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.

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The clocks stopped

Yesterday I had the privilege to officiate at the funeral of PC Keith Palmer, a service which was held in Southwark Cathedral. Surrounded by his family, friends and colleagues tribute was paid to a man, doing his duty but in an exemplary way. The readings in the service, which was not broadcast to protect the privacy of his family, were John 15. 12–17 and the poem ‘Funeral Blues’ by W H Auden. This is the sermon that I preached.

The helmet and the rose

In the shadow of one of the world’s best known clocks, in the shadow of a tower from which the chimes announce the passing of the hours and the days and the years, bells which herald news and mark new beginnings, Keith died, doing his duty and it was as if in that moment the clocks stopped.

In moments as terrible as that it’s as though time stops as we try to catch up mentally with what’s just happened. It’s impossible to take in the full horror in a moment, the events of less than two minutes, two movements of those hands in which the injured lay and people were dying.

Keith’s death has affected all of us, in different ways and to different degrees. But for you, his family, that stopped moment in time took away your husband, your daddy. It took away a son, a brother, it took away a colleague and a friend and the friendly face of a friendly policemen at those gates with whom someone had just had a photo taken. A moment, the passing of the hands on the clock stole life and stole so much that we’d valued and thought was safe and secure, so much that’s at the heart of who we are as a nation.

The poet W H Auden describes so well the feeling of grief, of loss, ‘Stop all the clocks’. We don’t want time to move on, how can it when time has taken from us what we love. Grief is an agony deep in the heart of us, deep where love lies, that love we thought ‘would last forever’, that timeless love, killed in time.

Auden ends his poem with a cry of despair

‘nothing now can ever come to any good’

But we can’t allow that to be true, even though every instinct we have, the pain we bear, tells us that that is how it is, now that the clock moves on, we cannot allow it to be true that ‘nothing now can ever come to any good’.

Jesus is speaking to his friends. Time for them is moving on and they’re approaching the events that we’re remembering this week, the week when Christians remember the death of Jesus, the day we call Good Friday. In an Upper Room away from the crowds he washed their feet, the Master became the servant, to teach them how to love and then into their shock and amazement he gives them a new commandment

‘love one another as I have loved you.’

He then says something extraordinary.

‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’

Keith was doing his duty, doing what he always did. Then what happened happened. My instinct would’ve been to run away to save myself, to distance myself from the danger. Keith’s instinct was to run towards his assailant and in that act to lay down his life, for his friends, but for more than that, for much more than that.

Keith laid down his life for each one of us here, and each one of you who’ve lined the streets and filled the bridges of this city today, who kept vigil last night, who gathered in the Abbey last week, who laid flowers on Westminster Bridge and in Parliament Square, who’ve posted messages on social media, all who cried in front of their TVs, who listened in disbelief to their radios – we are those friends, known and unknown. He died for the politicians who represent us, he died for the democracy he was protecting, he died for the freedom we treasure. In a split second he made a decision, not to flee but to confront, and it cost him everything – and none of us will be the same again.

There is no greater love than this.

This week we’ll remember Jesus being led to the place of crucifixion, a seemingly broken man. But our Anglo-Saxon forbears thought of him, pictured him, differently. A poem was written a thousand years ago, as if the cross itself were telling its story and in it the cross says

‘I saw then the Saviour of mankind hasten with great zeal, as if he wanted to climb up on me. There I did not dare, against the word of the Lord, bow or break, when I saw the corners of the earth tremble.’

Not a reluctant victim but a warrior saviour, ready to lay down his life for his friends, a heroic act like a person, like Keith, doing his duty in the split second when he could have saved himself.

‘Nothing now can ever come to any good’ says Auden and it must have seemed the same to Mary the mother of Jesus and his friends standing by the cross, watching, as time stopped and the corners of the earth trembled. ‘Nothing now can ever come to any good’ is something you may have thought, or may be feeling.

Auden has the answer though, except he skips over it in his grief

‘I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.’

He wasn’t wrong, love does last forever. Your love for Keith will last forever and the act of supreme love that Keith performed in that split second before the clocks stopped, will last forever and it will bear fruit, fruit, as Jesus said to his friends, ‘fruit that will last’.

The Christian message and the message of Easter is timeless because it’s about eternity, the forever of God in which love and life and truth and hope and goodness and peace are always victorious. They tried to kill it all as they nailed him to the cross, there are those who wish to kill what we treasure and they think they can with random acts of terror and violence, here on our streets and in Paris, Nice, Munich, Stockholm, yesterday in Egypt and in so many places, but they can’t. Because love is stronger than hate and peace is mightier than war and life is the conqueror of death. That’s why we are Christians, because Jesus rose from the dead so that we might rise as well. The fruit of Easter is eternal life, beyond time, the forever love that we’re never wrong about.

And though we may not see it now, that supreme act of love that, in a split second, led Keith to act as he did, for each of us here, will bear fruit, fruit that will last. For evil to succeed all it takes is for a good man to do nothing. This good man did something, gave everything. Evil will not succeed – it has already been defeated.

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

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In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015

LIVING GOD

Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

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Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark