Golden years

David Bowie had a hit, a long time ago, with his song ‘Golden Years’, with that opening line

Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere.

Golden anniversaries, jubilees, celebrations, are important milestones whether they for a marriage, of ordination, of a royal reign, even of a life. 50 golden years is a long time and seeing our way through them is something really worth celebrating. It’s another ten years before I can celebrate my golden jubilee of ordination but it is always lovely when you are invited to join someone who is able to celebrate a life time of devotion. So I was delighted when some time ago Sister Joyce CSF asked me whether she could have a celebration in the Cathedral for the 50th anniversary of her life profession as a Franciscan. Of course, I said yes. Joyce is a valued member of the congregation and has been a Chapter member and much more besides and so it was exciting to think that we could be alongside her as she both celebrated these golden years and as she renewed those vows during the Eucharist.

An early photo of Sister Joyce CSF, when they still wore veils!

All of that happened yesterday and it really was a golden opportunity to give thanks for golden years, that to some might look like life ‘taking you nowhere’ but for those who have something of an understanding of the religious life, knowing that nothing could be further from the truth.

I mention the Community of the Resurrection a great deal in this blog and those who follow it will know that I valued my years in the College and the subsequent years of association with the Community really highly. They have given so much more to me than I have been able to give to them. But it is not just CR that has paid an important part in my life.

I was fortunate that the church I was brought up in, a place I have also often mentioned, All Saints Wigston Magna, over the years produced many vocations to the religious life. As children we were used to seeing one nun or another back on furlough – a word that since the pandemic has taken on a different significance for me. There was a sister at Wantage, one at Clewer, one in East Hanningfield. They had strange names to a child’s ears – Sr Mary Columba, things like that – and these strings of letters after their name, something for the cognoscenti to get their minds around – CSMV – the Community of St Mary the Virgin; CSJB – the Community of St John the Baptist; CSP – the Community of the Sacred Passion. The nuns looked of indeterminate age, the normal signs of aging hidden beneath a wimple and a veil, no sign of a wrinkled neck to give the game away, just slightly gnarled feet in sandals, making their way past we children peering through the fretwork in the choir stalls, preparing to receive the Sacrament in reverent awe.

Summer would involve a trip to see one or other of them – Clewer, vast, almost like a prison block to my eyes; Wantage, with the beautiful carvings by Mother Maribel, the lovely statue of Our Lady and the child Jesus that I adored; East Hanningfield with its array of Nissen hut holding vast quantities of prosthetic limbs to help those suffering from leprosy who the sisters served. It was another world as was the experience of chapel – the slow processions of veiled figures in and out, the high-pitched quiet and careful chanting, the posh accents that anglican nuns seemed to have. Then there was the sparse tea that we were given, tea and plain biscuits, but served with girlish laughter and a smile. I loved it and every moment has stuck in my memory.

Yet in all of this I hadn’t had experience of the Franciscans, until I came to Southwark and discovered in the Cathedral a chapel dedicated to St Francis and St Elizabeth and began to learn about First, Second and Third Order and about the straightforward and attractive simplicity of the community.

At first the sisters were living in a house just south of the centre of Brixton. I was on the rota to go and preside at the Eucharist for them, a real joy. Then they had to vacate that house and the diocese found them a place in the old St Alphege Clergy House not far from the Cathedral round the corner from where the Sisters of the Reparation to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament (CRJBS) had lived. That is where they still are and I am still on the rota to go along on a Thursday as I did last week. Whilst there are some sandals, there are no veils and wimples, but the atmosphere is as calm as I experienced as a child and the life as simple and I still get tea after the service even though it is at breakfast time – though there is cereal offered instead of biscuits!

At the front of the order of Service for Sr Joyce’s celebration were two poems. This one struck me as particularly beautiful. It’s called The Summer Day by Mary Oliver.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

Offering that ‘wild and precious life’ in obedience to the call of God, offering that ‘wild and precious life’ into the context of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, or whatever language the particular community uses, offering that ‘wild and precious life’ in response to the call of Jesus to ‘Come, follow me’ is incredible and amazing. And thank God that people do it and, like Joyce, celebrating 50 years, can stay the course and run the race and live the life and that people like you and me can touch the fringe of it and find it life-giving.

To God be the glory. Amen.


Poverty, chastity, obedience

The church that I was brought up in, All Saints Wigston Magna, had for quite a few years produced a number of vocations to the religious life.  This meant that every so often during the year there would be a nun in church on Sunday who was on leave and had come back to stay with her family.  As a boy and a teenager I was in the choir and the stalls where we sat had lovely fretwork at the front.  During communion we all had to kneel down and being little I was able to peek through the designs carved into the woodwork and see these nuns walking past – and especially their feet.  This is a long time ago, so nuns dressed ‘properly’ – wimple, veil, habit and sandals, without socks! So I got to know nuns’ feet very well.


A selection of members of Anglican communities

The other side of life was that the church day out every year was to visit one of the convents that one of the nuns from the parish was living in.  So one year we went to Clewer, another to Wantage, another to East Hanningfield.  What I remember about Clewer where Sister Pamela was was simply how vast the corridors seemed to be.  At Wantage we were visiting Sister Mary Columba – how could you have a boy’ and a girl’s name I wondered?  There I remember the lovely statue of Our Lady in the chapel carved by Mother Maribel.  Then at East Hanningfield where the Sisters of the Community of the Sacred Passion were I can remember being fascinated and appalled to see prosthetic limbs being made in huts in the garden for those suffering from the effects of leprosy!

The reason I am telling you all of this is because of something that happened at the meeting of General Synod last week that I didn’t really talk about in my Synod blog.  A bit of history was made.  For the first time since the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries the Church of England has formally, in her Canons, recognised the existence and importance of religious communities in our life.  A number of representatives from our religious communities are elected onto the Synod, so that they can share their particular perspective on the life of the whole church.  But there was nothing in the Canons and therefore nothing to provide legal structure and regulation for communities which is something that is needed and especially with the rise of new forms of monasticism, such as at Lambeth Palace and elsewhere.

So that was put right and the legislation went through its final stages in this Group of Sessions.  A couple of the religious stood to speak and then nobody else did.  I was going to stand and missed my chance, and I am really sorry about that.  I wanted to say, thank you.  Thank you to the members of the communities who, I believe, give so much to the church and to the Church of England.  As was pointed out in the short debate they aren’t ‘better’ Christians but they are living the Christian life in such a distinctive way, a way that gives encouragement to the rest of us.

Those nuns feet and those days out from Wigston helped me to know that training for priesthood alongside the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield would be perfect for me, and that particular community and its members have helped me, and help me, to be the Christian and the priest that I seek to be.

The passage that has been attributed as inspiring many to enter a religious, consecrated life, people like Benedict and Francis, is from St Mark’s Gospel.

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10.17-22)


‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him.’

Poverty, chastity, obedience – possessions, intimate love, freedom – however you define these vows that others seek to live by I’m afraid they are beyond me.  Like the rich man I turn away, unable to give so much up.  My only consolation is that Jesus will look on me and love me; my only hope is that some of my sisters and brothers have the courage to live without these things and to show me that it is possible.

Lord, bless those you call into community
and give me the courage to learn from them
the things that truly matter.

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