Out of the frying pan …

Whether you think it was wise of the Government or not, Thursday of last week was going to be quite a moment. After almost two years of legal restrictions placed upon us in order that we could control the spread of the virus – or at least attempt to – all legal restrictions were to be lifted. No more compulsory masks, no more compulsory self-isolation. For some this seemed premature and slightly scary, for others it was the moment they had been pressing for, freedom. My own feelings were more the former than the latter. I don’t particularly like wearing a mask, but I will continue to do so, especially on public transport, especially in a crowded place, and especially when infection levels are as high as they are. The Zoe Covid app I complete each day has had to have a few iterations of the graph for SE1 area on the homepage; the numbers on the left axis were just not sufficient for the actual number of infections now being reported, a chilling and daily reminder that we aren’t out of the woods.

Nevertheless, Thursday arrived and we were ready to enter a new phrase. But it really was a case of ‘Out of the frying pan and into the fire’. I love idioms, they describe some things so well, in ways that we can all understand. It seems that as far as the English version of this idiom is concerned it can be dated back to 1528. One of the earliest known uses may be from St Thomas More in ‘A Dialogue Concerning Heresies’, first published in 1529. So it has a good and holy pedigree. But in fact the idea that lies behind it – that you escape one bad situation only to find yourself in a worse one – can be dated back to ancient Greece, because this idea was described in Aesop’s fable “The Stag and the Lion”. It’s a familiar aspect of human experience.

Anyway, we woke on Thursday to the news that the attack on Ukraine by Russia had commenced overnight. We had been hearing the reports of the buildup of troops on the boarders of Ukraine for weeks. We had watched as shuttle diplomacy was engaged in, as leaders met in summits, to try to get President Putin to change his mind. The image that will stay with me is the photo of President Macron at the end of a very long table at a meeting with President Putin in the Kremlin. President Putin was sat at the other end. They were literally a huge distance apart and it was a visual representation of a political reality. They looked like a couple unable to communicate, even at the table.

It is hard to know what to say in situations like this, although the psalms at the Offices over the last few days have had plenty to say about the reality of war and the feelings that we have towards those we call our enemies. The people of Israel knew, and know, what it is like to be a people under attack, a people called upon to defend themselves and a people who would call on God to defend them.

So just a few thoughts. The first is that the Ukrainian people are full of faith. In the Parish of Richmond Hill, Leeds, where I was vicar we had a lovely family at All Saints Church who were of Ukrainian heritage. They worshipped as both Anglicans and Ukrainian Orthodox. What I saw in them was a deep love of God and a real spirituality born out of their home heritage and the traditions there. They loved coming back after their Easter celebrations and sharing their joy with me. They were strong, and strong in faith.

The second thing that has struck me is that over the last few weeks, as I have been going round talking about my book ‘The Hour Is Come’ for Passiontide, I have talked a great deal about my memories of the First Gulf War and the development of 24 hour news, the inspiration behind the book. We have seen all that come into its own again as we have been able to follow the events as they happen. We have the feeling that we are there and sharing with our sisters and brothers something of the horror that they are living through, in our own real time.

Finally, all I can do is pray. When I say ‘all’ it is not that I believe that prayer is nothing, I believe that prayer is powerful, essential vital. I am always encouraged by those lines in the Letter of James

The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up. (James 5.15)

In this final chapter of the letter, James is encouraging prayer for the sick by looking at what Elijah achieved through prayer. That is available to us, available to the church, available to people of faith is what James is saying. And we have to believe him. We have to be as strong in our prayers as are the people of Ukraine, lighting our candles as they light theirs, praying in our real time as they suffer in theirs, staying with them as much as we can. That is why I wrote this prayer which we are praying in Southwark Cathedral and across the diocese – and I invite you to pray with us for them.

God of strength and peace,
send your blessing on the people of Ukraine.
Sustain them in their struggles,
hold them in their fear,
protect them from all danger
and be for them the hope they desire;
for Jesus Christ’s sake.


Tiny steps

I think that one of the things I have learnt over these last eighteen months is that it’s not really about big strides forwards into a brave new world that is going to make the difference, but the tiny steps that we take every day. Even though we have recently heard of a new variant of Covid which has had the immediate effect of stopping travel between southern Africa and the UK, it does feel as though we are still making progress, with tiny steps.

Before lockdown there was a rota that some of us were on which involved going to St Alphege’s Oratory and presiding at the Eucharist for the Franciscan sisters and their guests who live there. It has always been a real joy for me. In fact I began doing this when the sisters were living in a house just off Brixton Hill. Because religious tend to keep early hours for their religion this meant getting a bus from the Elephant & Castle when it was still quite dark and hoping that I wouldn’t fall asleep and miss my stop! Then, for various reasons, they made their move to SE1, not far from the Cathedral and I was relieved of the dawn approach through the centre of Brixton.

The simple Franciscan oratory

Lockdown obviously put an end to it all, the rota was left pinned on the house notice board and we got on with other stuff. Until this week. My little step of bringing the past into the present happened on Thursday. What a joy it was. There is something very special about being able to say the Offices together and to celebrate the Eucharist. Whilst we were only three people in the little chapel that is in the back yard of the house, yet we knew that we were with ‘angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.’

Just as with never really forgetting how to ride a bike or drive a car amazingly I hadn’t forgotten the particular ways that the community there likes to say its prayers. One of the interesting thing about religious communities is that, having time, they are more able to say the psalms and the canticles slowly, deliberately and prayerfully. Whilst we try to say them carefully, with the good pause in the middle of each verse, at the Cathedral, saying it all at the speed that the sisters do would be far too much of a challenge for most congregations.

The other thing that I noticed, of course, is the way in which we all subdued our voices to that of the ‘choir’ not trying to lead from the back, not dictating the speed and the volume but creating something special together. St Benedict in his Rule talks a great deal about how the monks are to recite the offices during the day and in Rule XIX ‘Of the Manner of Reciting the Psalter’, writes this

‘Let us consider how it becometh us to behave in the sight of God and His angels.’

The small steps that we have been taking are like the small, gentle steps we were taking as we worshipped together, mindful of God and the angels, mindful of each other. It was deeply powerful and a joy to be back. There, in the small chapel, in SE1, the three of us were able to hold before God the twenty-seven of our sisters and brothers who the day before had died in their attempt to cross the Channel and find a new life on these shores, a place of safety, a new beginning. It was a tiny but powerful moment in a most distressing week – but the gentleness of our prayer held in gentleness these souls who, with their own tiny steps, were making a momentous journey. May they rest in peace.

God, guide our steps in prayer, to you. Amen.

The cost of peace

When you get back from your holiday apart from the huge amount of washing that probably confronts you the other thing that you have to deal with is what you discover when you switch on the computer and look at your emails.  I had been very good and followed the directions of our Sub Dean and ignored what was coming in whilst we were away.  That meant that apart from something like 30 shirts to be washed there were over 400 emails to be dealt with! Ore of them was a request from our bishop to write a prayer for the diocese to use on VJ Day.


‘As I survey ….’

In the past few years I’ve been asked to write special prayers for a variety of circumstances and events.  Those who follow this blog will have seen many of them.  To be honest it’s something that I really love doing. It feels like a huge privilege to enable others to express in words what we all might want to pray, to find words that can articulate what we might want to bring to God in prayer, to find the images and the scriptural references that in a few words can touch those who will use the prayer themselves.  So when I am asked to write a prayer I usually get on with it immediately.  But I had to sit on this particular request for a while – to write a prayer for VJ Day.

Don’t misunderstand me, I wanted to write the prayer, but what would I say?  It wasn’t just that I had sand between my toes and needed to get back into the groove, it was much more than that.

The VE Day celebrations this year, whilst curtailed because of Covid-19, made some kind of sense and were relatively easy to respond to.  But VJ Day always feels different.  What was my prayer, what could our prayer be?

When I was growing up in Leicester there was an older couple living in the house on the opposite side of the street from us.  The man worked from dawn to dusk, in the garden, on the roof, under his car, painting, sweeping, never keeping still.  We watched from our front window; whenever we looked out, at whatever time, there he was, unable to settle, unable to stop.  ‘He was a prisoner on the Burmese Railway’ our mum told us, ‘this is how it has left him.’  When you’re six and seven that means very little.  We had watched ‘The King and I’, we had seen ‘South Pacific’ but that side of the world was like the dark side of the moon to us.  And why would a railway cause someone to behave so strangely?

I can’t remember his name, but ever since I was asked to write the prayer he has been with me.  He was paying the price of peace, in his own body, in his own mind, in hands forced to work, first by cruel captors and then by cruel memory.

The Feast of the Transfiguration is the anniversary of the dropping of the first of the atomic bombs, on Hiroshima.  The second was dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August.  On the Feast of the Assumption, Japan surrendered.  The feast days are just a coincidence of course but certainly that first one, the Transfiguration, the light in which the true nature of Jesus is seen, resonates with that massive light in which the potential of human nature was revealed.  These terrible acts of war brought the war to an end but at such a price, and in the lead up to these bombings, to this slaughter of civilians so many people died and suffered horrendously in hand to hand conflict and in appalling prison camps.  The cost on every side was huge.

I sat down and prayed and let the scriptures speak to me and I remembered this verse

Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1.20)

The making of peace by the death of Jesus on the cross, the costliness of it all, that had to be what we prayed about, the price paid by the innocent people of those Japanese cities, paid then and by generations into the future, the price paid by our neighbour and his comrades, the price paid by humanity, is reflected in the nailed man on the tree, reconciling earth and heaven, through blood, through death.  It seems to be a heavier memory than crowds dancing around Eros in Piccadilly or surging up the Mall to see the Royal Family on the balcony.  In the shadow of the mushroom cloud words fail us – but sometimes we still have to find the words.  So this is what I wrote, and I offer it to you.

Lord Jesus,
you bore the cost of peace
in your own body on the cross.
As we commemorate
the end of the Second World War
we remember those who paid the price of peace
and pray that we may both cherish
and uphold it
for today, tomorrow
and all that lies beyond.

The sound of music

There are a lot of people like me around, fans of musicals.  You can find us hanging about in a lot of places – piano bars, sing-along-a sessions, karaoke parties, even cinemas and theatres.  We’re the people who look happy, ready to burst into song just like the people do in the films that we so love.  Something happens to them, good or bad, and the way that they celebrate it, make sense of it, deal with it, is by singing, breaking into song and tapping their way out of disaster.


Rodgers (left) and Hammerstein (right)

Among the many memorials in Southwark Cathedral there’s a lovely one in the Harvard Chapel to Oscar Hammerstein.  It should be more of a place of pilgrimage for people like me than frankly it is ; never have I come across an adoring fan kneeling before it dressed in a wimple or as a bit part player from ‘Oklahoma’, ‘Carousel’, ‘South Pacific’, or the ‘King and I’.  It was ‘The Sound of Music’, I suppose the epitome of the musical, even in its title, that was that last collaboration between Rodgers and Hammerstein.  I was at the funeral of a good friend last week.  He knew all the words to ‘The Sound of Music’ and so we left the chapel, suitably and in a way that would delight him, with ‘Do-re-mi’ ringing out around us and the crystal clear enunciation of Julie Andrews thrilling our hearts.  The reason that we have a memorial to Hammerstein is that he loved Southwark Cathedral and when he was in London would join us for Choral Evensong, that jewel in the crown of the Church of England.  To mark the endowment made in his memory, the head boy choristers are named ‘Hammerstein Chanters’. Oscar Hammerstein is never forgotten at Southwark Cathedral!

We are delighted that we will be able to worship again, in the cathedral, with a congregation.  We may have to be distanced, we may be fewer in number than we would normally be, we may not be able to share the Peace, we might have to make our communion in one kind, we might not be able to have coffee afterwards but at least we can be together, worshiping the God who has sustained us through this time.  The sadness is however, that it will be a long time before we will be able to sing together.  As we plan for our first Sunday service on 19 July we’re having to think creatively about how we can use the organ and just one singer.  That is all we are allowed.  It may change but at the moment that is what it is.

Just like none of us realised that cricket was so dangerous a sport as far as Covid-19 is concerned, the ball, according to the Prime Minister being a well-known vector of transmission, neither did any of us realise that singing could be so threatening. However, cricket is coming out of the nets, so singing may come out of the bathroom where it has been locked down! However, just as in the musicals singing in church is the way in which we express so much of what we’re feeling, celebration, lament, prayer, thanksgiving, joy, sorrow, it’s all there, in the hymns, in the psalms, in the anthems, in the songs, even in the ‘loud organ his glory forth tells in deep tones, as the hymn puts it.

The famous saying that is attributed to St Augustine is

‘The one who sings prays twice.’

If praying is dangerous then singing is doubly so.  Think of worshippers in churches on slave plantations in the Caribbean not being allowed to sing the Magnificat, it was too dangerous a text, too dangerous a song to sing, too much a song of liberation for those being held in captivity to be allowed to voice.

The author of the Letter to the Ephesians is clear about it

Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5.19-20)

This is what we should do, sing it out, sing it clear.  But whilst we can’t we can let the music play in our heads, play in our hearts, sound in our lives, join with the song of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  Not even Guidelines, wherever they are from, can stop the song at the heart of the church.

God of our melodies,
may our song
echo the song of the angels
and our harmony
blend with that of heaven.

Praying for our key workers

It was good to be able to keep a minute’s silence today to pray for our key workers who have died so far as a result of this pandemic. I wrote a prayer this morning that you might wish to pray.


Lord Jesus, healer, shepherd,
they came to you for healing,
you went to them for saving;
enfold in your love
those who have followed in your steps
and have died in this pandemic.
Give them their reward,
console those who loved them
and weep with us
for lost lives,
for you are
our resurrection and our life.

‘Let us pray’

Those three words ‘Let us pray’ create a variety of responses.  You have to be careful when you’re presiding or officiating at a service how you use them.  If you say the words and then pause in a particular way people fall to their knees or sit down.  Men adopt the ‘Le penseur’ position, woman a more gentle bow, children fidget.  But sometimes you don’t want them to do any of those things, such as when you are about to pray the Collect.  So you have to say the words in a way that suggests that they shouldn’t move at that moment.  Don’t ask me how, you just learn how to do it – like people learn how to command their pet dog (not that I would possibly compare a congregation to a poodle though I have met some rottweilers in my time!).

The disciples ask Jesus a seemingly straightforward question

‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ (Luke 11.1)

The thing Jesus doesn’t seem to do was to teach them to put their hands together and close their eyes.  That is what I was certainly taught.  Instead, Jesus gives them the words to pray, he gives them what we call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, the most often used prayer in the world.  And as part of that prayer there are the words that we are focusing in on in these ten days between the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost – ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.  For the disciples these days became a time devoted to prayer.  As we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, the eleven

‘were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.’ (Acts 1.14)

The crucible in which the church was formed was a crucible of prayer.


Searching for God, Almighty Hands

On Ascension Day we welcomed into Southwark Cathedral a sculpture that is accompanying us through these ten days.  ‘Searching for God, Almighty Hands’ is a monumental work by Nic Fiddian Green.  Nic was our Lent artist back in 2013 when he brought ‘Christ Rests’ to the Cathedral, a beautiful thorn-crowned head of Christ.

‘Searching for God, Almighty Hands’ measures 10 ft in height x 4.9 ft wide and is hand-beaten in sheet lead. The image of hands at prayer is a familiar one to us, either from our own life experience when someone told us to ‘put your hands together and close your eyes’ as we learnt to pray, or from works such as the engraving of praying hands by Albrecht Dürer.  The sheer scale of Nic’s work means, however, that we cannot ignore these hands, this call to prayer, this invitation to engage with the God who, in Jesus, engages with us.


Nic at work

They may be made of beaten lead sheets but whilst metallic they have a softness, a gentleness about them.  The hands are together, in that attitude of prayer recognised world-wide by so many people.  ‘Put your hands together and close your eyes’ said mum to us when she was teaching us to pray.  ‘Put your hands together and close your eyes’ said the teacher when we were sat cross-legged on the floor of the school hall for assembly.  ‘Put your hands together and close your eyes’ we tell ourselves as we attempt to block out the distractions around and concentrate on praying.

But looking at these giant hands reminded me of something else.  In some cultures the joined hands lifted towards the head is a humble greeting, that wonderfully polite way in which we are on occasions welcomed.  Perhaps for some entering the Cathedral whilst this installation is in place what they see will not speak so much of prayer but of welcome.  That is the beauty of art; for one it will take them into prayer, for another make them feel welcomed and at home. Both responses can only but be welcomed.

Almighty God,
our hands reach up in prayer
our hands reach out to you.
With healing,
holding hands
embrace us,
embrace me.

We have to keep praying

Last week I put out a special prayer for Notre Dame, today it is Sri Lanka and the victims of the terrible and violent acts wreaked upon innocent people, some at worship on Easter Day, others enjoying a holiday on an island that is a jewel in the Indian Ocean.  It breaks our hearts, such evil, such wickedness.  But I believe that we have to keep praying because … well, it’s the only thing I can do and I do believe that prayer is effective.


Yesterday I was quoting a poem by R S Thomas in my Easter sermon at the 9.00am in Southwark Cathedral  This is the full text of the poem entitled ‘The Empty Church’, which, I think, contrasts what can be our frustration with prayer with our persistence in prayer.

They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more

to our lure. 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 illumined walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

So I kneel and I pray, and this is the prayer I invite you to pray with me after the Sri Lankan explosions.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ (John 20.19)

Risen Lord Jesus,
as our sisters and brothers
knelt to pray
life was taken from them,
as others relaxed
life was taken from them.
In the presence of such evil
keep us firm in faith
and constant in love
that the world might be filled
with your life, your light
and your peace.

‘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!


It’s always good when someone asks you a question that comes from left field, as it were.  I was attending the Resolve course at Southwark Cathedral last week.  It was the third of four sessions and we were looking at the soul after looking at the body and the mind in previous meetings.  In the conversations that happened afterwards one of the members of the small group that I was in asked, in a very interested way, why those of us who were Christians prayed.  It was a good question because it made me really think about what was a reasonable answer I could give.


Durer’s image of praying hands

Others in the group gave their responses, a lot about the ongoing conversation that we have with God, the idea that it is always there in the background, in the way that T S Eliot talks about it in his poem ‘Little Gidding’, part of the ‘Four Quartets’.

And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

There was also of course something about the kind of ordered prayer that we engage in in church, the words that we’re given to pray.  I made the point that I was obviously ‘paid’ to pray, that it was part of what I’m required and called to do on behalf of the church.  But all the talk also made me think about how important prayer is, to me, as a response to situations where I simply cannot do anything else.

The news emerging from Zimbabwe is disturbing and distressing.  The Diocese of Southwark has had a partnership link with four of the five dioceses in that country for many years and the Cathedral is part of that, having a direct partnership link with the Diocese of Masvingo.  That is the most recently created of the dioceses, in the rural south.  The people we have been able to get to know are simply wonderful led by Bishop Godfrey and his wife Albertina.  Coupled with that is the relationship that has grown through the Cathedral Shop with the ArtPeace project based in Harare.  The artists who produce the stone carvings we sell are a resilient and talented bunch of people, supported by the Jesuits, and through our contact here in the UK we get to hear their very real stories of dealing with the poverty that has blighted the country.

The recent protests and the violent response of the army and police has affected all these groups of friends.  Members of artists families have been beaten and some have taken refuge in the Jesuit house.  The situation in Masvingo, away from the capital, is difficult as well.  And what can we do?

Zimbabwe prayer

The prayer vigil underway

Well, we have been praying.  After the Choral Eucharist last Sunday members of the congregation spent time before the map of Zimbabwe that is in the nave of the Cathedral holding a prayer vigil.  Few words were said, most of the time was spent in silence, candles were lit and people focused their attention on the map and the people that lay behind it – holding it all before God.  The wonderful thing is that the people for whom we are praying are so encouraged by the response that we have made.  They believe in the power of prayer and the promises of Jesus.

‘Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matthew 18.19-20)

It’s an encouragement to pray and an encouragement to agree on the words that we want to pray, agree on the purpose of our prayer.  So when I was asked to write a prayer for others to pray in response to the crisis I was delighted to do so and even more thrilled when I learnt that our friends in Zimbabwe are also praying, using the same words.  Please pray with us – I’m not sure what else we can do at the moment – and I believe that this is an effective response in itself.  God’s will be done.

May there be … no cry of distress in our streets. (Ps 144.15)

Loving God,
strong and merciful,
we hear the cry
of our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe
and we place them into your hands.
May the hungry be fed,
the sorrowful consoled,
the injured healed,
the hopeless encouraged
and the dead have new life in you.
May justice flow like a river
and may your peace rest upon them.

Praying for the Brexit Vote

I was asked by the Association of English Cathedrals to prepare another prayer for use today as we watch our elected representatives in Parliament debating and, finally, voting on the Prime Minister’s plan for our withdrawal from Europe.  I had prepared one for the previous vote, but as we know, that opportunity to vote was withdrawn.  In this instance I was inspired by the readings for this morning.  In his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul was writing to a church facing internal challenges, jealousies and disagreements.  He addressees these full on.


Whatever our views we are called to pray for one another and those charged with leadership in this as in every nation.  So please pray.

God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1.25)

God of wisdom and strength,
who challenge us in our foolishness,
and support us in our weakness;
give to those who lead us
a desire for that which is best,
a commitment to that which is honourable,
a love for that which is true
and a passion to serve the common good.
In Jesus’ name.

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