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.


Living God in Jerusalem – Uncovering the past in the present

There are many things that make an impression on pilgrims when they come to the Holy Land.  The noise, the traffic and the sheer quantity of people are of course some of what they find. But other things create a deeper, significant and more lasting impression.  Some pilgrims of course leave a lasting impression on the place itself.  We have had a bit of both of that today as we focused our attention on the birth narratives, first in Ein Karem and then in Bethlehem.

Groups most often go to the church of St John the Baptist but this group was going instead to the Visitation Church.  The reason that a lot of groups don’t go there is that the coach can’t get very close and the final approach is up a rather steep flight of steps.  But before you ever get anywhere near the church you come to a well, or more precisely a spring.


The spring at Ein Karem

The water flows gently, but constantly from this spring and as far as people know it always has done.  When Mary came to visit her cousin Elizabeth, whilst both of them were pregnant, they must have used this spring in order to get water for the household.  That kind of thing is indisputable – they needed water and this was the source.  We stood close to the spring and just listened.  It was a wonderful experience. In the silence I was reminded of a passage from St John’s Gospel

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”  (John 7.37-38)

This spring flows and flows, living water, like grace abounding.  It was a wonderful place to begin, a lasting impression.


Look – no scaffolding!

Yet what made the biggest impression on this visit came in the afternoon when we arrived at Bethlehem itself.  I was here in February with the Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage.  The scaffolding was still up inside and outside of the church in various places and restoration work was ongoing.  Eight months later and it looks so different.  The north nave aisle is still being completed as is the northern portion of the Constantinian floor of the nave.  But elsewhere … well it’s hard to do it justice.  What has been discovered of the past is incredible.  The centuries of grease and grime that had covered the columns and the walls in a black patina have gone.  What has been revealed are amazing mosaics including an angel which no one knew was there.


The once hidden angel

On each of the pillars is a painted icon – and the pillars themselves gleam.


Incredible columns

But on these you also find the graffiti of the past.  These are the impressions that former pilgrims have made upon the place.


Graffiti lost and now revealed

This one grabbed my attention.  It looks like an heraldic crest, a doodle by a knight.  On closer examination it looks like a rampant lion.  I was wondering, and this is pure speculation, but was this a doodle by an English or French knight, a Crusader, some one marching under the banner of Richard the Lion-heart?  I don’t know – but it sent a shiver down my spine.  This impression made an impression.  Who was the person who scored this, maybe with pride, into the structure of the place?  What impression did the church make on him, because it would have been a beautiful place with all of the mosaics and icons intact.  I imagined him like the knight in Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ someone who would have made another pilgrimage from Southwark and it’s Priory.

A KNIGHT there was, and that (one was) a worthy man,
Who from the time that he first began
To ride out, he loved chivalry,
Fidelity and good reputation, generosity and courtesy.
He was very worthy in his lord’s war,
And for that he had ridden, no man farther,
As well in Christendom as in heathen lands,
And (was) ever honoured for his worthiness

Leaving the ‘little town’ you pass by more recent impressions.


A beautiful smile from a hideous wall

The wall is still there and the graffiti of modern worthy and honourable people persists, people calling for freedom and justice.  It makes a lasting impression – but then truth, like water, should ever flow, from past, to present.

Jesus, living water,
refresh and sustain us;
Jesus, the Father’s truth,
inspire and enlighten us;
Jesus, always in our present,
uncover our past and lead us to your future.

Living God in Jerusalem – Watch where you walk

It’s good advice, wherever you are, and especially in these days when many of us are texting as we walk or engrossed in that other world that is being delivered through our headphones – watch where you walk! Distracted as we so often are nowadays we can easily miss where we’re putting our feet or what we’re walking past.

No street in the old city of Jerusalem is without its treasures.  Today we took a walk from Herod’s Gate to the Pools of Bethesda. That basically involves walking down one street, Herod’s Gate Ascent as it is called, before turning left and heading down what we know as the Via Dolorosa but in the direction of the Lion (St Stephen’s) Gate. Those who have been on pilgrimage to Jerusalem are used to competing with small tractors pulling carts behind them, with coaches and minibuses and cars negotiating the far too narrow streets that people drive along.  Now there is a more recent phenomenon and one with much greater stealth – the electric bike!  These are ridden at speed and arrive behind you silently.  You have to have your wits about you as you manage the age-polished limestone pavement, steps and slopes as you head down this ascent.


Symbols stenciled on houses 

But as we walked we kept stopping to look what was painted on the walls.  This street is part of the Muslim Quarter and the images on the houses were put there by proud Muslims and especially those who have been on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.  This pilgrimage to circle the Kaaba and to perform other associated rites, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.  If you have done it then you proudly proclaim this to the community by putting on your home a symbol of the Kaaba itself.  It really is fantastic when you, a pilgrim yourself, see the symbols of others pilgrimage so clearly displayed.


Celebrating the Hajj

But the walls you pass by contain other wonders as well.  Turning the corner we stopped to look at a portion of wall.  Just examining it you could easily see the remains of one bricked up arch, the remains of an arch that once sprung out across the road from this wall.  And at the base the unmistakable stones from Herod’s temple, destroyed in AD 70 and here reused by some canny builder.  The wall told its own story of change and reuse and of the passing of time and purpose.  Yet there it was, a wall, doing its job as a changing world passed by and pilgrims paused to look and wonder.


A wall that tells a story all of its own

The reuse of stones is as old as the hills from which they are quarried.  In the account of the battle between the prophet Elijah and the priests of Baal we read this

‘First [Elijah] repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name’; with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord.’  (1 Kings 18. 30b-32a)

The welsh poet has a lovely phrase about stones in his poem ‘In Church’

It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.

The stones in his imagination are more animate, than inanimate and framing something of a mystery, holding a mystery.


An old British Mandate post box!

We walked back along El Wad and there at the corner was something else in the wall, which I had never seen before, a reminder of former times, just sitting there, ready to tell its stories.  Watch where you walk – you could easily miss something!

Lord, may I walk through life
taking notice of what is around me
because if I don’t
I might just walk past you.

Navel gazing

Belly buttons are odd things aren’t they. We don’t talk a lot about them but we all have one, a birthmark in many ways.  It’s such a visible reminder of our birth, of the process of growing in the womb, supported by, feeding from our mother.  And they’re a reminder of that act of separation in that traumatic moment of birth when we are physically separated from the one to whom we owe our life.  The cord is cut and we are left with this fascinating scar.

The Greeks had a word for it, why wouldn’t they, the omphalos, and whilst that word refers to the physical navel, the belly button, it also refers to a stone that marked a place of real significance.  The most famous was in Delphi, a beautiful stone marking the navel of the world.  But many places claim to be that navel, the place where the earth was formed out of divine love – and Jerusalem is one such place.

Mappa Mundi

The Mappa Mundi


The old maps, such as the wonderful Mappa Mundi, placed the Holy City in this pivotal spot.  You knew where you were in relation to that place, just as distance in London is measured from the statue of Charles I just south of Trafalgar Square.  That is point zero for London; Jerusalem is point zero for much of the world and especially for Jews, Christians and, to a large extent, Muslims.

It’s a year now since my sabbatical came to an end.  You will find in the side bar a link through to the blog I kept during those three months, which I called ‘Sabbatical Thoughts’. The bulk of the time I spent living in Jerusalem, in east Jerusalem to be exact, at St George’s College which is on the Nablus Road just a short distance from the Damascus Gate.  The College is located next to St George’s Cathedral, the home of Anglicanism in in this great city and interestingly the place (in fact in the Bishop’s House) where the Balfour Declaration was signed 100 years ago.

I’d been to the Holy Land on about 25 occasions, leading groups of pilgrims on what was for many the journey of a lifetime.  In fact we are off again in February, almost 90 of us from the Diocese of Southwark, with the Diocesan Bishop, Bishop Christopher and me in leadership roles.  I’m looking forward to being back; I always look forward to being back.

St George’s College hosts many visitors and groups from across the Anglican Communion and every day in the refectory I would sit with one group or another hearing what they were getting up to and sharing in their delight in being in this life-giving city.  Many of those visitors were from the USA.  It was just before the Presidential Elections and, as these were obviously part of that small proportion of citizens of that great country who have a passport and were willing to travel, you can imagine that they were not great Trump supporters.  I can remember one of them telling me about a hare-brained plan he had for declaring Jerusalem the capital of the State of Israel and moving the American Embassy from the actual capital, Tel Aviv, to the Holy City. ‘No!’ we all cried out in amazement, those of us for whom this was news.  But we thought a) he would never be elected and b) he would never do it.

Well he was and he has.

Wandering around this ‘navel of the world’ as I did every day for those six weeks I began to understand more and more just what a delicate balance existed which kept the place relatively peaceful.  There were moments of violence, there was heavy Israeli police and military presence, entering the Damascus Gate was always an intimidating experience even for me who was clearly not Palestinian but was going in and out all the time.  But people were getting on with their lives.  But you could spot provocative acts.


The navel of the world?


The road from Damascus Gate to the Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) which we know as the Temple Mount, is the route taken by thousands of Palestinian Muslims on route to Friday Prayers.  Some settlers have moved into the area and huge Israeli flags now fly above the street in the Muslim Quarter, provocatively. But people just get on with it, get on with their lives, until something happens which tips the balance. But when we tip the balance, deliberately, mistakenly, accidentally in such a delicate place, politically, socially, theologically, we cannot be sure what the consequences will be.

When I’m leading pilgrims around the Holy Land and especially Jerusalem I use the Psalms of Ascent with them.  These are a group of fifteen Psalms – 120-134 – which were written with pilgrims in mind, so called because in Israel/Palestine you are always going up to Jerusalem, it’s always an ascent. Just as now people made their way to gaze at the navel and encounter God at the zero point of creation.  And as they made their way to the Holy City they prayed for it’s peace.

O pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
‘Peace be within your walls
and tranquillity within your palaces.’
For my kindred and companions’ sake,
I will pray that peace be with you.
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek to do you good.
(Psalm 122.6-9)

That has been my prayer since President Trump put his promise into effect.  That delicate balance of east and west Jerusalem, of the Old City with it’s four quarters – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Armenian – is at serious risk.  We gaze at the navel of the earth, our Mother city and weep for what might be.

we pray for the peace of Jerusalem;
may they prosper who love you.


I had to vote last week – in the General Election. When the snap election was announced and the date was set I realised that for once in my life I was not going to be in the country on election day.  So I sent off the form for my postal vote, duly received the papers and had the weird experience of standing in the kitchen with my pen – I wish the envelope had contained one of those stumpy pencils obviously only manufactured for UK elections – and made my cross in the box.  On the radio the arguments between the parties were continuing.  The campaign hadn’t ended but I had to make my choice, one way or the other, or the other, or the other ….


Martin Luther


The reason that I won’t be here on Thursday is that that will be Day 4 of our Cathedral pilgrimage in the steps of Martin Luther.  Monday sees over forty of us from the Cathedral and its wider community flying off to Frankfurt to begin tracing the life of someone who had an amazing effect upon the life and shape and beliefs of Western Europe and, indeed the world.  To be honest I knew very little about Luther or indeed Lutheranism.  Southwark Cathedral has had a very long link with the Norwegian Lutheran Cathedral in Bergen and has an even longer association with the work of the Norwegian Church in Rotherhithe. But, as I have discovered, Lutherans are even more complicated than Anglicans (though as yet I don’t think they consecrate curates as bishops!) and knowing the churches of Porvoo doesn’t mean that you know or understand Lutherans.  My formation as a priest at Mirfield prepared me for lots of things that would be vital in my priesthood but Martin Luther was not one of them.  I do remember one lecture by Fr Norman Blamires CR, now long since gone to his rest, in which he seemed to suggest that Luther had his best ideas on the loo.  But just as people often only remember the most insignificant part of a sermon I can’t remember much more than that, or the point he was trying to make.

So I’m looking forward to travelling around Germany, with an expert guide and learning a great deal more about some hammer blows in a door that became hammer blows on a church. Of course, we shouldn’t talk about reformation but reformations because it wasn’t one movement but a whole series of movements that manifested itself differently in different communities, in different churches at different times.  No expression of church in the west remained the same, we all reformed in one way or anther, to one degree or another. Neither is it a process that has ended.

In preparation for this year of commemoration the Lutherans and Roman Catholics produced a joint document entitled ‘From Conflict to Communion’ and at the end of that there are a series of ‘Five Ecumenical Imperatives’ the second of which is this

Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves continuously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.

It’s that process of continuous transformation that should excite us.  The church, as we understand it, is never static, it changes, develops, but never loses its essential character as the Body of Christ.


Transforming Spirit


We travel to Germany the day after the Feast of Pentecost, the great day of transformation for the church as locked in, frightened men were emboldened to become witnesses, as wind and fire brought energy and life, not just into them but into those who heard them. The crowds who heard the hubbub, people from every nation, hearing in their own language, asked one question

‘All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ (Acts 2.12)

That gave the opportunity for Peter, with a new found voice and confidence to stand up and preach the first sermon.  Thousands of lives were re-formed, transformed as a consequence.  I hope that as we travel around Germany we can experience some of that transformation that continuous process of change through encounter.

You can follow the journey by reading the blog here.

This is the prayer we will be using throughout the pilgrimage.

O God, our refuge and our strength: you raised up your servant Martin Luther to reform and renew your Church in the light of your word. Defend and purify the Church in our own day and grant that, through faith, we may boldly proclaim the riches of your grace which you have made known in Jesus Christ our Saviour, who with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. 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