Keep awake!

It’s Advent Sunday and in the gospel for today Jesus tells us to ‘Keep awake!’ It’s an important call to be awake to the reality around us, to be awake to the reality of God, to be awake to the needs of our neighbours. As we were approaching the beginning of Advent we had three events at the Cathedral that spoke to me about this call that we would be hearing as we began the countdown to Christmas.

We have been served by some excellent MPs in the constituencies in this diocese. One of those who really encouraged communities and individuals was Tessa Jowell. She was the member for the Dulwich area for 23 years campaigning on behalf of local people and much loved, even by those who hadn’t voted for her. She was inspirational, but she was also inspirational in the way that she died as much as in the way she lived. The same passion that she lived by was present in the way she approached her death. She was open about it, campaigning for better help and care for those who suffered from brain cancer as she did. She died in 2018 and her daughter Jess was instrumental in setting up the Tessa Jowell Foundation to continue her work on behalf of those who were also diagnosed with that form of cancer.

We were privileged to host the memorial service for Tessa in the Cathedral in 2019 and then on Thursday evening to be the venue for a huge fundraising dinner which had the aim of extending the work of the Foundation to those children who suffer from the same cancer. It was an inspirational evening. There was music and laughter and a real buzz of excitement and commitment around the cause. There was also huge generosity and it was humbling to sit there as significant pledges were made in the auction that will make this new work possible. Being awake to the need for the care of those who face cancer was at the heart of what we were doing.

The window inspired by the young people

Then on Friday an event brought a number of constituencies together. The Clewer Initiative works to highlight and combat modern day slavery. They approached us to see if we wanted to be involved in their campaign. It was something that we really felt called to do. So a coalition was set up which brought together our Cathedral Education Centre with the Diocesan Board of Education, the Worshipful Company of Glaziers, John Reyntiens and his stained glass studio and students from two secondary schools in the diocese. Together they created a window which tells the story of the scandal of modern day slavery and highlights where we might encounter those who are enslaved – in car washes, nail bars, as well as in the sex industry. At the same event some documents and objects relating to the slave trade in the eighteenth century were also on display. Amongst them was a chilling piece of paper, written in the most beautiful hand, a conveyancing document listing the names of all the slaves on a plantation in the Caribbean. The youngest on the list was just 4 years old. Setting our own complicity in the slave trade then alongside our own ignorance about the slave trade now was powerful.

What was so great was seeing the students, some with their parents, identifying their own work which had been translated by skilled artists in stained glass to create an incredible panel. Being awake to the issue of modern day slavery was at the heart of what we were doing.

On Friday evening into Saturday morning a crowd of people slept out at the Cathedral. It was the annual Robes SleepOut, the first proper one we had been able to do since the pandemic. People young and old arrived at the Cathedral on Friday evening, armed with their equipment for the night, ready to sleep out, knowing that what they were doing would make a big difference to those who, often through no fault of their own, are forced to live on our streets. They were hoping not to stay awake through the night but being awake to the needs of the homeless was at the heart of what we were doing.

And why? Why should we be bothered about addressing the issue of brain cancer, modern day slavery and homelessness in the Cathedral. Isn’t this more woke than awake? As we said Compline in the Cathedral before we settled down for the night in our sleeping bags, on cardboard, under the stars on a cold but clear November evening, we heard those familiar words of Jesus from Matthew 25

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25.37-40)

‘You did it to me’, the one facing brain cancer, the enslaved and frightened, the one on the streets, each revealing something of the divine, in themselves, in their living, in their suffering. We stay awake to each of them, their needs should keep us awake.

Loving God, may I see you in each of those around me and stay awake to their need. Amen.



I was fortunate that the Chancellor’s deal, ‘Eat out to help out’, coincided with my holiday in the summer. I have to admit to taking advantage of it on the days when it was on offer. Unlike a lot of what has subsequently emerged from the Government it was straightforward – even I could understand it – order a sandwich and a coffee and you are helping..

Usually at this time I’m getting ready to circulate the details of my JustGiving page to all my friends to elicit their support for the annual SleepOut that we organise at Southwark Cathedral to help the Robes Project. This is the local cold weather shelter that we have been involved in as a Cathedral community since it began back in 2007. In addition to hosting the SleepOut we also look after one of the evenings when our guests arrive and have good food and good accommodation as well as good company. It’s a fantastic project and we’re always grateful for all the support that so many people give to us, to help with the SleepOut and in so many other ways.

I’m doing the Sleepin RU?

Last year we were all lined up for the evening and then the dreadful terrorist attack on people in Fishmongers’ Hall happened. That resulted in the appalling murder of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones and as the area was put under lockdown it was obvious that the SleepOut couldn’t go ahead. But in the end I ended up with more sponsorship than ever before. People are amazingly generous.

This year we face another set of challenges and the consequences of a very different lockdown. The model that Robes and many other homeless projects work on is that of dormitory accommodation. Obviously that cannot happen this year; the close proximity in which our guests have to sleep just doesn’t fit any of the guidelines. So the project has to rethink, reimagine itself and we have had to do the same with the main fundraising event, the SleepOut. Normally there are around 150 sleeping in the churchyard, a space that isn’t vast. That’s not going to work!

So this year the SleepOut has become a SleepIn. Robes supporters are being encouraged to think creatively about where they could sleep in order to be sponsored. Perhaps the floor, or in the garden, or on a balcony. There are numerous possibilities. At the moment I’m considering whether I take up resuidence in the Dog House in my back garden (not a real dog house just waht we call the summer house in the corner) or sleep on my own in the Cathedral. Either way I’m signed up and ready for it. The tag line is

Sleepin to help those who Sleepout

It’s as simple as that. The SleepIn happens on the evening of Friday 27 November. You can register to take part here. And when you are deciding whether or not you want to do it remember the story that Jesus tells in Matthew 25 and that amazing statement

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25.37-40)

Oh, and by the way, this is the link to my JustGiving page. Please support me, but more importantly, please support the guests of Robes.

Lord Jesus, you had nowhere to lay your head, until others welcomed you. Bless the work of Robes and bless all who will sleepin in to help those who sleepout. Amen.


Winter is a time for telling tales, a time for listening to stories. I’ve been playing catch-up recently.  A few months ago I bought the DVD of the Disney film ‘Frozen’. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.  I’d seen the array of school bags, thermos flasks, games, cards, books, pencil cases, and costumes, plus much, much more that the shops were all selling and people had told me how lovely the film was.  But after putting it into my shopping trolley I hadn’t got round to putting the disc into the player and sitting down and watching it. So I did.

The Snow Queen

The Snow Queen

You know, I thought it was lovely.  But I knew I would.  It’s no secret that I’m an old romantic, that I love a musical and a good cry.  So it had all the ingredients that I like.  But it had something else as well. If you were to do an exegesis on the film you would discover, like ‘Q’ in the background of the gospels, that the Hans Christian Andersen story of ‘The Snow Queen’ was one of the inspirations for ‘Frozen’. Ok, so there’s no talking snowman in Andersen’s story but the hearts are frozen by the touch of the Snow Queen.


Like many story tellers, like Dickens who was  writing at a similar time, Andersen reflected on the social issues of the day, examined contemporary morality and through his stories continues to make us think about deeper things. One of my favourite short stories that he tells is of ‘The Little Match Girl’. This week I’m going next door to the Deanery into the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre to see their production of Match Girl and some happier stories.  The truth is that this little story about this little girl is heart rending on the page and, I’m sure, on the stage.

It’s the story of a poverty stricken family, of a little girl who will be beaten by her father if she goes back home without selling the little bundle of matches she has carried into the winter street in her apron to sell.  Andersen writes

In a corner formed by two houses, of which one advanced more than the other, she seated herself down and cowered together. Her little feet she had drawn close up to her, but she grew colder and colder, and to go home she did not venture, for she had not sold any matches and could not bring a farthing of money.

It’s a tragic story and at the end the child is found

‘frozen to death on the last evening of the old year.’

Andersen was reflecting on the levels of child poverty in his own day in his own society and through this story, aimed at children, will have touched the hearts of the adults reading it to them as they tucked their more middle class and fortunate children in bed beneath a fluffy eiderdown.

This weekend we celebrated at Southwark Cathedral the tenth anniversary of the ROBES Project.  This is a cold weather shelter run by churches of all denominations in the north Southwark and north Lambeth areas.  It aims to reach out to those without a home who with just a little support and security can find their way back into mainstream society, back into accommodation and back into work.  It is a very successful project and over the years many people, men and women, have been helped off the streets and back into a more stable, safer life.  I have been pleased to have played a small part in that by sleeping out each year to raise money for the project.  After the sleep-out last November we have raised almost £100k and the money is still coming in.

But it is a sad indictment of our society that a story published back in 1845 in Denmark is still of relevance today.  There are still people frozen on our streets and there are still hearts frozen to the needs of the homeless.

Jesus identifies himself with those frozen out of home and out of society when he says

‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (Matthew 8.20)


‘Homeless Jesus’


Recently Manchester Council agreed to put a statue called ‘Homeless Jesus’ designed by Timothy Schmalz, a Canadian sculptor, into their public space.  It shows Jesus on a bench, asleep.  It’s the Jesus who challenges each of us in Matthew 25 with those arresting words

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 


“Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

The truth is it’s not just the homeless who are frozen, it is those of us who simply walk by the little Match Girl and never notice.

Spirit of God,
thaw my cold heart
with your divine flame,
that I may bring your warmth
to those who are frozen.

Cold night, warm hearts

It was a magnificent evening. Over 150 people had signed up to ‘sleepout’ in the Cathedral churchyard to raise money for the ROBES Project. That is the local cold weather shelter that local churches provide in north Southwark and north Lambeth. The project covers the period from November until March, although there is on-going support during the rest of the year for those who have been our guests. The model is simple – guests arrive in time for an evening meal, settle down for the night, get up, wash and have breakfast and then leave, arriving at the next venue for the next evening. During the day workers support them in finding work and accommodation. And the ‘success’ rate, in terms of getting people off the streets and back into a more regular and stable life, is very good.


This was the fifth time that the Cathedral has hosted the ‘sleepout’ in the nine year history of the project and this was one of the best years that we have had. I haven’t got the figures but I think this was the largest number of ‘sleepers’ and in fact 80% of those taking part were first-timers. We had all been raising money, sponsorship, before hand and it was great that at the start of the evening we were able to announce that £60k had been raised. This morning we were able to announce that that figure is now £71k and rising. The good thing is that the vast majority of the funds needed for the project to run is raised on this one evening. That means that the energy of volunteers is able to go into running the project and welcoming and caring for our guests rather than raising money.

The ‘sleepout’ evening always follows the same pattern. People arrive, register and then, weather permitting, claim their pitch in the churchyard. There is then a ‘show’ in the nave of the Cathedral to entertain people before they bed down for the night.

This years we welcomed two acts. ‘Katie’s Jumping Fleas’, a ukulele band from St Albans, were paying a return visit and were fantastic. They play the kind of songs that take me back to my days at school. A highlight for me this year was a cover of Steve Harley’s track ‘Make me smile’! That made me feel as though I was back in the VIth form – not a bad feeling and lots of good accompanying memories! The second act, and we were delighted to welcome him for the first time in the Cathedral, was Jon Culshaw, the impressionist well known from ‘Dead Ringers’. He was wonderful to listen to – up-to-date enough to do a good Jeremy Corbyn yet reminding us of Dennis Healey and the many voices of Mike Yarwood. Jon was followed by another famous voice, using his own, Canon Roger Royle who was the auctioneer for the evening. He massaged a good amount of money out of the nave full of people.

So lots of entertainment to get us ready for bed but one of the features of the ‘sleepout’ is that it is held in prayer. So after Jumping Fleas and a myriad of voices we calmed down and said Compline. When people woke up at 6.00am the next morning the first thing we all did was to gather around the altar and share in the Eucharist. Then we had our sausage and bacon butties.

It was amazing to see so many people taking part, and enthusiastically taking part. It’s no joke, sleeping out all night. It had been raining hard before Compline finished, the wind was cold, the bars around the Cathedral were still busy and noisy revellers enjoying Friday evening were every where on London Bridge. The trains rumble past on the viaduct, the buses pass on and off the bridge. Sirens on police vehicles and ambulances sound all the time. The lights from buildings all around disperse the darkness and make something like an on-going day. The city doesn’t sleep and here were these sleepers trying to get some sleep. And that is what it must be like for those who don’t just do this one night of the year knowing they have a hot shower and a comfy bed to return to the next morning, who know that someone will be frying bacon and sausage to make them feel good in the morning, but who do it without any end in sight and often suffering the abuse of those who pass by on the other side.

'Homeless Jesus' by Timothy P Schmalz

‘Homeless Jesus’ by Timothy P Schmalz

But what was even more moving was seeing just how young the majority of those sleeping out were and to see them all coming to make their communion in the morning, with real devotion, real reverence, coming to Jesus in the Eucharist.

As Compline concludes we say

Come with the dawning of the day
and make yourself known in the breaking of the bread.

It is the cry of the people of God before they sleep and God, who is always faithful, heeds our need, recognises our hunger and ‘in broken bread and wine outpoured’ meets the need of his people.

In a world where the bad, the violent, the harsh, the frightening grab the headlines, grab our attention and make us ask the question ‘Where is God?’ I saw him in the good, the gentle, the caring, the generous, the comforting, the kind, who gave up an evening for people they might never know and did it because they do know Jesus Christ who said to those listening to him

‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25.40)

Lord Jesus,
you had nowhere to lay your head,
but what a stranger gave,
may the homeless in our communities
receive the care
and welcome they need
and know the true joy of home.

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