Servants of the servants

To be honest, I wanted to write something in response to the bishops’ statement following the Living in Love and Faith process and the draft liturgical resources that have been published in the last few days. But on reflection, there has been a lot on social media already and, at the moment, I don’t want to add to it. Instead, I need time to think about what I think and I also want to hear what General Synod has to say. So, don’t worry, I’m not ignoring what is going on, I just need more time on this one.

So, instead, I thought you might like to read what I said in my sermon at the Diocesan Servers’ Festival held in the Cathedral yesterday. It was another stage in getting back to normal and good to welcome servers from churches across the diocese who serve and enable us to worship, real servants of the servants. The readings were 1 Samuel 3.1-10 and John 2:1-11.

“My name is Samuel. I think I may be ten, but I don’t really know. Eli says that I’ve been here for six years with him and I was only little when my mother left me here, but I don’t know how old I really am. I see my mother each year, she brings me a new robe to wear, though I grow a lot faster than she imagines, and I never really ask her why I’m here, or when I came, or how it all happened. I just cling to her and love the moment of seeing her. You may wonder if, deep down, I think she loves me – after all she gave me away, her little boy. But when I look into her eyes, each year, on my one day off, I know she loves me.

Yes, one day off. I hear other boys playing outside, in the square, calling out, singing songs to each other. But I’ve never had time to play with them. Eli is quite old now and I have a responsible job. In the morning I unlock the door to the temple, then I check that all the lamps are lit, then I make sure that everything is clean and tidy. Then I bring to Eli food to eat and wine to drink. Then I check the lamps again and tidy up after the people have been in to make their offerings. And finally, late at night, I can lock the door and roll out my mattress against the door, and lie down, but only after I’ve checked that the lamps won’t go out overnight, that there’s lots of oil in them to keep them burning.

As I go about my work, I hear in my head some of the words of the song my mother sings to me every time she visits

‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones.’ “

Eli and the boy Samuel

“My name is Samuel. You don’t need to know how old I am, all you need to know is that I have a good business, a very good business, that my inn is well run and very popular. I have the reputation of never watering down the wine, never running out of anything and serving the best food in the district – succulent lamb, fresh tasty bread and juicy olives. People come to me if they want to celebrate, because I have a big room and, as I say, a fine reputation for good food and wine and the best place to hold a party. ‘We’ll have the wedding at Samuel’s place’ is what people say.

Well, that was my reputation until today. It was a normal wedding booking. People were coming to Cana, where my inn is, from all over the district. The bride and groom were very popular and the family was big. There were even people here from Nazareth.

All went well at first. The bridesmaids escorted the groom, their lamps well lit. The doors closed and the party began. I don’t know how long your weddings last but ours can last for days – and people eat and drink a lot. So, I have to have everything well planned. But things went wrong this time. Whether it was that group of fishermen and carpenters who came with a young man and his mother from Nazareth, I don’t know, all I do know is that all of a sudden one of the servants ran to tell me that the wine had run out. My reputation was in danger, my whole business threatened. To be honest I didn’t know what to do.

Then … it was amazing … but the servants came back and said that everything was ok; that I had no reason to worry. They had more wine, in fact a heck of a lot more wine, suddenly from nowhere. All my six water jars were full of it. I tasted it, it was delicious, much better than the wine I’d been serving at first. I asked what had happened but all they could do was quote from the prophet Isaiah

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.”

Two Samuels – of course we don’t know the name of the Steward of the wedding feast at Cana, but he might have been called Samuel! But both of them, the boy and the man were in the business of serving. That was what they did, and both were really proud of it.

Neither of their jobs, their lives were glamorous and in many ways they had to stay out of the limelight. For the boy Samuel it was Eli who had centre stage; for Samuel my steward it was the bride and groom who were the guests of honour. But neither sought to be the centre of attention – they just wanted to serve.

What you all do is amazing. You enable worship to happen. Like Samuel checking the candles; like the steward checking the bread and wine; like Samuel serving the priest, like the steward serving the guests. Being an altar server is a high calling because it’s an enabling ministry. Because of what you do people can come along to church and be caught up in the worship that’s offered, caught up in the praise offered to God, caught up in that atmosphere of prayer, caught up in the meal that looks towards the heavenly banquet.

You may feel that you don’t do much – that you only carry a candle, only swing the incense, only hold the cross, only point in a book – but that’s an essential task that you’re doing – and each task adds together to create liturgy – the work of the people of God, the worship of the God who is love.

There are some words that we sing as a hymn that were written way back in the very early fourth century by St Ephrem who lived in the area of Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. He was a deacon, not a priest, and so called to a ministry of ordained service and he wrote this.

Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands
that holy things have taken.

Those are your hands, the hands of the lamp-trimmers and the door openers; the hands of the bread holders and the wine pourers, your hands are made holy because you handle holy things on behalf of the holy people of God. Like Samuel and Samuel you are servers, servers of God, servers of God’s people and you help those of us who are priests and bishops to draw people into the foretaste of the heavenly banquet in which Jesus provides not just the wine but also the bread, his body and blood, which never fails but sustains us into eternity.

God bless your hands; God bless your ministry; God bless you, servers.

Loving God, bless us as we serve, bless us as we worship, bless us as we come before you in true humility. Amen.


The beautiful story

I’ve just finished reading a really beautiful story – ‘Sweet Sorrow’ – a novel by David Nicholls. It was our Book Group book this month and I have to confess that it made me cry as I finished it, big tears, down my cheeks tears. Lots of memories flooded back of school and first love, of friends, lost and kept, family, the pressures of exams, Shakespeare, learnt, remembered, forgotten – and the ‘star crossed lovers’ at the heart of it.

It’s just over a week since the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ (LLF) material was finally published by the Church of England. For those of you who might not be so familiar with the workings of the CofE as some of us are, this is the document on which the church has been working for a few years on the issues of sexuality and marriage. I can hear you yawning! ‘Surely we have done all of that?’ Well clearly we haven’t because we have still not come to a ‘decision’ about the place of LGBT+ people in the life of the church, nor have we really tackled the issues that surround our understanding of marriage and committed relationships in any form, that complex business of relationships that so many novels, like ‘Sweet Sorrow’ attempt in different ways to address. So this piece of work is intended to help us have resourced conversations that might in turn lead us towards some kind of decision making, I suppose.

The point of the LLF book and the videos and the other resources as I understand it is to get us talking and thinking and praying and allowing ourselves to be led by the Holy Sprit in discerning God’s will for the church and the way forward out of this impasse. So I was interested to watch one of the first major contributions to the debate and the process, which was made available on YouTube last week. It’s a thirty minute film entitled ‘The Beautiful Story’ and is the work of the ‘Church of England Evangelical Council’ (CEEC) which is an unofficial gathering of people from the evangelical tradition within the Church of England.

So like many people I sat down and watched it – high production values, good filming, lovely shots, a really professional job. I got over the fact that the only people in it who seemed to be allowed to wear dog collars were the bishops and that the churches in which the interviews were shot had mostly been stripped bare of anything that was particularly beautiful. It reminded me of that verse in 1 Samuel

She named the child Ichabod, meaning, ‘The glory has departed from Israel’ (1 Samuel 4.21)

It didn’t look like the church that I know and love. But I forgave them all of that.

What did disappoint me, however, were two things in particular and one larger issue. The first was that at one point a contributor, speaking about ‘same-sex attraction’ (the phrase evangelicals seem to prefer to homosexuality), said that rejection of ‘living this out’ was a non-negotiable. I didn’t fid that helpful language at the beginning of a conversation – it felt a lot like shutting down any opportunity of talking. Secondly, I found some of the talk about structural changes to the church – maybe a couple of new provinces that were ‘safe’ – equally unhelpful. This is not the way to get the best out of the conversation that we are meant to be having, again.

But my real disappointment was around the telling of ‘The Beautiful Story’. It is undoubtedly true that scripture and the life of faith and the life of the church is a story of romance, a love story, between God and humankind and that the language of the Letter to the Ephesians of the relationship between Christ and the church is very helpful. The writer talks of how ‘Christ loved the church’ (Ephesians 5.25) as a way of understanding marriage and by implication other human, loving, sacrificial, honouring relationships. We use that language every time we celebrate a marriage in the Church of England. There it is, proudly, in the Preface to the service that sets our stall so to speak.

But the speakers, all sincere, many known to me, some of whom I have had the pleasure of working with over the years, only told part of ‘The Beautiful Story’. Just as I didn’t really recognise the Church of England in what I was watching neither did I really recognise the fullness of the God I know in Jesus. I and you have our own beautiful stories to tell and the story we would tell involves the person that God created, me, you. The God I know doesn’t deal in ‘non-negotiables’ but seeks to include, embrace, love every part of the rich creation that flows from the divine love which is so beautifully described in scripture

I was daily his delight,
   rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race
. (Proverbs 8.30-31)

I don’t particularly want to spend the rest of my ministry talking about sex, it’s boring and it just sucks the energy out of the church that should be engaging with God in mission and telling the story of the romance, this beautiful story that includes every person, whoever they are, whoever they are attracted to, those who are called to the single life and those who are called into relationship with another person. I am privileged to be part of a beautiful community at Southwark Cathedral that lives well the beautiful story, with difference, celebrating it, embracing it, not fearing it in whatever form we encounter it and where the glory of the story exists and survives and thrives.

I too have a story to tell of finding love and growing in love and I rejoice in that and rejoice in the glory of the God that never departs or abandons us, in the God who loves me into my better me and embraces me as the child that was so lovingly created.

God of grace and truth, as we live your beautiful story may we recognise your divine image in each one of our sisters and brothers, for your glory never departs and your story is never fully told. Amen,

Holy Land

A pilgrimage for returning pilgrims

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

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark