Open arms

It’s just over 50 years since Idi Amin decided to throw the Ugandan Asians from their homes and their country, to force them to leave their livelihoods and their lives behind. They had 90 days to leave, to pack everything up and get out of the country. One of the places that they decided to go to was Leicester and, as a 15 year old boy, I remember them arriving in the city where I was born and was living.

I can remember some of the conversations around the meal table at home at the time. I can’t pretend that they were totally positive, but something needed to happen in Leicester and the arrival of this particular group of people – educated, intelligent, hard working, business-like, was the blessing that the city needed. You can’t rely on digging up the bones of a lost king or, as has just happened, finding the remains of a pagan temple under your cathedral, to make a city great. It has to come from more than that.

‘he opened wide his arms for us on the cross’

One of the features of life in Leicester was clothing manufacturing. My mum was a costings clerk in a factory that made for M&S and British Home Stores. My grandma had worked for a time in another clothing factory in the city doing the hard, hot work on a press. Lots of our neighbours were involved in ‘home-working’, which meant that at breakfast time a man and a van would arrive with a big bag of socks from the Wolsey sock factory. Their job, in their kitchen, sometimes their garage, was to iron the transfers onto the the socks, ready for the man and the van to come back at the end of the day to collect them.

But times were changing. M&S began to source clothes from cheaper markets overseas; tastes were changing. Some of the factories in Leicester began to contract and even close down. It was a tough time for the city and then the blessing arrived, families ready to make a new life and set up new businesses, people with the skills that were needed, in the right place at the right time.

My first job was folding shirts in a factory in Leicester, ready for putting in the cellophane bags to be sent off to M&S. It was just a holiday job. My real Saturday and holiday job was working for WHSmith in Gallowtree Gate in the city. It was a big shop on a number of floors. I began on the ground floor, looking after the news stand. This involved putting the papers and magazines on display, keeping the stand tidy and helping customers find what they were looking for. It also meant going on the till sometimes. There was, what I thought was, a design flaw in the store in that the newspapers were next to the doors, so every time that people came in on a windy day all the papers blew off the shelves and I had the job of tidying it up. I loved it.

Through the windows behind the till, near these doors, I could look out on Leicester Market. It was, I believe, the biggest outdoor market in the country, a lively bustling place that sold most things. But as I looked out the stall that I could see in front of me had the name ‘Lineker’s’ above it and ‘Choice Fruiterers’ emblazoned for all to see. Linekers was one of the best places to buy your fruit from. The polished apples were arranged along the front, tissue paper between them – my grandma always asked for her pound from those, not the less shiny ones thrown behind – it was a joy to see. Barry and Margaret Lineker took a pride in their stall, later on a ‘Pick your Own’ stall, that was something of a Leicester institution, and I suppose their son, Gary, must have helped out on a Saturday, although he was three years younger than me, and we went to different schools and, as you can imagine, I was seen nowhere near a football pitch.

But what we did share was an experience in Leicester of what the arrival of people, desperate to make a new life and a new home, can actually do, that it is a blessing and not a threat. Nowadays, Leicester is a city with a majority UKME population. The failing manufacturing industries were bought up and turned around. The new arrivals soon became deeply embedded in the life of the city, standing for public office and achieving it.

I obviously say all of this as the row continues about the content of Gary’s tweets and the language that he used in criticising the Government’s latest asylum plans and whether or not as the presenter of MOTD he should be free to express his opinions in this way. It should be no surprise to any one reading this that I agree with his main point, that I am proud of him speaking out, using his voice for the voiceless. Ok, I think we always have to be careful comparing anything to Germany in the 1930’s, but that has become a bit of a distraction from the most important thing, that the present proposals are not good enough.

Ok, the Ugandan Asians didn’t arrive by boats across the Channel. Mechanisms were put in place by the government of the day to enable them to leave Uganda and make their home here. But the lack of legal routes into this country for people fleeing their homes to protect their lives and the lives of their children is a national disgrace. We have helped create the problem, which the traffickers have capitalised on. The fear of the ‘other’, the ‘stranger’ has been whipped up and developed until it has become a national obsession. The stranger is not an enemy, the stranger is already our neighbour, our friend, and can be our blessing.

Everywhere I look in both the Old and New Testaments all I read is about the way in which strangers, aliens and neighbours are treated and in every instance it is with compassion. Take this, for instance, from the Book of Leviticus, the book that sets out the laws by which the Israelites would live

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19.34)

It could not be clearer.

I walk into Southwark Cathedral and see, behind the pulpit a figure of Christ. It’s the work of the artist, Fenwick Lawson, and it represents powerfully for me those words from the Eucharistic Prayer we so often use

‘he opened wide his arms for us on the cross;’

It is the God with open arms who welcomes us into the divine embrace. That embrace is for all, for the known and the stranger, for the ones we try to ‘other’, and especially those we would like to reject. We must speak out of what we know, out of truth and not out of fear.

God of open embrace, may we welcome all who come, all who arrive and share your love with them as they share their gifts with us. Amen.


Truth to power

I’m not sure whether this is confidential or not but I will risk mentioning it and just hope I get away with it! When I was serving on the Crown Nominations Commission, whose task it is to nominate to the Crown people for vacant diocesan bishoprics, part of the interview process was to ask questions and look for evidence that those we were considering were able to ‘speak into the public square’. It is seen to be an essential part of the ministry of bishops and thereby of the whole church. Our role models in all of this are people like St Laurence, not a bishop but a deacon, who resisted handing over the treasures of the church to the Prefect of Rome, presenting instead the poor and marginalised and speaking of them as the true treasures. Or, closer to home, we have St Thomas Becket, at one time serving the Crown in a ministerial capacity and then changing roles and standing up to the King in defence of the church and the clergy. We know where that ended!

In my own memory three occasions stand out as critical moments when the Church of England has stood up for what is right and courageously has spoken truth to power. The first was the famous sermon that Archbishop Robert Runcie delivered in St Paul’s Cathedral in 1982 on the occasion of the Service of Thanksgiving for Victory in the Falklands. Plucky little England had dispatched a modern day armada, made up of a variety of vessels and sent troops to the other end of the Atlantic to wrest back the islands from the Argentinian invaders. The Archbishop was not in celebratory mood but instead preached against war, calling on reconciliation and penitence. Mrs Thatcher was not amused.

Then we had the publication in 1985 of a report that really got up the noses of that same Government under the same grocer’s daughter. The report was called ‘Faith in the City’ and it was the result of a thorough examination of the plight of the poorest of our urban, inner-city communities, the levels of poverty that were endemic and the way in which government policy was exacerbating an already dangerous and disturbing situation. It was as a result of that report that the Church Urban Fund was established and the old relationship between the CofE and the Tories, the church being ‘the Conservative party at prayer’, really came to an end.

The third occasion happened last Sunday as Archbishop Justin preached at the Easter Eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral and denounced the latest policy proposals for dealing with refugees and asylum seekers, sub-contracting the responsibility to Rwanda and denouncing it as not ‘God-like’. This led to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary both openly and angrily criticising the Archbishop, suggesting that he had nothing to say into the world of politics, forgetting that he and so many of our bishops are part of the legislature of right and have every right to speak up for the poor and marginalised, for the refugee, the orphan and the widow, to speak truth to power however much the powerful may hate it.

Archbishop Justin wasn’t the only one to voice the criticism; the Archbishop of York had done a similar thing, as had I, in a less publicised context. As you may have read on this bog last week I said

‘At the same time we’ve seen in the past few days our own government responding to what they call, ‘the People’s priorities’ by proposing to transport to a processing facility in Rwanda, those who arrive on our shores seeking a better life for them and their families. Cruel, cold, inhuman, callous – there are no good ways to describe what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are proposing. And it needs to be said, this is about people of colour who arrive on our shores, the ones whose needs we’re being encouraged to despise. This is not the abundant life that Mary was confronted with in the garden, this is life denying, not life giving – and it’s shameful.’

It isn’t just the Christian church that has spoken out in this way, on this and many topics. Look back into the Old Testament and you will find so many examples of prophets speaking courageously. Jeremiah is a case in point. They try to starve him into silence, imprison him in a dried up well, keep him in captivity, chained, in the stocks. But whatever they do he will not shut up. Jeremiah prays after he has confronted Pashhur, the chief officer in the Temple, in Jeremiah 20, who the prophet cleverly and perceptively renames ‘Terror-all-around’, and you can hear his agony and his determination in what he says to God.

For whenever I speak, I must cry out,
I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’
For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, ‘I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name’,
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
For I hear many whispering:
‘Terror is all around!
Denounce him! Let us denounce him!’
(Jeremiah 20.8-10)

However much opprobrium is poured on our heads we cannot stop speaking, and certainly not whilst there are people in positions of power, not just in this country but around the world, who live by a distorted ethic and with no moral compass.

One of the things that the churches of the Anglican Communion gather around are called ‘The Five Marks of Mission’, and this is the fourth

To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace
and reconciliation.

This is what we have committed ourselves to do, to bring in the kingdom, of which our resurrected Jesus is Lord and King. If we don’t speak out then we are failing God, and failing our neighbour.

God, give us the courage to speak your truth, to the powerful, for the powerless. Amen.

The unlived life

This is the sermon I have preached this morning. According to our Statutes it is meant to be the bishop who preaches on Easter Day. But +Christopher is still recovering after some knee surgery – so I was able to enter the pulpit of the Cathedral and preach. As I say in the sermon I am picking up on the theme that Canon Leanne Roberts had chosen for her sermons this Holy Week; she has been our Holy Week Preacher. The title she chose for herself was ‘The Kingdom is Now: fear and the unlived life.’ I couldn’t resist adding to the stream of her thoughts – and she kindly gave me permission to do so. You can listen to all her addresses on our Facebook and YouTube platforms. The lections for today were Isaiah 65.17-25, Acts 10.34-43 and John 20.1-18. Happy Easter!

‘Mary, why are you weeping? Mary, for whom are you looking? Why are you weeping; why are you searching?’

Mary was in deep distress in the garden in the first light of dawn. She’d been there when the body of Jesus was laid in the tomb. She’d seen it with her own eyes, helped with her own hands. But now the tomb was empty, the body gone, the grave clothes left behind and there were these angels and this stranger asking annoying questions. ‘Why was she weeping; who was she looking for?’ It was obvious, or it was to her, she was looking for the one who’d given her back her life, the one who was her life, whose life had been taken from him. She was weeping for Jesus, she was looking for Jesus.

The other gospel writers give us other sets of emotions in this scene on the morning of Easter Day. They speak of fear, of terror, of anxiety. But however they describe it, we’re thrown with the women, with the disciples, with Mary, into a place in which people are in one way or another afraid.

Oscar Wilde’s ‘Selfish Giant’ has a very nice castle and a very nice garden. Having been away for seven years visiting his cousin, a Cornish giant, he comes back and finds that other people are enjoying his home. So he builds a wall, a high one, to keep the outside out, to keep others out, to keep him in. He can sit behind his strong wall and enjoy all that he has.

But the wall keeps everything out, it keeps the children out, it keeps spring out and it even keeps Christ out. Until someone makes a hole in the wall, just big enough to creep through. And spring and Jesus enter into his closed space, making not just the tree in the corner of the garden blossom but his life as well. As the spring petals fall on the dying giant the child

smiled on the Giant, and said to him, “You let me play once in your garden, to-day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.”’

Canon Leanne has been helping us to confront our fears during this Holy Week, the fear of change, of disgrace, of death, to name but three and I want to pick up on her powerful theme and address the Fear of life, the fear of living, living the unlived life.

It’s not just the giant who’s effective at building walls to keep life out. We can all be wall builders in one way or another, to protect the life that we have, the life we enjoy, the life we can cope with, and then spring fails to come and we need God to find that hole in the wall to break into our place of fear.

The prophet Isaiah in our First Reading says something so powerful

No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.

The prophet is speaking of this new heaven, this new earth, that Peter presents to Cornelius and his household, in our Second Reading. He speaks of what we’d want to call the kingdom, of which our Risen Lord is king, he speaks of a place in which we can live life to the full, not a shortened life, not a lessened life, not an unfilled life, but one in which both infant and old person live their full potential.

When I was a teenager we had the most amazing curate in our church. Fr Irving had come to us from Mirfield. He’d been born in Antigua and had come over to study. He had Sidney Poitier good looks and I’d never seen such a handsome priest let alone a black priest before. Like all of us he had basically one text and one sermon. It was this, John 10.10

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’

Abundant life, life in all its fullness, life to be properly lived, life to be embraced, life lived in the fast lane, full-fat life, in which you can be you, truly, fully, as God intended, as God created, outside the walls where Jesus died but where life sprang from the earth.

You may know the Easter hymn which begins like this

Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

The final verse says this

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Jesus’ touch can call us back to life again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

Jesus’ touch can call us back to life again.

This is what is happening in the garden and whether it evokes tears and frantic searching, whether it evokes fear or terror or anxiety or any of that rag bag of emotions that we see displayed in the Easter stories, it’s all because we sometimes fear the life that he, the risen Jesus, holds out to us, because we are too comfortable, too certain, too safe behind the walls we’ve built for ourselves or that others have built for us to contain us, too easy to live the half-life we’re living.

Am I really prepared to live my unlived life, have you really embraced life in all its fullness, are you living the abundant life that Jesus says he came to bring, is his touch bringing your wintry, grieving, painful self back to life and to a better place?

I want that life myself, I want that life for you, my sister, for you, my brother and I want that life for every person.

We’ve kept Lent, Passiontide and now Easter with the horrors of the events in Ukraine at the forefront of our minds. Lives are being destroyed, futures are being bombed out of existence and life is being lived out in an atmosphere of overwhelming fear. At the same time we’ve seen in the past few days our own government responding to what they call, ‘the People’s priorities’ by proposing to transport to a processing facility in Rwanda, those who arrive on our shores seeking a better life for them and their families. Cruel, cold, inhuman, callous – there are no good ways to describe what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are proposing. And it needs to be said, this is about people of colour who arrive on our shores, the ones whose needs we’re being encouraged to despise. This is not the abundant life that Mary was confronted with in the garden, this is life denying, not life giving – and it’s shameful.

Instead, what we proclaim today is Jesus, demolishing the walls that divide, breaking into our locked places, dragging us into the light, holding before us the possibility, the reality of life and leading us to live our yet unlived life in the kingdom – if we dare.

Because it means you being fully you, and me being fully me, and can we bear to be whom God loves and the world and the church so often condemns?

‘Mary, why are you weeping? Mary, for whom are you looking? Why are you weeping; why are you searching?’

Mary’s tears ceased, her searching ended as she turned and recognised Jesus and he called her by her name and brought her into the first day of her new life. And he does that for each of us today, he invites us to step with him into the garden of his delight, to blossom and flourish, to bear kingdom fruit, to be fully who we are, fed and nourished as we are in this Eucharist with the fullness of his presence, the fullness of his life.

Do not fear life; embrace it, live it, be it.

Risen Lord Jesus, cast out my fear, that I may fully live, fully love, fully embrace the life that you have given to me. Amen.

Crisps and chocolate

So, after managing not to get Covid for the past two years I finally succumbed to it. As I mentioned in last week’s blog I tested positive last Sunday morning and, as a consequence, the week that followed became so different to the one I had planned. Fortunately I have not been too ill. It has felt like a bit of a cold, a tickly cough, a sore throat at first. But what has been especially noticeable has been a level of fatigue that I am unfamiliar with. I just feel so tired. God gave me a quite sturdy constitution and my mum gave me an even sturdier work ethic and so not being able to do stuff is very weird and not very comfortable. But thanks for your prayers. The Covid App is ticking down the days and one way or another I hope that very shortly I will be able to leave the house and reenter society!

The enforced ‘stay-at-home’ regime has meant that I have been able to engage with a lot of the news feeds that have been coming through from Ukraine. Like everyone I have found that very difficult. There is a sense of helplessness that is overwhelming. Yes, I am praying and helping the Cathedral community to respond and offer support, as much as we are able. But it is not just the sight of devastated cities, uprooted lives, death and destruction that has been hard to bear – it has been the response of our own government that has made this almost unbearable.

As I write it seems that at last there seem to be some changes in the way that the Home Office is responding to the refugee crisis – but it still too little, too late – although the new scheme whereby refugees can stay in guest homes for up to three years is to be warmly welcomed. The low point for me in the last week, however, was that whole farce around whether there was or whether there was not a visa centre in Calais. We saw on the TV news, film of people arriving in a desolate entrance hall. A couple of civil servants were stationed behind a ‘Gopak’ table, so beloved of church halls, handing out a bag of crisps and what looked like a Kit-Kat to those who were arriving. Crisps and chocolate and a bottle of water. This was what we were offering to people who had lost everything and were seeking safety, a home, a welcome, a future. The rhetoric from the government was at odds – once more – with the reality; we are not ‘world-beating’ in our openness. Our continued insistence that refugees obtain a visa to enter the UK is at complete odds with the open, welcoming, inclusive, unguarded response made by so many countries in mainland Europe. I feel ashamed.

Sometimes I need to catch a train from Liverpool Street Station. If I do so I will inevitably walk past the statue commemorating the Kindertransport children. Called ‘The Arrival’ it commemorates the 10,000 orphaned Jewish children who escaped Nazi persecution and arrived at that station during 1938–1939. This is something of which you can be genuinely proud. The government of the day waived any visa requirements, the only biometric that people were interested in was to see the person, the child, there, in a place of safety. This really was the generous response and it doesn’t feel as though our modern political leaders have the same level of humanity in order to begin to imagine an equivalent for the situation Europe now faces.

The Home Secretary in the House of Commons on Thursday said this

‘I have two overreaching obligations: first to keep the British people safe. Second to do all we can to help Ukrainians.’

It is that first sense of obligation – to maintain our own safety above all other things that is stopping us being open handed, open armed, in our response to others. The symbol of the Palace of Westminster is the lowered portcullis and it really feels as though we are now hiding behind it, fearful of what lies out there, ready always to ‘other’, living out of an unhealthy suspicion of anyone and everyone who has to flee their homeland. Don’t get me wrong, there is a need for each nation to protect its citizens but that should be an impetus to help those whose lives are being destroyed as a consequence of evil and not a barrier behind which to stand.

Christians, and all people of faith, respond from a different set of obligations. The Golden Rule, which we all share, sets our level of response, is the standard for our loving, is the base from which we act, is the impetus that makes us stand in an unguarded way ready for those who come to us in need

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.’ (Matthew 7.12)

This is so much more than crisps and chocolates, it is life shared, life lived, life restored.

Generous God, as you welcome us into your loving embrace so may we welcome our sisters and brothers with unguarded generosity. Amen.

Washed up

As I look out across the river from the Deanery towards the splendour of St Paul’s, if the tide is out there are often mudlarks combing the exposed foreshore.  The great days of mudlarking in London were the 18th and 19th centuries when a living could be made, normally by the very young or the very elderly, from what could be found in the mud when the waters receded.  The river still gives up its treasures, pilgrim badges from those returning from Canterbury, clay pipes, pottery, the discarded and lost detritus of life.


Mudlarks on the Thames foreshore

There were two photographs in the evening paper last week that made me think.  The first, on the inside pages, was of a stretch of the Thames shore near Westminster Bridge.  What it showed was a large number of bicycles thrown into the river.  These were no ordinary bikes but the ones that you nowadays find in the streets, brightly coloured, available to hire through an app that compete with what we use to call ‘Boris Bikes’. Some helpful and amusing individuals (!) had thought it fun to chuck them in the river and there they were, washed up on the shore, like so much litter.

But on the front of the paper was an image that grabbed the world’s attention.  It was the photograph of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria washed up, holding each other in death as in life, human treasure on the shore of the Rio Grande, like so much rubbish.  It took me back to that other dreadful picture of little Aylan Kurdi, who was found, dead, on a Mediterranean beach back in September 2015.  He, like Oscar and Valeria, was an innocent victim of the refugee crisis that is affecting lives across the world.  People flee for many reasons – to escape war, to escape persecution, to escape poverty.  Who would not? No one wants to leave their home and community and extended family for something unknown, strange and unpredictable but sometimes the circumstances force them to and at tremendous risk and tremendous cost.  And they are washed up like the rubbish that is discarded.

I was very interested in what President Putin said in that interview that he gave to the FT and particularly his comments about liberalism being obsolete, a spent force politically.  As a proud liberal I found that enormously depressing and disturbing.  Has the tide really turned?  Are the attitudes that some of us have been working for and preaching about and trying to live out really dead in the water?  Inclusion, diversity, openness, tolerance, understanding, acceptance, love … these are good words and good things to aspire to.  It was 50 years on Friday since the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, 50 years that have seen the transformation of LGBT rights in so many places around the world because of the liberal agenda.  On the same day as those riots were being commemorated it was announced that Rose Hudson Wilkin would be the new Bishop of Dover, a black woman priest born in a former colonial territory taking her place on the mostly white, mostly male bench of bishops because of the liberal agenda.

But if Putin is correct what is the alternative? Well, we are seeing it already in the rise of populism.  It isn’t all the fault of Donald Trump, but he is an indication of what is happening and elements of the campaign we are witnessing to get through the door of 10 Downing Street has elements of it as well.  Authoritarianism, fear and then hatred of the other, because of their gender, because of their colour, their ethnicity, their sexuality, their ability, all of this is the alternative, dystopia rather than utopia.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (of Hiawatha fame) wrote a poem perhaps not read as much now as it once was, ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ and towards the end it says

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the billows fall and rise.

Is liberalism like this maiden to be found washed up as well?

The Wreck of the Hesperus


St Paul is quite clear that the kingdom moves us from the principles of law to the principles of grace.

‘You are not under law but under grace.’ (Romans 6.14)

But this was not a change to lawlessness to that libertarianism that some confuse with liberalism.  The demands of the kingdom are demanding.  As Paul writes to the Christians in Galatia

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger,quarrels,dissensions,factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5.19-23)

This is the law by which we seek to live, a law that gives life, even to those who do not know Christ and especially those who live on the vulnerable margins.  It is on those margins that we find Jesus whose life-affirming agenda put him at odds with the law-bound authorities.  But to him, those he found on every shore, those he finds on every shore, are the true treasure.

Loving God,
give me the courage
to search the shore
and find the lost
and to treat each person
as your treasure.

Wearing the robe

Last weekend I had the pleasure of preaching at the Alban Festival 2018 in St Alban’s.  What a fantastic event that is.  If you haven’t been then I encourage you to join the crowds next year.  But I thought that you might be interested in what I said at the Choral Eucharist which follows the amazing ‘carnival style’ procession through the town.  The readings for the service were Galatians 3.23-29 and John 19.23-27.

In the corner of the classroom of my infant school was a Wendy House and a dressing up box.  Inside the box were all the things we needed to let our imaginations run wild.  We could be a cowboy if we wanted, or a nurse, or a teacher, or a mum or a dad, whatever we wanted, whoever we wanted to be.  It was a box of delights, the place to become who you might one day become, to wear the clothes, the hats, the shoes.

Those of you of my age may remember a BBC children’s cartoon called ‘Mr Ben’.  Every episode featured him going into a fancy dress shop, choosing an outfit and having an adventure in that new clothing that replaced the boring suit and the bowler hat that was his everyday outfit.


When Alban met the priest Amphibalus, the hunted priest was wearing the distinctive cloak that became his name.  Alban took the man into his home so that he could escape his pursuers.  But it wasn’t long before word got out that the priest was in hiding.  Alban had already showed his strength of character by offering hospitality to this dangerous individual.  But now, as the footsteps of the soldiers approached his door, his compassion took him to a new level.  He took the cloak, he took the clothes of the priest, of Amphibalus, and swapped them for his own.  So when the door was opened and the soldiers entered they took the one now dressed as a priest, they took Alban and executed him.

Our imagination ran wild in the classroom as we learnt to see what it might be like to wear the clothes that other people wore, to stand in their shoes, to see things from their perspective.  But then we grow out of dressing up, or others discourage us from doing it, we wear our own clothes, we see things from our own perspective, who we are, where we are.

But Alban is encouraging us to have the courage to do something very different.  Alban encourages us to try on our neighbours cloak and see how things are for them.

But it’s a dangerous thing to do because once we stand where others stand then we might be mistaken for them.  What would it be like to be a refugee; what would it be like to be a loan parent; what would it be like to be homeless; what would it be like to be part of a despised minority, the target of hate crime, the one defined as the enemy, what would it be like to be excluded?  What would it be like to cross the Mexican border into the USA with your family, to see your children caged? We only can begin to know when we take the cloak and wear it.

At the cross, Jesus’ robe becomes an object to be fought over.  But if it was cut into pieces, so that each of his executioners could have a piece, it would be useless.  So, as we heard in the gospel reading, the decision was made to cast lots for it, to toss a coin, to go on the turn of a card and the winner would get this seamless robe ripped from the back of a tortured man.  We’re not told who the winner was, who it was put Christ’s clothing on his own back – and we don’t know what that felt like, as he stood there clothed in Christ.

But that’s exactly what we do, we clothe ourselves with Christ – not in that seamless robe grabbed from beneath the cross but in the robe that is Christ.  As St Paul says to the people who formed the church in Galatia

‘As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.’

We’re clothed with Christ and when we put on Christ we become identified with him.  We wear Christ in the same way as God in Christ put on human flesh when, in that Bethlehem stable, a baby was born who was the Son of God.  God wore human clothes so that we could wear divine clothes, God put on flesh so that we could put on Christ.

After a while our teacher would announce that it was time for a story and we had to pack things away.  Off came the cowboy hat, in the box went the shoes we were clattering about in, packed away was the doctors coat and we sat down back as we were before.

But when Alban took up that cloak he was transformed for ever.  It was his baptism, not with water, but with something that was equally transforming.

The great English poet of the 17th century George Herbert wrote a poem called ‘Aaron’ in which he thinks about how this companion of Moses was dressed, and in that poem he says this

Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me ev’n dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new-drest.

When we put on Christ, when we robe ourselves in Christ, like Alban we leave our own self behind, lay our old self to rest and are ‘in him new-drest’.  And when we dare to wear the clothes of any of our brothers and sisters, when we dare to be seen as one with the marginalised and excluded and pursued and persecuted then we will never be the same again. Because we will see the world not just from within their clothes but through their eyes, as Alban saw those waiting to take him away.

Jesus was always looking at the world from the perspective of the person he was with, he wore the clothes of those he hung out with, the tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, he wears your clothes, he stands in your shoes, so he knows what it’s like to be you.  And when he gives himself to us in this Eucharist, when bread is placed in our open hands, when we eat this bread and drink this cup, we put on Christ and Christ puts on you, puts on me, puts on us.  In him we are ‘new-drest’ and with him we share our neighbour’s cloak, whosoever that neighbour may be.

Lord Jesus,
clothe me,
live in and through me,
that I may stand beside my neighbour
and share their cloak.

A memory of Aleppo

It’s getting on for twenty years since I was in Aleppo.  I was helping to lead a pilgrimage for a group of people from Southwark Cathedral. We had two weeks away, starting in Jordan and then crossing the border into Syria.  I remember going through the border control, the Jordanian guide waving goodbye and our Syrian guide getting on to the coach.  He was wonderful – gentle, friendly, a joy to be with.  The first stop was at Busra al-Sham with its amazing archaeological ruins in which people were (surprisingly) still living.  I remember Damascus, its beautiful Umayyad Mosque, the treasury on pillars in its central court, the shrine in the mosque where the head of John the Baptist is venerated. I remember walking down Straight Street and thinking about Saul and his conversion, seeing the window in the gate from which he was lowered.

But over the last years and months and especially over these last days I have been remembering Aleppo.  We had headed north, taken in the amazing Crusader fortress, Crac des Chevaliers, visited the place where St Simon Stylites sat on his pole and arrived in this huge city before we left to travel on to Palmyra.

The devastation of Aleppo

The devastation of Aleppo

Jordan had been lovely, the rose-red city of Petra, the ancient holy sites, Madaba and the rest, but it was quite commercialised and when you arrived anywhere people would descend upon you with things to sell.  That’s ok, it’s how money is made by ordinary people in these pilgrim and tourist places.  So when the coach pulled up in the centre of Aleppo outside the hotel where we were to stay for a few days, people appeared as if from nowhere.  We got ready to buy some postcards!

We were wrong though.  These people were not there to sell us anything, they had arrived to shake our hands.  ‘Thank you for coming’, ‘Welcome to Aleppo’ was what they were all saying to us.  The warmth and the sincerity of that crowd is something that I will never forget.  The city itself was amazing.  We went into the Citadel, we shopped in the Al-Madina Souq, we went into the Hammam Yalbugha, a Mamluk-era public bath, which was simply gorgeous.

Much of what we saw then has been destroyed.  But what about those people who shook my hand and welcomed me? What about the young guide who showed us his country with pride? What about the driver who drove us into the northern mountains and to the shrine of Our Lady at Ma’loula where we found Muslim and Christian women worshipping together? What about those women and the children holding their hands? What about the Syrian Orthodox priest who, in his isolated and ancient church, held out his hands and prayed the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic for us and we thought we heard the voice of Jesus?

This week has been agonizing as we have watched the on-off nature of the ceasefire in Aleppo, as we have seen lines of coaches waiting to take people away from their devastated communities, as we have seen women and children, the sick and the elderly in freezing conditions going from one level of suffering to another. When we were there as pilgrims President Assad’s father was still in charge.  Wherever we went we saw huge banners celebrating father and son.  But, to be very honest, we were shielded from seeing anything that was going on behind doors and beneath the surface.  All we knew was that we were meeting beautiful people.  That innocence of mine has gone and I now know that whilst I was looking at interesting things I was missing something more important, the oppression that led to rebellion that led to war that has led to where we now are.



The prophet Jeremiah writes of the destruction of another city, Jerusalem and these words still ring as true now as they did then.

Thus says the Lord:
We have heard a cry of panic,

   of terror, and no peace.

Your hurt is incurable,
   your wound is grievous.
There is no one to uphold your cause,
   no medicine for your wound,
   no healing for you.
All your lovers have forgotten you;
   they care nothing for you.

(Jeremiah 30.5, 12-14a)

From that great city the people went into exile as so many millions of Syrians have done and will do, the people who shook my hand, the people who cared for me.  Hospitality must always be responded to with hospitality – that is the challenge we face this Christmas.

Lord Jesus,
born in a stable,
laid in a manger,
taken into exile,
may we give
home to the homeless,
comfort to the comfortless,
refuge to the refugee.

So where to now?

Last Sunday I was preaching about naming those demons but this Sunday I was preaching after the vote and in the new reality in which we are in. The community of which I am part is, in the main, stunned. So I thought I would share my sermon with you. The readings (which once more were a gift to the preacher) were 1 Kings 19.15-16,19-21, Galatians 5.1,13-25, Luke 9.51-62.

There’s only one person who’s really celebrated for turning back and he was a former Lord Mayor of the City of London.

Many of us will have seen a panto version of ‘Dick Whittington’ and so will remember the scene when Dick has set off with his cat and his possessions slung over his shoulder, retracing his steps because things hadn’t worked out as he had dreamt, hoped they would. And then he hears the bells of the city ringing out and calling him back as they sang, ‘Turn again, Whittington; turn again, Whittington.’ And he heeded the voice of the bells and turned back and became Lord Mayor.

'Turn again, Whittington.'

‘Turn again, Whittington.’

At the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th centuries Richard Whittington actually became the Mayor of our great city on four occasions though the rest of the story is fiction even though you can see a statue of him and his cat in the Guildhall!

In the story he thought the streets of London were paved with gold and of course they weren’t but they were paved with the opportunity to be successful, the opportunity to make a difference, the streets did form another kind of city, another kind of country.

Both in the First Reading and in the Gospel we’re encouraged not to turn back. When we’ve put our hand to the plough, when we’ve said that we’ll follow Jesus, then we should not turn back, not even to bury the dead. It’s all about commitment to discipleship, it’s about commitment to Jesus, commitment to the journey, commitment to the kingdom and heading back, retracing our steps is just a waste of time and energy. Heading forwards is so much more positive is what Jesus is saying to his disciples, even if he has set his face towards Jerusalem and what will ultimately happen there.

I have to be honest with you. I was gutted when I woke on Friday morning at around 4.00am, put on the radio and heard how the votes in the referendum were coming in. When I’d gone to bed it seemed as though there might be a chance that we’d voted to remain. But we hadn’t and in the first streaks of the dawn and a new day it was clear that we were in a very different place. I was too shocked to cry but I could’ve done. I voted to remain and I can still see no sense in how the vote has gone. But I believe in democracy and the people of the United Kingdom have spoken and we’re leaving the European Union.

I could’ve cried then but I couldn’t but I did cry later. One of the priests in the diocese was having breakfast with her 13 year old daughter. They were listening to the news. They’re black, Caribbean heritage, both of them first generation in this country. And the daughter turned and said to her mother ‘Does that mean we have to leave?’

I’m not really bothered what happens to the politicians, I am bothered about what happens to our children and the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society. I am bothered about the seeds of doubt and un-belonging that are sown into young minds. What she thought was not true and her mother reassured her – but for that moment what did it feel like to her?

But on Friday the sun rose and shone and in the evening it set again, day follows day and Jesus Christ, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews describes it so well, is the same ‘yesterday and today and for ever.’ The world turns and God is good – and I have to believe that.

I’m not assuming, and I never have assumed, that every one of us in this Cathedral voted in the same way. I know I have a very privileged position, as do my colleagues. We can get into this pulpit and sound off about things and we do. And because we’re a community that’s inclusive and engaged, orthodox and radical, a community that believes in the reality of love, then we tend not to shy away from the issues of the day and hide ourselves in pietism. I make no apology for that. Christianity is about the whole of life and the whole of life is nailed to the cross and resurrected in Jesus Christ.

But however you voted, and you had every freedom to vote as you did, or not vote as you chose, we’re all in the same situation and we’re all probably feeling a sense of anxiety, of the fear of the not knowing. But there’s absolutely no turning back. There’s no turning back to the world as it was before we entered the Common Market – that world does not exist; there’s no turning back to the days of Empire, thank God those days no longer exist, and even the Commonwealth has changed since our young Queen first took her seat amongst those serried ranks of men.

We are leaving the Union

We are leaving the Union

We only ever go forward and we go forward together because we believe that the world is already good and already good for all, if we embrace, really embrace and live out the values that St Paul speaks of in our second reading.

Those who live in the Spirit, says Paul to the Galatians, will produce fruits of

‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’

And then he adds

‘There is no law against such things.’

There are no laws, no regulations to stop us being a people characterised by those qualities. We have now a massive task before us as a nation, we have to rebuild this country and work at reconciliation – but what will be its values? We can’t turn back we can only go forward and those fruits, I believe, are the ones that can make us a good place to be.

It was ironic that the end game of the referendum was played out in Refugee Week of which this is the final day. Voting to leave the EU does not solve the refugee crisis that Europe and so much of the wealthy and safer world is facing. Inevitably it will mean that the crisis comes closer to home as the UK border is moved from Calais to Kent. One of the very real challenges we’ll quickly have to face is how we welcome and embrace refugees properly and no longer keep them at arms length across the Channel. It will be the church which will help the nation face that challenge and meet that opportunity with love and compassion and it will be the church who can help the nation to face up to reality in all our communities as the implications of leaving Europe begin to bite.

I’m confident that we as a community that doesn’t just talk inclusion but lives inclusion, that doesn’t just talk community but lives community, that doesn’t just talk love but lives love, will be wanting to play our part.

The Jesus we meet in the Gospels always goes before us and leads us to the good city, not paved with gold, but built of ‘love joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ those living stones on which the structure of society can be built.

As Paul says ‘Christ has set us free’ but not free to serve our own needs, free to serve the needs of the other and free especially for those who now feel scared and anxious and vulnerable – and the face of Jesus looks out from amongst them.

There’s a journey to be made and we need food for that journey. That’s precisely why we’re here – there’s bread and wine on offer. Eat it, drink it because the journey we now face together will be long and hard but know this, my friends, Jesus is walking it with us.

Lord Jesus,
wherever we are now going
walk with us
feed us and love us
as you always have done
and always will do.

Mary the refugee mother

The new academic year has begun and that means that the choir was back in force at the Cathedral, which was particularly good because this first Sunday in September is always kept as our Patronal Festival. In fact, we have two – both happen to fall in this term.  Up until the Reformation the dedication of the Priory and the convent that preceded it, was St Mary Overie.  At the Reformation the church became St Saviour’s.  When we then became a Collegiate Church in preparation for becoming the Cathedral of the new Diocese of Southwark in 1905 the two dedications were added together.  So we are now the Cathedral Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie.

The ‘Overie’ part of the dedication we think means ‘over the river’.  The fact of the matter is that London was across the river from us, on the north bank and we were out of it in many ways.  So this St Mary’s was the one ‘over the river’ as far as the good citizens of London were concerned.  And the name stuck.

So we were celebrating the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary today and on the Feast of Christ the King in November we will be celebrating the St Saviour element.

I was preaching today and you will be able to find my sermon on the Cathedral website and I don’t want to repeat what I said there.  But last week, ever since seeing that dreadful picture of the body of the little Syrian boy, who we now know was called Aylan Kurdi, lying, washed up on a beach, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him.  It is amazing; that image became so quickly an icon of the disaster that is happening and a shocking wake up call to so many in our country, not least our politicians, who have so far responded to such obviously pressing and desperate need so dreadfully and in such a mean-spirited manner.  The tide that brought his body to the shore has turned public opinion.

But I was thinking about Mary and how she too had to carry her child to a place of safety.  Mary, Joseph and Jesus became refugees, as St Matthew reminds us.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ (Matthew 2.13-15)

The fled for safety, back to the place where the Hebrews had found food and sanctuary from their famine-gripped land in the days of the patriarch Joseph. The Holy Family were looking for a safe place for their son just as the parents of Aylan were looking for a safe place for their two sons.  Only the father, Abdullah, has survived.

In an interview he said this

‘I don’t want anything else from this world – everything I was dreaming of is gone.’

It is heart breaking and so is every image that we see from Calais and across Europe and Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and every place around the world where people are seeking safety and a better life.

Our Lady of Southwark - Mother of Refugees

Our Lady of Southwark – Mother of Refugees

I came into the Cathedral and said my prayers by the statue of Our Lady.  She is there holding on to her son, holding him out to us yet holding him close as a mother would.  Perhaps she was dreaming of what the future held for him.  She would hold him later as his body was taken from the cross and laid once more in her arms. He was a man but still her child, but he was cold and dead and her dreams and hopes and desires were dashed.

I can understand what Aylan’s father says and if I was him I would probably feel the same.  But I feel that on his behalf and on behalf of everyone suffering so terribly, I must want something more from this world, I must hang onto my dreams.

Mary saw the tomb empty, she saw her son raised in triumph.  It was no dream but the new reality and the world for her was reborn in the dawn of Easter.  I have to believe that after Good Friday comes Easter Day, that death is followed by resurrection, that it is right to dream and hope and work for something better for everyone.  To achieve it will mean being as open and as generous and as welcoming as Egypt was to the Holy Family, an oasis of safety at the moment they needed it.  Then, when the threat was gone they travelled home, like every refugee hopes to do, to pick up the threads of life and create something better and more beautiful.

I’ve quoted this poem before but I will do again.  It’s ‘The Kingdom’ by R S Thomas.  No one describes the dream as well as he, the dream of the kingdom, the better dream to dream.

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only, and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

It might be a long way off, and seem so far off at times, but Mary, the refugee mother reminds us to keep hopeful and faithful and to dream the dreams of the kingdom.

may your kingdom come
in which all are welcome
all are safe
all are loved
and may we work
for its coming.

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