The empty shell

This is the sermon I preached this morning at Southwark Cathedral.  As a consequence of the way things work out (some of this is to do with the Cathedral Statutes) I get to preach at the 9.00am Eucharist, which is lovely.  Our ‘nine o’clockers’ are not like some of the ‘early service’ congregations that you get in the Church of England but they don’t normally get to sing.  So Christmas and Easter are their opportunities to add to the chorus of the church on those feasts.  Anyway, enough of that – this is what I said to them.  The lections were Isaiah 65.17-25, Acts 10.34-43 and John 20.1-18.

Easter would not be Easter without an Easter egg or two or three.  But which to choose from?  There are so many out there, all looking equally delicious, all looking equally fattening.  The most popular has to be, of course, the wonderful, delicious Cadbury’s Creme Egg.  Is it the thick chocolate coating?  Is it that white and golden fondant filling?  Is it the thrill of getting the wrapping off it?  Whatever it is the Cadbury Creme Egg is the most popular of all Easter eggs and over 500 million of them are manufactured every year with about two thirds of that number being enjoyed in the UK alone!  So, that is a staggering three and a half Cadbury Creme Eggs for every person in the country to enjoy – and someone is eating mine because I don’t eat them.


Happy Easter!

But, brothers and sisters, I need to denounce them as heretical eggs.  This innocent looking shiny egg, available singly or in packs of three or even ten I believe, is peddling a lie.  The really good Christian egg has nothing inside it, not a bag of buttons, or Smarties or Thornton’s Continentals and certainly not stuffed full of delicious sticky white and golden fondant.  It’s a scandal that such an egg is so enjoyed!  The really true Christian egg is nothing other than an empty shell, break it open and there’s nothing inside.

When the disciples had left the tomb on Friday, as the sun was setting and the Sabbath was beginning, they rolled the stone across the entrance, sealing the dead body of Jesus inside.  In the first light of a new day Mary Magdalene makes her way back to the garden, creeps from the Upper Room where they’re all staying, eager not to disturb her exhausted and devastated friends.  In the half light she gets into the garden and sees the tomb and that the stone has been rolled away and her response is to run.  Something devastating, unbelievable has happened and she has to tell the others.

So she gets back to the room and wakes them up and Peter and John join her in running back again to where Jesus had been buried.  The sun was now rising and things could be more clearly seen.  And we get this race, young John outrunning the others and arriving first.  But in his youthful enthusiasm he’s unsure what to do.  He looks inside but doesn’t go inside, but breathless Peter arriving, has no hesitation and enters the empty space.

All of the gospel writers are clear that the tomb was empty, just a hollow shell, and not a scene of disorder, not a scene of chaos but of something almost planned, deliberate.

‘He saw the linen wrappings lying there’ it said in the gospel ‘and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.’

Things are mentioned in the gospels for a reason and John tells us deliberately about the order that exists in the empty tomb.  Those linen wrappings so carefully wound by the women around the body of Jesus, that cloth that’d covered his sacred head, are now folded, rolled, set aside, not discarded.

We run into a field as children.  There’s a bird’s nest in the tree above us.  It’s spring and the blossom and the fresh leaves are dressing what’d been cold bare winter branches.  In the grass we find an egg, but it’s just a shell, an empty, speckled shell.  A baby bird has hatched and flown.

Easter Day is a day of new creation.  That is what our First Reading was reminding us of.

I am about to create new heavens
   and a new earth.

says God through the prophet.  New heavens and new earth, in the dew covered freshness of a new day, in a new garden in which God will once more walk and ‘Ave’, hail a new woman whose name is spoken as creation begins again.

Peter is speaking to Cornelius and his household in our Second Reading and he speaks of his calling to be a witness.  He went into that emptiness, into the empty shell that’d once held Jesus.  But like a broken egg it contained nothing.  The chaos of Good Friday had been replaced by the order of the day of creation.  But what Peter is witnessing to is not a great absence but a great presence.  It could seem that the empty tomb is a symbol of the absence of God but it speaks to us in another way entirely.

The Welsh priest-poet, R S Thomas, in his poem ‘The Empty Church’ talks of the ‘stone trap’ that we made for God, but God escaped and is free.  They couldn’t nail him to the cross nor seal him in a tomb.  God chose, in the incarnation to become as we are but in the resurrection God is as we will become, liberated, part of this new heaven and new earth, enjoying the freedom of the new creation.

The images that we saw last Monday of the Cathedral of Notre Dame being engulfed in flames were terrifying.  Many of us will have walked into that vast church, stood beneath those monumental towers.  It was a building that seemed as solid as the island it stood on.  But it was so easily taken over by flames and what’d seemed so strong became something so fragile, something that seemed so permanent became something so vulnerable.  The moment the spire collapsed was one of those moments that will stay with me – a powerful image.

But even more powerful were the images that then emerged when the flames were extinguished and the emergency services gained access to the building.  It could’ve been an empty shell that confronted them, but it wasn’t.  The most wonderful sight was to see the golden cross, shining, somehow, in the darkness, standing, ordered, above the disorder of the rubble around it.

Notre Dame

Order in disorder

Peter went in and found the tomb empty, not abandoned in haste but left in order.  The two men left believing but not understanding, not understanding what this filled emptiness meant.

Emptiness can easily open up in our lives, suddenly, without warning.  Emptiness can take over in our society, a lack of leadership, a lack of vision, a lack of direction.  We rightly fear the vacuum that’s created that anything and anyone can fill.  But what we celebrate today is not the absence of God but the presence of God, the freedom of God, the life of God, who cannot be trapped and held and controlled and contained but is with us, meeting us in the garden of the new creation.

That was Mary’s witness to the others, that was Peter’s witness, that was the apostles’ witness, that is the witness of the church of the resurrection and that was the witness of that image from Paris emblazoned across the front pages, the ordered cross, majestic, in the midst of chaos, filling that empty, tomb like space.

Thomas ends his poem ‘The Empty Church’ like this

Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illuminated walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

The someone greater is Jesus, who walks from the tomb whilst the others run, who meets Mary in her grief with words of comfort, who calls us by name even when we don’t recognise him, who confronts our fragility and survives our fires with a life that cannot be defeated.

Life was born from the shell of the empty tomb and it is the life that we are living, the life fed by Christ’s sacramental presence at this altar on this glorious Easter morning.  Into our disorder God brings order; to what is old and broken God brings what is new and complete. This is Easter. The Lord is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Lord Jesus,
re-order, re-new, re-birth my life
with the power of your


‘It will be revealed with fire’

We all watched with horror as the flames licked the beautiful structure of one of the world’s greatest churches, an icon, not just to the people of Paris and France, not just some kind of monument to be visited but an expression of faith and holiness and piety.  As others have said, Notre Dame was the soul of the nation.

Notre Dame

I was asked yesterday to write a prayer for others to pray in the aftermath. This is it, with the text from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that was in my mind.

‘It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.’ (1 Corinthians 3.13)

Lord Jesus,
your broken body, laid aside,
rose in glory.
Give resurrection hope to the people of Paris
and all who grieve the destructive fire
at Notre Dame.
From the ashes may beauty once more arise,
as from the grave our new life comes.

Our Cathedral Organist, Peter Wright, was due to give a recital on the great organ of Notre Dame in just a few days’ time.  Though that will not be happening we are delighted that Olivier Latry,  who holds the post of one of four titulaires des grands orgues  Notre Dame is due to give a recital on the organ of Southwark Cathedral on Thursday 9 May at 7pm.  Tickets are available here.  We will take the opportunity of him being with us to take a post-recital collection in aid of the restoration of Notre Dame.  Some things, by God’s grace, so long planned, come just at the right moment!

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.

A black hole

I never really understood physics when I was having to do it for ‘O Level’ – perhaps that is why I got an appalling grade! So as the pictures arrived from space and various experts appeared on the news channels last week to explain just what a black hole is and why the black at the centre of the corona of golden light was different to the black on the outside of it, and what’s in it, well, I was left no better off.  But in fact I was.


A wonder of creation

There is something amazing when the stuff of science fiction becomes the stuff of science fact.  I’m sure the USS Enterprise in ‘Star Trek’ was often on the brink of being dragged into some kind of inter-stellar, galactic vortex and the holy trinity of the flight deck, Kirk, Spock and McCoy, were shouting Warp Factor 6 and things like that.  But I thought it was all fantasy (I had obviously never studied Einstein!). Then, somehow, using all of these telescopes and coordinating them we manage to get an image back on Earth that shows us what we thought we would never see.

Today we embark on a week that will draw us into a cosmic event.  The death of Jesus on the cross, according to St Matthew, is surrounded by creation itself in agony.

‘From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. …. Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.’ (Matthew 27.45, 50-51)

Creation is drawn into the passion, as we are.  There is a universal aspect to what we witness as Jesus makes his way to Calvary.

There is a verse in the hymn by Fr Faber’s hymn ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ that always speaks to me of the mystery and the wonder of creation.

There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss.

We are always discovering more of what creation is and how it finds its focus at the cross.

God of universal wonder,
draw us deeper into your love
as we follow Jesus to the cross.

A sweet smell

I was invited to preach at Derby Cathedral today, Passion Sunday.  This is the sermon that I preached.  The readings for the Eucharist were Isaiah 43.16-21; Philippians 3.4b-14 and John 12.1-8.

It’s lovely being back in the East Midlands.  I grew up in Leicester, so this is a bit like coming home but hillier! When I was a lad and we used to be going into town on the bus, we’d get to a point in the journey, just near the city centre, on Oxford Street, when noses would start twitching.  There was something in the air, not an unpleasant, but a strong smell.  It was sweet, very sweet, and it was minty. Then, all of a sudden, it became clear as to what it was, as on the side of one of the buildings by the road appeared the symbol of a polar bear standing on a mint.  It was the Fox’s Glacier Mint factory.  Those of my friends who worked there during the summer holidays used to tell us, a bit like in the pie factory in our village, that you were allowed to eat as much as you wanted, and you didn’t want to for very long!


Making mints in Leicester

But the smell of the sweet factory pervaded the streets of the city.

There’s a bit of a scene at the dinner table.  Jesus was in the home of his friends, his bolt hole whenever he was in the Jerusalem area.  He was with Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  It was great to be with them because not so long before he’d been there as the two women had been overwhelmed with grief.  Their brother was dead but Jesus had raised him from the dead and restored him to the heart of his family.  The smell of death had emanated from that tomb but now the house was filled with a different smell.

Everything was running true to form – Martha was in the kitchen and busily bringing the food to the table for their guests and Mary was at Jesus’ feet.  It was like deja vu – Jesus had been there before when a row had broken out between the sisters.  Martha had had it with Mary, like Cinders she was doing all the work whilst her sister was sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to him talking.  It was an extravagant gesture of devotion, but it had been Martha, slaving over the stove, who’d paid the price.

But now Mary was not listening but breaking open a jar of perfume, and not just any perfume, it was the most costly and as soon as the others in the room smelt it they knew what it was – it smelt of money.  She’d spent more than three days wages on this gesture, money that some thought could’ve been better spent, so no wonder Judas leapt from his place to complain.  But she pours out the costly ointment and holds nothing back.  She pours it over his feet and with a sensuality which was as shocking as her spending, wipes the feet of Jesus with her long, loosed hair.

And John tells us

‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’

There’s a bad smell around.  It seems all pervasive; it feels like there’s no escaping it, no getting away from it.  It’s a smell that’s not just here but, it seems, it feels like, everywhere, at the moment.

We smell it on College Green outside the Houses of Parliament.  We smelt it in Christchurch New Zealand. We smell it at the Mexican border.  We smell it now in Brunei.  It’s the unpleasant, vile smell of hatred.  Too much is being landed at the door of Brexit but whatever your own views on leave or remain, you can’t deny that this so far failed process has unleashed a bad smell.  I smell the hatred of the other, the smell of fear of the other, the smell of phobias, Islamophobia, transphobia, homophobia, it’s the smell of Antisemitism, of racism, the smell of a knife raised to kill a stranger, the other caught in the way of violence.

There was a member of the congregation at Southwark Cathedral, a writer, sadly now dead, who in one of his books on social justice wrote something so simple yet so powerful

‘To the other you are the other.’

If we fear the other, then there’s someone else fearing us; if you fear the other then there’s someone fearing you.

The prophet Isaiah in our First Reading is looking forward to the new possibilities in God.  And the prophet says to us that all this will happen

‘so that they might declare my praise.’

So that we might declare God’s praise, so that we might fill the world with another fragrance, the fragrance of love, so that that fragrance born of praise, born of love, might counter that evil smell that’s so apparent around us.


‘that we might fill the world with another fragrance’

Today we call Passion Sunday because today we turn our attention away from the wilderness in which we’ve been spending time with Jesus and turn instead towards the cross.  Next Sunday we’ll be holding our Palm Crosses and hosanna-ing with the rest of the crowd as we see Jesus arrive as Prince of Peace.

He’ll be met with violence and hatred and that fear of the other with which we’re so familiar at the moment and he will meet it all with love, because the fragrance of God is stronger than the fragrance of the evil one, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death.  This is the truth that we know, this is the truth that we share, this is the truth that Paul proclaims to the Philippians when he says to them in our Second Reading

‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.’

His death brought peace and light and love and life and ‘the darkness could not overcome it’ as St John says as he begins his gospel.

My friends, we’re living through challenging times and Brexit is only part of it.  All those places I mentioned before, Christchurch, a community shattered by the brutal killing of so many Muslims at prayer; the Mexican border where a wall will be built to exclude and not include; Brunei where gay people and straight people who’ve committed adultery will be stoned; and College Green where hatred of the other in our society is being whipped up in the moral vacuum that Brexit has allowed to be created; all these places and more, need to be challenged by Christians and people of faith and people of good will, standing together and speaking the truth and breaking the jar and pouring the costly and extravagant oil of love.

And how costly, how extravagant?  Well we’ll see what the cost actually is.  On the day we perversely call Good Friday we’ll see the costliness of love, and we won’t smell death but we will smell life.  God spends all for you, for me, for us, for the world, God expends God’s own self as the nails are driven home and the spear pierces the side and blood and water flow.  The poet Madeleine L’Engle describes it so simply and profoundly in her poem ‘Love Letter’

I take hammer and nails
And tack my message on two crossed pieces of wood

And the message that we read on the crossed wood is, ‘I love you’.  And that, my sisters, my brothers, is the message of this Eucharist.  We can smell bread baking and wine fermenting – this is God preparing a meal, this is God preparing a meal of God’s own self, that will cost everything and give everything.

And you and I do not need to break a flask and pour out the oil, all we need to do is come forward with our hunger and our thirst and our empty hands and then go out, smelling of God.  Let this house be filled with divine fragrance and let it spread out of these doors into a world desperate for something better, as we leave with the fragrance of God lingering about us, to make sweet what is sour in the world.

Sweet Jesus,
fill the world
with the fragrance
of your love.

Mother’s ruin

So, gin, sometimes called “Mother’s Ruin”, has made a really significant comeback into fashion.  The news last week was that sales have doubled over recent years and that there has been a “ginaissance”, with more bottles of the drink being sold than ever before.  “Mother’s Ruin”, as the tipple was previously known, has proved so popular that a record 73 million bottles of the drink were sold in 2018. The effect has been so huge that even Blackburn Cathedral has come up with it’s own brand in the last year.  It’s called ‘Cathedra’ and the Dean hasn’t yet shared any with me – but when he has I’ll let you know what it is like and just what aromatics it contains!

But I have been noticing all those flavoured gins that are around – lemon drizzle, rhubarb, strawberries and cream, even, I have discovered in my extensive research for this blog, Parma Violets flavoured gin!  Now I can’t quite get my head around that one.  As a bit of a purist I prefer my gin plain, with a good tonic and maybe a slice of cucumber or the old classic, lemon and, of course, ice.

A few years ago  the only place you were guaranteed to find a bottle of Gordon’s was in a vicarage.  For some reason Gin and Tonic was the favoured drink of the clergy and especially High Church clergy.  So a dinner party in some clergy house would always begin with some knee tremblingly strong G&T.  The new series of ‘Fleabag’ continues this tradition though but in modern style – to add to his allure, the priest in the series keeps cans of ready-mixed gin and tonic in the sacristy!

But gin, though so favoured and flavoured now, was the drink of the masses and not least in London in the mid-eighteenth century when it was drunk in huge quantities and became a social ill.  Men became impotent, women became infertile.  Hogarth depicts the scene so powerfully in his picture ‘Gin Lane’.  There at the centre a mother, so out of it, drops the baby that has been at her breast, unaware of what is happening.  The child falls, arms spread out whilst the mother is oblivious, gin-soaked as she is.

Gin Lane

‘Gin Lane’ by William Hogarth

Today is Mothering Sunday. To be honest I find it a hard day now, personally, since mum died two years ago.  I pass by the cards in the shops knowing that I have no one to buy one for (I always persisted in finding one that actually said it correctly ‘Mothering Sunday’ none of that Mother’s Day nonsense) and I have no one to buy over priced flowers for.  But I still enjoy the day when we can give thanks for those who mother us.  And that for me is the point, those who mother us, not just our mothers and not just mothers in general. To call it Mother’s Day places limits on the day itself that we might not want.  Mothering opens up all the possibilities of celebrating the care we have for each other and that deep ‘mothering’ that lies at the very heart of God.

This year, however, I will be thinking particularly about those mothers who in recent months have been ruined by the pain of losing a child, however young or old that child was, as a victim of knife crime.  It seems that there is an epidemic and all the statistics  back this up.  Knife crime is on a terrible upward trajectory. Is this what Hogarth, if he were wandering the streets of London today, would be chronicling, children torn from their mothers through violent crime? It is the ruin of motherhood for those who must receive the news that their child is no more.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, stands with us in all of this.  As people place flowers and light candles at icons and statues of her in our churches this weekend we will be doing so with the words of Simeon ringing in our ears as they must have rung in hers.  In the gloom of the Temple, as the parents of Jesus bring their child into this brutal space, to save his life from the sacrificial knife that hovered over Issac, by presenting their own offering, the old man takes the young life into his hands and says

‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2.35)

Her son was spared the knife but the blade struck into the mother’s heart and it would do so again as she stood at the foot of the cross and saw what they did to her child.  Jesus spoke to her from the cross

‘He said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ (John 19.26)

Those words were in the context of the forming of that new relationship between his bereft mother and his bereft friend.  He made them into a new family.  But as Jesus said these words from the cross did he also mean that Mary should see her son, him, in this painful reality? Mary stands and looks and stands and looks with those who have mothered today and whose motherhood has been ruined.


Tender mother

One of the many scandals of the Brexit process is that the energy of government for three years has gone into this, so far, failed venture.  Meanwhile, so much has been going on that needs the imaginative and committed attention of politicians and community leaders, things like this surge in knife crime.  There are reasons for it that I don’t begin to understand, but others will understand and some of those others will be the mothers who weep.

The American writer and abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, best known for her book, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, wrote a poem called ‘Mary at the Cross’.  It contains these stanzas

Now by that cross thou tak’st thy final station,
And shar’st the last dark trial of thy Son;
Not with weak tears or woman’s lamentation,
But with high, silent anguish, like his own.

Hail! highly favoured, even in this deep passion;
Hail! in this bitter anguish thou art blest,-
Blest in the holy power with Him to suffer
Those deep death-pangs that lead to higher rest.

So my prayer is for those who mother and who share ‘the last dark trial’ of their children and who must, somehow, survive the mother’s ruin. May they be held by our Mother Mary.

Mary, God-bearer, pain-bearer,
stand by those who mother
and, like you, must stand by
and watch their children die.

The blame game

We used to love watching ‘Scooby-Doo’ when we were young, a must see when we were growing up.  And we loved the ending, always the same.  There has been a lot of chasing along corridors, the ghost running on ahead and Shaggy, Fred, Velma and Daphne with Scooby-Doo in hot pursuit.  Then they catch the ghoul pull off the mask and remove the sheet to discover  ‘Mr Jones, the friendly janitor!’ It was him all along, spooking the kids.  Then the police would turn up.  Mr Jones or whoever it was is in handcuffs.  ‘If it wasn’t for these pesky kids I’d ‘ave got away with it.’ he says in an act of self incrimination. The kids were the heroes and the villains at one and the same time, always blamed for doing the right thing.


Those meddling kids!

Perhaps the most miserable part of this last week was the Prime Minister’s statement to the nation. Standing there alone at her lectern she plays the blame game.  It’s all the fault of those pesky MPs.  ‘If it wasn’t for them I’d have got away with it’ and, in an image of terrible loneliness and isolation she walks off after unloading the blame.

Politics aside this is such a destructive way to be but in the next few weeks we will see something very different played out as Jesus approaches the cross.  In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, in fact in the part of the book that is known as Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, there are a number of ‘Suffering Servant’ passages.  We will hear these read at various critical points in Holy Week.  They act as a prophetic commentary on what we see acted out at the cross.  In one of those passages the prophet says this

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
   yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
   and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
   so he did not open his mouth. (Isaiah 53.7)

This is what we see, where in those few words that Jesus speaks, those ‘Seven Words from the Cross’, there is no blame uttered.

Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23.34)

Whatever it is that we are doing we have to avoid pointing the finger of blame.

Jesus, you do not blame us
but carry the weight of our sin
to the cross.
Help us to live blame-less lives
ready to accept
the burden of responsibility.

A loss of innocence

Last October I was in Jerusalem helping to lead a course at St George’s College.  The participants were drawn from across the Anglican Communion.  There was one person from Northern Ireland, some from the USA, a few from Australia but, remarkably, most were from New Zealand. They had come, literally, from the other side of the world, from the farthest point to be part of what we were doing and it was fantastic. I’d never actually met members of the Maori nation before and among the group there was a large number of people of this heritage.  They were an amazingly wonderful group of people.

Holy Land 2018

Making friends in the Holy Land

So as I woke on Friday morning to the terrible news from Christchurch my thoughts turned to the friends that I had made just a few months before. They had told us about life in New Zealand, the pace of life, the friendliness, yes, the challenges but also the way in which these were being addressed.  Over the years others had told me that somehow life there was that little bit more ‘old fashioned’, neighbours knew each other, you could leave your door unlocked; things like that.  And of course the ‘Lord of the Rings’ gave us a feel for the amazing landscapes, the mountains and rivers and waterfalls and glaciers, the fjords and the woodland.  Stunning.

Then a man walks into a mosque.  The people are there for Friday Prayers.  He opens fire with premeditated determination. Filming it as though it were some game to be played on a computer, streaming it live to the world on social media he guns down 50 innocent people and injures others and sends shock waves across the world.  He drives between mosques, inflicting his evil intent not in one place but in two and who knows who else was on his agenda.  A warped ideology, a hatred of the other, a distorted view of how the world should be, a determination to take revenge, had driven him to act like this, to come as if from nowhere and strike terror into the heart of a community at prayer and rob a people of innocence.

I said Morning Prayer.  The First Reading was from the prophecy of Jeremiah.  These words leapt out at me.

O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation: for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us. (Jeremiah 6.26)

How good God is to speak into the heart of our distress, into the pain of our reality.  Later I heard another voice, that of the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, and those powerful words that have been oft quoted since she first spoke them

‘They are us.’

They are such innocent words, three words, ‘They are us’ which strike terror in the hearts of those who fear difference, or fear their neighbour, who fear the other.  I think I have said on this blog before something that was said to me by a member of of our congregation at Southwark Cathedral quoting what he had written a number of years before

‘To the other you are the other.’

I am as different to my neighbour as my neighbour is different to me. The gun aimed at my neighbour could equally be aimed at me, at you.

It has been a tough week.  I was fortunate last week that the evening meetings I had all finished in time for me to get back to the Deanery to turn on the news and watch, live from the House of Commons, the various votes taken on three successive days.  The voice of the Speaker crying out ‘The Ayes have it, the Ayes have it. Unlock!’ (or the reverse of that if the vote had gone the other way) became strangely familiar to us. The rhetoric inside and outside of the chamber was at times disturbing. The permission to act and speak against our neighbour that Brexit has given has revealed that tolerance for some has hardly been skin deep. But as Pandora discovered when she unlocked her chest you can’t get the genie back in the bottle (mixed metaphors there!) once something is unlocked it can’t be captured again. Lost innocence cannot be restored.  Except we proclaim in Christ that it can.


The loss of innocence

We are in Lent and looking forward to Easter.  The climax of the Vigil that marks the beginning of Easter is when the Deacon proclaims, in the light of the Paschal Candle, the Exultet, that ancient hymn of joy.  And there in that text are words to give us hope

Evil and hatred are put to flight and sin is washed away,
lost innocence regained, and mourning turned to joy.

But is it true? I have to believe it is.  I have to believe that evil is not as powerful as love. I have to believe that Christ’s victory is over sin and death. I have to believe that as Joni Mitchell sang with such sweet optimism in the song ‘Woodstock’ back in 1970 that

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.

I have to believe it for the people of New Zealand who in just a few minutes of evil rampage have had so much snatched from them.  I have to believe it for Muslim friends who are the victims of so much hatred.  I have to believe it for my Jewish friends, and every person of faith, or every person of no faith who can so easily be targeted. We have to look for that innocence out of which is born the total love of the other, the total embracing of diversity, of difference, where ‘perfect love will cast out fear.’

Yet again I had to sit and write a prayer for others to pray in the Cathedral.  It has been a task that has become all too familiar over the past few years.  But familiar or not I will not stop praying and I hope you won’t either.

God, all holy, all loving,
hear the cry of your people in Christchurch,
those caught up in the horrors,
those witnessing the effects of so much hate,
those who hear the news from far away.
From north and south,
from east and west,
draw your peoples into a closer union,
that we may challenge hatred with love,
the fear of the other with friendship
and all evil with your goodness.

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.

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