Messy church

A couple of weeks ago Southwark Cathedral was full of children having a ‘messy celebration’. By all accounts it was a really wonderful morning.  The children decorated an altar cloth and a chasuble which the Bishop of Croydon then wore for the Eucharist.  It was wonderful and what was even more wonderful, so our vergers told me the next day, was that everyone cleared up the mess that they had made.  So often people walk away from mess, leaving it for someone else to clear up.  It’s like those awful mornings after a really good party.  You come down and find the place full of stuff to be cleared away.  The messy celebration was nothing like that.

Whatever you think about Bishop Philip North and the events of the past few weeks, whether you think that he would have made a good Bishop of Sheffield or not, whether you think the CNC was right to nominate him to the Crown for this See, or not, whether you think that he had exactly the skills that the diocese needed at this moment in its life, or not, we are in a mess.


‘Another nice mess …’

As kids we loved watching Laurel and Hardy movies, the tremendous slapstick, the improbable plots in the films and the regular line that Hardy would say to Laurel, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!”

The Church of England is good at some things – processions, hierarchy and getting into incredible messes and having public fights.  Even though I’m Rector General of another Anglican catholic ‘Society’, The Society of Catholic Priests (SCP) which in Europe, North America and Australia supports the ordination of people regardless of gender or sexuality, I have kept quiet about the whole business as far as the blog world and Twitter-sphere are concerned.  One thing that stopped me – apart from there being far too many opinions flying around – was my membership of the Crown Nominations Commission.  I have to stress that I was not a member of the Sheffield Commission and so know absolutely nothing about their deliberations.  But I do know how complex the processes are that the members of the CNC have to engage in and how strongly held opinions can too easily intervene in a process that you would hope responds only to the promptings of God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit!

But whatever happened and whatever has happened we are now left with a situation which seems to have blown those Five Guiding Principles that we gathered around as a church, out of the water or at the very least led people to ask the question as to whether they mean anything at all.

I had the privilege of being a member of the General Synod that finally voted to allow women to be ordained to the episcopate.  It was those principles which were the key to unlocking the impasse that had defeated us on previous occasions from moving forwards in the way that many of us believed God wanted us to do.  That phrase ‘mutual flourishing’ that was included in those Principles was one that I personally rejoiced in – but does it have cash value and is it possible?  The ‘North Affair’ is the first real test of this in relation to a Diocesan Bishop and it looks like a mess that is going to be very difficult to clear up.

The thing is that on the issue of ordained women at all levels of the church and the issue of the place of LGBTI+ people at every level of the church and the recognition and celebration of their faithful, committed relationships, we have been encouraged to disagree well.  At the moment it looks like we are only able to disagree badly.

There are no winners in what has happened in the Diocese of Sheffield and to Philip North, just as there were no winners when my dear friend and colleague Jeffrey John was forced to stand down from being Bishop of Reading.  There has to be a better way, there must be a better way.


The city of Sheffield

Perhaps though I’m just being naïve, perhaps the Five Guiding Principles are unworkable and especially in relation to the appointment of Diocesan Bishops who need to be, of their very nature, ‘a focus of unity’, not just for the clergy, not just for the laity, not just for the church but also for civic society, in the public square and some of what we saw in civic Sheffield was utter disbelief at a church in disarray and displaying, what can appear to be discrimination, and celebrating it.

I think it was also more than unfortunate that the ‘passports’, the ID cards for priests who are members of The Society, reassuring those who need to be reassured that their orders are valid because no woman has been involved in their ordination, were issued whilst the storm around Philip was raging.  To those, like me, who have tried not to talk about a ‘Doctrine of Taint’ being in the mind of some who hold that woman cannot be priests and, even when ordained, are not priests, it seems to suggest that there might be some very unpleasant opinions around that we might not want to flourish.

I have said too much; I am very sad that we are where we are, none of us is flourishing at the moment and Jesus must weep over us. My only consolation and hope is that from the very beginning God brought order out of chaos.  May he do it again and forgive us in the doing of it.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.


The threat of the outsider

The Gospel for the Eucharist today (Luke 7.1-10) was a gift, as the lections always are.  I was preaching at Southwark Cathedral and afterwards a number of people asked me to get the sermon out more widely.  So this is my sermon from this morning.

In that notorious film ‘The Life of Brian’ there’s a scene in which the members of the Judean People’s, or was it the People’s of Judea, are plotting against the foreign occupying force. Reg, the leader, in order to inspire a bit of passion in his comrades, asks them what has now become a famous question ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ After an initial silence suggestions begin to come forward until Reg is forced to come out with the final version of his question.

‘All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’

And still a lone voice answers ‘They’ve given us peace!’


What have the Romans ever done for us?


Capernaum was a prosperous town on the north bank of the Sea of Galilee and was where much of Jesus’ ministry was centred. It was close to the route that traders would’ve taken, there’d have been a good fishing industry from the lake and consequently it was a mixed, diverse and wealthy community. And amongst the Jews lived Romans and Jesus would’ve known them. He lived there, Peter lived there and pilgrims still visit the site of Peter’s house or more correctly Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, just across from the remains of the synagogue.

The gospel for today describes an event that took place in this town. Jesus has arrived back and as he enters some of the elders of the community approach him with a strange request. There’s a Roman centurion in the town who has a sick slave. Would Jesus heal him?

Just think for a moment what’s happening. This is a foreigner, a pagan, one of those oppressing, taxing and killing the people, subjecting them to the humiliation of occupation and here are the senior men of the town asking Jesus to cure his slave. These men were elders, so leaders of the community and leaders within the synagogue and they’re determined to make the case for why Jesus should perform this miracle.

‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ (v.4)

So this foreign, pagan soldier has become so much part of the community that he’s even built the place of worship, the place of gathering for the community. This is a remarkable guy. Jesus knew the synagogue, he’d taught in it and he’d make profound proclamations about his own nature within its walls, he’d performed a miracle of healing in it. He knew it.

So he goes with them. But whilst Jesus is on his way another set of messengers arrives. The Centurion feels uncomfortable. He feels unworthy. He recognises that Jesus is a great man and although he himself is powerful and obviously rich he doesn’t feel that he’s worthy to have Jesus in his house, under his roof. He says that was why he sent all these messengers – because he felt unworthy to approach Jesus himself. And then he says something remarkable

‘But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.’ (v.6)

He understands the power of command, he uses it all the time and he, a powerful man, recognises that Jesus is yet more powerful. And Jesus responds

‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ (v.9)

This Roman had done great things, through his generosity, but his faith had revealed something of the majesty and power of God, for his slave is made well.

We use a version of this Roman centurion’s words every Sunday as we come to the Eucharist and say in response to the invitation to communion

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.

In his book ‘The Meaning in the Miracles’ the Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, a former Canon here, points out another factor about this Roman living in their community. Jeffrey suggests that he was probably living something of a homosexual lifestyle. He comes to that conclusion because of the language that’s used about the slave.

The elders say of the slave that the Centurion valued him highly, others translate this as ‘he was very dear to him’. Luke uses two Greek words to describe him, the traditional word for a slave and also a word which can also mean son or boy, with overtones of affection. It was well known in Israel that the Romans engaged in homosexual acts and often, as in Greek culture, an older with a younger man and it was one of the things that the Jewish community objected strongly to. But here the elders, if this is true, advocate on behalf of a person who in many ways revolted them and went against their social norms.

Before the altar Solomon pleads not just on behalf of his own people but on behalf of the outsider, the foreigner.

‘Hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you.’ (1 Kings 8.43)

They’re outside of the faith community, they’re outside of the community as a whole but God is asked to regard those who are on the outside as he regards those who are on the inside. And Jesus does the same. It has to be Good News, the gospel that Paul speaks of in the beginning of his letter to the Galatians, the gospel that he wants the people to remain faithful to and not pervert.

We still have almost a month of the debate on the options that the referendum on EU membership will present us with. Don’t worry I’m not going to tell you which way to vote, I haven’t the audacity to do that and the Church of England has said we don’t have an official position on it – though the Church of Scotland has now decided it does. But one thing concerns me and that’s the way in which so many of the arguments that we’re being subjected to are concerned with the threat of the person from outside of our community, whatever that community is.

The person from outside is so often described as a threat to jobs, economy, the health service, the availability of school places, even British identity. What have foreigners ever done for us, is almost the Pythonesque question that’s asked of us.


The diverse community is the good community


Sometimes the fears are around people from other faith communities who come and live alongside us. The decision by the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to begin his mayoralty in this Cathedral was seen as scandalous by some and some Christians have attacked him and fabricated stories about him and this Cathedral simply because he’s Muslim. Now, that’s scandalous.

What we’ve committed ourselves to doing and being here is to celebrate diversity, not to tolerate it, not to put up with it, not to be suspicious of it, but to actually celebrate it and we do that because that is what Jesus does and as he looks at this Roman centurion, pagan, part of the oppressive army who will nail him to a cross, perhaps someone whose life style challenges their own social norms, he recognises that the depth and quality of his faith surpasses that of what he sees around him within his own birth community. He listens to the foreigner and finds in him true and deep faith just as another centurion will look at this Jesus hanging on the cross and testify to his divine nature

‘Surely this man was God’s son’.

The Gospel is perverted when we judge someone on account of their difference – the colour of their skin, their sexuality, their accent, their wealth or poverty, their ethnic background, their physical or mental ability, their gender, their faith. The Gospel is celebrated when you look at the person sitting next to you now and simply recognise God in them.

However we make up our minds in a few weeks time I hope that it won’t be because we fear the foreigner. God hears without prejudice and the humble yet powerful centurion stands as a challenge to each one of us.

challenge my deep seated
and denied prejudice
with your transforming and accepting love.

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

Led by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark