It’s a lovely word – sublime – and not one I often use. ‘Of very great excellence or beauty’ is what the dictionary tells me it means. So it was exciting to know that today I was going to visit ‘The Sublime House’ in Rouen. The reason I am here is that this is the first farewell occasion of this year as I prepare for my retirement from Southwark Cathedral in July. There are a number of places I want to go to outside of the Diocese of Southwark to say farewell and thank you. The first of these is the congregation at Rouen Cathedral. We have had a covenant relationship with the Cathedral of Notre Dame for over 25 years. It has been a blessing to us.

The relationship grew out of the personal friendship that my predecessor as Sub Dean, or more precisely Vice-Provost, Canon Roy White had with Pere L’Arche who was the Dean of Rouen Cathedral. Out of their fraternal bonds grew this desire to actually commit ourselves as congregations to working together to achieve, or at least move towards achieving, that unity for which Christ prayed

‘that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me’ (John 17.22-23)

It is part of that sublime – that word again – High Priestly Prayer that Jesus prays as he moved towards his Passion. At that moment his desire for us is voiced to the Father, that we may be one. And in response to that prayer we have once more kept the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

I have been to Rouen many, many times. Sometimes it has been with groups of people from our congregation, sometimes with the boys or the girls of the choir, sometimes on my own. In 2014 we came with people from Bergen Cathedral, our other formal ecumenical link, to celebrate 1000 years since the baptism of King, now Saint, Olave in Rouen Cathedral and the subsequent and consequential conversion of the Norwegian people. Each time we have come we have discovered more about this wonderful and ancient city.

Part of the walls of the house

So it was lovely yesterday to be taken to a place which I have never visited before. It’s called the Sublime House because of something written in graffiti on one of the walls of the ‘house’. This building constructed in the early 12th century lies now beneath the car park of the Palais de Justice. When work was being carried out on the restoration of the Palais in 1976, the remains of this building were discovered. It is Romanesque in design and construction and a substantial part of it remains. It was set in the mediaeval Jewish Quarter still marked in street names in the immediate area. But whether this was a synagogue, a rabbinical school, or a private house for a wealthy member of the Jewish community in Rouen which was also used for other ritual and community purposes, is not known.

The street name is a reminder of the Jewish Quarter

However, there are carvings at the base of pillars which speak of verses in the psalms – ‘the lion and the adder’ of Psalm 91 – and also graffiti in Hebrew script, the most important of which says

‘This house shall be so high until the Rock shall have mercy on Zion’

Which in French is translated ‘Que cette maison soit sublime’ and hence the name, ‘La maison sublime.’

You can just make out the ‘sublime’ graffiti

We stood there in what remains of the ‘house’, walls so substantial, built to last, to hold something of the Jewish community here and remembered that the position of Jews in French society, as across much of Europe, deteriorated in the 13th century until they were expelled from France in 1306. The property held by the Jewish community was taken, as was this ‘house’.

The day before we stood in this sublime space had been Holocaust Memorial Day when we remembered once again what happened to our Jewish sisters and brothers during the Second World War and the six million who were killed. We also have to acknowledge the disturbing rise once again of anti-Semitism in so many places and the ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine which is once again having devastating consequences on both communities. Our prayers for Christian unity bumped up again our prayers for a deeper understanding between Jew and Christian, and between the peoples of the Abrahamic faiths and between peoples of all faiths and none.

‘The lion and the adder shalt thou trample underfoot’

The Sublime House stands empty, a monument, but the words scratched into the stone by a scholar, or a worshipper, or someone just looking to the restoration of Jerusalem spoke to us all. As the Psalmist said in Psalm 122

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’ Amen.


Requiem for Fr Jacques

This morning, on the day of his funeral, we held a Requiem Mass at Southwark Cathedral for Fr Jacques Hamel. This is what I said in introduction.

Rest in peace and rise in glory

Rest in peace and rise in glory

For over 20 years we have been twinned with the Cathedral in Rouen. At the beginning of the twinning agreement which we recommitted ourselves to on the 20th anniversary of our relationship in 2014 we said

We, members of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Rouen and the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of Saint Saviour and Saint Mary Overie, Southwark declare that:
We give thanks as children of the same and only God and Father, brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ our Saviour, quickened by the same Holy Spirit.

It is in the spirit of those bonds of faith, friendship and affection and bound to one another in prayer and our common service of God and all our brothers and sisters, that we gather here this morning. This afternoon, in the Cathedral in Rouen the family and friends of Fr Jacques Hamel will gather for his funeral. As the day begins we gather here.

Fr Jacques was a faithful and much loved priest who was simply doing what priests are called to do, stand at the altar and represent the people to God and God to the people and in that very act he was killed. We hardly need to pray for his soul for we are confident that God has gathered him into the divine embrace.

But for ourselves and for our communities and for the people of Rouen and of France and, indeed the people of the world, we must pray. Those who commit terrible acts against others and believe they are serving the purposes of God are wrong. We must not allow ourselves to be terrorised. Christians believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ goodness, love and life are already victorious, for as St Paul says to us ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God’ not even death itself.

So as we gather we remember the love and mercy of our God who never abandons us and we call to mind those times when we have abandoned God.

And so we pray with the community on the day of Fr Jacques’ funeral.

Almighty God,
you bring life out of death,
light out of darkness,
hope out of despair;
as you gather Jacques
in your divine embrace
hold all your people
in your unfailing love;
for the sake of your Son,
our Lord, Jesus Christ.

A city of martyrs

Southwark Cathedral has had a twinning relationship with the Cathedral Church of Notre Dame de Rouen for over twenty-five years.  It grew out of a personal friendship between the then Administrator of the Cathedral in Rouen and the Vice-Provost at Southwark. But from those beginnings, grounded in personal friendship and respect, has grown a much wider and deeper relationship. These kind of associations that we make with other parts of the Anglican Communion – Southwark Cathedral is linked with the Diocese of Masvingo as part of the wider diocesan link with the Anglican church in Zimbabwe – or other denominations or other parts of the world – we are also linked with the Cathedral in Bergen, a Norwegian Lutheran cathedral – are sometimes strong and meaningful, at other times struggling to find a purpose.

The relationship that we have with Rouen is an interesting one.  Any Anglican-Roman Catholic link hits up against the fact of not being in communion at one stage or another and is always much discussed.  I’ve been to a number of big events in Rouen – last year the enthronement of the new Archbishop – and seated in splendour and treated with honour – but unable to make my communion. I understand it and I respect it and I know that the desire, the passion for unity, comes out of the pain of disunity which itself is fuelled by the literal hunger for communion.

Yet, the relationship goes from strength to strength and becomes more real as it becomes embedded in true friendship.  Yet there are interesting historic links as well.  Just over a thousand years ago King Olav of the Norwegians, left London, after pulling down London Bridge next to the church which is now Southwark Cathedral, and was baptised in Rouen Cathedral. He then went from his Norman cousins in Rouen back to his own land where he converted his people to Christianity.


Joan of Arc by Sir John Everett Millais

In 1431 at the age of around 19 Joan of Arc was condemned to death as a heretic and committed to the flames in the market place in Rouen.  At that time Cardinal Henry Beaufort was Bishop of Winchester and living in the Palace alongside the Priory of St Mary Overie (now Southwark Cathedral). In 1431 Beaufort was present to observe some of the heresy trial sessions In Rouen presided over by Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais. He was present at the execution and so we’re told that wept as he viewed the horrible scene as she was burned at the stake. His arms and cardinal cap are carved into the stonework of the south transept of our cathedral.

So the links go back in history but are made real and alive today.

When we heard of the brutal killing of Fr Jacques Hamel whilst saying Mass last week in Rouen we were all horrified.  This was a new level of terrorism. Christians, many, many Christians, have already been murdered by the so-called Islamic State. Indeed, when I was last making my way through the Coptic Church on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, there was a banner above the door showing the killing of twenty-one Coptic martyrs last year. But this murder was closer to home, this was in the city of our friends, this was an elderly priest doing what priests do on behalf of the world, offering the sacrifice of the Mass and being sacrificed as he did so.

It bore the marks of the killing of Blessed Oscar Romero in 1980, gunned down as he said Mass. The motivations of the killers in both instances might have been different but the effect was the same.

This is when, however, the relationships that we have become so much more real. Messages of prayer and support have been sent to Rouen from Southwark; messages of thanks and nuggets of news have been sent back. One member of the congregation has told me that all Muslims are being encouraged to attend a church in the city this Sunday as a sign of solidarity; others have told me that Muslim and Christian neighbours have been spending time together. One friend in the congregation sent me this message

‘These 3 days, the mass has been said for Fr Jacques in the Cathedral with about 400 people each day. Muslims are invited to come to masses on Sunday to share prayer with Roman Catholics. Let us hope this drama will help building peace. One in faith and prayer.’

In the midst of the trauma there are signs of hope.

The artist Monet who lived and worked close by to the city produced beautiful pictures of the towers at the west end of Rouen Cathedral; they are bathed in different colours. Now once more the city is bathed in the red of martyrdom, a colour it has borne historically.  We stand with them at this time.

Monet rouen

Rouen Cathedral bathed in Monet’s many hues


Fr Jacques’ funeral is in the Cathedral in Rouen on Tuesday.  We will offer a Requiem Mass for him in Southwark Cathedral that morning.  Communion, instead of dividing us will unite us, we will break bread together. As we pray for Fr Jacques and that love and mercy of God for him, which needs no prayers to secure, we pray for our sisters and brothers in Rouen, Christian and Muslim, ordained and lay, in that city of martyrs, witnessing to the God who transcends and transforms all things, the God of the Mass, the God of the meal, the God of broken bread and wine outpoured, the God of fast and feast. May priests still offer that ‘one true, pure, immortal sacrifice’ for the peace of the world and may we all receive the bread of heaven that gives true life to the world.

Lord, accept the sacrifice we offer
of bread and lives
as we accept the sacrifice you offer,
bread and life.


The preface to Sally Vicker’s novel ‘Instances of the Number Three’ begins like this:

‘It is said there were ancient schools of thought which held that the number 3 is unstable. If the reasons for this belief were ever known they are lost in time. A three-legged stool refutes the claim, as – less prosaically – we are told does the Christian trinity.’

I am always amazed by the power of 3 and this past weekend that we have been spending in Rouen and encouraged me in that thinking. For over twenty years Southwark Cathedral has been formally linked with the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Rouen. For almost fifteen years we have also been formally linked with the Cathedral of St Olav in Bergen. The former is a link with a Roman Catholic community, the latter with a Norwegian Lutheran. The links are very important to us and they have their local manifestations in the friendships that we have with St George’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Southwark and the Norwegian Church – the Seamen’s Mission – in Rotherhithe.

Rouen Cathedral as painted by Monet

Rouen Cathedral as painted by Monet

But what really binds the three cathedrals together is something older and more durable than the written agreements that we have signed and that is the person of St Olave (or Olav, or Olaf). We have been in Rouen because this weekend saw the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the baptism of Olav in Rouen Cathedral. The triangulation is that the King had been in London, saving the city from the marauding Danes and most memorably by destroying London Bridge alongside which stood the Priory of St Mary Overie – now Southwark Cathedral. From London, Olav went across to Rouen. That was, of course, a city at the heart of the Norman territories and the Normans were, as I understand the history, cousins of the Norsemen, the Vikings. So in that family setting Olav was baptised and from there returned to his kingdom and made that a Christian nation.

When the relationship between our three cathedrals was forged it was not with thoughts of the relationship which already existed through St Olav, that became apparent only later, but it is one of those wonderful ways in which you see the hand of the triune God upon our working and our relationships.

So it is good being here and celebrating our history. Though the church of St Olave in the Borough (the area around Southwark Cathedral) is no longer there, there is a reminder of it on the corner of St Olaf House on Tooley Street, a building that is now part of London Bridge Hospital. There in the stone work of that beautiful Art Deco building is the depiction of the sainted king. And in our schools foundation the name and patronage of St Olave survives. Both the boys school, now in Orpington, and our girls’ school on the Old Kent Road share a dedication to the saint and there are many Old Olavians around.

The figure of St Olav on the corner of St Olaf House, Tooley Street

The figure of St Olav on the corner of St Olaf House, Tooley Street

So the triangulation is a real joy and so has been the chance to be in Rouen this past weekend for the celebrations. But it does make you ask the bigger questions of where ecumenism is going. Is Vicker’s right in the comment about instability? Has all the great work for unity in the 20th century run out of steam and instability set in? Well, of course there are more than three involved in ecumenism, although one can boil it down to catholic, protestant and orthodox as the principal forms of church involved in the debates about what a unified church looks like.

The prayer of Jesus in John 17.20-21 is always in our mind

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’

The real force in that part of Jesus’ prayer for me is in those words ‘so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ The disunity of the church is a scandal, it always has been and, while it persists, it always will be and I believe it is a serious challenge to us in mission. People look at us as a divided family and they want more from the church than that. What we disagree about looks insignificant, petty and rooted too far back in history to be relevant to people today. Yet for those of us in the church the issues that keep us separated are real and live and important. In many ways they help to define who we are, our self understanding, something of our essential nature. This has to be wrong. But what will a real response to Jesus’ prayer look like? Will it look like the restoration of one, organic church, if one ever really existed in our ancient and early history; a church with one clear leadership and one agreed doctrine and one fully recognised ministry? I’m not sure and I’m not sure that that would be good – would it really express the breadth of our experience of God?

Recently Pope Francis speaking about Christian unity said that the holiness of the church is to ‘recognise the image of God in one another.’ If we can do that then we are on the way to more visible unity because we will be revealing the one face of the Triune God who we have know in Jesus Christ.

St Olav - drawing three communities together

St Olav – drawing three communities together

Back in Southwark we are getting ready for the start of this year’s ROBES Project. This is the cold weather shelter that is run in North Southwark, Rotherhithe and parts of North Lambeth. It is a fantastic project and made more so because so many denominations of Christians are working together to make it happen. This is real work for unity and in it we are ‘recognising the image of God in one another’ and most especially in the women and men who are our guests. As in Matthew 25 we are serving the needs of the vulnerable and marginalised and recognising the face of Jesus in the midst.

Weekends like the one we have been enjoying in Rouen are important – they bring us together and for our own triangulation of Southwark-Rouen-Bergen this is positive and important. But whilst we mustn’t forget the prayer of Jesus we must also look for more ways of revealing the image of God that we bear, together, as Christians and showing that one, united, loving, serving face to the world

‘that the world may believe that you have sent me.’

Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles, Peace I leave you, my peace I give you, look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church, and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will. Who live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.

(from the Roman Catholic Order for the Mass)

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