The life-long journey

Today at Southwark Cathedral is one of our ‘baptism Sundays’. We have about five a year, when perhaps three or four children are brought by parents and godparents and the rest of their family and friends to the Cathedral for the Choral Eucharist during which baptisms take place.  You’d imagine that, taking a lead from the Acts of the Apostles which we always read during the Easter season, there would be universal rejoicing that ‘the Lord is adding to our number’. But as with many churches the fact that the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, the two dominical sacraments amongst the seven, are celebrated together, is not met with unalloyed joy.  Some people are displaced from their ‘normal’ seat; there are a lot of people who ‘don’t know what they are doing’ and of course the babies tend to cry during the quieter parts of the service.  It’s all very disruptive!


A well behaved baby!


Of course, when I was a curate, those unreformed days, we did baptisms on a Sunday afternoon, the church packed with people and the congregation conveniently at home enjoying their Sunday lunch whilst new members of the Body of Christ were being welcomed by the harassed curate.

Last week I went to Ireland to meet members of the Society of Catholic Priests working there, both north and south of the border. It was great to meet other members of the Society working in a very different church environment and facing different issues to those of us in the Church of England including how they will work as one church in a post-Brexit environment when the border between north and south may be very real.  After the meeting had finished my host drove me out to see one of the more ancient churches in the area.  St Doulagh’s Church – Clochar Dúiligh – stands just outside the town of Malahide.  This was part of the Norwegian Kingdom in Ireland and there was thought at one time that St Doulagh never existed but was a manifestation of Olave.  But now it’s thought that the saint did exist, a hermit, maybe living in a cell on this site. The small medieval church dates from the 12th century and is the only church with a solid stone roof still to be in use in Ireland.  It is beautiful.  Alongside the ancient church is a Victorian nave and sanctuary constructed by the father of ‘Woodbine Willie’, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, whose Great-Granddaughter was visiting the church at the same time as I was (what a small world it is).

St D's

The baptistery at St Doulagh’s


However, what was most fascinating was that in the grounds around the church is a separate baptistery.  It’s the only one in Ireland.  The sunken octagonal structure covers a water channel into which those to be baptised were taken.  A pool by the side may have been for baptism by total immersion.  As a result of various bits of work to the land and the nearby road the water source has been diverted and the baptistery is now dry.  But it is a deeply wonderful, evocative place.  The main baptistery is dedicated to St Doulagh, the small pool to St Catherine.  It is said that St Patrick operated in this area, that a small community lived here.  It is certainly a place of deep and resonant history.

In between the ‘font’ and the pool a hawthorn grows.  My guide suggested that it was the descendent of a pagan hawthorn on the spot that the Christians ‘baptised’, adopted in the way that the early missionaries did, to take the local pagan population with them.  Whatever the truth it was amazing to see.  It took me to other places were baptisteries are separate and not least to northern Syria, to the complex of church and monastic buildings from the 5th century dedicated to St Simon Stylites that is a few miles northwest of Aleppo.  There too is an octagonal baptistery at the end of what would have been a triumphal processional route that the newly baptised would take into the church.  The baptistery and route to the church outside of Malahide are more modest but the principal is the same.


The baptistery of St Simon near Aleppo


It reminded me of one of the texts in the Common Worship Baptismal Rite.  After the baptism, as part of the prayers, the priest can use these words

In baptism God invites you on a life-long journey.
Together with all God’s people
you must explore the way of Jesus.

The early builders in Ireland and Syria knew this to be true.  The deep and flowing waters through which the child, the adult, was brought was a kind of Red Sea experience.  Then the journey began, from the baptistery into the church, from that Sacrament into the Christian life, ‘exploring the way of Jesus’. Perhaps we should build some more external baptisteries!

This prayer is also from Common Worship.

Eternal God, our beginning and our end,
preserve in your people the new life of baptism;
as Christ receives us on earth,
so may he guide us through the trials of this world,
and enfold us in the joy of heaven,
where you live and reign,
one God for ever and ever.

‘For he was naked’

For the past week I have been in the Holy Land on the Second International Conference of the Society of Catholic Priests. This is our twenty-first birthday year, a time of coming of age perhaps. But the Conference brings together parts of the Society that have not existed for so many years as the Society in Europe. The Society was founded back in 1994 when women were first ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England. There was seen to be a need to establish a group that would provide support for priestly ministry, for men and women from the catholic tradition in Anglicanism. That is simply what SCP seeks to do, to support women and men in each of the three orders of ministry, to encourage vocations from people who share a catholic understanding of the church, the sacraments and ministry, and to commit ourselves to playing our part in God’s mission to the world.

The first International Conference took place three years ago in Rome. This time we have been in the Holy Land, priests from Australia, Europe and North America, focusing our visits here on the birth, ministry, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our theological reflector was Fr Russ McDougall, CSC, the Rector of Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. He was fantastic in leading us in our reflections during our time in Jerusalem and encouraging us to think creatively and critically through the scriptures.

Fr Russ from Tantur

Fr Russ from Tantur

Jerusalem is always an amazing city to be in. There is no where like it on the face of the earth, a truly unique place in which Jews, Christians and Muslims have to co-exist, often uncomfortably, sometimes violently, in a complicated set of circumstances and locations. Within the church the same coexistence has to develop. Western, Latin Christians, alongside Oriental Christians; ancient denominations such as the Coptic Church alongside Protestant Christians; places such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre seem to exist in a not alway easy situation of compromise and accommodation. It is as messy as the church is messy; Jerusalem is as messy as the world is messy. It is as though this city of peace becomes the focus for so much global political and religious intolerance and yet essential co-operation.

After four days in Jerusalem we left for a further three in Galilee. Is it the air, is it the sense of space, is it being able to see some distance, is it the water and the hills? Maybe it is the combination of all of these but certainly being alongside the Sea of Galilee is a different and a welcome experience. You can feel people relax; they love Jerusalem but Galilee is another place.

For me, having been to the Holy Land on numerous occasions (but each of those occasions has been special and different) two things have stood out for me. Today, Sunday, we worshipped with the local congregation at Christchurch, Nazareth. Fr Nael Abu Rahmoun is the priest at the church and with enormous generosity he welcomed us. We were not the only group of visitors there but the arrival of so many clergy in their dog-collars, women and men, was something novel for him. The worship was fantastic. We sang in Arabic and English, the sound created was like a mini day of Pentecost, the Peace was shared with exuberance as we realised that we are all brothers and sisters within the Anglican Communion and that there is so much that unites us, much more than could ever divide us.

With Fr Nael at Christchurch, Nazareth

With Fr Nael at Christchurch, Nazareth

Fr Russ, in talking to us, had said how important the witness of the Anglican Communion was to the rest of the Christian world. He paid tribute to our commitment to staying together even though there is much that could separate us and he encouraged us to play our part in that. Both this Conference and the experience of worshipping at Christchurch have once more reinforced in me the value of the Communion.

The other experience for me was at Mensa Christi, otherwise known as the Church of Peter’s Primacy. It is a beautiful location on the edge of the lake. We all gathered right at the water’s edge and heard the first part of the reading associated with that site – John 21.1-14. We then processed in silence to the statue of Jesus and Peter and concluded the reading with verses 15-19.

Our local guide, Rami, talked through what he had heard. We all knew the reading well but he brought out something new for me from what was so familiar. He was talking about verse 7

That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake.

He made the point that this reference to Peter being naked was not so much about what he was or wasn’t wearing, though he would have been stripped down for work and, as Rami said, Jesus would have expected that, but the Evangelist makes mention of the fact for a deeper reason.

Peter’s nakedness was about being exposed before Jesus. Just as when we have been found out, discovered, for something that we have said or done of which we are ashamed and we blush with embarrassment, so it was with Peter. The last time he saw Jesus, he was denying him, and the Lord had looked across and Pater had seen him look and ran out from the courtyard where he had been warming himself against a charcoal fire.

At the waters edge

At the waters edge

Now another fire was lit, but not for warming but for feeding. Peter’s sin was exposed and he felt naked before the Lord.

William Blake in his poem ‘Infant Sorrow’ expresses something similar about human vulnerability

Into the dangerous world I leapt:
Helpless, naked, piping loud.

Coming to the Holy Land has exposed us to the contradictions and complications of the place, to the talk of peace and the lack of peace, to the unity and disunity within our own Communion, to what is scripture, reason and tradition, to the here and beyond. But it has also exposed us to ourselves and to God, ‘helpless, naked, piping loud.’

On that shoreline, watching the water lap, it was powerfully the place where Jesus stood and Peter ran ashore, the place where the fire was lit and breakfast was served, the place in which ministry began in which Peter, conflicted, naked, frail Peter, the fault-lined rock on which the church would be built, accepted the commission, the three-fold commission to feed the sheep, in which each of us baptised Christians, ordained deacons, priests and bishops, play our part.

I need, we all need, I believe, that moment of nakedness before God, when the carapace is stripped away and there is nothing left that we can hide behind, where we too are ‘helpless, naked, piping loud.’ For Peter, momentarily, it was a shocking place to be but he immediately got over his embarrassment at being seen for who he was, leapt from the boat and went to his Lord. This has been a wonderful Conference, but for those two experiences, in worship and at the lakeside I will long be giving thanks.

Lord, there is nothing I can hide behind,
you know me and see me, naked, helpless before you.
Yet, you love me
and I love you.
Wherever you meet me,
by the lakeside,
at the altar,
may I always know
your love,
your acceptance,
that covers my nakedness
and clothes me with joy.

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

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

Led by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark