Feasting and fasting

The truth is, I’m not very good at fasting.  The suprising thing is that I was, in fact, better when I was younger.  As I became more committed to my faith I used to fast before Mass on Sunday and when I was at college being formed for priesthood the whole routine of the day was geared around being able to fast before the Eucharist because breakfast wasn’t served until after it. But ordination was my downfall.  The excuse was, ‘Well, I need to be able to minister and so collapsing halfway through a service out of hunger would be no good.’ And there you have it, my days of fasting passed away.  I’m not very good at Lent and the permissions we now get and which I have in my turn given, that it is so good to take something on rather than give something up, have done nothing to counter this undisciplined tendency that I have.

interclub-estivo

The Feast

I went to another Iftar last week, on the penultimate day of Ramadan.  This one was being hosted by the Metropolitan Police at their new headquarters in New Scotland Yard. It was great to be there. But it was a cheat on my part – I had had breakfast, lunch and numerous drinks all day.  So, whilst I certainly felt peckish when the sun set at around 9.20 and the fast for that day ended, I was nowhere near as hungry or thirsty as the Muslims alongside me. I was sharing in the Iftar but not sharing in the fast!

There has been some criticism levelled at me after the commemoration of the London Bridge attack because we – and I suppose as Dean that means I – hosted a Grand Iftar in the Cathedral itself on the evening of that day of commemoration.  Around 300 people packed the nave for the presentations that were made and the songs that were sung before the fast broke and people formed a long queue for the food.  I’ve been accused of being a ‘Muslim-lover’ which doesn’t feel much like an insult, and destroying the Christian tradition by holding an inter-faith service in the Cathedral.  As some bloggers have helpfully pointed out an Iftar isn’t a service and our Iftar, like the one the Met Police hosted, was nothing of the kind. But if I am being accused of the sin of hospitality then I am guilty as charged.

One of the things that has changed in the whole Christian-Muslim-community world of the past few years is the development of the Iftar as being something that people share in together. It is as though this meal has been brought out of the mosque and out of individual homes onto the streets – as around Grenfell Tower last week – or into other places, offices and churches. And it has helped me understand a bit more of what Ramadan and Eid are all about.

I used to think that Lent and Ramadan were equivalents, but I have learnt that they are not.  I may still be wrong but it seems to me that discipline and charitable giving are where any equivalence ends. Lent is a season of penitence and the discipline we choose for those forty odd days is meant to help us focus on that aspect of the Christian life as well as prepare us spitually for Holy Week and Easter. But the discipline is ongoing, it doesn’t begin and end each day, between dawn and dusk.  We are not waiting for sunset to have a bar of chocolate, or a glass of wine, or whatever it is that we are depriving ourselves of. Ramadan is much more about focusing the body and the mind on God, its much more about the deepening of spirituality than it is about penitence and the submission of the body as opposed to the soul. With Ramadan each days fast ends with a feast, the two are intertwined in the daily pattern that is established and which people so powerfully commit to.

Part of the whole inter-faith scene, it seems to me, is about giving us the opportunity to learn something from each other.  These past few years have certainly taught me about fasting and challenged my lack of engagement with it. Being with Hindus last year taught me about living up close to God in every aspect of my life. From Buddhism in these last few years I have learnt about focusing my thinking, what we are calling ‘mindfulness’ and finding in that peace. And from my regular visits to the Holy Land my experience of Judaism has taught me to value community at the deepest level.

But we have a much deeper and richer tradition of fasting in the Church of England than we give ourselves credit for. Thumbing through the Book of Common Prayer brings you face-to-face with some wonderful stuff including this

DAYS OF FASTING, OR ABSTINENCE
i) The forty days of Lent.
ii) The Ember Days at the Four Seasons, being the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after:
1. The First Sunday in Lent
2. The Feast of Pentecost
3. September 14
4. December 13.
iii) The three Rogation Days, being the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday
before Holy Thursday, or the Ascension of our Lord.
iv) All the Fridays in the Year, except Christmas Day.

So there are probably 67 Fast Days in the year in addition to the 40 days of Lent – and I keep none of them. Time for me to really think again and to be challenged by my Muslim friends who are now feasting all day as they celebrate Eid. But if I do fast then I must also remember those wise words of Jesus

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Matthew 6.16-18)

So I thank God for the challenge of Ramadan and pray that I may have the humility to learn from others as they share with me something of their relationship with God.

God,
for the diversity of faith and practice
within and beyond the church,
I give you thanks and praise.
Amen.

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Farewell 2017

Like you, perhaps, I’ve been thinking over this last year.  It hasn’t been an easy one and I’m not weeping as we approach the beginning of 2018.  So just a quick review of each month as far as it has been for me.

January – the bells came back to Southwark Cathedral.  That was a fantastic event and a great service when the Bishop baptised two of them and rededicated the rest.  I think it was seeing those twelve bells, dressed and lined up down the nave which is the lasting impression.  Or could it have been meeting the Revd Kate Bottley who then came with the ‘Songs of Praise’ crew to film them being raised to their place in the tower?

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With lovely Kate

February – I went off for a tour of Zimbabwe with Bishop Christopher, the Archdeacon of Southwark and the Bishop’s Press Officer.  I’d been to Southwark Cathedral’s own link Diocese of Masvingo but never to the whole of the country.  Amazing.  But who would have thought that this same year we would see the fall of President Mugabe and the Archbishop of York replacing his dog-collar?  The highlight though, I have to say, in the midst of all that amazing hospitality and wonderful worship, was visiting St Augustine’s Penhalonga, where the Community of the Resurrection had been based, and walking into a church I knew so well from photographs and now seeing it in all is splendour.

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The basilica of the bush

March – the Consecration of Karowei Dorgu as Bishop of Woolwich was a wonderful occasion.  The lack of diversity amongst the bishops was being addressed as far as gender was concerned but not with regard to ethnicity. Bishop Karowei was, and is, a clear sign of hope.  But then that same month the attack on Westminster Bridge and the killing of people there and then of PC Keith Palmer, doing his job, defending our democracy, was a shock to the system.  Hope all of a sudden seemed to be under attack.

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If the hat fits …

April – a month that should have been focused on Holy Week and Easter began with us hosting the funeral of PC Keith Palmer in Southwark Cathedral.  Cressida Dick became the Commissioner that same day so that she was in post to represent the whole of the Metropolitan Police Service at the funeral.  It fell to me to preach.  It is hard to describe what that feels like, knowing the streets and bridges were full of people, listening.  All I could do was remember that this was a funeral and that Keith’s widow and daughter would be there, listening.

May – one of the joys of life over the last eight years has been to serve the Society of Catholic Priests as their Rector General.  So it fell to me to visit SCP in Ireland and to encourage those few priests there who would identify as coming from the ‘catholic’ tradition.  It was a great visit.  What a wonderful country and people!  Later in the year, however, my time as Rector General came to an end.  But what a privilege it has been to visit and speak to members of our Society – women and men, black and white, gay and straight, single and partnered, with differing abilities – serving the church faithfully in the places to which God has called them.

June – the month began as any other and then the evening of 3rd June would see an event which would affect the whole of the remainder of the year.  The terrorist attack that evening on London Bridge and the Borough Market left 8 people dead and 48 people injured.  It also left a community scarred and changed.  Being unable to get into the Cathedral for almost a week meant that we had to learn how to be ‘the Cathedral’ differently; the local community came together with a new strength; we learnt about each other as people.  It has changed me – for the better I hope – and given me a new appreciation of my Muslim brothers and sisters.  Speaking at Friday Prayers at our local mosque in the week after the attack was a privilege I never thought would be mine and then hosting the long planned Grand Iftar in the Cathedral ten days after the attack has created new relationships and a greater understanding.  But at such cost!

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Three of the great Street Pastors who cared for us after the attack

July – General Synod is always a feature of my year but in 2017 the Synod in York became very significant.  Had the tide turned? Was there a different feel? The debates on welcoming transgender people and the banning of conversion therapy with regard to homosexual (in evangelical speak ‘same-sex attracted people) in church were powerful, brave and decisive. The irony was that at the same time a group of 50 people including 15 priests from Southwark Cathedral and the Diocese were marching in the London Pride parade, with pride.  It was a delicious and painful irony, a vignette of where we are as a church.

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Marching with Pride

August – I turned 60 at the end of July.  That was a fantastic occasion – great to see so many friends and family as we celebrated.  And then it was off to Spain for my usual ten days in the sun, catching up on reading and simply relaxing.  The highlight? I suppose visiting the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona now that it is almost complete.  Bonkers it is, but impressive bonkers.

September – it’s always one of those getting back to work months and this September was like that.  The terrorist attack in June meant that I was unable to lead the Cathedral Pilgrimage in the steps of Martin Luther, to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  But in September we held a reunion for all the pilgrims – so I got to see the photos and hear the stories!

October – as part of my first sabbatical in 2006 I visited Tamil Nadu in India – I’d always wanted to go back to that country and see another area.  A group of us had planned for a long time to do this and so in October eight of us, plus our organiser and guide, headed off for 15 days in Rajasthan.  It was everything we had hoped for – lovely people, wonderful sights, new experiences, delicious food, warmth and sunshine and something memorable.  For me it was the Taj Mahal, the scaffolding removed and there, resplendent, perfect, a monument to love and unsurpassed by the skill of humanity.

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Stunning

November – we use the nave of the Cathedral in many ways and occasionally for grand dinners.  One such dinner happened in November.  The chairs were cleared and round tables installed, the flowers were arranged and the lighting perfected, the candles lit and people gathered.  The event was the retirement of one of the Partners at EY (Ernst and Young) who have offices not far from the Cathedral.  Why mention this?  Well, the person retiring lives with a bad stammer but had not let this prevent him living his life and progressing in his profession and had set up a stammering network in the firm which is the largest such network in the UK. He spoke and sang at the dinner and with such confidence – it was very moving, and humbling.  And why at Southwark? Because at a memorial service for a colleague that we hosted he was asked to read and doing so was the beginning of a journey which has brought him to where he is, and praying in that holy place is one thing that has sustained him throughout.  Tremendous.

December – it is my favourite month and I make no secret of that.  We welcomed thousands of people to the Cathedral for carol services and concerts, as we do every year.  But this year people wanted to remember the events I have mentioned, but also Finsbury Park Mosque, the Manchester Arena, Grenfell Tower and the atrocities and the disasters that have happened in so many communities around the world during the year and that have given this year its particular feel and flavour.  All of it was brought to that vulnerable baby in the crib, all our own vulnerability that we have learnt so much of together, in the hard times and the good times of 2017 and that knowledge that God has been with us and God is with us.

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Ending the year in the Borough Market

 

So where do we go from here? There is only one direction and that is forwards.  It has been hard but it has not been all bad.  But all I can do is remember the words of perhaps the most famous poem for the turn of the year, the one that caught the public attention and the popular imagination when King George VI quoted it in his 1939 Christmas broadcast to the British Empire. It was written a number of years earlier by Minnie Louise Haskins.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

And that is my prayer and that is my intention – to put my hand in God’s hand as we walk into 2018.

Hand of God, hold us.
Hope of God, sustain us.
Vision of God, direct us.
Love of God, enfold us.
Peace of God, fill us.
Amen.

Respect

I have a feeling that Her Majesty The Queen does not ordinarily wear a mantilla when she goes to church.  But, of course, on those occasions when she has met the Pope at the Vatican there she is, dressed in black, mantilla on her head.  She dresses respectfully as is expected in those circumstances.

The Queen and Pope John Paul

The Queen and Pope John Paul

So why would Marine Le Pen refuse to cover her head when she was to meet the Grand Mufti last week in the Lebanon? We can only assume that it was a deliberate publicity stunt to make her point about people of the Muslim faith. Her supporters will be gleeful but the rest of us, I assume, only saw someone lacking in respect, unwilling to accommodate the traditions and teachings of another brother or sister.

When I was on sabbatical in Jerusalem I had the real privilege, with clergy from the Diocese of Southwark and the dioceses with which we are linked in Zimbabwe, to visit the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock on Haram al-Sharif, otherwise known as the Temple Mount.  The Arabic name for that ancient and deeply holy site means ‘The Noble Sanctuary’ and as any visitor there knows there is a real nobility about the place.  We went, however, as guests of the Waqf which is the religious trust in which is invested the care of religious and other property on behalf of the Islamic community.  But before we went there we were clearly told how to behave, so that we were appropriately respectful.  The women in the group would have to ‘cover up’ and we would all have to remove our shoes when we went into the Mosque.  We would talk quietly, not shout like tourists and respect those who were praying or reading their scriptures.

It was a wonderful visit, we respected our hosts, they respected their guests.

There is one of the Ten Commandments that stands out from all the rest.  Nine of the ten tell us what not to do but the fifth is different

Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20.12)

Having respect for our parents, honouring our father and our mother leads to the promise of a blessing, that life will be long and good.  Good things flow out of respect, we are being told; the opposite must be true.

This constant battering of the Muslim community, constant finger-pointing, disrespect, criticism, denunciation, vilification that we see not just in Trump’s USA but elsewhere is an utter disgrace to the whole of our society.  I was reading a blog by the only hijab wearing member of the White House staff.  She had worked for President Obama, she lasted only 8 days in the Trump west wing.  She wrote that she had to go because she could not stay where her people were being singled out in such aggressive ways.

In Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brain’ the members of The People’s Front of Judea (or was it the Judean People’s Front) sit around asking the question ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ and they come up with a long list.  We can ask ourselves the same question about Islam and the Muslim community and, if we do so, we end up with a list that includes mathematics, algebra, medicine, architecture, the preservation of libraries of thinking and philosophy otherwise destroyed in the western world, the most beautiful roses and sublime poetry.  Just as with the dominant Christian culture in the west they have been responsible for some horrors and we see some of them being played out by sects of Islam today.  But that is not the real story just as the Crusades are not the only story to tell about Christians.

The poet Rumi

The poet Rumi

The Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic beautifully writes in one of his mystical poems

Others call you love, I call you the king of love;
O you who are higher than the imagination of this and that,
go not without me.

God, who is love, God who is the king of love, calls us to the honouring of those in our family, blessings will flow from it.  Covering our heads, removing our shoes is the least we can do, it doesn’t dishonour the God we know in Jesus Christ, it celebrates the love that all people of faith know is at the heart of the divine, the structure of the Noble Sanctuary in which God invites us to dwell, at ease with each other.

God of love,
I stand before you
on holy ground
with all my sisters and brothers.
Amen.

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

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

LIVING GOD

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