Red lines

It’s interesting to think about where you draw the line. I went along to the Bridge Theatre last week, just as the bishops of the Anglican Communion were gathering in Canterbury for the Lambeth Conference. I had heard about the play that was being performed there and was quite keen to see it – ‘The Southbury Child’ by Stephen Beresford. The set was simple; a large table as in many vicarage kitchens, unmatching chairs, mugs in which to serve tea to guests, piles of paper to be dealt with. And in this humdrum and familiar setting – especially to clergy and their families – the drama is played it. I don’t want to give the story away but it centres on a child’s funeral and a request by the grieving mother that the church be decorated with balloons, because the child loved balloons and it would make the church look jolly and welcoming.

For the priest it was a red line he was unprepared to cross, whatever the cost. The play looks at the costs, the price, and who pays it, and, of course, the back story to the marriage and the family relationships all come out. There are reasons for the red lines we choose, reasons why we will defend, often the indefensible, that are hard for others to understand.

My predecessor had his red lines. I remember arriving back one day and being asked to see the Dean. I was then the Canon Precentor and I was told that the singing of ‘Jerusalem’ was banned in Southwark Cathedral and, by the way, anything by Graham Kendrick. Some of you may remember that episode in our lives. Colin had to go on the radio to defend his decision; I had to make it work as best I could given that most schools wanted to sing ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Shine Jesus shine’, whatever its theological virtues, or lacks, was enormously popular. But it was a red line.

I suppose I have them, but of course mine are entirely reasonable and easily explained, as far as I am concerned. I went into the vestry the other day. It had been very hot. The Head Verger told me that one of the diocesan dignitaries, we love these titles don’t we, had asked not to wear a chasuble for a service they were presiding at. The vergers told the person that that was a red line for the Dean. However much he would sweat full vestments had to be worn. If it was good enough for the early martyrs of the church it is good enough for us! As such a notorious liberal with seemingly no standards or principles – according to some – it was good to know that I have some red lines!

My blog last week went a bit viral. I thought it might, commenting as I did on the ‘Lambeth Calls’ document and the reference to Lambeth 1:10 from 1998. I was pleased therefore when the announcement came of some significant changes, particularly that bishops would be allowed to vote that they do not accept it. Since then, of course, there has been push back. We are being told that 75% of those present support Lambeth 1:10, there seem to move moves afoot to bring it back on the agenda. Even more disturbingly some of the bishops have now refused to take communion with those who have a same-sex partner, or who support equal marriage, or … well, the categories seem a bit blurred and include a lot of those there.

It is all very disturbing. What is the Communion about if we are not actually in communion, able to receive communion, one bread, one cup? Why is the Eucharist being weaponised in this way? Why, oh why, is sexuality the red line for the church, the ‘balloon’ issue for the Communion?

I am writing this, as I always do, on Saturday, ready for Sunday. It’s the commemoration today (30 July) of William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Clarkson, the three, among many, who we remember campaigned for the abolition of slavery. We know, because it is all part of the #BlackLivesMatter and contested heritage debates, all part of the Queen Anne’s Bounty discussions, all part of the history of USPG and so many other church bodies, all part of the history of Bristol and its cathedral, that the church was up to its neck and beyond in slavery and we know that bishops defended slavery with recourse to scripture. We know that it was a red line at that time, that there was huge resistance to what Wilberforce and his companions, and others in parliament were wanting. Yet, somehow the Holy Spirit spoke through the arguments and wisdom and right and justice prevailed and that red line disappeared.

Human dignity is a matter of justice, who I am, who you are, loved and created by God is a reality. Denying what God has done, out of love, drawing red lines across the lines of God’s grace is a scandal, as is refusing to take the bread and the cup that Jesus holds out to us, his friends, and even to the one who would betray him.

The play is well worth seeing; ok not all of it is true to life, true to the vicarage kitchen, but it points to the way in which the red lines we draw are destructive and divisive. It seems to me, and as you all know I never claim to be a biblical scholar, simply a child of God, that Paul, speaking to the Romans describes a love that knows no bounds, a divine love in which no lines are drawn.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8.35-39)

But I will still insist on full vestments – and isn’t that really the problem? I need to look at my own red lines as much as the next person.

God of boundless grace, draw us with your cords of love into the freedom of your kingdom and into that deeper and fuller communion with you, which is life in all its fullness. Amen.


It’s a sin

I would love to be able to tell you that I’m using every spare moment of lockdown reading, or learning a craft skill, or baking sourdough loaves. But I’m not. I have been reading more, and I have been doing more cooking, but I haven’t yet taken up cross-stitch although I did wonder about knitting a ‘cosy’ for my cafetiere  but I never really learnt how to cast on or off!! The truth is that I have been watching far too much television. At the moment we are working our way through ‘The Serpent’ – so stressful I can only watch an episode a week; ‘Bridgerton’ – what can I say; ‘The Crown’ – always good for speculative history and nice to spot Southwark Cathedral in a couple of episodes in this season; and we have just started watching ‘It’s a Sin’. Russell T Davies is incredible, rescuing Dr Who and bringing us some amazing and memorable dramas.

If you haven’t been watching it ‘It’s a Sin’ is the story of a group of young gay men in London in the early eighties grappling with both the issues of living a rather busy lifestyle and coping with the emerging news of an illness that was killing people within their community. It couldn’t have come onto our screens at a better time as we are reminded about how new and emerging and threatening illness is so often dealt with – denial and scepticism as a first instinct.

At Southwark Cathedral we have a chapel dedicated to those living with HIV/AIDS. As far as we know there are only two such chapels in Anglican churches in the world, the one in Southwark and the one in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. Both cities – London and San Francisco – were deeply affected by the appearance of AIDS amongst the members of the gay community and both cathedrals responded in a similar way, by setting aside sacred space to pray but also championing the rights of gay men (the group most affected initially) and especially those who were being subjected to stigma and discrimination.

The AIDS Chapel in Southwark Cathedral

St Andrew’s Chapel in the retrochoir of Southwark Cathedral was dedicated as the AIDS Chapel in 1991, a long time ago. A candle burns there all the time representing our prayers then and our prayers now. If I’m taking groups round the Cathedral on a tour people will often ask why we have a chapel for this group of people when we don’t, for instance, for those who suffer as a result of cancer. It’s a reasonable question. But watching ‘It’s a Sin’ helps to remind us just how terrifying and dangerous a time it was for those caught up in that pandemic.

The sight of Jill putting on rubber gloves before going in to support her friend Gregory (Gloria) who had contracted AIDS, her frantic scrubbing of and then the destruction of the cup he had drunk from I found very moving. That is what fear did to people. I don’t know whether ‘The Crown’ will deal with it, but Dianna’s unmasked, un-PPE’d, genuine, open approach to someone at their bedside, dying with AIDS, was a kairos moment.

It is 30 years since that chapel in the Cathedral was dedicated, thirty years of faithful praying, thirty years of having to justify why we have it, why we remind people of it, why every Saturday the Eucharist is focused on praying for those who live with HIV/AIDS, not just gay men, but all the communities, in the UK and around the world who have been and still are devastated by this disease. Ok you can live with it now, it isn’t the death sentence it was at the time when this series is set, but the stigma still remains, and the words that the Pet Shop Boys sing, ‘It’s a sin’, still resonate with many people and sadly many Christians.

So we will keep the thirtieth anniversary of the chapel at Southwark Cathedral this year with pride and renewed commitment, and thank you Channel 4 and Russell T Davies for telling the story and reminding us of the truth in the middle of another pandemic, in which fear has often supplanted rationality.

God of hope and love, bless all those suffering today for any reason, and those who stand alongside them. Amen.

The beautiful story

I’ve just finished reading a really beautiful story – ‘Sweet Sorrow’ – a novel by David Nicholls. It was our Book Group book this month and I have to confess that it made me cry as I finished it, big tears, down my cheeks tears. Lots of memories flooded back of school and first love, of friends, lost and kept, family, the pressures of exams, Shakespeare, learnt, remembered, forgotten – and the ‘star crossed lovers’ at the heart of it.

It’s just over a week since the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ (LLF) material was finally published by the Church of England. For those of you who might not be so familiar with the workings of the CofE as some of us are, this is the document on which the church has been working for a few years on the issues of sexuality and marriage. I can hear you yawning! ‘Surely we have done all of that?’ Well clearly we haven’t because we have still not come to a ‘decision’ about the place of LGBT+ people in the life of the church, nor have we really tackled the issues that surround our understanding of marriage and committed relationships in any form, that complex business of relationships that so many novels, like ‘Sweet Sorrow’ attempt in different ways to address. So this piece of work is intended to help us have resourced conversations that might in turn lead us towards some kind of decision making, I suppose.

The point of the LLF book and the videos and the other resources as I understand it is to get us talking and thinking and praying and allowing ourselves to be led by the Holy Sprit in discerning God’s will for the church and the way forward out of this impasse. So I was interested to watch one of the first major contributions to the debate and the process, which was made available on YouTube last week. It’s a thirty minute film entitled ‘The Beautiful Story’ and is the work of the ‘Church of England Evangelical Council’ (CEEC) which is an unofficial gathering of people from the evangelical tradition within the Church of England.

So like many people I sat down and watched it – high production values, good filming, lovely shots, a really professional job. I got over the fact that the only people in it who seemed to be allowed to wear dog collars were the bishops and that the churches in which the interviews were shot had mostly been stripped bare of anything that was particularly beautiful. It reminded me of that verse in 1 Samuel

She named the child Ichabod, meaning, ‘The glory has departed from Israel’ (1 Samuel 4.21)

It didn’t look like the church that I know and love. But I forgave them all of that.

What did disappoint me, however, were two things in particular and one larger issue. The first was that at one point a contributor, speaking about ‘same-sex attraction’ (the phrase evangelicals seem to prefer to homosexuality), said that rejection of ‘living this out’ was a non-negotiable. I didn’t fid that helpful language at the beginning of a conversation – it felt a lot like shutting down any opportunity of talking. Secondly, I found some of the talk about structural changes to the church – maybe a couple of new provinces that were ‘safe’ – equally unhelpful. This is not the way to get the best out of the conversation that we are meant to be having, again.

But my real disappointment was around the telling of ‘The Beautiful Story’. It is undoubtedly true that scripture and the life of faith and the life of the church is a story of romance, a love story, between God and humankind and that the language of the Letter to the Ephesians of the relationship between Christ and the church is very helpful. The writer talks of how ‘Christ loved the church’ (Ephesians 5.25) as a way of understanding marriage and by implication other human, loving, sacrificial, honouring relationships. We use that language every time we celebrate a marriage in the Church of England. There it is, proudly, in the Preface to the service that sets our stall so to speak.

But the speakers, all sincere, many known to me, some of whom I have had the pleasure of working with over the years, only told part of ‘The Beautiful Story’. Just as I didn’t really recognise the Church of England in what I was watching neither did I really recognise the fullness of the God I know in Jesus. I and you have our own beautiful stories to tell and the story we would tell involves the person that God created, me, you. The God I know doesn’t deal in ‘non-negotiables’ but seeks to include, embrace, love every part of the rich creation that flows from the divine love which is so beautifully described in scripture

I was daily his delight,
   rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race
. (Proverbs 8.30-31)

I don’t particularly want to spend the rest of my ministry talking about sex, it’s boring and it just sucks the energy out of the church that should be engaging with God in mission and telling the story of the romance, this beautiful story that includes every person, whoever they are, whoever they are attracted to, those who are called to the single life and those who are called into relationship with another person. I am privileged to be part of a beautiful community at Southwark Cathedral that lives well the beautiful story, with difference, celebrating it, embracing it, not fearing it in whatever form we encounter it and where the glory of the story exists and survives and thrives.

I too have a story to tell of finding love and growing in love and I rejoice in that and rejoice in the glory of the God that never departs or abandons us, in the God who loves me into my better me and embraces me as the child that was so lovingly created.

God of grace and truth, as we live your beautiful story may we recognise your divine image in each one of our sisters and brothers, for your glory never departs and your story is never fully told. Amen,

On the fringe

It was in the immediate post-war years, in 1947, that the Fringe became part of the Edinburgh Festival.  The name of this alternative to the official arts festival was an invention, but the name stuck and has, over those years, become global and accepted.  We know what fringe events are, the things that happen on the edges.


The fringe – the edge

I spent most of last week, as followers of this blog will know, at the meeting of the General Synod in Westminster.  If you haven’t seen my various reflections, once or twice a day, then you can find them here.  One of the things that I seldom comment about, however, is the Synod fringe.

As a Group of Sessions approaches we begin to get emails, or flyers, now helpfully bundled together in an official package by the Synod office, enticing and inviting us to different events that happen over breakfast, over lunch and before dinner.  These are alternatively opportunities for hobby horse riders and anorak wearers to invite other riders or sartorial dressers to come along and share their passion, or they are useful information sharing occasions.  Whichever they are they can be huge fun and really helpful.

I am a member of two Synod groups and I regularly try to attend other meetings whenever I can.  The first evening of any Synod is always the occasion when ACiS (Affirming Catholics in Synod – everything has an acronym) meets.  There are a number of ‘tribal’ gatherings, this is one of them.  Whether you are a conservative evangelical or catholic, an open evangelical or a progressive catholic, whether you are in a tribe that doesn’t like to think of itself as a tribe, there is a group for you.  So EGGS meets almost always when ACiS meets (EGGS is the Evangelical Group in General Synod) but being as no one would want to be at both of these that doesn’t matter.  There are the ‘Catholic Societies’ which doesn’t include members of ACiS because the latter is in support of the ordination of women (it’s basically Affirming Catholicism and the Society of Catholic Priests meeting together though not entirely or exclusively).  There’s the Open Synod Group which is none of the above and I understand that there was at this Synod the first meeting of an Evangelical Forum which represents those from the open end of that group.  WATCH (Women and the Church) has a meeting, and … well, you get the point.

At one level, of course there is always the danger of fragmentation but the CofE is already fragmented and tribal, we just have to be honest about this.  At their best these groups allow for letting off steam, for doing some theology, for preparing for debates, for talking through the issues.  I find the ACiS meeting invaluable.  If we are in Westminster we meet for a Mass in the lovely church of St Matthew just around the corner and then have supper and a romp through the agenda.  And that is where I catch up with my friends immediately, at the beginning of Synod.

Whilst the Cathedrals Measure has been on the Synod agenda we have been running fringe events to help members who are interested in cathedrals (we should never assume everyone is) to come along for some information sharing and an opportunity for questions to be answered.  So early on Tuesday we held a breakfast gathering just before the debate on the Measure happened.

And I always try to go to the Synod group meeting on sexuality.  This time, in the aftermath of the Bishops’ Statement, there was a fantastic and positive session on services of prayer, fitting the bishops’ guidelines and encouragement, that churches and cathedrals have offered to single-sex couples.  What was shared was so imaginative and inspiring and encouraged people in the room to think positively and creatively.

So thank God for the fringe.  Of course, it was there, on the fringe, that Jesus did so much of his best and life-changing work.  The fringe was where the excluded gathered and as Jesus walked through the communities, that was where he found people, on the fringe.  They were on the fringe of their society, on the edge of community, the marginalised and at the margin he brought them back to the centre, which in fact was the heart of the love of God.

The irony was that a woman on the fringe found healing by the fringe.

Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.’ (Matthew 9.20-21)

Her plight was excluding her, the fringe brought her to the centre.  The edge can be a most creative place to be.

God, may those who live on the fringe
know your love as the centre.

Can we talk? Part 2

Our Shared Conversations are over and the participants from Europe, Guildford and Southwark have made their way home. The rule was that we were asked not to Tweet or Blog during the time we were together – and to be honest that made sense. Rather than thinking about an external audience we were able to concentrate much more on the task in hand.

And what was that task? Well, in a sense it was simple. We talked about the church, our selves, the issue of homosexuality and the church’s response to it. We were reminded at the beginning that we were not there to arrive at any decision, that the conversation was all important, that we had no power or mandate to change anything. To be honest that felt quite strange. We are now used to setting and measuring outcomes and so to be told that there was no expected outcome made me want to ask ‘So why are we here?’ But we were there in order to listen and to talk.

Talk and listen

Talk and listen

So what have I come away with? Well, I’ve heard some moving stories of people’s lives and beliefs. People have been enormously generous in being prepared to be honest and open in what they have said. On Day Two we are given a massive amount of time in small groups to tell our own story. We each had about twenty minutes to speak about whatever we wanted to speak about in terms of our own life, faith, sexual journey. But that didn’t feel too long when, after spending time plotting my own story, I then told the others. Even though I had told bits of it on many occasions and to different people I hadn’t put it all together in one complete narrative like that, nor quite seen all the connections and influences.

As I listened to others it was good to hear that though my story was my own it was, in places, not that unusual. Again, that’s reassuring. And, of course, to be listened to, without interruption, without interrogation, is unusual in itself. So all of that was gift.

I leave with two thoughts. The first is that I actually feel more hopeful after the process. I don’t think anyone changed their mind, that wasn’t expected and though we’d been told that outcomes weren’t expected we have something as a diocesan group to bring back to the diocese. But I think, even more importantly, we all know more about one another than we did on arrival and that knowledge must, by the grace of God, change things.

The second thought that I take away came as a consequence of the afternoon session on Day Two when we were looking at possible solutions to the problem/challenge that we face as a church with regard to the presence of large numbers of LGBTIQ clergy and laity. Our group came up with a lot of possible solutions from the most conservative to the most liberal via keeping the muddle and the status quo. As we then set out the positive and negative impacts of some of these possible solutions I was struck by the fact that all of them, even doing nothing, were enormously painful, enormously costly. We looked at what we had produced – who would bear the pain, who would pay the price? What are we asking of each other, and not just those who are at the heart of the issue, the LGBTIQ clergy doing amazing jobs, exercising incredible ministries in our parishes, the LGBTIQ laity faithfully worshipping, living out the Gospel, disciples of Jesus Christ, but also those who hold more conservative views on the issue. No one wanted to cause pain, no one wanted the person next to them to suffer.

That doesn’t mean I have found an answer, a solution, just a realisation that any solution will demand everything of us as a church.

Jesus is in the conversation

Jesus is in the conversation

At a luncheon in the White House in 1954 Sir Winston Churchill was reported to have said ‘To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.’ And, of course, Jesus advises just the same thing where he says ‘Come to terms quickly with your accuser’ (Matthew 5.25). God is in the conversation, and God was in these conversations. Let’s keep talking.

you blessed us in these conversations.
Continue to bless your church
that we may be
gentle and caring with each other.

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