The island

I think it was around 1992.  I was asked if I would go out to the Ascension Island in the South Atlantic to provide cover whilst the Vicar of the island and Chaplain to the RAF base (the same person) and his wife went off on a much needed holiday.  It was the chance of a lifetime – so of course I said yes.  The RAF flew me out from Brize Norton and I arrived, linen jacket and panama hat at the ready to be the Padre of my imagination.  At that stage the island was the place where planes heading for the Falkland Islands had to refuel.  The place was very busy with all that activity, with the US Airforce base, the BBC, GCHQ and a few others.  The island is the product of relatively recent volcanic activity, a series of cones on this new piece of land much of it black clinker, much of it barren, but with a strange beauty.

In the main town, the only real town, the capital of the island, Georgetown, stands the lovely little Anglican church of St Mary, next to the parade ground and the ex-pats club with its 1950’s portrait of the Queen.  It was a place of history where you could easily feel close to another, older, past Britain that existed in this kind of style.

The highest mountain on which the Governor has a residence, is Green Mountain.  From there you get the most amazing views as you do from all of the peaks.  I have never been anywhere from which you can see the edges of the land all around you and know that there is nothing for hundreds and thousands of miles in each direction. This really was an island, a place of fantasy and imagination, away from it all.


An old view of Britain


As I was listening to the Prime Minister speaking in Florence on Friday about Brexit she was talking at one stage about our geographical position, our place as an island on the western edge of continental Europe as one of the justifications for our direction of travel.  As I listened I was reminded of that wonderful poem by John Donne.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Donne was writing so many centuries ago, almost 400 years ago, and yet his words ring true for us, the bell tolls as clearly now as it did then.  The ‘little islander’ mentality does not serve us well.  We can imagine, as on the Ascension Island as it was then, that we are living in a little British colonial world or we can wake up and live in the real world.

What amazes me when I read the Acts of the Apostles was the global perspective that Paul, in particular, had.  Island hopping, moving from city to city, understanding the world beyond national boundaries, but looking instead to a universal vision for humankind, this was what drove Paul in his missionary journeys that stitched the church into Europe and Asia Minor.

The church is woven into the fabric of Europe and the fabric of the world.  There are no islands ‘entire of itself’ for Christians.

may I live on the mainland of life
and not escape to my imaginary island.


‘I am with you always’

This is the text of the sermon I preached at Southwark Cathedral on Trinity Sunday 2017 the day on which we were able to reopen the Cathedral following the terrorist attack on our community a week before.

Saturday night last week was like a living nightmare. It’s the kind of experience that only happens to other people, not to you, not on your own doorstep. But it happened to us, it happened on our own doorstep, literally; it happened in our own community that we love and that we’ve served in Christ’s name for over 1400 years. Those years have seen their share of war and pestilence and fire but I doubt that ever before has the church been inaccessible to worshippers for a week, inaccessible as the place of peace and contemplation that people expect and need, inaccessible as the place of welcome and embracing, radical hospitality and love that we seek to be. But it happened.


When I first heard that something was happening in the London Bridge area I put on my dog collar and headed down Bankside to try and open up the Cathedral so that we could be a place of refuge. But initially I didn’t get far.

So I went through the back alleys and got as far as Park Street and Neal’s Yard Dairy and the Market Porter. But heavily armed police barred my way and forced me back. ‘Run, run’ was all they shouted. I was directed on to Southwark Street and there saw people lying on the pavement being cared for by the emergency services. ‘Run, run’ was all I could hear through the sound of sirens and helicopters and I was forced on and on until I got back to the Deanery and shut the door behind me on the living nightmare.

Around midnight I received a text from Amir Eden, a young man who lives on Park Street, a lawyer who was a pupil at Cathedral School, a practising Muslim who’s the chair of the Bankside Residents Forum. ‘Could I come to yours? I can’t really go anywhere.’ was his text. I texted back ‘Of course’ and so he arrived and with 8 other people spent the night in our house.

The rest I suppose you know about. 8 brutally killed, 48 horribly injured. The Cathedral was forcibly entered by the police searching for more attackers, doors broken down, glass smashed in a desperate effort to stop more bloodshed. It happened on our doorstep, on the threshold of God’s house.

And now we’re here on this Trinity Sunday, back in this sacred place, which is still sacred. The risen body of Jesus bears the marks of the nails and the spear and Jesus shows his hands and his side to his disciples. The Sacristy door shows the marks of the baton rounds fired at it to break open the door and allow the police access. We bear on our body the marks of suffering that so many bear in their flesh and in their soul and spirit.

St Matthew places the final encounter of the disciples with the risen Jesus not on the Mount of Olives, just outside the city of Jerusalem, but back in Galilee, the place where they started, the place of call and from that place of call he sends them out to the nations, to take the Good News, to baptise and teach. But then, before he leaves them he makes a promise, a promise to them and a promise to us.

Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. (Matthew 28.20)

In the horror of the moment it’s all too easy to imagine that you’re on your own, that you’re abandoned to the nightmare, lost in the terror, but Jesus says ‘No; remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.

God was not absent on that Saturday night; God is never absent. The Psalmist knows it to be true when they say

Where can I go then from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. (Psalm 139.7-8)

We are not abandoned by the Sprit, we are not abandoned by the Father, we are not abandoned by the Son for we have this promise ‘I am with you always.’

On Friday I was invited to go to our local mosque by the Imam. I went with other clergy from here and we were welcomed with open arms. I’d been invited to speak to a packed congregation. The Imam preached about our shared humanity and our shared heritage through Adam and I was able to respond to that, taking your greetings to our brothers and sisters, telling them that we do not hold the Muslim community to blame, telling them that we recognise that we share so much, praying, peace upon you, greeting them as Paul greets the Christians in the multi-cultural, multi-faith, complex and exciting city of Corinth

‘Live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you’. ( 2 Corinthians 13.11)

That is what we have to do. What we share is what God has given, a shared heritage, a shared humanity, not just with the Muslim community but with all people, all men and women, regardless of anything that others might identify as difference. Difference does not mean division unless we chose to make it so, and we chose to make difference a blessing and an enrichment to our community which is why we celebrate who you are, who we are, male and female, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight – and I will say that again and again and again from this pulpit until it is deep in all our hearts, to the very core of our being.

The great metaphysical poet and Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, famously wrote a poem, so well known.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

‘Any man’s death diminishes me’ which is what the Quran teaches, that killing one life is killing all life. We have all been scarred by what happened last Saturday on our doorstep and we will bear those scars. But they will not make us bitter but make us stronger.

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ said Edmund Burke. We will not do nothing. We will rebuild with the community what good things we have, we will rebuild the joy and diversity, the confidence, the acceptance, the inclusive, radically beautiful nature of this community that has been built over centuries and millennia. The roots go deep and cannot be destroyed by evil men and we will not allow it but will confront that evil with love.

wounds of crucifixion

We bear on our body the marks of Jesus

The Feast of the Holy Trinity is the feast of relationship, that beautiful relationship of diversity in the very Godhead, the Perichoresis, the divine dance into which we’re drawn. And we’re drawn and invited to this altar, through the Spirit, by the Father, to share in what the Son gives to us. With scarred hands he gives his broken body to us, gives his shed blood to us, and he asks us to eat and drink so that through his death we may have life. He is always with us, always, at the altar, in the world, walking through the dangerous places and showing his scarred self to a scarred world and making it, ultimately, beautiful.

Loving God,
when terror came to our doorstep
and stalked our streets
you were there with us in the fear and agony.
Remain with us
and with all those caught up
in the horror of these events
the injured and distressed
those who died
and all who seek your peace
which passes understanding.

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.

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