Footfall – a meditation

On Palm Sunday evening at Southwark Cathedral, before we finished the day with Compline, I led a meditation alongside this year’s Lent art installation, ‘Footfall’, by Alison Clark.  These are the connections that I made as I sat looking at the work which has captured the way in which the stones of the Cathedral have been marked by the feet that have trodden them over the centuries.

Footfall 1

We looked at the dew covered grass, the place where we had been walking.  We could see the marks our footfall had left, gently changing the landscape of this newly made world.

Adam and Eve heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3.8)

And we saw another footfall, sparkling with divine presence, adding to the marks we had left, on the soft grass of the garden.

But we had to leave and walk on harder ground.

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man. (Genesis 3.23)

My feet fell on harder ground, none of the soft impression, but a less forgiving rock was beneath my feet.

We walked and walked.  It was a walk to freedom, so we were told, but it felt hard.  I was a child when this walk began, when my mother snatched me up by night and, with hardly anything to carry, we headed from the city out into the sands and to the great river.  I remember it now, the terror, the horses, the screams of our neighbours and then the roar of water retreating and the soft riverbed beneath us, the footprints of hundreds, thousands, there to see, for a moment, until the water returned and obliterated them, never to be seen again.  Then we walked by day, by night, in blistering heat and blistering cold.

I have led you for forty years in the wilderness. The clothes on your back have not worn out, and the sandals on your feet have not worn out; you have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine or strong drink—so that you may know that I am the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 29.5-6)

Now I am a man and I wear my father’s sandals.  He is long gone but these sandals will carry me a long way, to the land we have been promised.  I can’t wait to stand on new soil, to make my mark in a new land, to carry my children to freedom, as I was carried to freedom and to see footprints that won’t be washed away.

I took my harp and sat down.  The journey was proving hard.  I had fled King Saul but not until I had embraced Jonathan, the one I loved, perhaps for the last time.  Then with those who supported me we made it into the hills.  But we were famished.  It was hard on the feet, on those rough hills, where I had once looked after sheep.  I was younger then and now I had not sheep but men to look after, men to feed and protect.

The priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away. (1 Samuel 21.6)

We ate the holy bread and trudged on.  It has been the caves that have provided the shelter we needed and the place to rest and as my companions slept I picked up my harp and I sang

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake. 

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me. 

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long. 
(Psalm 23)

Some of the men stirred as they heard me sing but were as soon again snoring.  There was a lot further to travel, to tread.

Footfall 2

It was a lot to ask of her but we had no choice, I had no choice.  So even though she was due to give birth to a baby in just a short time I had to get her on the back of the donkey and lead her from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  It was a journey I knew because it was the way that I went when I went up to Jerusalem.  But three days walking at a slow pace, looking all the time at her, to see if she was ok, watching where I was treading, it wasn’t easy.

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Luke 2.4)

And we arrived and not a moment too soon.  That night there were footsteps outside the shed in which we were staying.  Some of the shepherds arrived, off the hills where my ancestor David had been, eager to see a baby, for some reason I don’t yet understand.  But hearing them come and hearing them go, their footfall on the street outside, encouraged me, and her.

Basically we’ve been walking for three years, round and round, backwards and forwards, short walks and long, him at the front, us behind, always behind.  But, you see, I was never a walker, I preferred a boat, but now, I suppose, I am a walker and there are few places where we have not been; into the hills, down to the lake, through fields, across deserts.  I don’t know how far we’ve walked.  But now the pace has changed.

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. (Luke 9.51-52)

It seemed aimless before, re-treading our steps all the time, but its different now and some have gone ahead, to get things ready.  I’m still following, I’m still walking in his footsteps.

The streets are so busy, the crowds are here for the festival and I’m out on the street with them, but pressed against the wall.  I want to see but I don’t want to be seen.  I want to see what has happened to him, since we ran away, last night, though it seems ages since it happened.  Peter followed at a distance but the rest of us ran.  All I’ve heard is that he was arrested and condemned, to death.  I can’t believe I’m saying that.  But from what I heard this is the way that they will bring him, and I have to see.  The slabs of stone that cover the street have been worn smooth over the years, all these people, coming and going, and I press against the wall out of sight.

As they led Jesus away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. (Luke 23.26-27)

He was just in front of me.  I had spotted him because he stood out as a foreigner, not from these parts and may be that is why the soldiers also saw him and dragged him out to take the weight of the cross.  I’d spent years following him.  Now he is following, walking behind, but there is a crowd also following, walking in each others footsteps and I mingle in and follow.

They nailed his feet – so he couldn’t walk again.

I am off to Canterbury.  It’s something I’ve wanted to do for ages and then, when the fields had been prepared after winter and the wife was ok I said that I would do it.  And here I am in Southwark, waiting to meet up with some others.  They tell me it isn’t safe to walk the Kent Road on my own, some folk handy with a knife, ready to cut your purse from your belt, or your throat from your life.  So I’m waiting to see who I can walk with.  And I’ve come in here, into this priory by the river, to hear Mass and say my prayers and light my candles and ask God’s protection for the journey.  It was light outside, with spring warmth, but dark and cold and damp in here.  But the stones were smooth and good to walk on.

Bifil that in that seson on a day, 
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay, 
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage 
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage
At nyght were come into that hostelrye 
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye 
Of sondry folk, by áventure y-falle 
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde
The chambres and the stables weren wyde
And wel we weren esed atte beste
And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste
So hadde I spoken with hem everychon, 
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon, 
And made forward erly for to ryse
To take oure wey, ther as I yow devyse

(Prologue The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer)

And we are here, treading where others have trod and slowly sculpting this place and leaving our mark and recognising where others have walked, before us.  And we know that we are part of a long journey from a new garden, from slavery to freedom, to this place now, where pilgrim feet have tod, then, now.  But we are followers of Jesus, the one who walked and marked the ground and touched lives.  They nailed his feet so he couldn’t walk again.  But we walk.  As St Theresa of Avila wrote

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Ours are his feet, we are Christ’s footfall, adding our steps to the journey.

Lord Jesus,
may we follow in your footsteps,
walk the path you trod,
tread with care, but with courage,
step lightly, but firmly,
with our hearts set on heaven
and our vision fixed on you.
Take us to Jerusalem.


Following the footsteps

Like many people of my generation, my introduction to the story of Robinson Crusoe was through the Franco-German children’s TV series that was shown in the sixties.  It starred the rather glamorous Robert Hoffman and the music for the programme was equally alluring. There was Crusoe alone on his desert island, stranded, separated off from everything.  And then, he saw another set of footprints in the sand and he realised that he was not alone.  Of course he meets up with Man Friday and the story takes a different turn.  Daniel Defoe’s story captures the imagination and the fear of being alone, or being stranded, themes that are constantly picked up in literature and art from ‘Lord of the Flies’ to ‘Desert Island Disks’ and to that meditation, ‘Footprints’, to be found on tea towels and bookmarks around the world.

Robinson Crusoe

Robinson and Friday

Each Lent at Southwark Cathedral we have a Lent art installation.  Last year we welcomed the very challenging ‘Doubt’, a black cloud hanging over the chancel.  It was more than some could bear, for others it was a permission giver, enabling them to talk openly about their own doubts in this place of faith.

This year Alison Clark has been invited back with her work ‘Footfall’. Alison was our artist-in-residence over the first anniversary of the London Bridge attack.  She captured the marks of the violence inflicted on the building that night of 3 June and that work, displayed in the Cathedral for the anniversary, is now to be seen in the Garry Weston Library of the Cathedral.

Footfall 1


But Alison wanted to continue her theme and not just find the marks of violence but marks with a gentler consequence.  So, descending from the Great Screen is 15 metres of sheer material, bearing the evidence of the millions of feet that have walked over the stones of the Cathedral for the last millennia, the footfall.  As in many old buildings the stone has been worn smooth by feet, inscriptions in stone are being lost.  In other places the pilgrims and worshipers have had other effects, corners have been knocked off, things have been scratched.  In some places there are the marks of graffiti, a little design scored into the stone, a Christian symbol.

Footfall 2

Worn over time

It’s a fascinating trail, the footfall, the footsteps that we leave.  And as with Robinson Crusoe on the beach, seeing the marks of where another has trodden makes us realise that we never tread anything alone, that we are seldom walking a path that others have not trodden.  We are on a journey with us.

Richard Gillard’s lovely hymn ‘Brother, sister, let me serve you’ has this verse

We are pilgrims on a journey,
and companions on the road;
we are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.

That is the story of our journey, our pilgrimage.  It’s the story of the journey that we find in the Gospels. Jesus ministry was, to a large part, lived out on the road.  His encounters were often as he travelled.  He had nowhere to lay his head but his feet were forever falling on the path.  And as we begin Lent we remember what St Luke tells us

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. (Luke 9.51)

The journey became more decisive.  He set off and his disciples followed in his footsteps, afraid of where the journey might take them, but knowing that as they travelled they were travelling with Jesus. It was a path that would lead to the cross and his disciples were following in his footsteps, they were being led in the same direction.  In Lent we set our face towards Jerusalem, towards Calvary and towards the garden with the empty tomb.  The path will take us over hard ground until we step on the dew-covered grass with Mary and leave our mark.

The Apache people of North America have a traditional blessing which includes these words

‘May you walk gently through the world‘

The invitation that this year’s gentle art installation is to walk with us, to walk with Jesus, to tread gently but realising that even a gentle step leaves an indelible mark.

Lord Jesus,
may I follow in your footsteps,
walk the path you trod,
tread with care, but with courage,
step lightly, but firmly,
with my heart set on heaven
and my vision fixed on you.
Take me to Jerusalem.

Fearing the fast

It’s that time of the year again. Ash Wednesday is almost upon us and, whilst it is almost as late in the year that it can be, I still feel totally unprepared for keeping the six weeks fast that will lead us through Lent to the joys of Easter. It never gets any easier, certainly not for me. Over the years I’ve tried everything in a quest to keep a good Lent and there have been some long term successes.

One demon I conquered!

Like many post-war families we ate a lot of sugar as we were growing up. I remember mum struggling back from the shops each week with two or three 2lb bags of Granulated Sugar in her shopping bags which would last the five of us in the family until the next shop. How did we get through it? Well, two spoons in each cup of tea, liberal sprinklings on all cereal, even sweetened cereal, and of course custard every day as swell as loads of sugar heavy cakes and puddings. In addition to the normal sugar there was caster and icing, and mum preferred Demerara in her coffee. Surprisingly we were not over weight (it must have been carrying that weight of sugar from the shops that burnt it off!). But one Lent when I was a teenager I decided that that would be the year when I gave up sugar or at least the spoonfuls in my drinks and the dusting on my cereal. When Easter Day came there was no way that I could go back to my former sweetened regime!

Since then I’ve given up alcohol (of course), the TV (I locked my TV in a wardrobe one year), meat – but none has had a long term effect and I wonder whether any of it did much for my soul, my relationship with God or my deeper engagement with the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord.

But there is still something about the discipline of doing something that I want to engage with but not from a perspective of some kind of punishment. I was re-reading Robert Herrick’s 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. 

It seems to me so positive a way of looking at the season. It encourages me to think differently. ‘To starve thy sin’ – what a great way of looking at it.

So, I have been thinking of trying something different. And I thought if I share it with you then I might feel even more committed to doing it!

The first thing is about fasting. The more I witness what my Muslim friends do the more humbled I am. My fasting is, frankly, pathetic. But what if I were to fast each Friday of Lent, to drink just water during the day, and then to have a simple meal in the evening? Now that sounds doable.

The second thing is each week of Lent. My thought is to dedicate each week to a different discipline – one week no alcohol, the next week no meat, the next week no TV, the next week no radio, the next week no social media, the final week? Well, I still need to decide that. You know, I think I could do that and do it positively. I’m almost, to be honest, excited at the prospect. It feels like short stages on a long journey rather than setting out on a walk that seems endless and beyond my self discipline.

Surely that is something more like what Jesus says to his disciples when he is talking about fasting.

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)

I mustn’t fear the fast, I mustn’t look dismal, I must see it as positive steps on a journey. That is my agenda for this Lent. Pray for me; I will pray for you.

God, sustain me through the fast; bring me from Lent to Easter with a joyful heart. Amen.


One of the things you can normally expect from a visit to church is that at some stage you will have to listen to a sermon.  You can call it what you will – homily, talk, reflection – it will be a sermon, basically.  Getting ready to preach is one of the major activities of the week, reading the readings, thinking about it, perhaps doing some study around the texts, sitting down in a dark room with a cold flannel on your head and putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.  So it was wonderful when, last week, I was invited along to address a Seminar Supper for some of the members of Sion College which was being held in the gilded splendour of the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall.

For the uninitiated Sion College is a kind of ‘Livery Company’ for clergy, it used to run a wonderful theological library on the Embankment close to Blackfriars Bridge (you can still see the wonderful Victorian Neo-Gothic building which was the home of the College) but the books are now part of both Lambeth Palace and King’s College libraries. So instead the College does a lot to entertain, support and increase the well-being of clergy. Which of those three things I was supposed to be helping with I don’t know.  But I was asked to speak about ‘Preaching through Lent’.

As Paul writes to Timothy

‘Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season.’ (2 Timothy 4.2)

So I suppose this was about preparing ‘out of season’ for ‘in season’! I interpreted the subject quite broadly so what they got was quite a few of my thoughts about preaching, as well as preaching in Lent.  So if you are interested, read on.


A Staffordshire pottery image of the pulpit

Goodness! The audacity that I must have to stand here and speak to you all about preaching.  We’re all preachers and we all live with that pressure that is on us to somehow come up with the goods week after week, festival after festival, season after season, year after year.  Every week as I look in my diary and see that I’m preaching at this or that service I always fear that this will be the week when I get the preacher’s equivalent of writers’ block, that some how I won’t be able to preach, that I’ll have nothing to say.  But some how – and it must be simply the grace of God – I always end up with a text in my hand with which to climb into the pulpit or stand at the lectern.

I want to say first of all that I love preaching – I really do.  And I think that above anything else that shows.  I hope that I never look as though I don’t want to be in the pulpit.  I take seriously what George Herbert says in his book ‘The Country Parson’

‘The Country Parson preacheth constantly, the pulpit is his joy and his throne.’

But then I love being a priest.  My colleagues know that I will leap at the chance to say Mass or do something and am never really reluctant to take on a chance to preach – whatever the occasion.  I was a shy little boy but I was also a bit of a show-off – some analyst amongst you can tell me how that can be – and I have an overriding sin in that I like to be liked.  All of that added together means that I adore ascending those steps and the pulpit lights coming on.  This is my moment, my west end moment, my Mr DeMille moment, lights camera action.  And preaching has to be a performance, it has to be, it is a performance art, like it or not.

Just think about your context for the moment.  10, 40, 50, 80, 100, 200, 500 people have turned up for a service and they are basically going to shut up and watch and listen to you.  In the main they won’t be on their phones, they won’t be whispering to their neighbour, they’re relatively eager and expectant, they want to hear something that’s worth hearing and they want to be able to take something away with them from the service.  That’s a huge amount of expectation to live up to and none of us can achieve it in 10-15 minutes which I suppose is what we give ourselves as a time slot.

Louisa May Alcott, of ‘Little Women’ fame, wrote

“I don’t want a religion that I put away with my Sunday clothes, and don’t take out till the day comes around again; I want something to see and feel and live day by day.”

The sermon has to be part of that week long sustaining just as the sacrament that the people of God receive is.  My favourite passage in the Gospels and my model for everything that I do in the Eucharist is the account of the journey on the Emmaus Road.  I know I’m meant to be talking about Lent and this is an Easter story but it is something that every priest and every preacher should have as a kind of checklist for every liturgy that they’re involved in.

You know it well and I haven’t time to read it to you – but there are some key elements.


On the road to Emmaus

There’s the opening – the way in which the two travellers are talking over what has happened.  We all arrive at a service with a back story, things that have been happening, that we need to process.

Then the stranger arrives and begins to open up the scriptures to them.  He goes at their speed, just as Philip does with the Ethiopian eunuch. What they have been talking about is tested against the word of God.

Then they arrive at their house and there’s a moment of invitation to stay and to eat. Then the guest becomes the host and bread is broken and they recognise the real presence of Jesus in the midst. Then they head back, they leave, renewed, invigorated, with good news to share.

Emmaus is the experience of the church when we make Eucharist together – we arrive with our stories, we hear the word of God, we are invited to eat, we break the bread and we head back out on a mission. Word and bread are broken – opened up and in both we experience the real presence of Jesus. Because the most important thing is what the two companions say to each other after they’d recognised Jesus as he broke the bread

They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’

Goodness – that is EXACTLY what we want people to be feeling when they listen to a sermon.  Their hearts on fire.  Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, a great Orthodox spiritual teacher of the twentieth century wrote

“One should preach not from one’s rational mind but rather from the heart. Only that which is from the heart can touch another heart. “

And someone closer to home, Richard Baxter put it differently but the force of it is the same

“I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” 

It’s about passion, passion for God, passion for the people, passion for ministry.  It has to be there in our preaching just as it has to be there in our presiding.  We preside each time as though it is the first and the last time, we preach as a dying person to dying people, we preach not from the mind but from the heart informed by the mind.

I always preach as I hope to hear sermons myself.  I hear a lot of sermons in my role as Dean, I’m obviously in a large team of clergy and we’re on a preaching rota.  We’re all committed to preaching but some enjoy it more than others.  But we also have visiting preachers and I have to say that I am more often disappointed than thrilled by what I hear.  Being a visiting preacher is not easy – it’s not as easy as preaching to the people you know, preaching into the community that you know.  But I want to hear a sermon that makes my heart burn within me, that makes me think, yes, but makes me want to respond to God from the very depths of my being.  As the Psalmist says is Psalm 42 – ‘Deep calls to deep’. There has to be a real element of altar call, for me, something that’s going to make me come forward and renew my commitment to Christ and hold my hands open to receive him in the sacrament (that, by the way is why I find it much more of a struggle to preach at evensong – not weddings or funerals etc – but evensong because everyone is so passive).

I heard some great sermons when I was growing up.  We always went to the National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham and I remember great preachers and great sermons that made me excited to be a Christian in the catholic tradition and which played their part in my vocation.  We hear a prayer fairly regularly which contains the line

‘continually stir up the gift that is within you’

Sermons should stir up the people and stir up the preacher.  It’s our only chance to do this and waste the opportunity and you have wasted so much.  No one will leave your church saying how perfect your manual acts were this week but they will leave church talking about the sermon; no one will experience that deeper conversion because you know your purificator from your lavabo towel or whether it’s a slug or three drops of water into a chalice – but the sermon can convert the heart within the context of a well prepared and well performed liturgy.

But I was asked to speak specifically about preaching through Lent and I need to do that.

I think that with whatever we’re doing during Lent there are a number of important factors to bear in mind.

First, Lent is a journey that we are making – from the wilderness to the cross to the empty tomb. The whole concept of journey and pilgrimage is a huge one nowadays.  People like that kind of talk and so we need to acknowledge the journey and make the most of the concept.  This means that the same person preaching each Sunday, with a theme and a purpose is not a bad thing.  It makes sense of the season and the person who is preaching becomes the accompanier.

Second, people are still quite eager to learn during Lent.  Sermons are not the place to do teaching – that is not their purpose and certainly not nowadays.  But how the sermon can lead to what happens in Lent groups or discussions is an important one to think about. The Wendy Beckett book last year on ‘The Art of Lent’ was great and very popular and placing an image in the hands of people as part of the sermon keys into the need for visual stimulus. Get to the National Gallery and buy some postcards!

Third, people often feel guilty in Lent that they are not doing enough, that they haven’t given up the right thing, that they haven’t taken something on, that they are crap at serious religion and the greater understanding that we now have of the practice of our Muslim sisters and brothers makes us even more guilty.  So preaching should be encouraging and intended to helping people respond corporately – as Muslims do – rather than individually might be really helpful – a week when you all abstain from alcohol, a week when you all do a good deed – that kind of thing.

Fourthly, Lent can be exhausting – certainly for clergy but also for others who are in church.  So take advantage of the fact that Lent is in two halves and make a big thing of Mothering Sunday using another title for it – Refreshment Sunday – and then give a real change to the Sundays after.  Treat Passion Sunday, Palm Sunday and Easter Day as a distinct grouping.

Don’t preach at the Mass on Palm Sunday – there is enough already that is going on and the reading of the Passion should take the Gospel and Sermon slots if done properly.  Be imaginative with Passion Sunday.  The gospel this year is about Jesus in the House at Bethany and the wonderful line about the fragrance of the perfume filling the house – so anoint each other with fragrant oil for the journey we all face with Jesus – preach about that. After all, whether St Francis said it or not it is true

“Go into all the world and preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” 

This is Year C of course and so most of the gospel passages are from Luke’s Gospel.  We of course get the Temptation on the First Sunday – so what do you say about that this year? “One does not live by bread alone.” So what is truly life-giving?

The Second Sunday involves a moment of confrontation but ends with that great quote which we then use in the Eucharist “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” What does that mean as we hear it week by week?

The Third Sunday makes us deal with some tough stuff about what happens to the innocent but is also about giving each other another chance and the gardener saying to the landowner that if next year the tree doesn’t come up with the goods “you can cut it down.” Hard words!

Then on the Fourth Sunday/Mothering Sunday we have the opportunity, if we don’t go for Mothering Sunday readings to read what we used to call the story of the Prodigal Son – but maybe we should call it the story of the ‘Parent with two difficult sons’ which must be one of the greatest stories along with the Good Samaritan and ends with that memorable line “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’ Remember that it is also the Sunday after we may have crashed out of Europe as a result of Brexit – how will you handle that!?

I hope this has stimulated some thoughts from you.  There’s more I could say about preaching – humour of course, using up-to-date references from contemporary culture – Mary Poppins Returns – pace, voice, language – avoid telling people what it means in the Greek unless it is REALLY interesting and making yourself open and vulnerable in the process.  They want to see that you believe it.

Many a preacher will pray before they preach, words from the psalms (Psalm 19:14) which we could pray for all who have this ministry.

May the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord,
my strength and my redeemer.

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.

My Lent Diary

A journey from ashes to a garden

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