Living God in Zimbabwe

It has been an amazing week. We can use that kind of phrase in tweets and on a blog too easily, but this week really has been amazing. I said last week that I would be travelling to Zimbabwe and to our link Diocese of Masvingo. There I would be meeting up with Bishop Christopher and Canon Wendy Robins who had already been out for a few days but in the dioceses of Matabeleland and Central Zimbabwe. So that is what happened.

The flight to Harare was uneventful, changing planes at Johannesburg and then waiting in one of the slowest queues for visas I have ever experienced when I arrived at Harare Airport. But then, through into arrivals and there were two friendly faces waiting for me. One of them was my good friend Friar Fungai, a member of the Community of the Holy Transfiguration whose Mother House we visited later in the week. It was great to see them and we quickly set off on the almost 5 hour journey down south to Masvingo.


Don’t let life get you down

You relatively quickly leave Harare behind you and are out in the open country. The roads, frankly, are terrible. But our driver was avoiding potholes as best he could. Then, about an hour away from our destination disaster struck. One of the tyres suffered a puncture. We got out of the car. I was useless. It’s embarrassing to say but true nevertheless that I have never changed a tyre in my life. My two friends set too, showing me how it was done. Various tyres had to be removed and recirculated and the spare put on. The jack jammed and a pile of rocks gathered from the ground around us were used as a replacement. With African ingenuity we got back on our way and arrived at the hotel where we were staying.

The next day I went to the Cathedral of St Michael which is in the centre of Masvingo. There were Bishop Godfrey and his wife Albertina waiting for me. There was a gathering of diocesan staff and clergy for lunch and the same group with some additions gathered again in the evening when Bishop Christopher and Wendy had arrived.


Masvingo Cathedral

Now the reality in Zimbabwe is that they lack so much. There are constant electricity blackouts, fuel is scarce and expensive. Food prices have rocketed. The shelves in the shops are not full and the rains have failed. Given all of that, the hospitality we received on that first full day was second to none. That was repeated throughout the time I was in Zimbabwe. I said last week that I had asked that the fatted calf was not killed for me. The bishop had responded that they always kill it for their guests! What I also realised as the week wore on was that our presence allowed others to share in a feast – which must seldom happen – so that relieved my feelings of guilt a little bit as I watched everyone tucking in with gusto.

Meals tend to follow the same pattern. First you choose your starch. The traditional food is called Sadza, which is a thick porridge-like substance made of corn meal. But there are different varieties, white, red and a new one to me, made of sorghum, which is delicious. Then you get your meat, usually chicken, sometimes beef, occasionally pork. In one meal in Chivhu later in the week I tried the offal which was tripe cooked with onions and tomato – it was delicious. Then there are vegetables, often a cabbage or spinach like green, sometimes mixed with peanut butter. There is always rice on offer, sometimes fried potatoes and always a lovely soup-like gravy. Often there is some salad as well, though travelling has taught me to avoid salad where possible!

So that has been my diet. I have not gone hungry. But I was very conscious that others are hungry. During the week we visited four schools and they all ran feeding programmes. Members of their Cathedral congregation will remember that a few years ago we collected money specifically to finance these initiatives. Now, corn meal is supplied by the State but everything else, the vegetables and, very rarely, the meat, is supplied by the school. Mothers take it in turn to come and cook, out there in the school yards on wood fires, stirring the Sadza for their children. One headteacher told me that the children don’t like missing school because they don’t like missing their meal!


Cooking the school lunch

On the Wednesday we went in the morning to a World Heritage Site.  Great Zimbabwe has given its name to the nation and also its most powerful symbols, the bird on the national flag and the tower with two trees that is the symbol of the ruling party, Zanu PF. The site of Great Zimbabwe is a huge one.  It was built between the 11th and the 15th centuries and had a population of between 10,000 and 18,000.  The name ‘Zimbabwe’ comes from the Shona words for ‘large stone house’ and that neatly describes this royal city.  Going there you realise what a powerful and established kingdom existed before the European nations arrived.


Great Zimbabwe

Then in the afternoon we went to one of the diocesan projects that I have visited on each of my three trips to Zimbabwe.  The Transfiguration Skills Centre was established to train people in agricultural skills.  What has been interesting is that over the three visits you see changes in the place – but they are not all positive.  The piggery that was full last time has few pigs now.  The feed is so expensive it is no longer profitable to raise them.  The sheds which held the chickens are mostly empty – the reasons are the same.  The fields where maize was growing were now barren.  There has been no rain and the bore hole has dried up.  There are no trainees because there is nothing to train them in.  But those who showed us round were not depressed, they were as hopeful as ever that things will get better.  I pray they are right.


Once fertile land

The Thursday saw us visiting four churches and schools in the Shurugwi District.  This is a very rural area.  The journey there and between the churches (they are not at the centre of villages as we might imagine from our own experience) meant travelling on dirt roads for long distances.  This makes every journey difficult.  Our driver, Albert, was skilled at picking the spot in the ‘road’ that would be easiest to negotiate.  I would have been off the road and in the ditch as soon as I put my foot to the accelerator! So we went to St Boniface, St Mary, St Michael and St Francis church and school.  In each place we were met by children waving, excited to have some visitors.  The Mothers’ Union were always out in force, singing as we approached.  Some children danced for us, others marched alongside us.  In each place the whole school gathered for an assembly and we got a chance to speak to them.  I told the children in each of the schools that at Cathedral School the children there pray for the children of Zimbabwe every day.  But many of them have no idea where Zimbabwe is, or what the children are like.  So in each place I took a photo of the children waving so that when Cathedral School returns I can show our children just who they are praying for.


This is who you are praying for!

In each school wonderful Headteachers and staff are struggling to educate their pupils with few resources.  Most have no electricity, save for a generator which they switch on when they need to print off examination papers.  In none of the schools we visited this time were there computers for the children to use.  In one or two we saw some old PCs that had been donated stacked up and waiting for the day when electricity would be available.  But the children read well and write well and when I asked a few of them what subject they liked best the answer was usually ‘mathematics’.  And they sang their hearts out as we gathered.

On Friday we travelled back half way towards Harare to a town called Civhu where we visited a couple of churches including St Francis where I had been before.  There a new church is being built to house the growing congregation, but the work has stopped because the cost of materials has risen and the ability of the congregation to give has diminished as the price of food and fuel has risen.


The beginnings of the new church

We had travelled north for the climax of the visit and that was the Shearly Cripps Festival.  This takes place each year at the beginning of August at the shrine built around the grave of Fr Arthur Shearly Cripps who came out to work among the Shona people at the beginning of the 20th century and never left them.  He lived in a little hut and bought farms with his own money so that local people had their own land to work on. The people still love and revere him.

The Festival begins with Evening Prayer on the Friday and the people camp all around the shrine, sleeping and eating there until Sunday morning.  We arrived on the Saturday morning in time to take part in the Festival Mass which begins at 8.00am.  The altar is under a lovely thatched roof in the local style.  The congregation sits all around.  This year there were fewer people there than in the past because of the problems with fuel but there must have been close to a thousand people gathered.  The spirit was amazing, the worship was wonderful and the three and a half hours that it took flew past.  I was invited to give a message of solidarity at the end of the Mass and I did that with huge joy.  In the afternoon, after another meal, there was a choir competition with some wonderful singing.  But it was the choir from Daramombie High School that stole the show and went home with the trophies.


One of the choirs competing in the Festival

On Sunday, then in Harare, we went to the Cathedral for their High Mass.  It was simply beautiful.  Once again the singing, the liturgy, were all perfection.  Yet in the streets around there is such obvious poverty and need.  It makes you weep.

So it has been amazing as I said at the beginning and what is most amazing is that despite all of the problems, despite things being even worse than the days of Mugabe, yet there is this indomitable spirit of hope that is not about a superficial smile, putting a brave face on it, not about stoicism, but born of a deep Christian commitment and belief that what Mother Julian of Norwich said is true.

‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’

As I stood there during the Shearly Cripps Festival I was thinking about that priest and his commitment to the place.  It was so much about living out the incarnation, about going to the place and being one with the reality that is there.  All I kept thinking about was that poem by R S Thomas that I have often quoted – ‘The Coming’

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.

‘Let me go there’ and he did and stayed.  God was very present in those places and those people.  The hospitality was generous but what they taught me even more satisfying.

God bless Zimbabwe
protect her children
transform her leaders
heal her communities
and grant her peace.
for Jesus Christ’s sake.


A blog will come

Be patient please. I’ll post a blog when I get back from Zimbabwe. But here’s a greeting to you from some great children at one of the schools we’ve visited.

Out of Africa

Those graphics we have been shown over the last week of a heatwave heading in our direction were very colourful and dramatic.  It was all heading our way, we kept being told, ‘out of Africa’. Well, as you read this I will be heading into Africa.

All Church of England dioceses are encouraged to make links with Anglican dioceses and provinces around the world.  They are enormously important for being able to understand more the nature of the Communion of which we are part (very important as we head for the next Lambeth Conference which will be taking place in exactly a year).  When I was a priest in Leeds our links were with what is still called the Church of Ceylon.  People regularly visited the two dioceses on that beautiful island, Colombo and Kuranegala, and in fact the priest I worked with was able to spend a substantial amount of time out there experiencing ministry in a different place.

Southwark has been linked for many years with the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe which is part of the Province of Central Africa.  Since 2002 there are five dioceses in that country, Harare linked with Rochester Diocese and the other four – Matabeleland, Central Zimbabwe, Manicaland and Masvingo linked with Southwark.  The cathedral is linked with the last in that list, and the newest, Masvingo.  That is where I am heading.


Fr Shearly Cripps outside his hut that is now his shrine

Because of the particular problems facing the people of Zimbabwe at the moment – shortages of almost every kind – this will be a small visit, just me, with Bishop Christopher and Canon Wendy Robins.  We don’t want to be too much of a burden on our very generous hosts.  I emailed Bishop Godfrey, the Bishop of Masvingo, a few weeks ago.  I had been reading more reports from our friends in ArtPeace, the project that produces the lovely stone carvings we sell in the shop, and the stories of shortages, drought and violence are very disturbing.  Knowing what Zimbabwean hospitality looks like I said to +Godfrey ‘please, you don’t need to kill the fatted calf for me, a bowl of sadza (the corn meal porridge) is all I need.’  I received a very firm reply, ‘We always kill the fatted calf for our guests however hard the times.’

It will be a humbling visit.  Hope, generosity, hospitality, I will see it all.  We will be visiting parishes and churches, schools, clinics and projects, some of which we help to fund, some that the local people resource themselves.  We will share in the Mass, we will sing and I will sway along with the rhythms of the drums.  The Mothers’ Union will be out in force, the mainstay of the church. The whole visit will culminate in the Shearly Cripps Festival at Moronda Mashuna, the Five Wounds, where people from all over will gather to celebrate the life of Fr Arthur Shearly Cripps who came out to Africa from England at the turn of the 20th century and gave his life to the people.

So, pray for me as I pray for you.  I will report as much as I can whilst I am there, it all depends on access to data of course, and pray with us for the people of Zimbabwe.

God bless Zimbabwe
protect her children
transform her leaders
heal her communities
and grant her peace.
for Jesus Christ’s sake.

On the streets

When I was in Leeds, particularly when I was a priest in the Parish of Richmond Hill, there were always occasions coming along when we would escape the walls of the churches and get out onto the streets.  There were two principle occasions each year at St Hilda’s, Cross Green, apart from the Palm Sunday Procession and the Walk of Witness on Good Friday, of course.  The first was the May Procession held on the day on which we had the crowning of the May Queen and the other was the Feast of the Assumption when we held a big festival.  There was a massive Roman Catholic Church in the parish, Mount St Mary’s, like ‘a city set on a hill’ and they had a portable statue of Our Lady and so, in a spirit of practical ecumenism, we used to borrow that.

Blessing of Illuminated River 1

Blessing of Illuminated River

Mary was decked out in a variety of plastic flowers and would be carried aloft by some willing volunteers and escorted by servers with their candles and incense, by clergy and by a mixed bag of laity.  It was fantastic.  If you ever saw that great film ‘East is East’ with Jimi Mistry, then the opening scenes of the procession through the streets of Salford where completely reminiscent of us walking through the streets of back-to-backs in east Leeds.  We didn’t just have the pious to accompany us but kids on bikes, babies in push chairs and, of course, dogs who thought we should be well out of their territory and were doing their best to make sure that happened!

Jesus was an itinerant preacher, had a peripatetic ministry, walking the roads and the paths of Galilee, always on the move, taking religion and teaching and prayer out of the confines of the Temple, outside of the formality of the synagogue and into the street where anything could happen.

‘As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.’ (Mark 10.46)

It happened all the time, those chance encounters on the road that were life and faith transforming for those who were there at the right time in the right place, sitting, standing, waiting by the roadside for God to go past.

We do a great deal of this ‘taking religion out of the church’ at Southwark Cathedral, whether its Apple Day in Borough Market, or Lammas Day with Bread Ahead, our local baker, or Blessing the River in Epiphany, we are there on the streets beyond the confines of thick, protective stone walls.

Blessing of Illuminated River 2

Setting off!

This weekend has been a great opportunity for that.  On Friday evening, much to the amazement of local drinkers in the pubs around the Cathedral and the Borough Market, a procession left Cathedral Square at 9.30pm!  We were not a huge crowd but, despite a bit of drizzle (always a threat to outdoor religion) we were enthusiastic.  The occasion was blessing the Illuminated River Project.  This is a ten year art installation along the Thames in which the bridges will be individually lit but visually connected through the work of the American artist, Leo Villareal.  Last Wednesday the first part of the project, the illumination of London Bridge, Cannon Street Bridge , Southwark Bridge and the Millennium Bridge was launched and on Friday I was asked to bless the work.  So with cross and lights and me in a cope we walked up onto London Bridge and asked Gods blessing on the work.

God bless those who cross the bridges.
God bless those who walk the edges.
God bless those who sail the waters.
God bless those who steer the vessels.
God bless those who care for fishes.
God bless those who light the bridges.
God bless this illumination
light and joy, colour, imagination.
May it bring this river to life
even on the darkest night.

We read from the Book of Revelation about the city and the river, we read extracts from poems by Dunbar and Kipling and Eliot and we prayed, there on the bridge as the buses passed and the party boats sailed beneath us and the walkers nudged past.  And some people ignored us and a few jeered and some made the sign of the cross and many more said hello and smiled.  It was great.


Blessing the Graveyard

Sunday sees us walk, as we do each year around the Feast of Mary Magdalene, from the Cathedral to the Crossbones Graveyard, the unconsecrated ground where early on, the medieval sex workers and their babies were buried and later on paupers were buried and with cross and lights and smoke, with prayers and reading and singing, and, I hope, in the sunshine, we will remember those women and those children and those people used and abused and excluded by our society.

May this be a holy place in our community,
set apart for the past, the present and the future
and a place where the dead and living may know your peace.

Being out there, being on the streets, getting religion out of church, beyond the walls, where we might sit beautifully oddly alongside everything else that is going on, that must be a mission initiative in anybody’s book!

Lord, give us the courage
to walk the streets
and encounter you
as others encounter us
and you.

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.

Washed up

As I look out across the river from the Deanery towards the splendour of St Paul’s, if the tide is out there are often mudlarks combing the exposed foreshore.  The great days of mudlarking in London were the 18th and 19th centuries when a living could be made, normally by the very young or the very elderly, from what could be found in the mud when the waters receded.  The river still gives up its treasures, pilgrim badges from those returning from Canterbury, clay pipes, pottery, the discarded and lost detritus of life.


Mudlarks on the Thames foreshore

There were two photographs in the evening paper last week that made me think.  The first, on the inside pages, was of a stretch of the Thames shore near Westminster Bridge.  What it showed was a large number of bicycles thrown into the river.  These were no ordinary bikes but the ones that you nowadays find in the streets, brightly coloured, available to hire through an app that compete with what we use to call ‘Boris Bikes’. Some helpful and amusing individuals (!) had thought it fun to chuck them in the river and there they were, washed up on the shore, like so much litter.

But on the front of the paper was an image that grabbed the world’s attention.  It was the photograph of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria washed up, holding each other in death as in life, human treasure on the shore of the Rio Grande, like so much rubbish.  It took me back to that other dreadful picture of little Aylan Kurdi, who was found, dead, on a Mediterranean beach back in September 2015.  He, like Oscar and Valeria, was an innocent victim of the refugee crisis that is affecting lives across the world.  People flee for many reasons – to escape war, to escape persecution, to escape poverty.  Who would not? No one wants to leave their home and community and extended family for something unknown, strange and unpredictable but sometimes the circumstances force them to and at tremendous risk and tremendous cost.  And they are washed up like the rubbish that is discarded.

I was very interested in what President Putin said in that interview that he gave to the FT and particularly his comments about liberalism being obsolete, a spent force politically.  As a proud liberal I found that enormously depressing and disturbing.  Has the tide really turned?  Are the attitudes that some of us have been working for and preaching about and trying to live out really dead in the water?  Inclusion, diversity, openness, tolerance, understanding, acceptance, love … these are good words and good things to aspire to.  It was 50 years on Friday since the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, 50 years that have seen the transformation of LGBT rights in so many places around the world because of the liberal agenda.  On the same day as those riots were being commemorated it was announced that Rose Hudson Wilkin would be the new Bishop of Dover, a black woman priest born in a former colonial territory taking her place on the mostly white, mostly male bench of bishops because of the liberal agenda.

But if Putin is correct what is the alternative? Well, we are seeing it already in the rise of populism.  It isn’t all the fault of Donald Trump, but he is an indication of what is happening and elements of the campaign we are witnessing to get through the door of 10 Downing Street has elements of it as well.  Authoritarianism, fear and then hatred of the other, because of their gender, because of their colour, their ethnicity, their sexuality, their ability, all of this is the alternative, dystopia rather than utopia.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (of Hiawatha fame) wrote a poem perhaps not read as much now as it once was, ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ and towards the end it says

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the billows fall and rise.

Is liberalism like this maiden to be found washed up as well?

The Wreck of the Hesperus


St Paul is quite clear that the kingdom moves us from the principles of law to the principles of grace.

‘You are not under law but under grace.’ (Romans 6.14)

But this was not a change to lawlessness to that libertarianism that some confuse with liberalism.  The demands of the kingdom are demanding.  As Paul writes to the Christians in Galatia

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger,quarrels,dissensions,factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5.19-23)

This is the law by which we seek to live, a law that gives life, even to those who do not know Christ and especially those who live on the vulnerable margins.  It is on those margins that we find Jesus whose life-affirming agenda put him at odds with the law-bound authorities.  But to him, those he found on every shore, those he finds on every shore, are the true treasure.

Loving God,
give me the courage
to search the shore
and find the lost
and to treat each person
as your treasure.

The church at sea

Clergy come in many shapes and sizes, with many skills, many differing opportunities for mission and ministry.  There are no two priests alike of course, we are all very different. So it was interesting to spend most of last week with a particular group of clergy.  I had been asked some time ago to lead the reflective sessions at the annual conference of Royal Naval Chaplains.  So I headed down to the place where the chaplaincies for all three of the services in our armed forces are presently based, Amport House.

The present house, built in Elizabethan style in 1857, has the most beautiful grounds.  These were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll. There are beautiful areas of clipped box and yew, formal and less formal gardens and fountains and the longest pleached avenue of lime trees in the UK (so I was told).  The house is now up for sale however, as the Ministry of Defence moves the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre (AFCC) to new and presumably less expensive premises.  So if anyone wants a beautiful house and has many millions to spend on it, this is the place for you.

My five sessions were focused on the place that the ‘sea’ has in the story of our faith.  It seems to me fascinating that for a basically land-based people, the Israelites, who had limited access to the coast because it was the territory of other quite powerful people, and who used land routes for trading and fought their battles on land, the sea is enormously significant.

Jesus leaves the hills of Nazareth and the carpenters shop and heads down to the Sea of Galilee.  He calls in the main, fishermen, people of the water, to follow him.  He gathers people at the lakeside to teach them, he uses Simon’s boat as a makeshift pulpit.  He calms the storm, rebukes the wind and reveals a majesty over creation, the power of calm over chaos.  He visits lakeside communities, he heals and raises and inspires people who hear the lapping of waves on a shore.  Then his followers take to the waters and not least Paul whose journeys by water are told in the most wonderful detail in the Acts of the Apostles.  I read the whole of Acts 27 to the group at one point and said to them that as someone who knows nothing about ships and boats it all sounded plausible and the details sounded as though someone who knew what they were talking about had written them. They assured me that I was right.

Jonah icon

The beautiful icon of Jonah on display at Southwark Cathedral

Paul’s experience of shipwreck and peril on the sea mirrored, of course, the experience of Jonah.  It is a dangerous thing to head out in to the deep waters.  There be dragons and whales waiting!

Then, as a reminded them, and perhaps not such good news for those involved in the navy, John ends the Book of Revelation by telling us

‘and the sea was no more.’ (Revelation 21.1)

As a young man I was deeply fascinated by the life and the writings of the Trappist, Thomas Merton.  The first volume of his journals is called ‘The Sign of Jonas’ and in the prologue to that book he writes this

‘The sign Jesus promised to this generation that did not understand him, was ‘the sign of Jonas the prophet’ – that is, the sign of his resurrection.  The life of every monk, of every priest, of every Christian, is signed with the sign of Jonas, because we all live by the power of his resurrection.’

The man at peril on the sea, three days in the belly of the fish, becomes the sign of hope that we see in Jesus. We are all people of the sea.

I began by saying that clergy are all different.  I was deeply impressed by these priests.  They can be deployed alongside the ship’s crew for long periods of time, be away from land for ages and face the perils of the sea.  And into those places they witness as the sign of Jonas.  They appeared to have a strength of character as a group and as individuals to see them through this kind of experience which even the most lonely landlubber priest never has to face, professional isolation. In an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world in which our Navy is stationed everywhere for humanitarian as well as defensive purposes, they do a task on our behalf so often unseen and uncelebrated.

Amport House

Amport House and one of its gardens

At the final Eucharist they would celebrate as a group at Amport House before they move to their new home we sang that great hymn with the line, ‘for those in peril on the sea’. It was deeply moving, these priests knew the reality of that in a way I never could, they took the experience of Peter and Paul and Jonah and Jesus with them.  On our own seas, in our own perils those words resonate

O Trinity of love and power!
Our brethren’s shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe’er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

The prayer I wrote for these few days with them I share with you.

Creator God,
you bring order out of chaos,
hope out of despair,
calm out of the storm,
you challenge our comfort
and comfort our challenge,
bless us now
and those with whom
we navigate the waters of life.

For whom the bell tolls

There were many poignant moments on Monday as we commemorated the second anniversary of the London Bridge and Borough Market attacks.  In the congregation at Southwark Cathedral, which was at the heart of so much of what happened on that evening of the 3 June 2017, were families and friends of those who were killed, people who had been caught up directly in the attack, members of the emergency services, members of the local community as well as some of our civic leaders, including Sadiq Khan, Mayor of Southwark.


After the service in the Cathedral we processed into the churchyard and to the Tree of Healing where the act of commemoration was to take place.  The names were read, the great tenor bell of the Cathedral tolled and the Lay Clerks sang a setting of words from the Book of Wisdom.

‘The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.’ (Wisdom 3.1)

That was the really poignant moment for me, the names, the words and the bell.  ‘For whom the bell tolls’ as John Donne wrote, it tolled for them and for us.

Earlier in the service I preached and this is the text of that sermon.  Please continue to pray for us as the inquest into what happened continues. The readings for the service were Micah 6.6-8 and Matthew 5.38-48.

Jesus is talking to his disciples and says to them something which is as powerful now as it must have been then.

‘You will know the truth,’ he says, ‘and the truth will make you free.’

As we’re only too well aware, this Second Anniversary of the events of the evening of the 3 June 2017 falls in the middle of the inquest into what happened that’s been taking place across the river at the Old Bailey.  Many of you who are here this evening have been involved in that one way or another, some of you have made statements and given your own evidence to the coroner, some of you may still have to do so.  Others of us here have been looking on, listening, watching, reading as the reports have come out, every evening, every morning.

My grandma always had a jigsaw on the go.  It was a very popular pastime years ago, even more so than now, I suspect.  She’d spread the pieces out across the dining room table and if we were round at her house we’d be allowed to help.

‘Find the edge bits first’ she’d say.  So we found all the bits with a straight edge and little by little the frame to the picture would be created.  Then would begin the painstaking business of filling it all in.  I remember one jigsaw, a painting of Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford-Upon-Avon, and there were phlox and roses in the foreground and thatch in the mid ground and blue sky in the background.  And gradually as we found the right pieces the picture emerged.  Then there was always an argument though about who’d have the privilege of putting the last piece in place so that the complete picture could be seen.

It seems to me, reading the accounts of that dreadful night that so much has emerged that none of us ever knew about.  I was only on the edge of things, arriving on the fringes of the market as the attack ended, being sent back by the police, emerging into a scene of terror and carnage in Southwark Street.  I only saw what I saw.  And in the following days and weeks and months I only heard what I heard from the people who saw what they saw.  None of us sees the whole picture.  But the pieces, in this process of inquest, are being put together.

Inevitably, and in a painful way for many of you, the memories are being re-examined, the wounds re-opened, the horror and the pain and the grief re-kindled.  Yet we want to know the full story, we want to hear the evidence, we want to know the truth because the truth will set us free – eventually.

Of course, there will always be things that could have been done better, swifter, more effectively.  Of course, there will be lessons to be learnt, lessons have already been learnt and not just by those who seek to protect our freedoms and our lives.  Those of us here, in this Bankside community, have been learning the lessons – and what we’ve learnt is that we are stronger than we ever knew.

To be honest, what has made me weep again over the past few weeks have been the heroic stories, the willingness of some to go to the help of others, the unselfish response to strangers, who became sisters and brothers.  Our Second Lesson spoke a bit about this, about ‘going the second mile’, doing more than could be expected, doing more than could be demanded.  It’s going the second mile, the extra mile, that is the heroic, selfless act and it’s going the second mile that we saw in those few devastating minutes of the attack.

The prophet Micah speaks powerful words to us about what it is that God requires of each of us

‘to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?’

Doing the right thing, loving the kind thing, embracing the humble thing, this is what God asks of us and as the pieces of the jigsaw are put together in the final days of the inquest this is, I am sure what we will see.

But it’s no good just telling people what to do, we have to show people what to do.  And that is where Jesus, for me, is so strong.  He lives what he taught, right there to the cross and beyond.  He showed us the way of love even in the face of evil, he showed us what the light is like even in places of darkness.  And the heroes of London Bridge and Borough Market have done the same – and telling all the stories, putting the pieces together makes us realise in a new way just how much we owe to those who died as much as to those of us who survived.

I said the truth will set us free, eventually.  The memories have been revived, the wounds have been reopened, and healing must continue but now we can see a bigger picture, a hard and painful one to look at, but the God who walks every step with us, every mile with us, the God who goes to hell and back for us is there with us, holding us in our pain and loving us, loving you, to the end.

That is the truth that will set us free.

Lord Jesus, your scars bore witness to your suffering
as you stood before your friends.
Bless those whose scars have been reopened,
whose memories have been stirred,
whose pain has been revealed,
whose selfless acts recalled,
whose heroic actions told,
whose stories have been shared,
whose tears have been shed,
as testimonies are heard
in the London Bridge Inquest.
Hold us with your wounded hands
and bring us your peace.

‘Let us pray’

Those three words ‘Let us pray’ create a variety of responses.  You have to be careful when you’re presiding or officiating at a service how you use them.  If you say the words and then pause in a particular way people fall to their knees or sit down.  Men adopt the ‘Le penseur’ position, woman a more gentle bow, children fidget.  But sometimes you don’t want them to do any of those things, such as when you are about to pray the Collect.  So you have to say the words in a way that suggests that they shouldn’t move at that moment.  Don’t ask me how, you just learn how to do it – like people learn how to command their pet dog (not that I would possibly compare a congregation to a poodle though I have met some rottweilers in my time!).

The disciples ask Jesus a seemingly straightforward question

‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ (Luke 11.1)

The thing Jesus doesn’t seem to do was to teach them to put their hands together and close their eyes.  That is what I was certainly taught.  Instead, Jesus gives them the words to pray, he gives them what we call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, the most often used prayer in the world.  And as part of that prayer there are the words that we are focusing in on in these ten days between the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost – ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.  For the disciples these days became a time devoted to prayer.  As we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, the eleven

‘were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.’ (Acts 1.14)

The crucible in which the church was formed was a crucible of prayer.


Searching for God, Almighty Hands

On Ascension Day we welcomed into Southwark Cathedral a sculpture that is accompanying us through these ten days.  ‘Searching for God, Almighty Hands’ is a monumental work by Nic Fiddian Green.  Nic was our Lent artist back in 2013 when he brought ‘Christ Rests’ to the Cathedral, a beautiful thorn-crowned head of Christ.

‘Searching for God, Almighty Hands’ measures 10 ft in height x 4.9 ft wide and is hand-beaten in sheet lead. The image of hands at prayer is a familiar one to us, either from our own life experience when someone told us to ‘put your hands together and close your eyes’ as we learnt to pray, or from works such as the engraving of praying hands by Albrecht Dürer.  The sheer scale of Nic’s work means, however, that we cannot ignore these hands, this call to prayer, this invitation to engage with the God who, in Jesus, engages with us.


Nic at work

They may be made of beaten lead sheets but whilst metallic they have a softness, a gentleness about them.  The hands are together, in that attitude of prayer recognised world-wide by so many people.  ‘Put your hands together and close your eyes’ said mum to us when she was teaching us to pray.  ‘Put your hands together and close your eyes’ said the teacher when we were sat cross-legged on the floor of the school hall for assembly.  ‘Put your hands together and close your eyes’ we tell ourselves as we attempt to block out the distractions around and concentrate on praying.

But looking at these giant hands reminded me of something else.  In some cultures the joined hands lifted towards the head is a humble greeting, that wonderfully polite way in which we are on occasions welcomed.  Perhaps for some entering the Cathedral whilst this installation is in place what they see will not speak so much of prayer but of welcome.  That is the beauty of art; for one it will take them into prayer, for another make them feel welcomed and at home. Both responses can only but be welcomed.

Almighty God,
our hands reach up in prayer
our hands reach out to you.
With healing,
holding hands
embrace us,
embrace me.

A very personal journey

Readers of this blog over the years will have picked up various snippets about my backstory.  I have given quite a lot away over time because that, I suppose, is how I do my theological reflection, thinking about where I have been and how the things of God have affected me, sometimes perfected me – and maybe, just maybe, it rings a bell for some of those who read what I write.

This weekend we have held at Southwark Cathedral a study morning with Canon Paula Gooder and Professor Esther Mombo of Kenya, a Canon Theologian of Southwark Cathedral and a service to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women as priests.  It coincides with the exhibition that opened last week in the OXO Tower gallery called ‘Here am I’.  The photographer Jim Grover followed twelve priests in the diocese who are women, photographing them as they went about their ministries in very different and varying situations.  The result is a wonderful exhibition and telling of the story of some remarkable lives. The photos in this blog are some of the ones in the exhibition, some of my amazing sisters.

From: 'Here Am I'. A photo-story celebrating the 25th anniversar

Canon Joyce Forbes (picture Jim Grover)

But these women are only the tip of the iceberg, for each of those twelve there are so many other women, as well, of course, as men, doing amazing things in response to the call of God to them.  The title of the exhibition is, of course drawn, from the response of Isaiah to the call of God. Isaiah cannot believe what he is hearing God say but finally he responds

‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ (Isaiah 6.8)

It took him a long time – Isaiah knew what he was like, someone lost, a man with ‘unclean lips’.  But the Lord convinces him – amazingly it is him that he wants, him that he needs, him that he calls.  It reminds us of the wonderful story of the calling of the boy Samuel which is picked up in the popular worship song ‘I the Lord of Sea and Sky’ by Dan Schutte with its chorus

Here I am, Lord. Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

I was born in Leicester in 1957.  As children our mum took us to the church she worshiped in and in which she had been baptised, confirmed and married – All Saints, Wigston Magna.  It was a lovely medieval building which members of the Oxford Movement had got hold of.  It was old fashioned for my tastes now, but that was then and there were few options around in terms of liturgy and it might not have been as old fashioned as I now remember it.  We went to the National at Walsingham each year, went off to visit women from the congregation who had joined religious communities.  There were vocations, men to ordination, women to the religious life.  But that was how things were.

It was there that I realised my own call to priesthood.  I had quickly escaped Sunday School and joined the choir.  There, siting the other side of the Rood Screen, I could enjoy every moment of the liturgy, the candles, the smoke, the bells, the vestments.  The Diocese of Leicester was good to be part of.  There was a Diocesan Youth Group that I was part of and a Diocesan Vocations Group.  Bishop Ronald Williams was the first bishop of Leicester I really knew, our bishop from 1953-1979 and so through the period of my exploration of vocation he was the one I related to.  He was followed by the ‘knitting bishop’, Richard Rutt, who was in post when I finally went off to Mirfield, to the College of the Resurrection, to be formed for priestly ministry.

As I arrived at the College the ASB was published.  Things were changing.  And other things were changing too.  I knew there were deaconesses, of course, but, apart from a few wives there were no women at the College and we were set at the heart of a male religious community. But there was talk of the ordination of women! Women deacons, women priests! I didn’t like that.  What about Rome, what about my upbringing, what about all that in persona Christi stuff we were being taught? So, I was ordained opposed to the ordination of women.  But there were a lot of people like me, some more vociferous, some fearful of change, some, frankly, misogynist, some confused.  But as I was ordained in the Diocese of Ripon for a parish in Leeds there were women being admitted to the order of deaconess alongside me.  We were in what we then called ‘Potty Training’ (post-ordination training) together, learning about ministry together.  There were some great women who were my contemporaries – Elizabeth, Julie, Catherine – to name but three, women who were ready to challenge my thinking, confront my views and they did.

One in particular though began to change my life.  I was sitting in the vicar’s lounge in Holbeck where our Potty Training sessions happened.  The door opened and a diminutive young women with big glasses and bright stationary came in and plonked herself beside me on the sofa.  We became instant friends and little did I know it then that this person was sent to change my attitudes, to expand my thinking, to challenge my view of priesthood.

Changing your views on the ordination of women was not an easy thing to do to be honest.  There was a great deal of peer pressure to remain in the true fold.  The churches that I was ministering to were generally of a particular tradition and their congregations generally opposed.  My friends shared my views and as the temperature in the CofE hotted up the implications for a change of heart became clearer.  You might gain some friends but you might lose some on the way.

Of course, I read the books and the pamphlets that were published, arguments this way and that.  They were good books – but to be honest I am more than a heart than a head man and it wasn’t going to be books and academic arguments that would change my mind.  Instead it would be my friend on the sofa with the big glasses.

She said she felt called to be a deacon and I could see that call in her.  But many people could just about cope with the deaconate.  But she also said she felt called to priesthood and …. I could see that too.  And it was seeing it, recognising it that changed my heart and my head.

So, 25 years ago I came to Southwark Cathedral.  Two friends were being ordained to the priesthood, Julie for the Woolwich Episcopal Area and Alex for the Kingston Episcopal Area.  The diocese had decided that there would be three services on the same day in the Cathedral, one for each Area and all the women would be ordained that day.  So I was invited to two of the three services.  I had seen Southwark Cathedral from the railway line, going in and out of London Bridge station on various occasions.  But I had never been in.  So I arrived to be warmly welcomed and took my place as history was made – and it was joyous.

It was a big day for those women, ordained as priest, the same priesthood as I was living, but it was also a big day for me personally.  Not only had my views completely changed but I had also been asked to ring the office of the then Bishop of Southwark.  Bishop Roy Williamson was looking for a new chaplain and my name had been mentioned to him as a possibility.  I had rung Bishop’s House.  Bishop Roy suggested we meet.  ‘I’m coming down for two of the ordinations’ I said. ‘Let’s meet in between them’ he said.  And so in the old Provost’s Study in what I call the ‘old new buildings’ at the Cathedral I met Bishop Roy for the first time and a few months later I was appointed as Bishop’s Chaplain and made the move from Leeds to London in 1995.  But immediately after the ordinations I caught a flight to New Jersey in the USA to begin a long placement in a parish in a place called Camden.  Those three months there would change the rest of my life, my attitudes, my circle of friendships, my confidence, even my daily life.  It was the most momentous weekend and as I write this I can hardly believe it all happened like that against the background of the church responding to the call of God to ordain women as priests.

Whilst I was still in Leeds I was meeting with a group of like-minded catholic priests.  We held our meetings in the converted porch of the lovely church of St Wilfrid, Halton.  So we called ourselves for want of anything better ‘The Porch People’.  It was great.  So, when I finally moved to Southwark in January 1995 I was introduced to something similar that had been set up here on the Feast of the Holy Cross 1994.  The Society of Catholic Priests (SCP) had been formed by men from the catholic tradition who believed in the ordination of all people regardless of gender, ability, sexuality, ethnicity to each of the three orders of ministry.  I was among friends.  The eight years I was to serve as Rector General of the Society seeing the expansion of SCP into North America and Australia was a real privilege.  From that platform I was able to play a small part in seeing women ordained as bishops.  It was only a small part but nevertheless it was joyous to be involved.

I had stood for election to the General Synod in 2005 and was elected.  I am still on the Synod, in my third quinquennium, but now as one of the five deans.  It was being on the Synod, however, that enabled me to stand for election to the Crown Nominations Commission – the body that nominates diocesan bishops to the crown.  I was elected twice and the greatest privilege was to be a member of the Commission that nominated the first bishop who was a women to a diocese, Rachel Treweek to Gloucester.

Being a member of the Chapter at Southwark Cathedral since 1999 and Dean since 2012 has meant that I have now worked with a huge number of talented and extra-ordinary ordained women and I am a better priest and a better person for it.  But it was Julie, big glasses, colourful stationery that set me on the path.  It is she, along with all my other ordained sisters, who I give thanks for this weekend.


Mother Mae Christie (photo Jim Grover)

I don’t know how I used to read the Easter Day gospel when I believed differently about women, how I understood quite what Jesus was doing in the dew soaked garden as the sun rose and he called Mary Magdalene by name and said to her

‘Go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ (John 20.17)

But now I know that Mary was the Apostle to the Apostles.  So for every person in ministry I give thanks, but for the women I give particular thanks.  It has been a long journey and a very personal one for me, but I’m glad that it was this road that I travelled and I am glad that I travelled it with sisters.

Lord Jesus,
as you called Mary by name
and sent her to make your resurrection known
may we hear your voice today
and go where you send us

whoever we are.

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

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