Dress up!

I’ve had the privilege to go to a great many memorial services during my years at Southwark Cathedral. Some have been after tragic circumstances – the Bali bombings, the Sri Lankan tsunami, as well as our own terrorist incident, of course. Others have been for notable people in their own field, property developers, traders in one commodity or another. Some have had a significant role in politics, or the City. Others have been more on the celebrity end of life, people like John Mortimer of ‘Rumple’ fame. None, though, has quite achieved the ‘A’ list, glamour level that the memorial event we held in the Cathedral last Thursday rose to.

The event, it was more of a sparkling showcase rather than a service, was in celebration of Dame Vivienne Westwood. The guest list was a roll call of the rich, fabulous and famous. I won’t name drop them all, though it was a joy to meet and chat to Jeff Banks, who is an old ‘Dustonian’, a former student at St Dunstan’s College in the diocese, and is a Catford boy with wonderful tales to tell of growing up there. But walking past me were Victoria Beckham, the enigmatic Anna Wintour with her trademark dark glasses, Will Young, who I did catch a word with, and of course the amazing Helena Bonham Carter. To be perfectly honest I didn’t know who most of the people were. I don’t say that with any false arrogance; it’s a world I just have no understanding or knowledge of. Not being a reader of the ‘Mail Online’ I just don’t know who modern day celebrities are.

The ticket that even I had received with which to gain admittance, had a quote from Dame Vivienne on it. It said, ‘When in doubt dress up!’. Looking down from the pulpit, where I was dressed in a simple red piped cassock, tailored by Watts & Co, London, and a cincture in stylish purple watered silk from the ecclesiastical couturiers, Barbiconi in Rome, that people had taken that as permission to come in their very best. Many of them were obviously wearing ‘Westwood’ creations, there was a good deal of tartan, some distinctive fastenings and something slightly anarchic. Showing off what Dame Vivienne had created was a bit like the scene that we read of in the Acts of the Apostles. The wonderful Dorcas had died

All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. (Acts 9.39)

Peter raises Dorcas, otherwise known as Tabitha, back to life. Acts tells us that she was ‘devoted to good works and acts of charity’ and was obviously the seamstress, tailor, maker of garments in the community. What we heard about in this memorial service was not so much about the clothes that Dame Vivienne made, though we did hear a lot about that but more about her passions for political change, for equality, justice, for care of the environment, for care of creation, her anti-capitalist, pro-democracy beliefs. In a lovely video in which she spoke to us about growing up in Derbyshire she talked of those early days of punk and anarchy, with Malcolm McLaren, and how out of that had grown this passion to challenge and change the staus quo.

As I commented in my welcome, given the famous ‘God save the Queen’ T-Shirt she created with the image of Her Late Majesty on it, it was more than ironic that the King and the Queen Consort were represented at the event and, of course, that she ended up as a dame. We could see it as being absorbed by the establishment or we could also see it as the manner that in subtle ways the establishment also begins to change when you provide with new and different clothes, if what Erasmus said ‘“vestis virum facit”, ‘clothes make the man’, is true.

Of course, we never need an excuse to dress up in church – we’re renowned for it. Only the best is good enough for God, the silks and the damasks, the gold and the silver, the touch of glamour that can sparkle like the touch of heaven. But in a deeply counter-cultural way we dress up not just so that we can party in a holy kind of way but so that we can lose ourselves in the vestments, so we can draw less attention to ourselves, not more, so that I am less me, not more. But those who dress us, people like Dame Vivienne, whether in those early rebellious days with Malcolm McLaren or in later years as she dressed the famous and the glamourous, help us to emerge from the ordinary and to be adorned for life, to give us the confidence to be who we really are, to be fully the person we want to be.

The poet George Herbert wrote this poem entitled, ‘Aaron’.

Holiness on the head,
Light and perfections on the breast,
Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest:
Thus are true Aarons drest.

Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest:
Poor priest, thus am I drest.

Only another head
I have, another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In him I am well dres

Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me ev’n dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new-drest.

So, holy in my head,
Perfect and light in my dear breast,
My doctrine tun’d by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come people; Aaron’s drest.

‘In him I am well drest’. That line speaks to me as I contemplate being ‘clothed in Christ’ a phrase we use in the Sacrament of Baptism which echoes words of Paul in Colossians 3. We put on Christ, in him we are well dressed.

The crowd who had packed the cathedral dispersed, glad to have been there, grateful to Dame Vivienne for so much. I took off my cassock to reveal a clerical shirt from J Wippell & Co Ltd, teamed up with a black suit from Marks & Spencer. I’m comfortable in these clothes. It’s good to get dressed up and great if at the end of it you can look at your most beautiful and glamourous. But the clothes that really make the difference are ‘compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience’ (Colossians 3.12) and they will never go out of fashion, and Dame Vivienne knew that too.

Loving God, clothe me with your self that I may be who you created me to be. Amen.


‘It’ll end in tiers’

That has to be my favourite headline from last week. I can’t remember which newspaper coined it – for once I don’t think it was The Sun – but, fantastic. I was taken back to times in childhood when you are up to something with your friends, having a great time, chancing it a bit, not noticing the possible dangers, and the mums lean in towards each other and say ‘It’ll end in tears!’. No sooner said then a child is crying and rushing back to mum’s skirts for comfort.

We are in another hard place. The divides which many of us have spoken about already, the glaring divides of social inequality, the divides between north and south, are becoming more and more apparent. The unity that was displayed back at the beginning of the national lockdown, that amazing community spirit, the willingness of people to volunteer in numbers never quite seen before, standing on our front door steps (almost) religiously every Thursday at 8pm, applauding the NHS, all that seems to have dissipated. We seem to be in a very different place and the almost weekly slogans and new restrictions, the confusing and seemingly illogical messages and restrictions are just irritating many people to the point when they no longer want to play ball, instead they want to take their bat home (too many metaphors)!

Like you, I imagine, I have been studying the tiers especially as London moved up a tier at the end of last week. What would this mean for the Cathedral? What would this mean for our communities? What would this mean for me? I looked through the diary. Dinner with a friend and his partner who I have known from school days and haven’t seen for months, cancelled. Pizza with the curate and his new wife, cancelled. Lunch with my colleague after we have met in his office, cancelled. Christmas …. well, we wait to see.

As a consequence of the deep disquiet within the church during the national lockdown when our churches were forced to close, contrary to Canon Law, there is no talk of Places of Worship being affected in any of the tiers. But will people want to come, to join a congregation, if they are fearful, or discouraged, from travelling and meeting other people. By the time you are reading this blog I will know what effect it had on the congregation for the Choral Eucharist. And what will it mean for the important acts of remembrance that are now just two weeks away, All Souls, gathering for a Requiem Mass or visiting the graveyard with family members to lay some flowers; Remembrance Sunday on the streets, keeping a collective silence, shoulder to shoulder for our veterans, not to mention huddling round a bonfire, watching the fireworks and enjoying the Cinder Toffee. There is so much that will yet again be changed and yet again be lost to this terrible year.

That is my moan over. I know why we are doing this, we have to try as best we can to slow down the rate of infection, we have to make sure our hospitals can function and the most vulnerable are protected. My question to myself though has been – what is my role in all of this, what is the role of the church in all of this, all of this uncertainty and anxiety, all this fear?

There are such things as Priests’ Handbooks, especially for when you are visiting the sick. They are properly called ‘Vade Mecum’ which simply means ‘go with you’. ‘travel with you’. They contain all the prayers that a priest would need at the bedside, they travel in your pocket, in your knapsack, often for a sense of security. It’s one place where you really don’t want to be lost for words. For Anglicans there is also, of course, that great book ‘The Country Parson’ by the seventeenth century Metaphysical poet, George Herbert. This is not so much a prayer manual but a manual on how to ‘do the job’, on how to live the life, how to be the Parson. So I turned to CHAP. XV. The Parson Comforting.

The Countrey Parson, when any of his cure is sick, or afflicted with losse of friend, or estate, or any ways distressed, fails not to afford his best comforts, and rather goes to them, then sends for the afflicted, though they can, and otherwise ought to come to him. To this end he hath throughly digested all the points of consolation, as having continuall use of them, such as are from Gods generall providence extended even to lillyes; from his particular, to his Church; from his promises, from the examples of all Saints, that ever were; from Christ himself, perfecting our Redemption no other way, then by sorrow; from the Benefit of affliction, which softens, and works the stubborn heart of man; from the certainty both of deliverance, and reward, if we faint not; from the miserable comparison of the moment of griefs here with the weight of joyes hereafter. 

It is that that I should be doing, we should be doing, affording our ‘best comforts’. There is that wonderful phrase in the Book of Common Prayer, the ‘vade mecum’ for the people of God of England, which are called ‘The Comfortable Words’. And the comfort given there is this wonderful passage from St Matthew’s Gospel.

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11.28-30)

This must be what we hold out to the nation, to the world, to our neighbours, to ourselves at this moment. Today all the cathedrals of the Church of England have been united in doing this, praying for us all in this pandemic, in our anxiety, in our sadness, in our fear, in our loneliness. It may bring us to tears, but God will wipe them away.

This is the prayer I wrote for the Cathedrals at the beginning of the pandemic. I continue to pray it.

Loving God, source of healing and comfort, fill us with your grace, that the sick may be made whole, that those who care for us may be strengthened, that the anxious may be calmed, and those most vulnerable be protected in the power of Spirit, in the faith of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wearing the robe

Last weekend I had the pleasure of preaching at the Alban Festival 2018 in St Alban’s.  What a fantastic event that is.  If you haven’t been then I encourage you to join the crowds next year.  But I thought that you might be interested in what I said at the Choral Eucharist which follows the amazing ‘carnival style’ procession through the town.  The readings for the service were Galatians 3.23-29 and John 19.23-27.

In the corner of the classroom of my infant school was a Wendy House and a dressing up box.  Inside the box were all the things we needed to let our imaginations run wild.  We could be a cowboy if we wanted, or a nurse, or a teacher, or a mum or a dad, whatever we wanted, whoever we wanted to be.  It was a box of delights, the place to become who you might one day become, to wear the clothes, the hats, the shoes.

Those of you of my age may remember a BBC children’s cartoon called ‘Mr Ben’.  Every episode featured him going into a fancy dress shop, choosing an outfit and having an adventure in that new clothing that replaced the boring suit and the bowler hat that was his everyday outfit.


When Alban met the priest Amphibalus, the hunted priest was wearing the distinctive cloak that became his name.  Alban took the man into his home so that he could escape his pursuers.  But it wasn’t long before word got out that the priest was in hiding.  Alban had already showed his strength of character by offering hospitality to this dangerous individual.  But now, as the footsteps of the soldiers approached his door, his compassion took him to a new level.  He took the cloak, he took the clothes of the priest, of Amphibalus, and swapped them for his own.  So when the door was opened and the soldiers entered they took the one now dressed as a priest, they took Alban and executed him.

Our imagination ran wild in the classroom as we learnt to see what it might be like to wear the clothes that other people wore, to stand in their shoes, to see things from their perspective.  But then we grow out of dressing up, or others discourage us from doing it, we wear our own clothes, we see things from our own perspective, who we are, where we are.

But Alban is encouraging us to have the courage to do something very different.  Alban encourages us to try on our neighbours cloak and see how things are for them.

But it’s a dangerous thing to do because once we stand where others stand then we might be mistaken for them.  What would it be like to be a refugee; what would it be like to be a loan parent; what would it be like to be homeless; what would it be like to be part of a despised minority, the target of hate crime, the one defined as the enemy, what would it be like to be excluded?  What would it be like to cross the Mexican border into the USA with your family, to see your children caged? We only can begin to know when we take the cloak and wear it.

At the cross, Jesus’ robe becomes an object to be fought over.  But if it was cut into pieces, so that each of his executioners could have a piece, it would be useless.  So, as we heard in the gospel reading, the decision was made to cast lots for it, to toss a coin, to go on the turn of a card and the winner would get this seamless robe ripped from the back of a tortured man.  We’re not told who the winner was, who it was put Christ’s clothing on his own back – and we don’t know what that felt like, as he stood there clothed in Christ.

But that’s exactly what we do, we clothe ourselves with Christ – not in that seamless robe grabbed from beneath the cross but in the robe that is Christ.  As St Paul says to the people who formed the church in Galatia

‘As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.’

We’re clothed with Christ and when we put on Christ we become identified with him.  We wear Christ in the same way as God in Christ put on human flesh when, in that Bethlehem stable, a baby was born who was the Son of God.  God wore human clothes so that we could wear divine clothes, God put on flesh so that we could put on Christ.

After a while our teacher would announce that it was time for a story and we had to pack things away.  Off came the cowboy hat, in the box went the shoes we were clattering about in, packed away was the doctors coat and we sat down back as we were before.

But when Alban took up that cloak he was transformed for ever.  It was his baptism, not with water, but with something that was equally transforming.

The great English poet of the 17th century George Herbert wrote a poem called ‘Aaron’ in which he thinks about how this companion of Moses was dressed, and in that poem he says this

Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me ev’n dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new-drest.

When we put on Christ, when we robe ourselves in Christ, like Alban we leave our own self behind, lay our old self to rest and are ‘in him new-drest’.  And when we dare to wear the clothes of any of our brothers and sisters, when we dare to be seen as one with the marginalised and excluded and pursued and persecuted then we will never be the same again. Because we will see the world not just from within their clothes but through their eyes, as Alban saw those waiting to take him away.

Jesus was always looking at the world from the perspective of the person he was with, he wore the clothes of those he hung out with, the tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, he wears your clothes, he stands in your shoes, so he knows what it’s like to be you.  And when he gives himself to us in this Eucharist, when bread is placed in our open hands, when we eat this bread and drink this cup, we put on Christ and Christ puts on you, puts on me, puts on us.  In him we are ‘new-drest’ and with him we share our neighbour’s cloak, whosoever that neighbour may be.

Lord Jesus,
clothe me,
live in and through me,
that I may stand beside my neighbour
and share their cloak.

Warming the heart

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

In every generation there are great story tellers, Homer and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens, Blyton and Rowling.  They all tell their stories and those stories, which we then tell to each other, help to interpret truth to growing generations.  Among my favourites is Hans Christian Anderson.  By the harbour in Copenhagen sits the Little Mermaid testifying to the power of his storytelling.  But my favourite amongst the stories he tells is ‘The Snow Queen’, which, as the story begins, we hear ‘Tells of the mirror and its fragments’.

A new generation know a bit of that story through the work of that other great storyteller of our times, or rather an interpreter of stories, Disney, because Hans Christian Anderson’s great story can be glimpsed, just about, in that popular animated movie, ‘Frozen’.


Heartlessness on the Israel -Gaza border

Both versions of the story centre on what happens when a shard of the evil mirror or the frost from Queen Elsa’s hand, enters the heart.  The heart at the very centre of the person is frozen, dies, is turned to stone.  Humanity is lost, love is lost and, as in those final moments of the film ‘Frozen’ on the icy wastes of the harbour, it takes an act of true love to bring the warmth and life back to the heart.

‘I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ (Ezekiel 36.26)

It’s the promise of God through the prophet Ezekiel, it’s the life of which St Peter speaks so eloquently to the enraptured crowd on that first day of Pentecost.  The apostles, with Our Lady, have been locked away in the room that’s become for them both security and prison ever since, in an expression of true divine love, in that space Jesus broke bread and shared it, poured wine and drank it, gave them his body and blood and washed their feet.  But that warmth of divine love was replaced by the chill of fear.  The windows were bolted, the doors were barred, their hearts were locked until the wind blew out what locked them in and fire warmed their frozen hearts.

George Herbert uses another metaphor to tell the story in his poem ‘Whitsunday’.  Instead of a frozen heart, a stone heart, he likens it to an egg being hatched.

Listen sweet Dove unto my song,
And spread thy golden wings in me;
Hatching my tender heart so long,
Till it get wing, and flie away with thee.

The mother bird sits on her eggs not allowing them to get cold.  She uses her own heart’s heat to warm those eggs until life breaks through the shell and the chick takes wing ‘and flie away with thee.’ It’s a wonderful image.

Pentecost brings us to life, like a hatching egg, a tender heart brought to true life, so that that heart beats with the beat of God, the rhythm of life is the rhythm of God.

The heartlessness of so much around us needs challenging.  Watching the horrific scenes from Israel last week as live ammunition was used on unarmed protestors on the Israel/Gaza border, seeing how the administration of the USA could heartlessly and for purely political and ideological reasons make a change to the status of Jerusalem by moving its Embassy and so unsettling and threatening what is always a fragile paece, registering how our own government deals with the status and rights of long term residents of this nation, our friends and neighbours, all these things remind us that the cold, frozen heart is not just something that can exist in the individual but in the structures that we create, in the places and communities that we inhabit.

When Jeremy Irons was in this Cathedral a few weeks ago reading to us T S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ he read these words

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror

The descending dove hatches the egg, warms the heart, turns stone to flesh and brings us to life, so that our heart beats in time with the divine heartbeat making Easter live for the whole of creation, as what was dead was brought to life.


A heart warmed by the Spirit

As Peter says to the listening crowd

“You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”


This is a story really worth telling, the truth of God come down from heaven which gives life to the people and thaws the frozen heart and makes flesh the heart of stone.

Come, Holy Spirit,
fill the hearts of your people
and kindle in us the fire of your love.

Dressing up

I loved being in Infant School.  The school was just around the corner from where we lived in Wigston, on the outskirts of Leicester.  The school, infant and primary, was called Waterleys, though it was no where near water!  Going to school at that stage in your life is such an adventure of discovery, learning to read and write and count, learning about the world and relationships, learning about yourself.  We had, of course, a corner in the classroom where there was a Wendy House and we could act out home life and I can’t remember we boys not being allowed to play whatever role that we wanted to adopt, and I’m sure, knowing myself, I would have been happy playing with the dolls like I did at home with my sister.


What we didn’t have, as far as I can remember, was a dressing-up box.  Now I see children with their parents in the supermarket dressed as Spider-Man or a princess, or a character from ‘Frozen’ or another Disney film, having chosen that ‘costume’ as their preferred clothing and perhaps acting out in their head the character that they have chosen to be.

At home we were allowed to put on mum’s coat and shoes and shuffle around in high-heels and fall over and laugh and it was all very natural.  So I was delighted with the news last week that in Church of England Schools children can choose from the dressing-up box exactly what they want to wear, cowboy outfit or princess, it doesn’t matter.  I simply don’t see it as about gender neutrality or creating gender confusion, as some have suggested, some negative challenge to who we fundamentally are but more about that fantastic journey of discovery that growing up should be – and putting on clothes is part of that.

There used to be a lovely children’s programme on the BBC called ‘Mr Ben’.  The eponymous hero had a penchant for ‘dressing up’.  So each episode began with the bowler-hatted, black-suited city gent, Mr Ben, leaving his house at 52 Festive Road and arriving at the costume shop where the moustachioed owner would lead him to the changing room where a costume would await him.  Then Mr Ben emerged as a different character and had an adventure.  What was going on I do not know – but this was 1971!

As a catholic, of course, I love dressing up.  So on the day that the CofE announced that tiaras were ok for boys we had a special service in the Cathedral in which new vestments were blessed by the Bishop and after he had blessed them we got dressed up.  The members of our Guild of Broderers (the posh name for embroiderers) had been working since 2012 on this set of Jubilee Vestments, for the diocese to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  It had taken so long because of the amount of embroidery involved and because, as volunteers, they only come to the Cathedral one day a week.  But the final set of Eucharistic vestments were complete – the chasuble and dalmatics – and that was what was blessed. You can see lots of photos of the event here.


The Bishop of Southwark wearing the Jubilee cope


The things that we wear in church are of course ‘gender-neutral’ it doesn’t matter who the deacon, the priest, the bishop is, the vestments are the same because they are not about pointing to the person wearing them, precisely not so, but pointing to Christ. But we begin this process of dressing up, not in the rich priestly vestments but in the simple baptismal robe, the vestment of the people of God and that is truly gender-neutral, as St Paul points out to the Christians in Galatia.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.27-28)

In the Old Testament we are given details of how Aaron is dressed for his priestly ministry – the details about what he wore were important to the people of God then as what we wear is important to the people of God now, whether or not people like to wear formal vestments.  Dress becomes a defining characteristic of how we understand ourselves, not as people, but as church.  George Herbert reflects on this in his poem ‘Aaron’

Holiness on the head,
Light and perfections on the breast,
Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest:
Thus are true Aarons drest.

Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest:
Poor priest, thus am I drest.

Only another head
I have, another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In him I am well drest.

Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me ev’n dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new-drest.

So, holy in my head,
Perfect and light in my dear breast,
My doctrine tun’d by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come people; Aaron’s drest.

Learning to inhabit the costume, to wear the clothes, to live the adventure, that is what growing up is about, that is what growing up in Christ is about – and perhaps it all starts in that dressing-up box at the corner of the classroom and reaching out to choose … well, whatever you choose to choose.

Clothe us, Christ,
in the livery of life
and make us wear well
the clothes you place upon us
and the clothes we choose to wear.

A priest for ever

Back in 1994, when the first women were ordained priest, a new catholic society within the Church of England came into existence.  The first members were admitted in the Diocese of Southwark on the Feast of the Holy Cross, 14 September, into the Society of Catholic Priests – the red cross brigade.  The bright red crosses on lapels and dresses can be seen in General Synod and at many gatherings.  I became a member when I came to Southwark in 1995.  It has always been a great source of support for me in my priestly ministry and being in a truly inclusive society within the catholic tradition has been a great encouragement.

Last Thursday I ceased to be Rector General after almost 9 years of serving the Society in that way.  A new Provincial Rector, Fr Kevin Maddy, was elected and we wish him well as he leads the Society which now has members in Australia and North America as well as in Europe (despite Brexit the British parts of SCP will remain in the European Chapter).

This is the text of the sermon I preached at the final Mass at which I was to preside as Rector General.  I thought you might be interested in reading what I had to say.  The lections for the Mass were Hebrews 5.1-11 and Luke 22.14-20.


The SCP cross


George Herbert, that saintly priest and poet begins his handbook for clergy called ‘The Country Parson’ with this simple but rather startling definition about what it is that we are called to do

A Pastor is the Deputy of Christ for the reducing of Man to the Obedience of God.

I’m not sure that untranslated those few words would be entirely understood by many, or many of those who share with us in the sacred ministry of the priest in the Church of God. I’m delighted that when I was at Mirfield we were constantly being told that we were being ‘formed for the priesthood’ and not, as some other places of learning are concerned, ‘trained for ministry’. This isn’t intended to be an old git homily but it seems to me that so often those who are ordained are lumped by the wider and, I suppose, wiser church into this catch all category of ‘ministry’. It’s an inclusive word and so I should rejoice in that – but you see, I was called to be a priest – it was specific, it was as we now say , intentional, not on my part, but I believe on God’s.

As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says, and that person knows a thing or two about priesthood,

One does not presume to take this honour, but takes it only when called by God.

We did not have the audacity to choose ourselves for this, or the arrogance to choose this for ourselves. I suspect that each of us here is a priest out of obedience, women and men for whom the call to the priestly life was undeniable and unavoidable, which was tested and affirmed by the church and confirmed through the laying-on-of-hands within that apostolic succession which gives us the authority which God alone can give.

Herbert defines our life as Dignity and Duty

The Dignity, in that a Priest may do that which Christ did, and by his authority, and as his Vicegerent. The Duty, in that a Priest is to do that which Christ did, and after his manner, both for Doctrine and Life.

This idea that we are the Deputy, the Vicegerent – the earthly representative of God – is daunting. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews admits, we’re subject to weakness, we’re part of that fallen humanity which, through the grace of the sacraments that we administer, we seek to raise to the true status that we have lost.

That word ‘vicegerent’ really means ‘holding on behalf of’. As priests, we hold Christ on behalf of the people and the people on behalf of Christ. Whether we’re holding the host before people hungry for God, or holding the hand of someone hungry for heaven, we’re holding, on behalf of the one who holds us, Jesus Christ our Eternal High Priest.

We will all have been traumatised by the events that have affected us so far this year. Terrorist attacks at home, Westminster Bridge, London Bridge, Finsbury Park; the disaster of Grenfell Tower; the natural disasters in the Caribbean and northern India and Bangladesh; ongoing war; ongoing crises; the madness that leads a lone gunman to mow down concert goers in Las Vegas; and the political disasters from which it will take generations to recover – this is the context in which we do, not ministry, not leadership, not all the words that others seek to apply to what we do, but we do our priestly ministry – breaking open the word, breaking the bread, sharing the love, sharing the cup, witnessing to the dignity and the duty that is our calling.

I hope you’ll excuse me if I’m a little self-indulgent as we all have stories we can tell and as clergy we tell them – but I’m the one preaching!

The evening of the 3 June was one of the most devastating of my priesthood. Some of you may have already read what I’ve written about it or have heard me speak. But that evening I was at the Deanery with friends. We’d enjoyed a barbeque in our garden and had gone up to the drawing room for more drinks. We had a house full including the person who was to be our new deacon, arrived that day to move into his flat.

And then a text arrived which said that something was kicking off on London Bridge. So I did what you would do – I put on my dog collar and grabbed my bunch of keys. My first instinct was to open the church and provide a refuge for those caught up in whatever was going on – after all that is what we’ve done at the south end of London Bridge for the last 1400 years!

But I couldn’t get very close. Finding my way as best I could I got near to the market only to be met with a huge number of heavily armed police officers, with their machine guns and night sights trained on me. I was forced back onto Southwark Street. What I saw there I’ll never forget – a road full of ambulances, of flashing lights, pavements full of injured and traumatised people being attended to by paramedics and friends.

I’d love to be able to tell you that I was the Good Samaritan, binding up the wounds of those on the roadside – but I wasn’t, I followed the directions of the police and found my way home. The house was full, a young Muslim guy, who chairs our residents forum, texted me – he couldn’t get home and so he stayed with us, with the helicopters whirring around over heads, with the world around us going mad. I have to tell you that that night I was physically sick.

I just didn’t know what to do and whether I was up to doing it.

But the dawn broke and we began, step by step, bit by bit, holding people for Christ. The Cathedral was closed for a week as we were at the heart of what’d happened. All I and my colleagues could do was be the church, be priests out there, but doing what priests do, the dignity and the duty, saying Mass where we could, saying our prayers and being there with people in their pain and distress – be they Christian, Muslim, of other faiths or none.

And the community needed the church. It was we who were able to articulate on behalf of others what we were all feeling, it was we who could offer liturgy which held the stages of mourning, the stages of rebuilding or re-hallowing. I presided over the removal of the flowers that had gathered on London Bridge, with incense and holy water we walked the path of the attackers and reclaimed the area for Christ and the community and we kept bringing it all to the altar.

And I didn’t know what to do from one moment to the next – but that priesthood to which you and I are called is so much more than we can begin to understand – for it’s not our priesthood but Christ’s, it’s Jesus who ministers through us and it’s Jesus who holds our hand as we hold the hand of others.


The cover of George Herbert’s handbook for Parsons


The church has many agendas and some of them are good and right but some of them well out of a place of misunderstanding or even a refusal to understand. What we’ve been ordained to is not something of the moment but something of eternity, for as the psalmist says

You are a priest for ever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.

Initiatives will come and go, the church will grow and diminish, it will reform when needed and change when called to by God. But one thing is for ever and that’s the priesthood of which we are the most unworthy of members. We’re an instant in an eternal history which will only be brought to its fulfilment when we stand in that place ‘when sacraments shall cease’ as a great Eucharistic hymn describes it.

Until then we hold Christ to the world and the world to Christ, break the bread and share the cup, offer the church’s welcome and farewell, bind and heal, forgive and befriend, in persona Christi, in the place of Christ, in the person of Christ, who has called us to share his priesthood for ever.

Father, we thank you
that you have called us to your service,
to feed your people
by word and sacrament.
By the power of your Spirit,
keep us faithful to you
and to those in our care.
Keep united in the bonds of peace and love
the members of the Society of Catholic Priests,
that by sharing in Christ’s priesthood here on earth,
they may come to share in the joys of his eternal kingdom,
where he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
for ever and ever. Amen.

My Holy Week – Wednesday

I was in the congregation for the lunchtime Eucharist. That’s always an interesting experience. I seldom sit down in the nave and to be honest, I should do it more often. One of the problems with ordained ministry is that you rarely get to see things from the opposite perspective, looking up the nave rather than down into it, if you know what I mean. And things do look very different; you notice things that you hadn’t before. But it was something rather wonderful that struck me this lunchtime and nothing in fact to do with the Eucharist (though that was great).

At one point the Verger on duty came back out of the Sacristy which is on the north side of the nave. He’d had to hold the door open for some people. That gave sufficient time for a smell to emerge from the Sacristy. Now sacristies and vestries have a variety of smells – the musty smell that comes from those boxes of service sheets and Series 2 booklets on the top of the cupboards that should have been thrown away years ago; the smell of candles; the smell of coffee being brewed; the smell of centuries of cassocks and robes hung in the cupboards. Church smells are very evocative. Someone in fact bought me a bottle of ‘perfume’ which captures exactly the smell. It’s called ‘Liturgie des Heures’ and when I wear it I smell like church! But the smell that emerged through the open door and pervaded the Cathedral was different again.

The oils are prepared

The oils are prepared

Behind the door, in the Sacristy, Paul, the Dean’s Verger, was completing the task of preparing the oils for the Chrism Mass tomorrow. This is a big job as at Southwark as we provide individual bottles of each of the three oils – baptism, for the sick and Chrism – for each of the priests who need it. That means that he prepares about 400 of each. The labels are very distinctive and so it was a joy to see them in one of the photographs in the exhibition ‘Of things not seen : A year in the life of a London priest’. It is on at the Oxo Tower on the South Bank. In one photo the bottles are lined up on the sacristy windowsill. Paul was preparing the Chrism which is full of wonderful and exotic smells. It wafted out and it was transporting.

It reminded me of a verse from the gospel we heard on Monday. It was the account of the anointing of Jesus by Mary at the meal at Bethany and I’m still thinking about it. John, describing the event says,

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12.3)

It’s one of those wonderful lines for me, speaking of much more than was happening in the room, speaking in some way of the pervasiveness of God. It’s a wonderful link between what happens before the crucifixion and after as women anoint both the living and the dead body of Jesus with fragrant oil. The scent emerged from the Sacristy and nothing could stop it and it filled the space where we were.

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume

This week we have the privilege of sitting at the feet of Canon Mark Oakley from St Paul’s Cathedral. For the last two evenings Mark has been using the poetry of George Herbert and John Donne to think about the things of faith. It’s been marvellous and there’s more to come. But there was something about being caught by surprise by the wonderful fragrance during the Mass that took me back to the poets.

It’s hard to describe a smell but we instantly recognise it and it can trigger so many inner thoughts. It isn’t always easy to understand poetry and as Mark reminded us yesterday evening as he talked of Donne, you never actually finish thinking about a poem, you simply put it down to continue thinking about it later. And poems, for me, are like fragrance, that speaks in a deeper way, a more pervasive way than other things often do.

In his poem Prayer (1), Herbert concludes his fantastic attempt to describe prayer by layering image upon metaphor, upon image upon metaphor by saying

‘The land of spices; something understood.’

The spiciness of the Chrism, which the priests will receive tomorrow for ministry, is almost a capturing of the fragrance that filled the room at Bethany and a vehicle to transport both anointer and anointed to another place. That place may be understood but it may also be indescribable yet we breathe deeply and inhale the fragrance of God – and we are there – in the room and in the tomb, the places of anointing when the poetry of God breaks into the prose of life.

God, when words cannot do it
may I touch
your presence;
may you
my life.

The angels’ banquet

One of the joys of Southwark Cathedral is the long association we have had with the arts in their different forms. A trip around the Cathedral will reveal associations with Shakespeare, of course, but also Chaucer and Gower, Massinger and Fletcher and, suprsingly, Oscar Hammerstein! When Bankside was the refuge for artists, during the years of the Liberty under the Bishops of Winchester, the theatres flourished and, I suppose, artists of all kinds found a home in the area.

It has been a good week to remember this as we began with a fantastic evening celebrating the poetry of George Herbert. Poet in the City is a great organisation for bringing poetry to people who may not have heard the work of some of our poets. They were working on this occasion with Penguin Books who had published John Drury’s biography of Herbert called ‘Music at Midnight’. The evening was fantastic. Some wonderful poems were read by Tim West and the various speakers drew out of Herbert’s work, gems and nuggets of deep truth.

George Herbert - priest-poet or poet-priest?

George Herbert – priest-poet or poet-priest?

I began the evening by saying that Herbert is one of my poet ‘pin-ups’, in that I often find myself drawn to him in thinking about my preaching and end up quoting him. In the presence of some other poets that evening I didn’t rehearse my complete list of poets that I turn to, but they include R S THomas and T S Eliot, both people who, for me, manage to unfold deep mystery and, in the case of Thomas, in a way of supreme honesty ask the questions and air the doubts that many of us wish to express. However, there are others in my list – Carol Ann Duffy of course and it was good on this evening to meet Wendy Cope who was surprised when I said I had quoted her in a sermon!

But what impressed me was that all those who spoke made reference to the things of God. I suppose that is inevitable speaking of Herbert but they did so in such a way that was more than a glancing acknowledgement that Herbert was a priest first and a poet second. He was also, for me, someone who did and who does help define what it means to be Anglican. He seemed to inhabit the role of the ‘parson’ in a way that helps those of us who must inhabit it today.

Poetry touching on the things of God continues and we were privileged that Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem about Southwark. The poem is called ‘A Human Haunt’.

A human haunt - Bankside in fomer times

A human haunt – Bankside in fomer times

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.

You will hear the poem quoted in the forthcoming BBC4 edition of their new season ‘Cathedrals’ which began last week. The Southwark programme is on Tuesday 26 November at 9.00pm. The series began though with Wakefield and the story of the reordering of the Cathedral and the ‘reordering’ of three of the Yorkshire dioceses. Deans are in a small and close group and my heart did go out to the Dean of Wakefield as the story was told. Whether it gave the whole story, who knows, and as someone whose story has yet to be told I would be the last one to comment on someone elses’ performance. But what I will say is that the three programmes will give three very different pictures of three very different Cathedrals – and that is true and honest. No two of us are the same, our histories and traditions and situations are completely different and that has to be a good thing.

One of the things about Southwark is obviously that we are a central London cathedral and so the opportunity to do very interesting and surprising things come along and we grasp them with eagerness and joy. In fact, sometimes, something in the diary that looks interesting takes on a life of its own. That was true of the concert which brought the week to a close. The South Iceland Chamber Choir had been booked in for a long time to perform a programme of music which would include the world premiere of a setting by Sir John Tavener of three Shakespeare sonnets. When the death of Sir John was announced last Tuesday the concert took on a massive significance and the tickets became the hottest in London.

Sir John Tavener

Sir John Tavener

It was a privilege for me to be able to welcome Lady Tavener to the Cathedral on Friday as these sonnets and other pieces of Sir John’s work were performed. It was a bringing together of our artistic inheritance in which, in the Poet Laureates’ words, ‘players, publicans, paupers, politicians, princes’ have played their part with music that draws on the rich veins of the Christian tradition. Sir John did not disappoint us and neither did the choir. The poignant setting of Sonnet 71 was a moving way to end an historic concert.

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sudden bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that write it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.

It has been very much an ‘angels’ banquet’, the meeting of the divine in the arts which have lifted the soul to heaven and brought the imagination into a deeper knowledge of the Living God. That wonderful phrase I’ve focused on this week comes from Herbert’s amazing poem ‘Prayer’ and I offer it as a prayer to prayer, a feast of ways of describing the indescribable.

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Amen to that.

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