eleven year old in the Sixties! To be honest, I hadn’t even dreamt of doing most of the things that were suggested to us but one thing I did recognise.  There amongst murder and robbery was ‘I have read my horoscope’. These were days before Russell Grant and Mystic Meg but I had committed this sin, I had seen the horoscopes in my parents’ Daily Express and I had read what was going to happen to Leos on that day (my star sign). In order not to break the Seal of the Confessional I can say no more except that I changed my ways from that day onwards.


Leo at the Jantar Mantar

In reflecting back on 2017 I said that during my India trip the most impressive thing we saw was the Taj Mahal. That was true. But the most unusual and, I suppose, surprising was a place called Jantar Mantar in Jaipur.  This is what can best be described as an 18th century astronomical park, a collection of 19 monumental astronomical instruments in the open air that were built to enable, amongst other things, horoscopes of the greatest accuracy to be prepared for every person.  Walking into this ‘park’ is like walking into a modern sculpture exhibition.  The ‘instruments’ are of staggering beauty and incredible accuracy (the sundial tells the time within 20 seconds) and in recognition of this it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I couldn’t help thinking about this place and wandering over, with only a little sense of guilt, to the instrument which measured the Leo star sign, as we keep the Feast of the Epiphany.  Whatever else those Wise Men were that St Matthew tells us about, they were clearly star gazers, people who, like the builders of the Janta Manta, kept an eye on the heavens as a way of understanding what was happening on the earth.


Guided by a star


St Ephrem the Syrian was a prolific hymn writer of the 4th century who, I suspect, with his middle-eastern heritage, was more comfortable with star gazing than was my Parish Priest from Leicester!  In a hymn for Epiphany he writes this

Blessed is your birth that stirred up the universe!

The whole of creation was caught up in the events in a stable in Bethlehem, not only the hearts of local shepherds were stirred by angels singing and a baby in a manger, the universe itself was stirred.  The stars themselves told the Good News of the incarnation and in the Book of the Revelation Jesus names himself after them.

‘I am .. the bright morning star.’ (Revelation 22.16)

Jesus is our star sign, the one and only star worth watching for, the one to whom we look to for past and future, as Alpha and Omega and following that star is a journey worth making.

I’m still not reading my horoscope, even after visiting the wonderful and impressive  Jantar Mantar and even though I rejoice in the journey of the Magi, but I do want to keep my eye fixed on Jesus as the guiding star.

Arguably the most famous poem for Epiphany if that by T S Eliot called ‘The Journey of the Magi’ with that memorable opening ‘A cold coming we had of it’. Eliot’s inspiration was the sermon preached at Whitehall on Christmas Day 1620 before James I by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (whose tomb is to be found beside the High Altar at Southwark Cathedral).  The Bishop, at the end of his sermon, fixed his listeners attention on the star.

‘In the old Ritual of the Church we find that on the cover of the canister, wherein was the Sacrament of His Body, there was a star engraven, to shew us that now the star leads us thither, to His body there. And what shall I say now, but according as St. John saith, and the star, and the wise men say, O Come. And He, Whose the star is, and to Whom the wise men came, saith, O Come. And let them who are disposed, O Come.’

The star led Wise Men to Jesus, it will lead us too; it led them to his fragile, life-giving body, it leads us too.

Jesus, bright Morning Star,
draw us to crib and altar,
that we may worship and adore you.

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