A cloud on the horizon

We’ve all had that experience, lying on the beach, soaking up the rays, and then suddenly seeing on the horizon some cloud bubbling up.  Will it head in our direction, will we be running from the beach, towel in hand, escaping the downpour? The prophet Elijah had a similar experience, though he wasn’t sunbathing at the time.  Instead it was a time of drought in the land of Israel. Elijah predicted to Ahab that the drought would end and the heavens open and rain would be heard.  But there was no sign of it.  So Elijah keeps on sending his servant up to the top of the mountain to look for the cloud.

elijah cloud

‘Look, a little cloud …’


On the seventh time of looking the servant cries out

‘Look, a little cloud no bigger than a person’s hand is rising out of the sea.’ (1 Kings 18.44)

Like the cloud viewed from the beach, what looked small on the horizon, something the size of a person’s hand, suddenly becomes one of those big clouds that bring rain (or snow) and so it was for Elijah and Ahab.

There was a wonderful picture during the beginning of last weeks ‘snowmageddon’ which showed half of London under a heavy snow-laden cloud, half still in sunshine.  But the cloud delivered what it promised!

We are living with a large cloud in Southwark Cathedral during this season of Lent.  Susie MacMurray’s installation, ‘Doubt’, is causing a lot of interest and discussion.  For some it is too oppressive and depressing and I can understand that; for others it is a welcome invitation to think about their own clouds and also a permission-giving way of thinking about doubt.  But perhaps it has come at just the right time as a cloud hangs not just in Southwark but over all Cathedrals.

Those who try to keep up to date with the life of cathedrals, the real life Barchesters and Lindchesters of the Church of England, will be aware that last year there was a little local difficulty in two of our forty-two great cathedrals.  Problems were encountered at both Peterborough and Exeter which have had very serious consequences in those wonderful places and the ripples have caught the rest of the forty.  In order to look at some of the underlying issues which helped to create the situation in those two places and have contributed to something of the financial difficulties in many more, the Archbishops established a Working Group under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Stepney (himself a former Dean) to look at the issues of governance and financial control.

The deadline for responding to the draft report from the Working Group, which was published at the beginning of January, was last Wednesday.  All over the country people were trying to squeeze and conform their responses into the straightjacket of an online response form, to reflect the subtlety and nuance of what they needed to say in a system that allowed for neither. But in one way or another I suspect all of us have managed it, for better or worse.

In order to gauge opinion at Southwark the Chapter organised two meetings, one for the congregation, another for an expanded joint meeting of Chapter and Council (the Council has become something of an endangered species in this draft report). There was much that both meetings saw as positive, but much that we at Southwark were already doing, around financial scrutiny and reporting, around Safeguarding and resilience.

But there is a cloud ‘the size of a person’s hand’ rising from the sea.

Anthony Trollope explained how Barchester looked in his imagination

“Let us presume that Barchester is a quiet town in the West of England, more remarkable for the beauty of its cathedral and the antiquity of its monuments than for any commercial prosperity; that the west end of Barchester is the cathedral close, and that the aristocracy of Barchester are the bishop, dean, and canons, with their respective wives and daughters.”


The ‘aristocracy’ ,as he describes it, is clerical, bishop, dean and canons.  That was the way it was and that is the way it is.  We employ many wonderful lay people at Southwark without whom nothing would happen (the world is very different from Trollope’s day) and our governance structures are filled with talented lay people.  But it is the bishop, dean and canons who have the task of leadership and in a particular and subtle way.

The bishop is not the dean and takes their seat in the cathedral with the dean’s permission. The dean is not a canon who hold their own office and are given in their licence ‘a voice on Chapter’ which is more than simply being heard. It is a delicate structure formed over the last 450 years since the Elizabethan Settlement, adapted and changed, but essentially holding to that ideal that Trollope’s ecclesiastical aristocracy have the responsibility of governing and leading the cathedral.

So want is the small cloud? I think somewhere underlying some of the proposals, especially around the role of the dean and the role of the bishop and the role of the canons is a fundamental anti-clericalism that is creeping into the church on the back of a passion for a more ‘managed’ style of church.  It is thought, and probably with some justification, that you don’t find those ‘business’ qualities circled by a dog-collar but are found in those in the ‘real’ world.  So the logic is to move the power into the hands of those who know what they are doing.

This is a cloud that could bring a storm. For the cathedrals nor dioceses are ‘businesses’, our business is God and everything else that we do, which, yes, involves running enterprise sides to our life, is subservient to the principle duty of the bishop, dean and canons, to worship God and to lead others in that worship.  That is where all cathedrals, even those who fail some of the ‘business’ tests, are serving the church, and God, wonderfully well.  You only have to look through our doors to know that that is true.

So what do we do now? Well, the on-line responses will be analysed and a final report produced.  When, I do not know.  But I shall keep climbing that mountain to see what is happening to the cloud! Until then I will pray the prayer of a great defender of the Anglican catholic church in the early seventeenth century, Archbishop William Laud.  This is his prayer, and mine.

Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Saviour. Amen.


Under a cloud

Christina Rossetti wrote a poem about clouds, called ‘Clouds’.

White sheep, white sheep,
On a blue hill,
When the wind stops,
You all stand still.
When the wind blows,
You walk away slow.
White sheep, white sheep,
Where do you go?


‘White sheep, white sheep’


The cloud that hangs in the choir of Southwark Cathedral and will do for the whole of the season of Lent is nothing like the white fluffy clouds that chase like sheep across a blue sky as we walk the downs, nothing like the high pale cloud that keeps the heat down on a summer ‘s day.  The cloud that hangs in the Cathedral has something dark and menacing about it.  As you enter the Cathedral it is as if something has exploded and left a large black cloud hanging, get nearer and it alters the light, it is heavy, not light, a clack sheep amongst Rossetti’s ‘white sheep, on a blue hill’.

Like a lot of installation art, this piece by Susie MacMurray is to be experienced as much as looked at. You need to come into the Cathedral and look at it from a distance and then dare to approach it, to sit under the cloud and feel its brooding weight,

Clouds feature a great deal in scripture and in the Christian tradition. Popular imagination might expect faith to be lived out in bright clear sunshine but from that moment when Moses climbed the holy mountain, shrouded in cloud, and experienced the presence of God, it has been a familiar experience and theme. The Gospel writers described a similar event in the Transfiguration of Jesus and as Jesus died on the cross the clouds brought night into day and the onlookers were plunged into darkness. All of these things and much more are captured in this installation.


A brooding presence


But it is called ‘Doubt’ and that directs us towards another direction of Christian thinking and experience. The mediaeval mystical tradition in this country did not shy away from the cloud which can exist in the world of faith. In ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ a 14th century book written anonymously the writer says ‘Beat with a sharp dart of longing love upon this cloud of unknowing which is between you and your God.’

The cloud that Susie MacMurray has created and which dominates the chancel and high altar sanctuary during Lent and Holy Week, draws us into this apophatic tradition. We recognise our doubts and sense the darkness but beat both ‘with a sharp dart of longing love.’

I invite you to experience it with us. I will be spending a long time under it this Lent and exploring my own doubt, and it’s opposite, faith. And I’m sure I will, after Good Friday, be longing for the cloud to lift and the bright light of Easter to shine.

God of mystery,
when the cloud descends,
when you seem unknown,
when doubts assail me
and darkness surrounds me,
lift the mist, break into the darkness
and let your light shine
in me
and through me.

Crisps and sackcloth

Presumably Theresa May, our Prime Minister, eats lots of crisps, perhaps as she considers Article 50, her finger hovering gently over the button.  Presumably crisps are the Achilles heel of what appears a well ordered, neat life because we were told last week that the Prime Minister is giving up crisps for Lent.  I was delighted to hear it.  Not that I have anything against crisp eaters (for my American followers I’m talking about chips!). In fact, I love a bag of crisps.  I was fortunate enough growing up in Leicester to be able to go to the Walkers pork shops in the city.  They sold wonderful pork pies but they also sold crisps, Walkers crisps.  Their pork pies haven’t gone global but the crisps have.  Gary Lineker’s family fruit and veg stall was just a short distance in Leicester Market from Walkers’ premier shop.  The queues used to be round the block before Christmas as we queued for a big, family sized pie and presumably some crisps.  So it’s always been good seeing local boy Gary promoting crisp eating as a national pastime!


Queuing for pork pies and maybe crisps in Leicester


Giving up things for Lent is of course an important part of the whole discipline of the season.  Yes, like many priests, I’ve preached about how its important to take things on, have a positive Lent and not see it simply in negative terms. ‘Read the Bible … go walking … help at a project.’ All those things are good but let’s be honest, giving up something we enjoy isn’t easy and maybe there’s some virtue in doing something that does challenge our tendency, my tendency, to self indulgence.  We can only imagine the pain Mrs May is going through as she opens the door to her well-stocked crisp cupboard knowing she can feast her eyes and not her appetite for those greasy slices of deep fried, heavily flavoured potato.

One solution is of course for her to cover the crisp cupboard door in sackcloth.  After all, that’s precisely what we do in church.  The vergers at Southwark Cathedral spent Calop Monday and Shrove Tuesday taking down the altar frontals and hangings and replacing them with ‘Lent array’.  Ours was designed by Sir Ninian Comper, sackcloth on which have been stencilled various symbols, crosses, chi-rho, fleur-de-lis, that kind of thing.  They cover up the more splendid decorations, give a fast to the eyes before Easter comes as the feast for the whole person.  As Passiontide begins on the Fifth Sunday of Lent the statues and the icons will also be covered, obscuring all that is decorative so that our focus is elsewhere.


The Lady Chapel at Southwark Cathedral dressed for Lent


I had an object lesson the other day as to why its important for clergy to wear a clerical collar (a dog collar) in the street.  I was meeting a friend outside one of the many branches of ‘Pret a Manger’ round the Cathedral.  There was a young guy standing there as well, dressed for the office.  ‘Hello Father’ he said, ‘Have you given anything up for Lent?’ ‘I have’ I replied ‘bread and coffee, which makes me wonder why I’m going to this sandwich and coffee place for lunch!’.  He laughed.  ‘What have you given up?’ I asked. ‘Chocolate’ he replied ‘I eat far too much of it.  But Lent’s longer than forty days and forty nights isn’t it?’  A conversation followed about the season.  I didn’t ask him about church – I’m not a very good evangelist, but the conversation was about an outworking of faith and it reminded me how important Lent remains and how the crisp news story might have reminded people of that.

But a good Lent involves both crisps and sackcloth, the discipline and the repentance that in fact that Lent array represents in a visual way.  A good Lent does involve doing good for the poor and the marginalised, the refugee, the oppressed.  A good Lent does involve treading a hard path and occupying something of the wilderness space.  Crisps and sackcloth are only the beginning.

Robert Herrick, a 17th century English poet, reminds us of the truth of all of this in his poem ‘To keep a true Lent’

IS this a fast, to keep
The larder lean ?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep ?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish ?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A downcast look and sour ?

No; ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

Those words ‘to fast from strife, from old debate and hate’ are the real challenge.  As the debates rage about the implications for our neighbours, colleagues and friends of Brexit, as we seek the restoration of the Dubs amendment so that lone refugee children can be brought to a place of safety, giving up crisps, giving up anything pales into insignificance. For God wants us to keep the true fast, the good Lent and the challenge comes to us from the prophet Isaiah.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly. (Isaiah 58.6-8a)

as I enter the wilderness
and walk with you the path to Calvary
may I keep a true fast
and a good Lent
that lets the oppressed
go free.

Fifth Station – Feet

For the past five week we have been walking, in a virtual way, around the Lent art installation in Southwark Cathedral.  The pieces, all by the artist Peter Burke, are made from soil – hence the title we gave them, ‘Earthworks’. I liked that title when it was suggested because it described the pieces but it also took us into the possibility of theological reflection and that is the real point for me. Lent is a time for going deeper, into God, into self, into discipleship and whether it’s through some self imposed discipline, or a study group or reading a Lent book or doing good works or just (and that is no value judgement) looking at art, all these things help us in that aim.

But the title worked on another level for me as well.  All around Southwark Cathedral there are development and redevelopment sites.  The most dramatic have been around the Shard and London Bridge Station but there are many significant building sites a stones throw from the Cathedral. As a lad I often went out with my dad on a Saturday.  He was in Building Control but at the weekends was a part-time architect.  We’d often go and inspect the progress on a building site.  The first stage is of course the ground works, or, lets call them, the earthworks.  Getting those right was essential for what was going to be built above.  Vast and deep caverns are opened up in the ground to take the buildings around the Cathedral and much is exposed as that happens.  In Borough High Street we’ve seen in recent months the foundations of inns from the time of Chaucer, Roman bath complexes, a renaissance palace, all exposed.  Digging down produces treasure and helps us build – and that must be part of Lent.


Digging beneath London Bridge Station


The final station on our ‘Earthworks’ journey is at the High Altar where we find an incomplete circle of feet.  They emerge and disappear beneath the altar, an ongoing and mysterious circle.  Our virtual feet have brought us to this point and now we look at these feet.

‘Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ (Mark 16.7)

Where are these feet heading? Where are your feet taking you? What journey are they on? What journey are you on?

One of the powerful themes throughout the Bible is that of the journey. We are a pilgrim people, people on the move, ‘with no abiding city’ (Hebrews 13.14). Our father Abraham travelled, Moses and the children of Israel travelled, the exiles to Babylon travelled back to their land of freedom, Jesus spent his ministry on the road. After his resurrection he is on the move again and goes ahead of the disciples, messaging them to follow him.


You have travelled round this Cathedral, stopping, looking, thinking, praying and now you arrive at these mysterious feet. We see most of the journey – but not all of it. It seems to disappear, beneath the altar, out of our sight, out of your sight, and we are left wondering – where are these feet heading, what journey are they on and where am I heading?

The truth for each of us is that, whilst we may not know the details of the journey, we never travel alone as none of our forebears did. Our God treads this earth from which we were made, accompanies, companions us on the road and pioneers the path ahead.


Wherever you go from here – God will go with you – as will this ancient Celtic blessing.

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Fourth Station – Behold the Man

This is Passion Sunday. Although the Passion of the Lord is not read on this Sunday, we wait for that until Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week, yet the emphasis changes.  It may be that in your church, certainly in Southwark Cathedral, there is an even greater sense of austerity and solemnity.  The statues are covered in purple veiling.  It is as though the building itself is weeping, as though the whole place is already in mourning.  The Lenten fast has even taken the images and the icons and the statues from us. There is nothing to ‘feast’ our eyes on.

Instead we are called to look upon Jesus and to enter into the experience not so much of the wilderness, which is where it all began, but enter into the passion itself.

Over the past four weeks we’ve been making a virtual journey around the art installation – ‘Earthworks’ that is at present in the Cathedral.  The images will be there until Holy Saturday.  They are not veiled.  Instead there is something very austere about them already.  There is nothing sumptuous, nothing gilded, nothing glamorous about them.  They are dust and as with us, ultimately to dust they will return.

Last week we were looking at the series of heads that are in the retrochoir.  As we move past them we come across another standing figure, similar to the one we saw in the distant.  But now we are quite close to it.  In its starkness we look upon it.

The prayer that accompanies the journey which we have called ‘Earthworks’ is this.

Creator God,
from the earth you took us,
to the dust we will return
and from the soil
you brought your son, Jesus,
an earthwork
to lead us heavenward.
Open our earthy hands to receive you,
guide our earthy feet to find you
and may we stand before you,
created before creator.

Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’ (John 19.5)

Is this the same person that you saw on your way into the retrochoir? But now you are closer and can look more closely. Who is this person?


The climax of Jesus’ journey to the cross came in the courtyard, the gathering place, the residence of the Governor, Pontius Pilate. The arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, the subsequent beatings and false accusations had delivered Jesus – broken, bleeding, exhausted – to this place of judgement. Many of those who saw him now had seen him before, but not like this. They had seen him by the lakeside in Galilee and decided to follow him. They had seen him in towns and villages, healing, touching and they had been attracted to him. They had seen him teaching on hillsides and in the Temple and they had listened to him. They had seen him on a donkey entering Jerusalem and had welcomed him. But they had not seen him like this.

Above the noise of the crowds, as Jesus reappears wearing the mocking garb of a ‘dress-up’ king, Pilate shouts ‘Ecce Homo’, ‘Behold the man’. And they looked.

Earthwork torso
We have seen this figure before but not like this. Behold the man. Nothing hides him from us. His nakedness has removed any clue we might have had as to who he is. Does that shock you? Does his nakedness in a sacred place offend you? Here is the man, made from the earth, the earthwork of God, and, stripped of all as he is nailed to the cross, Jesus is the man of the earth raised towards heaven.

Jesus, Saviour,
earthwork of God,
by your cross and resurrection,
raise us from the dust of the earth
to the glory of heaven.

Earthworks – Heads

Each year we host an art installation at Southwark Cathedral during Lent and Holy Week which we hope will be a means of helping people enter more fully into the season.  This year the works are by Peter Burke, parts of the human anatomy, on a human scale which we’ve collected together and called ‘Earthworks’.  The artist has used soil to create them and for people of faith there’s an instant link with this to the creation myths and the way in which we were created from that same soil.

Jesus, sharing in our humanity through the self emptying, the humility of the incarnation enters this ‘earthy’ nature.  That word humility is in itself an ‘earth’ word, drawing from the Latin for soil, earth.

Visitors to Southwark Cathedral are encouraged to make the journey amongst the various elements of the installation.  But we can do that virtually as well.  So during these weeks of Lent I’ve been sharing my own reflections on what we see.  On Palm Sunday evening at 6.00pm we will make the journey together and if you are in London you are very welcome to share in ‘Earthworks’ with me.

The prayer that is accompanying the installation is the place we begin.

Creator God,
from the earth you took us,
to the dust we will return
and from the soil
you brought your son, Jesus,
an earthwork
to lead us heavenward.
Open our earthy hands to receive you,
guide our earthy feet to find you
and may we stand before you,
created before creator.

So far we’ve looked at a series of hands in the nave and then, walking towards the retrochoir at the east end of the Cathedral we see a distant figure.  Then entering the most ancient and peaceful space (the retrochoir of the Cathedral was the first part to be rebuilt after the devastating Great Fire of Southwark in 1212) we see a series of faces.  It’s these that we now contemplate together.

Face 1

He will drink from the stream by the path;
therefore he will lift up his head.
(Psalm 110.7)

Look at these heads? What do they say to you? What mood are they in?

Human beings have a wonderful gift of facial recognition. We remember a face, even though we often forget the name and part of the horror of dementia is having this basic human ability taken from us. ‘I know your face’ we say and we do, even though it is composed of the very same elements as every other face that has been created. And faces tell us so much. These faces, cracked, incomplete, perhaps they tell us a variety of stories.

As St Stephen stood before the Council those judging him ‘looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.’ (Acts 6.15)

In Dylan Thomas’ play for voices ‘Under Milk Wood’ one of the characters, Lily Smalls, on getting up in the morning, looks at herself in a shaving mirror and says

Oh there’s a face!
Where you get that hair from?
Got it from a old tom cat.
Give it back then, love.
Oh there’s a perm!

When you look at yourself what do you think, what do you like, what do you despise, what do you see?

Face 2

No one bothered to describe for us what Jesus looked like. Not one of the evangelists, not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, seemed to think that what Jesus looked like was important. Yet I would love to know. As he journeyed to the cross people saw him, head crowned with thorns, blood running down, perhaps looking nothing like his mother knew him. And when she met him on that Via Dolorosa, when Veronica wiped that face, what did they see and what looked back at them? Perhaps even in all that pain, love looked back at them.

That ‘sacred head, sore wounded’ would be raised up.

The Head that once was crowned with thorns
Is crowned with glory now;
A royal diadem adorns
The mighty Victor’s brow.

Look at these heads? What do they say to you? What mood are they in? And see yourself as others see you, see yourself as God sees you.

Face 3

Lord, you know me and love me.
May I recognise your face in those around me.
May I recognise your face when I look at myself.

Earthworks – The Distant Figure

Last week we began a five week journey through this year’s art installation at Southwark Cathedral. Each year an artist helps us explore something through the medium of art which we hope will enhance people’s engagement with Lent. The invitation is to come to the Cathedral and journey through the elements of this installation, the work of the artist Peter Burke. Those, however who cannot get to the Cathedral can nevertheless make the same journey through these pictures and thoughts.

The prayer that accompanies the journey which we have called ‘Earthworks’ is this

Creator God,
from the earth you took us,
to the dust we will return
and from the soil
you brought your son, Jesus,
an earthwork
to lead us heavenward.
Open our earthy hands to receive you,
guide our earthy feet to find you
and may we stand before you,
created before creator.

The visitor begins by looking at a series of hands which are in the nave of the Cathedral. Then they make their way into the south choir aisle where they are encouraged to pause and look towards the retrochoir where the next elements of the installation areto be found. In the distance they see a standing but at this stage, distant figure.

‘Who is this that comes from Edom,
from Bozrah in garments stained crimson?
Who is this so splendidly robed,
marching in his great might?’

‘It is I, announcing vindication,
mighty to save.’
(Isaiah 63.1)

What do you think when you see this figure in the distance? Does it unsettle you? Are you not quite sure what to make of it?


On the morning of the resurrection Mary Magdalene, in the first light of dawn, sees someone approaching and does not know who it is. In reality she knew exactly who the person was, she had spent so much time with him, he had pulled her life back from the brink. But at that moment she didn’t realise that it was Jesus. As we see a figure in the distance we are not always certain what to expect.

The prophets, people like Isaiah, looked into the future and saw dim reflections of what was to come. ‘Who is this?’ asks the prophet. ‘It is I’ comes the response. But though they couldn’t see everything clearly they prepared us for the one who was to come, Jesus, whose journey to the cross we remember at this time. When people first met him they often asked the question ‘Who are you?’ and then as they got to know him, as they heard his teaching, as he healed them, forgave them what they saw became clearer and like Peter they were able to say

‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ (Matthew 16.16)

He saw clearly who Jesus was – the distant figure was now the imminent figure, God among us.


What do you think when you see this figure in the distance? Does it unsettle you?

Think about how people see you. Do you allow them to see who you really are? Do you allow people to come close and know you, fully, or do you prefer others to keep their distance? Jesus drew people to him so that they knew that he really was the one ‘mighty to save.’


Loving God,
in Jesus you have come close to us.
May we allow others to draw close
to know us as you know us
to enter our space
and share our lives.

Earthworks – Hands

Each year at Southwark Cathedral we host an art installation for the season of Lent. This year’s installation is the work of the artist, Peter Burke. Peter has taken a variety of soils, from different places and from them has created elements of the human form. He hasn’t done this from any theological, spiritual understanding but is fascinated by the materials and by the body. When you approach this work however through the eyes of faith it speaks in a different way. We have given this collection of his work the title ‘Earthworks’. That title was firstly inspired by the Book of Genesis which begins with two poetic descriptions of creation, one of which uses the idea of God taking the very stuff of the earth and making a man from it.

‘Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.’ (Genesis 2.7)

Jesus is often called ‘the Second Adam’ and in his First Letter to the Christians in Corinth St Paul compares the ‘earthy’ man with the ‘heavenly’ man.

‘The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.’ (1 Corinthians 15.47)

But, of course, the truth is that in being born a child, Jesus shared our earthy nature but transformed it with heavenly glory. We know that from dust we came and to dust we will return but we also believe that this body will be transformed to become like Christ’s glorious body.

The season of Lent gives us an opportunity to think about our own ‘earthy’ journey as we think about the one that Jesus took that led him to the cross.

The invitation to visitors to the Cathedral is to follow the trail, a series of five stations around the Cathedral. But if you can’t physically get there, there’s no reason not to follow the trail.  So over these next five weeks of Lent I invite you to do this.

The prayer that accompanies the journey is where we begin.

Creator God,
from the earth you took us,
to the dust we will return
and from the soil
you brought your son, Jesus,
an earthwork
to lead us heavenward.
Open our earthy hands to receive you,
guide our earthy feet to find you
and may we stand before you,
created before creator.

For the visitor the prayer journey begins in the south aisle of the Cathedral with the First Station – Hands. The installation is of a whole series of hands, at first sight identical, but on closer examination they’re not.  Not just in their colour are they different.


‘When he had said this, Jesus showed them his hands and his feet.’ (Luke 24.40)

Whose hands are these? Are they held out hoping to receive something – help, a gift? Are they hands of a beggar in a street, of a person needing a helping hand?

Jesus used his hands all the time. People were coming to him wanting him to lay his hands on them, to heal them. His hands were stretched out all the time and in the end those same healing, helping hands were roughly taken, held against the wood of the cross and nails were driven through them.


But we are looking not at one set of hands but at many – and they are all slightly different. The soil from which they have been made is different and the hands show the signs of this. But seen like this perhaps they look more like a crowd – like refugees whose hands try to get through a fence to grasp for help. They are like the hands a priest sees at the altar rail, waiting to receive the bread of the Eucharist. They are like the hands of the homeless on our streets wanting some money, wanting some food.


Whose hands are these? How do they make you feel?

Look at your own hands – smooth and manicured; rough and work worn; young or old. These hands tell a story and so do yours and so do the hands of Jesus which he holds out to his friends, a story of love and of the cross.


Lord, bless my hands,
that they may build and not destroy,
give and not only take,
hold and not push away,
tell my story
and show my love.

Within the light

We’ve been living with Angela Glajcar’s Lent art installation, ‘Within the light’ for two weeks now.  I use the phrase ‘living with’ purposely because with this sort of art that is what you do, you live with it.  We sit in our stalls and say our prayers, we sing the Offices under the brooding presence of this expanse of white material.  So over time you get to know it, you discover things about it.  For many people, of course, their encounter with art is a one-off experience.  You visit a gallery and see a picture or a sculpture or an installation and then you move on to the next room or the gift shop or the cafe and that is it.  You will probably not be in the gallery for a long time – if ever again – and that piece of art may not be there when next you visit.  So it’s a privilege to live with art as we do over Lent.

'Within the light' from the western view

‘Within the light’ from the western view

As with anything there are a variety of reactions to Glajcar’s piece.  Some people love it, it doesn’t do anything for other people.  You have to come and make your own decision, your own judgment. For those who find it more difficult I think that the issue is that it is not immediately obvious when you come in at the west end what it is about – if ‘about’ is the right word!  The face it shows from the west is perhaps not the most exciting.  So this means that you have to make the journey from where you enter the Cathedral to the chancel and encounter the piece, you have to make the effort to move around it and look at it from a variety of angles and then, I believe, the experience is transformed.  

For me the best experience is to stand beneath it and to look up through it.  The artist has worked the material until it is in shreds in places, yet the fabric still holds together.  You get amazing views through the eight layers of material, you can see into the structure, through the threads into some distant place and because of the way in which light and fabric play together the view has something of an ethereal quality.

Angela Glajcar working the fabric

Angela Glajcar working the fabric

One person said to me that what came to her mind as she stood there was the second verse of the hymn we sing by George Herbert, ‘Teach me my God and King’

A man that looks on glass,
on it may stay his eye;
or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
and then the heaven espy.

The clever thing about this observation is that the fabric is actually made of glass, thin fibres woven together.  So you are actually looking on and through glass and then seeing this distant image.

Before the work was installed I was having to think about how we would interpret it and my thoughts were around the gentle overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, about the ‘feather on the breath of God’ of Hildegard of Bingen.  I had wondered if it would remind me of the shroud in which they wrapped Jesus’ dead body, or whether it would say anything to me at all.  But seeing it for real of course has made me think other things – though all of those other thoughts remain live to me.

It’s that tattered nature of the piece that I have been thinking about.

Look through the tatters

Look through the tatters

I can remember my grandmother was a great one for making do.  So when bed sheets were getting worn in the middle she did to them what I was told was called ‘sides to middle’.  It involved her cutting the sheet in half lengthways and sewing the outer edges together to form a new middle.  I have to say it might have got more life out of the sheet but it was horrible having to sleep on a thick seam!  But that was one way in which she managed to keep things going in post-war austerity.  But you can’t do ‘sides to middle’ in life; when living has made us threadbare, when it looks as though things are about to fall apart you can’t simply make a new seam.  And any priest sees a lot of lives in tatters and recognises the fragile nature of the fabric of so many lives, including their life.  And viewed from some angles it looks solid, it looks as though all is ok but move in closer and things look so different.

We get so skilled at showing a solid face to the world but get close and look closely and you see where the wear and tear is, where life is fraying, where the threads are just hanging together.  And you think, ‘this can’t hold together much longer’ and for some people it doesn’t.

In St Matthew’s Gospel we are told

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (Matthew 27.51)

As Jesus died, as his tattered body gave way, heaven was exposed and the curtain which had stopped people seeing the Holy of Holies in the temple was ripped apart.  Heaven was ripped open in the death of Jesus and we glimpse God in the fragility of life.

In a debate on suicide at the last meeting of the Church of England’s General Synod we were told some disturbing statistics about the numbers of suicides, especially amongst younger people, in society today.  We look at each other as we look at ‘Within the light’ and see a solid face but the truth can be so different.  All I can hope is that God can hold the weave of my life together, the weave of your life together and that in some mysterious way the fraying and thin parts might be glimpsing places of heaven.  I don’t quite know what that means yet, which is why I’ll be sitting beneath Angela Glajcar’s amazing work in Southwark Cathedral and looking through the thin places to see what lies within.

God of light,
shine through the thin places of life
that I may see heaven on earth.

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