Living God

It was 25 years ago that an Australian rom-com film hit our screens and changed our language. The film was called ‘Strictly Ballroom’ and was all about a dancing competition. Sounds familiar? As far as I understand it it was that film that gave the title to the BBC show that for many people has become must-see television, ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, and the way in which the word ‘Strictly’, as the shortened version, has dropped into everyday language.


Dancing without fear

But for a sequins and sparkle film, it also came up with a phrase which I’ve found really helpful this year. One of the characters talking to another says this ‘A life lived in fear is a life half lived.’

This has been a tough years in many ways and for very many people. As a nation we have experienced horrific terrorist acts in Manchester and London. We watched with horror as Grenfell Tower burnt on our screens and seared its way into our memories. We’ve seen refugees fleeing war and the Rohingya fleeing oppression. We have seen a gunman shooting from a Las Vegas hotel into a crowd of music fans. We have seen families without anything in the blockade of the Yemen. We have seen so many things that have made us weep.

Fear has dominated so much of the year – the fear of Brexit for some, of no Brexit for others; the fear of the newcomer and the stranger; the fear of nuclear standoff in the Far East; the fear of the unknown becoming known.

For the community in which I live and where I serve as Dean all of that became very real for us on the 3 June when on an evening when the crowds were out, having a great time in the London Bridge and Borough Market area, three men, armed with a van and knives wrecked havoc, mowing down people on the bridge and going on the rampage in the streets around Southwark Cathedral. As soon as I heard something was happening I headed out of my house close by and tried to get to the Cathedral to open the doors as a place of refuge and safety. But I couldn’t get any where near. The police held me back and I found myself on the main street, Southwark Street, filled with vehicles with blue flashing lights, pavements filled with the injured and the traumatised being tended to.

I don’t mind telling you that I was petrified. I’d seen this on the news, in the movies, but this was the evening when I lost my innocence. Terror came to our streets and we suffered.

All of that followed the attack on Westminster Bridge and the Manchester Arena; the attacks on Finsbury Park Mosque and Parsons Green tube would follow. These were a terrifying few months that we lived through that took from us the young and the hopeful, friends, colleagues, those who were dedicated to helping others, the innocent and vulnerable.

That evening when I got back to the Deanery it all felt hopeless, everything that we sought to stand for, inclusion, cohesion, all those buzz-words of communities nowadays, seemed to be under attack. But the new day dawned and we got on with helping one another through the grief and through the horror to a better place.

Amongst the cards that we will have received for Christmas will be many, I suspect, of a scene in a stable, of a baby with its parents, some sheep and oxen and donkeys looking on. It all happened a long time ago, in a foreign land but each year we remember again something as simple and ordinary as the birth of a baby but something as wonderfully profound, according to Christians, as God living along side us, ‘God with us’.

Beuronese Nativity

A baby is vulnerable, helpless, dependent, humanity at its weakest. The child quickly knows how to get attention, crying out, for food, or warmth or comfort but relying on someone else to provide all of those things, unable to do anything for themselves. And this is how God, Almighty God, enters into the world, not in strength but in weakness, and shares the vulnerability of what it means to be human. That immersion in what it means to be human would take that baby from that crib to a cross, where apparent weakness would be on display for the whole world to see. But this, as we have discovered is the way in which God works.

Although I was frightened that evening and though I felt hopeless I didn’t want the fear to overwhelm me or the hope I do have to desert me. Because I knew then as I know now, I believed then as I believe now, that God is with us and that when we look into the manger and see the baby we see the hope of the world, we see the Living God.

Some years later when he had begun his ministry and called his disciples to follow him, Jesus was talking to them. In the course of what he said he told them

‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ (John 10.10)

The ‘they’ is us, you and me, and this is what we are celebrating when we give our presents and sit and eat and spend time with family, an abundant celebration because of an abundant gift, the fullness of life. And that is why that line from ‘Strictly Ballroom’ is so important – ‘A life lived in fear is a life half lived.’ Jesus wants us to live life in its fullness, not a life diminished, half-lived because fear is traumatising us. A fearful life is no life and when we simply give into the fear of where we are going as a nation, of where we are going as a global community, the fear of the person we don’t know, of the one who believes something different to me, looks different to me, acts differently to me, the fear of things that are beyond our control, once we allow ourselves to be taken over by that fear then life is not being lived as it should be. What is more we end up unable to deal with any of the things that have the potential to make us fearful.

That baby in the manger, that child in his mother’s arms, the God who is with us, is the one who desires for us life and gives us life – so that we can live it, fully, and dance if we can. This is the Living God.

Living God,
your life gives life to the world;
live in us,
live in me,
may our lives reflect your life.


Suffering, endurance, hope

Thank God for Oscar Wilde who bequeathed us so many epigrams in his plays and writings.  In that wonderful play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ he writes

‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’

What can be said of truth can be said of life, it is neither pure nor simple. If it were simply grim then we couldn’t bear it, but it isn’t. But these have been some grim weeks for those of us in London and these have been a grim few months for us as a nation as a whole. For some what is grim for others has been life-changing and life-destroying.  For the injured and the bereaved, Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge mean that life will never be the same again. For the residents of Grenfell Tower the horror that they have gone through is unimaginable, the real stuff of nightmares. The loss of life, the injuries, the stress, the implications for ongoing life when your home, your things, your papers and documents, the stuff that holds your memories are all taken from you in an instant must be beyond description.  I was with someone the other day who had been through a devastating fire herself.  The pictures from Kensington brought it all back.  ‘I can still smell the smoke’ she said and she always will.  The smell lingers in the memory as much as physical scars which are always reminders of horrendous experiences.


Prince Harry with Paul in the Borough Market


This past week has been one of trying to begin to get back to some kind of normality, a new normality, in the community around Southwark Cathedral. The church was the first of the major places to reopen. The Borough Market opened on Wednesday and in between the bars and restaurants gradually opened.  Just before the Market bell was rung by one of the traders at 10.00am on Wednesday morning to announce the commencement of trading, the Bishop of Southwark with some of the Cathedral clergy and servers went out with holy water and incense to cleanse and re-hallow the area after the horror of what had happened.  The procession then arrived in the Market as it reopened.

I was talking to Paul, the trader who rang the bell, who was visited, amongst other by Prince Harry on Thursday.  He runs a fruit and veg stall in the market, a proper east-end market trader. And he told me that not only was he reopening and supporting the market in that, but he was organising his fellow traders to send food over to Kensington for the people now made homeless.  It’s acts like that which relieve the grim reality and reveal that deep-seated goodness that is a true part of human nature.

On Friday we hosted at Southwark Cathedral a ‘Service of Hope’ at which were survivors of the attack, families of the injured and those who lost loved ones gathered with first responders in an act of solidarity and hope.  The stories of bravery and the acts of goodness that I’ve hard in the past two weeks, the tremendous images of community acting together around the base of that burnt out tower are humbling.  Good people are everywhere.

I was reminded of a passage from the Letter of St Paul to the Romans.

‘Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.’ (Romans 5.3-5)


Suffering, endurance, hope, an experience of community – and every part of that needs to be recognised for what it is, along with the acts of goodness, generosity and love that are woven through it.  The grim reality remains in broken lives, destroyed homes, shattered dreams but into that is shot the transcendent love of God that is revealed in broken humanity and transformed in divine and everlasting life.

God, take our suffering,
build our endurance,
crown it with hope
and may all be suffused
with your love.

‘I am with you always’

This is the text of the sermon I preached at Southwark Cathedral on Trinity Sunday 2017 the day on which we were able to reopen the Cathedral following the terrorist attack on our community a week before.

Saturday night last week was like a living nightmare. It’s the kind of experience that only happens to other people, not to you, not on your own doorstep. But it happened to us, it happened on our own doorstep, literally; it happened in our own community that we love and that we’ve served in Christ’s name for over 1400 years. Those years have seen their share of war and pestilence and fire but I doubt that ever before has the church been inaccessible to worshippers for a week, inaccessible as the place of peace and contemplation that people expect and need, inaccessible as the place of welcome and embracing, radical hospitality and love that we seek to be. But it happened.


When I first heard that something was happening in the London Bridge area I put on my dog collar and headed down Bankside to try and open up the Cathedral so that we could be a place of refuge. But initially I didn’t get far.

So I went through the back alleys and got as far as Park Street and Neal’s Yard Dairy and the Market Porter. But heavily armed police barred my way and forced me back. ‘Run, run’ was all they shouted. I was directed on to Southwark Street and there saw people lying on the pavement being cared for by the emergency services. ‘Run, run’ was all I could hear through the sound of sirens and helicopters and I was forced on and on until I got back to the Deanery and shut the door behind me on the living nightmare.

Around midnight I received a text from Amir Eden, a young man who lives on Park Street, a lawyer who was a pupil at Cathedral School, a practising Muslim who’s the chair of the Bankside Residents Forum. ‘Could I come to yours? I can’t really go anywhere.’ was his text. I texted back ‘Of course’ and so he arrived and with 8 other people spent the night in our house.

The rest I suppose you know about. 8 brutally killed, 48 horribly injured. The Cathedral was forcibly entered by the police searching for more attackers, doors broken down, glass smashed in a desperate effort to stop more bloodshed. It happened on our doorstep, on the threshold of God’s house.

And now we’re here on this Trinity Sunday, back in this sacred place, which is still sacred. The risen body of Jesus bears the marks of the nails and the spear and Jesus shows his hands and his side to his disciples. The Sacristy door shows the marks of the baton rounds fired at it to break open the door and allow the police access. We bear on our body the marks of suffering that so many bear in their flesh and in their soul and spirit.

St Matthew places the final encounter of the disciples with the risen Jesus not on the Mount of Olives, just outside the city of Jerusalem, but back in Galilee, the place where they started, the place of call and from that place of call he sends them out to the nations, to take the Good News, to baptise and teach. But then, before he leaves them he makes a promise, a promise to them and a promise to us.

Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. (Matthew 28.20)

In the horror of the moment it’s all too easy to imagine that you’re on your own, that you’re abandoned to the nightmare, lost in the terror, but Jesus says ‘No; remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.

God was not absent on that Saturday night; God is never absent. The Psalmist knows it to be true when they say

Where can I go then from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. (Psalm 139.7-8)

We are not abandoned by the Sprit, we are not abandoned by the Father, we are not abandoned by the Son for we have this promise ‘I am with you always.’

On Friday I was invited to go to our local mosque by the Imam. I went with other clergy from here and we were welcomed with open arms. I’d been invited to speak to a packed congregation. The Imam preached about our shared humanity and our shared heritage through Adam and I was able to respond to that, taking your greetings to our brothers and sisters, telling them that we do not hold the Muslim community to blame, telling them that we recognise that we share so much, praying, peace upon you, greeting them as Paul greets the Christians in the multi-cultural, multi-faith, complex and exciting city of Corinth

‘Live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you’. ( 2 Corinthians 13.11)

That is what we have to do. What we share is what God has given, a shared heritage, a shared humanity, not just with the Muslim community but with all people, all men and women, regardless of anything that others might identify as difference. Difference does not mean division unless we chose to make it so, and we chose to make difference a blessing and an enrichment to our community which is why we celebrate who you are, who we are, male and female, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight – and I will say that again and again and again from this pulpit until it is deep in all our hearts, to the very core of our being.

The great metaphysical poet and Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, famously wrote a poem, so well known.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

‘Any man’s death diminishes me’ which is what the Quran teaches, that killing one life is killing all life. We have all been scarred by what happened last Saturday on our doorstep and we will bear those scars. But they will not make us bitter but make us stronger.

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ said Edmund Burke. We will not do nothing. We will rebuild with the community what good things we have, we will rebuild the joy and diversity, the confidence, the acceptance, the inclusive, radically beautiful nature of this community that has been built over centuries and millennia. The roots go deep and cannot be destroyed by evil men and we will not allow it but will confront that evil with love.

wounds of crucifixion

We bear on our body the marks of Jesus

The Feast of the Holy Trinity is the feast of relationship, that beautiful relationship of diversity in the very Godhead, the Perichoresis, the divine dance into which we’re drawn. And we’re drawn and invited to this altar, through the Spirit, by the Father, to share in what the Son gives to us. With scarred hands he gives his broken body to us, gives his shed blood to us, and he asks us to eat and drink so that through his death we may have life. He is always with us, always, at the altar, in the world, walking through the dangerous places and showing his scarred self to a scarred world and making it, ultimately, beautiful.

Loving God,
when terror came to our doorstep
and stalked our streets
you were there with us in the fear and agony.
Remain with us
and with all those caught up
in the horror of these events
the injured and distressed
those who died
and all who seek your peace
which passes understanding.


A night of terror

Thank you to all who have been sending such messages of solidarity, hope and care.  Your prayers are so appreciated.  At the moment we don’t know when we will be able to get into the Cathedral.  Until then, on this Day of Pentecost, I am praying this prayer.

Loving God, when terror came to our doorstep
and stalked our streets
you were there with us
in the fear and agony.
Remain with us
and with all those caught up
in the horror of these events,
the injured and distressed
those who died
and all who seek your peace
which passes understanding.



We have a couple of really exciting days ahead of us at Southwark Cathedral.  Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, is the day on which we gather on London Bridge with the Parish of St Magnus the Martyr, our neighbour across the river on the other side of the bridge.  For as long as the bridge and the Christian church has existed in London our two churches have had the care of the bridge and its residents (during the mediaeval period). We live out that responsibility by meeting where our parish boundaries meet and have a short service during which a cross is thrown into the river as a sign of blessing.  The river has been such a feature of the lives of both churches as has the bridge and that concern for both continues in this very public act.

The icon of the Baptism of Jesus at Southwark Cathedral

The icon of the Baptism of Jesus at Southwark Cathedral

On the following day we will be blessing the twelve bells that were removed from the Cathedral tower in July and have now returned.  Two have been recast and so will be baptised but all will be blessed by the Bishop of Southwark.  Bells have rung out from the tower since before the fifteenth century when we know that the original ring of seven was augmented for the royal wedding that took place in 1424 in the Priory of St Mary Overie.

At that time, the Bishop of Winchester, of which Southwark was his liberty, was Cardinal Beaufort.  His niece, Joan, was to marry King James I of Scots and, as at that time he was in prison in the Tower of London, he was let out in order to come across the bridge and to the Priory to be married.  And the bells rang out as their marriage was blessed.

Priests get called on to bless all kinds of things.  In the next few weeks I’m going into the Borough Market to bless the ‘First Flush Darjeeling’, very special tea that is sold at one of the stalls.  What reading we will have for that goodness only knows.  But I’m delighted to be able to do it, just as I’m delighted to bless the First Loaf at Lammas and bless anything else that is shoved in front of me.  After the Mass on Epiphany a young women asked me to bless two prayer books she had bought in the Cathedral Shop for a friend, lovely.

So we wait with anticipation to see what the House of Bishops will recommend to General Synod and the church at our meeting in February.  After the Shared Conversations – which had gone so well as far as I was concerned – they went off to deliberate what we might do and be able to offer to those in our congregations, as well as those in every part of our society, who wish to marry their same-sex partner and do so with a blessing.

It just seems odd to me that I can bless a river, bells, books, tea, bread, cats and dogs and not two people who love each other. Perhaps if I can’t bless two people, who happen to be of the same gender and who have decided that they want to spend the whole of their life together in a loving committed faithful relationship I shouldn’t bless anything.

Jesus blessing the world and all creation

Jesus blessing the world and all creation

God seems to treat us all equally, for as Jesus says of God in St Matthew’s Gospel

‘He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’ (Matthew 5.45)

and as I cast out indiscriminate blessing from the altar at the end of every Eucharist it falls in the same way.  But perhaps we are going to have to think differently about blessing in the future and, against the will and action of God, bless only those who REALLY deserve it.

you bless without distinction,
love without discrimination,
may your church
bravely reflect your nature.

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