Living in love and faith

‘About time!’ were some of the opening words in the sermon that followed as part of the Eucharist in which my partner and I shared on Friday. Earlier in the morning we had gone with close family and friends to Southwark Registry Office and entered into a Civil Partnership. Then we went to church to share in God’s greatest gift to us, the love that we always celebrate in the Eucharist.

It is all about time, of course. We have been together for 36 years, but the time hadn’t been right to do this. However, as I am in the last few weeks at Southwark Cathedral this did feel like the right time. We had been faithfully living in love, living according to the expectations of the church and found in all of that rich blessings. But there is something important about entering into a public commitment and knowing that in doing that you are also given the support of family, friends and, for us, the church.

Back in February at the last Group of Sessions of the General Synod that I was a member of, we sat through the eight and a half hours of debate on ‘Living in Love and Faith’ and the response of the House of Bishops to the report and the liturgical provisions that they were proposing to authorise. We all know what the result of that Synod was. At the beginning of the week I was hopeful that the suggested provisions would be accepted, which would mean that after the ceremony at the Registry Office we could be given a blessing in church. So we were both disappointed by what happened – but not devastated and, I suppose, not surprised. The issue of the place of LGBTQI+ people in the life of the church is the issue that we can’t agree on at the moment. But we also knew that we are already blessed, by God, by friends, and the community at Southwark Cathedral and so many other places. But the greatest blessing for any Christian comes through the Eucharist, that place of feeding, that place of love and peace, and yes, that place of blessing in the divine encounter that takes place.

It was horribly ironic that whilst we were making the final preparations for our ‘Big Day’ the news emerged from Uganda of laws so deeply homophobic not just being passed by the government there but warmly welcomed by the leadership of the Anglican Church. It is not just shocking, it is appalling, and it is right that the actions of the bishops in Uganda are being condemned by so many people and not just those from the liberal, inclusive groupings from where you would expect words of condemnation to come. So our love goes out to our sisters and brothers who cannot even live as the people they were created to be, let alone come as a couple openly to church and to the sacrament.

The theme of the Eucharist in which we shared was the Trinitarian relationship that we celebrate today, the perichoresis of love, the dance, the divine rotation into which humanity is drawn. It is out of that divine love that each of us was created, it is into the divine love that we are drawn, it is filled with the divine love that we live.

At the Registry Office we were allowed a reading. We chose Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare. It too is about time, what time does to our love.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.

It was a lovely day and the blessings that we received from everyone who joined was overwhelming. One day none of this will need debating in the church, it will no longer be remarkable that two people love one another and wish to commit, and no one will deny them a blessing.

This was my prayer for the day.

God of blessing, thank you for the years we have already shared, the blessings we have already received, the moments of joy and those of sorrow, and all that has brought us to this moment. May all your children live in love and faith. Amen.


A brief time away

It may seem a bit strange to be away from the Cathedral on the Feast of Pentecost, Whitsun as we used to say, but I am. This was the only opportunity we had to get up to see the flat we have bought for retirement and do a bit more cleaning. But I have a great deal to tell you and share with you.

Beautiful Delphiniums

One of the many highlights of last week was going to the Chelsea Flower Show. A friend treated us and it really was a treat. So enjoy a couple of pictures and I will tell you more when I am back at the Cathedral.

Dame Mary Berry amongst the blooms

Until then, every blessing for Pentecost.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people and kindle in us the fire of your love. Amen.


It’s something that every person seeks, freedom. It must have been amazing in 1938, following the enactment of the ‘Holidays with Pay Act’ when workers were first granted the right to have a summer holiday and still be paid. Ordinary people scrimped and saved to get enough together to have some time at the coast, to feel the sand between their toes, to paddle or swim, and to simply gaze out across the vast expanse of the sea, that sense of freedom and possibility that the work in the factory could never give them. The bus companies and the rail companies realised the possibilities and made it easier for families to achieve their moment of freedom. In Leicester, where I grew up, we had the ‘Leicester Fortnight’ during which the hosiery factories feel silent and everyone seemed to head off and those who couldn’t escape the city would spend time in the open spaces of the city and the surrounding countryside. Skeggie (Skegness) was the go to place; the adverts with the jolly fisherman striding out, described it as ‘bracing’ but it was the freedom, for a week, that called people to make the journey.

Freedom. Yesterday I was given the Freedom of the Borough of Southwark. In these final weeks of my time as Dean of Southwark it was a lovely and generous thing for the Mayor and the Council to do, and I am very grateful. The annual ceremony of Mayor Making takes place in the Cathedral but before that begins there is the ceremony of the granting of Freedom and other recognitions of the work that individuals and groups have done throughout the past year. It has always been my opportunity to be able to stand there and address the members of the council and people from across the borough. This is what I said to them yesterday.

Mr Mayor, Councillors, Aldermen, Freemen and women, officers, friends it’s a delight to welcome you to Southwark Cathedral for this annual occasion when a Mayor is made and citizens of this great borough are honoured.

Since we last gathered here we’ve celebrated the Platinum Jubilee of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, then mourned her death and just a few days ago celebrated as King Charles III was crowned. It has been a year like no other.

We always find it quite difficult to know what to do on such royal occasions. We aren’t the Abbey and we’re not St Paul’s but we are in London but we know that the focus of attention is across the river. We’d been talking about what had up to that point been the secret plans called by the code name ‘London Bridge’ for a long time. Jacqui Brazil in the Mayor’s Office and other officers had been working with us at the Cathedral to make sure we knew what we were doing when London Bridge fell.

I remember a message coming back to me from one of those planning meetings that the queue for the Lying in State would probably reach Potters Field by Tower Bridge. I was a bit sceptical. But I was so wrong. As we know it ended or began, however you see it, at Southwark Park and thousands and thousands of people from across London, from across this United Kingdom, from Commonwealth countries and other places around the world made their way through this borough and past this Cathedral. The focus of the media was on the south bank and on the ‘The Queue’ which became a phenomenon and an icon.

For once everyone knew how to pronounce Southwark properly, but more importantly we were caring for all those people. This place became a hub for the ecumenical and multi-faith chaplaincy team, volunteers were out marshalling the queue, distributing bottles of water, talking to people and living up to our borough’s motto – United to Serve. We can be proud of what we achieved, proud of the hospitality and care we showed.

This is my last opportunity to welcome you to the Cathedral on this occasion. But I have been proud to have been able to do it and am honoured today to be a recipient of the Freedom. Southwark means a huge amount to me, and all of you do particularly. This isn’t just place, it is people.

At the very beginning of the Coronation service in the Abbey a child greeted the King in the name of Jesus, and then the King responded in these words

In his name, and after his example,
I come not to be served
but to serve.

Whether you are a Christian or not, whether you are a person of faith or not, each of us comes not to be served but to serve. Living out that call to serve as we did when the queue snaked through the borough will continue to make this a great borough of which each of us, I hope, can be proud to be a citizen.

It is an honour to be given the Freedom of the Borough as it was to be made a Freeman of the City of London. On that occasion I was made a Freeman by Redemption. It was the Worshipful Company of Launderers who paid the price of my freedom. As the clerk read that out in the gathering at Guildhall I suddenly realised in a new way just what Jesus had already done for me, paid the price of my redemption, set me free.

The theology in the much loved hymn, ‘There is a green hill’ is open to debate but Mrs Alexander’s words still echo in my head and my heart

There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin;
he only could unlock the gate
of heav’n, and let us in.

Even more powerfully Paul writes to the Christians in Galatia

For freedom Christ has set us free.

and then adds immediatly

Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5.1)

We have each been given our freedom in Christ. I didn’t need it from London or Southwark, as wonderful as that is. I am already free in Christ and I must live that freedom, and we must live that freedom for the freeing, for the sake of our sisters and brothers who still look across the sea to the possibility of freedom.

Jesus, you have set us free; may we live your freedom today and always. Amen.

‘Well drest’

A week after the Coronation we are probably all still reliving moments of it. After being concerned in the lead-up to the service that some of the magic would have been sucked out of it through the constant press releases about who was doing what and what was being reused and what people would be wearing, I could not have been more wrong. For me, it captured all the mystery that must surround majesty, all the splendour that an occasion like that demanded and enough of the fairytale to satisfy my rather romantic sensibilities! People have been asking ‘So, what was your favourite moment?’ Perhaps you have been asked that question. Was it the impeccable timing of the procession back to the Palace? Was it seeing the incredible and mind-boggling regalia in action? Was it Prince Louis and his ability to catch the attention of the cameras?

Of course, Penny Mordaunt in her role as Lord President of the Council, in many ways stole the show. I was first impressed by her – and this comment is devoid of any comment n her politics – when she played that solemn role at the Proclamation in St James’ Palace following the death of The Late Queen. On that occasion she displayed the most appropriate and dignified demeanour, real gravitas. She also looked the part, which I know is a dangerous comment to make about a woman, how she is dressed, but she needs to be given the credit for that. She was similarly amazingly turned out for the Coronation. However, what really caught our attention was her sword holding capability. Standing, seemingly motionless, for all of that time was beyond impressive. Of course, it did afford her the best view in the place, after the Archbishop of Canterbury, but she deserved it.

Vestments laid out

The moment that will stay with me, however, was at the heart of the ceremony. The anointing screens were brought in and the King, having taken off his robes, went behind them. The anointing oil, the Chrism, consecrated by the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was placed on him, out of our sight and then the screens were removed to reveal a man. Knelt before the High Altar of the Abbey in that simple white garment he was just a man. It was a moment to savour. His mother may have been The Queen, he may be the leader of this dynastic family, he may be the next in a long line of those who have knelt on that spot, but there was something searingly revealing about his real humanity. It was just a moment, just a glimpse at the reality that exists beneath, beyond the trappings of royalty.

The moment was short lived because then he stood and robes, vestments were placed on him. Cloth of gold, a stole, a cloak, like a cope, he was dressed with majesty.

In many sacristies in churches where I go and where I have served, there are prayer cards framed on the wall above the vesting chest. The chest is the large, wide cupboard with drawers that contain all the vestments in their various colours. They tend to be labelled in spidery handwriting ‘Gold’, ‘White’, ‘Green’, ‘Purple’, ‘Pink’, ‘Black’ or whatever combination the church has. Pull the drawer out and there are the vestments, often just a chasuble, a stole, maybe a maniple, perhaps a matching burse and veil. Or a larger drawer might contain a full High Mass set. The best drawers I have come across in the Diocese of Southwark are at the amazing church of St John the Divine Kennington where wooden drawers contain metal boxes inside which are neatly folded in unbleached linen the most incredible and richly embroidered vestments. It’s like visiting Disneyland for any one interested in such things! On the flat, and what should be uncluttered, surface of the chest the vestments to be worn for that service are laid out and the priest stands there and silently and carefully puts them on.

As they do so, in front of them is the prayer card. On the card will be all the prayers for use when vesting. For each item that a priest would traditionally wear is a prayer to be silently said. As the chasuble is put on and it falls on their shoulders the priest will say

Lord, you have said:
My yoke is sweet and my burden is light.
Grant that I may carry your yoke well
so as to obtain your grace.

Just as each of the things placed on, given to The King were hugely symbolic, so are the things that we wear, that we hold. As it says in the hymn we often sing ‘Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands that holy things have taken’. But beneath all the vestments, all the brocade, all the cloth of gold, all the polyester, lies a woman, lies a man, set apart, anointed, whether as monarch, priest or bishop, who have ‘put on Christ’ as it says in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians

‘As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.’ (Galatians 3.27)

We put on Christ, our humanity, our frailty, our vulnerability is clothed. The King kneeling before the splendour of the High Altar demanded of us to say what Pilate says as Jesus stands before him, ‘Behold the man’, ‘Ecce homo’, the mystery of majesty clothed the flesh of humanity. I have quoted on other occasions a wonderful poem by George Herbert , but it speaks to all of this. The poem is called ‘Aaron’ and this is one of the stanzas

Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me ev’n dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new-drest.

We may not wear vestments but those of us who have been baptised have put on Christ and as the white shawl is wrapped around the baby or the white garment placed on the adult, we are ‘well drest’. But our humanity is never lost, nor should it be forgotten.

Jesus, you were exposed before us, stripped yet robed in glory now. May we carry the yoke of your garments and live the life to which we have been called. Amen.

God save the King

This the text of the sermon I preached at the special Choral Evensong held in Southwark Cathedral, in which we offered thanksgiving to God for the coronation of King Charles and Queen Camilla. The readings were 1 Kings 3.5-10 and 1 Peter 2.9-17.

Before you ask me, no, I haven’t met the King, but I have met the Prince of Wales, the last Prince of Wales, the one who’s now the King. In fact, I’ve met him twice, once with Camilla, now Queen and once without.

The first time was when he came alone. He was here to see what were then the new Millennium Buildings. We all lined up outside, in the churchyard, where we’d been presented to his mother, The Queen on Millennium Eve. Now we waited for him to come down those same steps. It was so funny. We employed a guy then, sadly I’ve forgotten his name, a really interesting chap, a bit of an artist but he was part of the maintenance team and he’d been giving the churchyard a final sweep before the royal feet touched the flag stones.

We were all lined up in order and he, somehow, without any permission – can you believe it – placed himself at the end of the line up, his broom parked to one side.

‘Your Royal Highness’ we said as the Dean, Colin Slee, presented us. Prince Charles said something, not sure what – ‘not another clergyman?’ probably – and moved on. ‘Your Royal Highness’, ‘Your Royal Highness’, he moved down the line of dog collars. And then at the end, rather startled, the Dean had to present the chap who’d just been sweeping. Prince Charles was delighted – or so it seemed – someone normal and he engaged him in a long conversation about everything, much to the amazement/annoyance/shock of the mitred, dog collared individuals.

When he saw the link, he asked Colin why we’d built a greenhouse alongside a lovely gothic building – but I draw a veil over that.

By the time of the second visit Charles had married Camilla. He was visiting the Borough Market and dropping into the Cathedral. I was there to receive him with the Market trustees and to then escort him round some of the stalls.

Traders were taking every vantage point, from which to catch a glimpse and shout out their greetings. ‘You all right, Charlie?’ came the shouts. He waved and beamed.

We were guided to Maria’s Café in the heart of the Market. We were due to have tea there. The trademark white mugs were ready for our arrival, three of them lined up. Maria had had the tea on for a while. The choice on offer was tea or no tea. Looking at the brown liquid in his white mug the Prince said, ‘I suppose First Flush Darjeeling is out the question?’ Marie roared with laughter, as did we all, and that was the wonderful picture that made the national press, all with our mugs of steaming brew, the royal couple happy and relaxed, ready to joke but also there because of his passion for food and agriculture and sustainability and all the things the market stands for.

Now he is King; now she is Queen and we’ve been celebrating, rejoicing, each in our different ways, and stunned and affected, I think, by the sheer magnificence of the Coronation, yesterday.

King David had died. He was a wonderful King of Israel, of the united kingdom of Israel. He was flawed, capricious in many ways, yet he was the anointed of God. But he had died, and his son and heir had to step up to occupy the throne in a peaceful transition – well, as peaceful as you could achieve in those days. But what kind of king was he to be. How could he follow his father? And as we heard in our First Lesson, God spoke to him and offered him whatever he wanted.

As we know Solomon, wasn’t looking so much for wealth or prestige, what he was looking for was wisdom, the wisdom to be a wise, good ruler. What he asked for as we heard was

‘an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.’

God gave him wisdom, and riches and prestige, and power over his enemies. But it is for his wisdom that we remember him.

Until yesterday most of us were too young to have witnessed a coronation – now we’ve caught up with all those who watched the last one in 1953. But the King had been there, watched his mother being crowned. He was just 4 years old and he stood between his grandmother, The Queen Mother, and his auntie, Princess Margaret, as the Archbishop placed the crown on his mother’s head.

There’s a wonderful photo you can find online of him leaning on the upholstered edge of the balcony he was placed in in the Abbey, visibly bored. But in that boredom did he think then that this would one day happen to him? The King has served the longest apprenticeship of anyone, stood in the wings, looked on, developed his own passions, travelled the world, toured the country, in waiting, preparing.

Yesterday we witnessed the most amazing pageantry and so many symbolic acts. We honoured the King as St Peter in the Second Letter encourages us to do and we’ve been praying for the one on whose head the crown was placed and on whose shoulders we all placed our expectations.

The poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, has written a poem to mark the occasion and weaved into it words written by Samuel Pepys when he was at a coronation. But Armitage writes from the perspective of one of those many wonderful but ordinary people who were invited this time to be there, not a Lord, not a Lady, but someone who in the poet’s words

adorned the day with ordinariness;
she is blessed to have brought the extraordinary home.

But at the heart of the poem, when she has arrived at the Abbey in new shoes, clutching her invitation card, we read this

Somewhere further along and deeper in
there are golden and sacred things going on:
glimpses of crimson, flashes of jewels
like flames, high priests in their best bling,
the solemn wording of incantations and spells,
till the part where promise and prayer become fused:
the moment is struck, a pact is sworn.

We have entered a pact, a solemn, anointed moment, King and Queen and subjects, the extraordinary that we experienced in the ordinariness of our homes.

King Charles has what is often called ‘the common touch’ – I saw it with my lovely colleague who’d been sweeping the leaves, I saw it in the market as a mug of tea was sipped and the smile spread across his face.

We can call the common touch, humanity, and yesterday we saw it crowned, but all in the presence and by the grace and with the blessing of the incarnate God, the man, crowned with thorns but crowned with glory now, who stepped into our ordinariness so that we could stand at the last before not an earthly but a heavenly, not a temporal but an eternal throne, prince and pauper, king and commoner, brother and sister, at one.

We have entered a new age. God save the King.

There will be a post

For those of you – and I know there are some – who look around noon each Sunday for the latest Living God post, you will have to wait a little longer today.

The post will go out at 5pm this afternon.

God save the King!

Everywhere, any time, all at the same time

So after having written about my wonderful visit to Norway last week I came back to another experience of Scandinavia. In fact, there was more than one experience. This Sunday I was invited to preach at the Church of St Olav in Rotherhithe, which is the Norwegian Seamen’s Church. There are few Norwegian seafarers in London now but lots of Norwegians and so this acts as a home from home for them. Given all that we share through Porvoo the relationship with the congregation down the road from the Cathedral is very important to us. So this was my opportunity to say farewell. The lections for the Eucharist are different to the Good Shepherd ones that we have had. In fact they were Isaiah 54.7-10, Philippians 3.12-14 and St John 16.16-22. The other Scandi experience? Read the sermon and it will become clear.

Before I say anything else, I want to assure you that in my younger days I really loved Morten Harket and the band Aha in which he was the lead singer, a child of Kongsberg in Norway. I need to make that clear to you before I mention a Swedish band!

It was way back in 1979 that ABBA played their last concert in London – 1979! But I saw them on Monday. As part of my leaving the cathedral, one of my colleagues very kindly took me to see ‘ABBA Voyage’, the show playing out at Stratford in the specially built ABBA Arena. I have to say it was simply amazing.

To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what it was that I was watching. I knew that on the stage were avatars, but I don’t really know what that means if I’m being truthful, somehow computer generated I suppose; but honestly it was as though they were there and as young as they ever were, until at the end the four came back on stage as they now are, older, not quite as slim, grey headed but still as wonderful. It was a weird and wonderful experience and as the first notes of Dancing Queen were played, the vast audience were all on their feet, and me with them, dancing away, full of sheer joy.

Cynically, of course, this is a great money-making machine. Once the product has been perfected, and it was almost perfect, once the AI and the computers and the software and the lighting have been set up to play their part, well it could be playing in every city in every country around the world, simultaneously. This ABBA will never be exhausted, never have an off day, never run out of steam. The only danger is that someone doesn’t put a shilling in the meter and the electricity fails!

Jesus is with his disciples. He’s trying to prepare them for what’s going to take place. They’d grown used to being with Jesus, day in, day out. They’d got used to the road; the days of fishing, the days of tax collecting were way in the past. They could hardly remember what life had been like before, BC, before Christ. Their lives had, as it were, been rebooted, started afresh. So, any talk of him not being with them, of them seeing him no more – well is it any wonder that they couldn’t understand what he was saying, what he was trying to tell them. They could understand the words but the meaning was lost on them.

Of course, they’d yet to go through the experience of the passion, through that traumatic time of loss, through those days of fear and that locked in life that they lived in the upper room that became their base, their home, their safe space. But we’re now in that in-between time, in between the resurrection of Jesus and his final departure, the Ascension, in between the glory of Easter and the fire and wind enveloped Feast of Pentecost. As the Welsh poet R S Thomas said in one of his poems

The meaning is in the waiting

And here they were waiting and remembering, remembering what Jesus said about not being with them, about them not being able to see him – and perhaps they still didn’t quite understand whilst, to be honest, he was still appearing to them. So, they were waiting and they were trying to find the meaning.

In the First Reading for this Eucharist the prophet Isaiah, speaking God’s words to us, says

For a brief moment I abandoned you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.

“A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me” says Jesus to his disciples and to us. Anxiously we wait for that moment of abandonment, hopefully we wait for that compassionate gathering.

Of course, we know that what Jesus was promising his disciples was the reality in which we live. The physical Jesus was restricted in who he could be with, where he could be, just as any of us is restricted. Jesus the man shared the same limitations as far as any of that is concerned as we do. How many times do I think during the day ‘I wish I could be in two places at once’! I could then get twice as much work done, see twice as many people, achieve twice as much, hopefully. But I can’t, we can’t, we live within the confines and the restrictions of our physicality, our physical, time and space located human nature.

But our resurrected, ascended, glorified Lord is not bound as we are, the Christ whom we worship is no longer bound. The church can be catholic, universal, because Christ is universally present, always with us, wherever we are, always with us whether we’re alone or gathered, with the two or three of the promise, with the many as much as the few. The gathering, compassionate Christ of whom Isaiah speaks is the one who is with us now, gathering us at the altar, speaking to us in his word, encountered in one another, breaking the word and breaking the bread as much here as in Oslo, as much here as in Cape Town, as much here as, well, you get the point.

“A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”

We see, we encounter Christ in a way that those confused disciples could never quite imagine.

I mentioned R S Thomas. In another poem called Via Negativa, he writes this

His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm. We look at people
And places as though he had looked
At them, too; but miss the reflection.

ABBA can now be everywhere, any time, all at the same time. It’s amazing. But it’s not as amazing as the God we follow, the God we know, the God we encounter, in the echoes, in the footprints, in that warm presence, in the people and places on which his gaze has passed. But we can easily miss him is what the poet is suggesting.

My friends, we’re called to live as those who expect to be with Jesus, as those who expect to encounter Christ. As Paul says to the Christians in Philippi, ‘Christ Jesus has made us his own’.

He loves you so much he will never abandon you, nor you, nor me, nor any of us – but it was only by leaving that he could achieve this real presence that we now enjoy and that we find, not just in this sacrament in which we now share but in every aspect of our common life and personal faith.

Catch the reflections, don’t miss them.

The Lord is here, his Spirit is with us. Amen.

The song of Norway

I’ve had rather a busy time this last week, here, there and everywhere. This Sunday we are at Gloucester Cathedral for the installation of my colleague, Andrew Zhini, as the new Dean. The day before I was in Portsmouth having gone there for the beginning of the Master Launderer’s Weekend. Before that I was in Chichester for the Deans’ Conference, the first residential conference that we have had since the pandemic. I came back from that for the wonderful memorial event at Southwark Cathedral for Dame Hilary Mantel. Just before heading off for Chichester I was baptising Georgia at St Margaret’s Westminster, the latest grandchild of a very good friend of mine. The day before doing that I arrived back from Bergen in Norway. Deans have fascinating weeks but this has been a really fascinating one!

The perfection of reflection

The visit to Norway was incredible. Southwark Cathedral has had a relationship with the cathedral in Bergen for the last twenty years. As with Rouen it is one of our ecumenical links. It grew out of the possibilities provided by the Porvoo Agreement which came into being in 1992, establishing full communion between the Church of England and many of the Lutheran Churches and not least in Scandinavia.

As a result of the history of the River Thames as a port, a major centre of trading on the waters, there were in Rotherhithe three Scandinavian Lutheran Churches – Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian – and being just down the road from the Cathedral it was a natural place to begin these fresh relationships. Out of all of that the Bergen link grew and because of great priests like Fr Helge Pettersson, Canon Jacob Frode Knudsen and Fr Torbjorn Holt – Helge and Jacob have both passed to glory – the link deepened and flourished.

Gathering in Bergen Cathedral

I went to Bergen last weekend for two reasons, to say goodbye but also to be present for the consecration of the new Bishop of Bergen, the first woman to hold this office, Ragnhild Jepsen. It was a wonderful weekend, a chance to reconnect with old friends, to walk around that beautiful city and to be part of the congregation for a most magnificent service. The joke in Bergen is that God is so pleased with what was created in the city, its beauty, God washes it everyday! But for us it didn’t rain at all, instead the sun shone and the skies were blue and the waters of the harbour reflected this glory.

It was suggested on the Monday, by Bishop Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Southwark, who was also there to share in the laying-on-of-hands, that we should take advantage of the weather and take the three hour cruise along the fjord and into the hills. So that’s what we did.

Years ago there was a film, a musical, released in 1970, that I remember going to see at the Odeon in Leicester. It was called ‘Song of Norway’ and it told the story of Edvard Grieg, who lived in Troldhaugen just outside of Bergen. I can’t remember much about the film but I can remember the beauty of the scenery. Having now seen so many adverts for cruises up the Norwegian coast and having wondered if that is something that I’d like to do in retirement, it was great to get this short taster.

What I hadn’t anticipated was just how beautiful it would be, simply stunning. The boat took us along narrow channels deeper and deeper into the fjord and on three sides there seemed at times to simply be rock, until the passage through became clear. In the distance were the mountains, snow capped. The water was as calm as a millpond, like glass, reflecting all that was around us. The boat at one point stopped and we stood on deck simply trying to soak up what was around us. Words failed us.

Simply beautiful

It took me back to a poem that I haven’t read for a long time. It’s ‘The Prelude’ by William Wordsworth. I came across it when I was preparing for ordination training, studying spirituality on a course being run at Vaughan College by one of the archdeacons in Leicester Diocese. All Leicester ordinands seemed to have to do it. What I got from it, that I still give thanks for was that he introduced me to some great poets and poetry. This was one of the pieces and we were told about how Wordsworth’s soul was moved by encountering the divine in nature, but how he was unable to name that divine encounter. The poem includes theses lines in Part One.

And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me.

Then the poet says

after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being;

It reminds me of that passage in the Acts of the Apostles when Paul, speaking on Mars Hill before the Areopagus refers to the ‘unknown God’ (Acts 17.23). Paul then says

“What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Though I, though we, know the ‘unknown’ I had something of that same sense of the awesome nature of God. It was a song that Norway sang for me, of beauty and grandeur and of the God who is all around, a song I don’t want to forget.

Awesome God, may I hear your song in creation. Amen.

‘Come and have breakfast’

They tell me that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I can’t do without it to be honest. When I was younger – and probably more pious – I never had breakfast on a Sunday before Mass. But as soon as I was ordained and a full morning was ahead of me that particular practice went out the window! So, breakfast is very important to me, not a ‘Full English’ but some nice granola with yoghurt and honey and maybe some fruit. Delicious!

‘Come and have breakfast.’ (John 21.12)

Jesus meets his disciples in Galilee. It has been some days since the resurrection and St John tells us that they headed back to the place and the jobs they knew best. We read the story in John 21.1-14. The disciples have been fishing all night and in the first light of day they see a man standing on the shore who asks them to bring some of the fish they have caught. Peter realises that it is the Lord and then Jesus, having prepared the food says to them with beautiful simplicity.

‘Come and have breakfast.’ (John 21.12)

The name of the meal gives the game away – it is the meal that breaks the fast that we have kept overnight. With the new day we break the fast and are renewed for all that lies ahead. Jesus, with his usual sense of inclusive hospitality, invites his friends to break their fast and eat with him.

Last week we held a community Iftar in the Cathedral. We had our very first Grand Iftar – the meal that Muslims have at the end of each day of Ramadan – planned for the year when we suffered the terrorist attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market, 2017. By the grace of God it came at just the moment that we needed to come together within the community and the Iftar, kept in the most sacred space at the heart of the violence that had been inflicted upon us, was the right place for it to be. Every year – even through the pandemic when the Iftar moved online – we have met together, Muslims, Christians, Jews, people of faith and no faith, people of good will – to break the fast together. This year was the largest that we have held. 500 people filled the nave of the cathedral, listened to the speeches and some lovely music and then when sunset came and the fast ended, whilst our Muslim sisters and brothers went off to other places outside of the cathedral which had been set apart as prayer rooms, we waited to eat together.

‘Come and have breakfast.’

Every year we have faced criticism for doing this and this year has been no different. Most has been as a result of misunderstanding that there isn’t Muslim prayer held in the consecrated space of the cathedral but some has been more fundamental than that, objecting to the very idea that we should host such an event.

But I am unapologetic. I am thankful that the Muslim community across the country has opened up the idea of the Iftar to others, that just as Jewish friends will invite us to share in their sabbath meal so other friends invite us to join them in breaking the fast. I am glad that we can make the cathedral space, the scared space available to the community so that we can simply break bread together and share a meal, together, as people.

‘Come and have breakfast’.

The presence of so many, from so many backgrounds, was an encouragement to us all to keep working together. Only by doing so can we create healthy, inclusive communities in which our diversity is celebrated as our strength. So, no apology for echoing the invitation of Jesus to come and have break-fast, just a regret that even more were not present to share in such a simple gesture of true hospitality.

Jesus, you broke bread for your friends; may we break bread for each other. Amen.

Lift high the cross – The Rock

This is the final one of my Holy week addresses for this year. Thank you for journeying with me from Palm Sunday to the evening of Easter Day.

Catch up TV has revolutionised my life. In the past I was never able to watch series, I could never guarantee to be in and even when you were able to set the video recorder the tapes used to fill up and I could never seem to find the time to watch what I’d hoped to watch. Now those days are over and I can simply look forward to binging on the third series of ‘Happy Valley’ and see what finally happens to Sergeant Catherine Cawood and very bad boy, Tommy Lee Royce. As with anything you have to watch ‘Happy Valley’ from beginning to end!

‘The Awakening Slave’

It’s absolutely pointless to see the first and last episodes of anything – you know where the story began and you know where the story finishes – but all that stuff in between that you don’t know, that links the beginning with the ending – well, you’ll never know it.

So, I hope that there’s no one here who came last Sunday and has only come back on this Sunday – because if you have you’ve missed a heck of a lot. A great deal went on, happened to Jesus between his entry into Jerusalem and his resurrection. The shocking thing I have to tell you is that he died – he really died. It was no pretence, it was no trick.

There was a real death and there was real grief around. We were there. We witnessed it. We witnessed his final days when he was with his disciples and they cared for him. We witnessed the final evening that he shared with them, the meal he gave to them and to us, the way in which he washed their feet.

We waited in the garden whilst he prayed and we saw the act of treachery take place, that kiss that marked him out as the man they wanted.

We stood among the mob as they bayed for his blood and we watched with Mary and with John as the nails were hammered home and he was lifted high, wearing his thorn crown like a mighty king. We saw him die and we were there as his lifeless body was brought down from the cross and carried away – carried towards the rocks close by.

He died and he was buried. He was buried in the rock and the rock was sealed as his final resting place.

For me the rock itself was important and I want to include it amongst the instruments of the passion, though it isn’t usually there, among the ‘Arma Christi’, those things which were employed to bring about his death, the palms and the ladder and the nails and the cross and all the other things that we see represented in Christian art and iconography and that we’ve been thinking together about over these last eight days.

Rock has this incredible force and presence, this is what the earth is made of, this is the stuff of our planet, the rock is the base of everything, beneath everything – all else, the soil, the sand is simply derived from it, broken down from it. The rock is the ground of our being.

And someone had broken into the rock, broken into mother earth and created a room, a place, a womb in which to lay a dead person, someone somewhere had broken into the rock and made a place in which to lay God. The creator was laid in the very heart of his creation, one with all that is. The rock is hard and harsh and unforgiving – but those same qualities made it a secure and safe place to entrust the precious remains of God-among-us, Emmanuel.

The Jews had a deep sense of relationship with the rock – perhaps because there was so much of it around but also perhaps because it seemed so unchanging.

For the early Hebrews rocks were used as a witness. I love the story in Genesis when the covenant with God is sealed and a rock is set aside as a continuous witness to what’s been said and done. The rock is anointed and stands there as a perpetual reminder and witness against the people if needs be. Life is lived beside the rock and life itself is laid inside the rock until the time when it will re-emerge. ‘I am about to do a new thing;’ says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah, ‘Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’

T S Eliot writes the following in his epic poem ‘Choruses from the Rock’.

‘The soul of man must quicken to the soul of creation.
Out of the formless stone, when the artist unites himself with stone,
Spring always new forms of life, from the soul of man that is joined to the soul of stone.’

Life springing forth, the new thing that God does through the passion and death of his son. Our new life springing forth, bursting from a rock like a stream of living water cascading from a dry rock in the desert. And as St Paul says in his First letter to the Christians in Corinth, ‘that rock was Christ’ (1 Cor.10.4)

Michelangelo’s fantastic sculpture ‘The Awakening Slave’ is perhaps the best image of the truth that Eliot is hinting at. Michelangelo’s figure is seen to be struggling to life out of the rock itself. The man is stretching as though waking to life, sensual as if coming to terms with his new body, in the ecstasy of birth, in the ecstasy of life.

Jesus laid in the rock, is Jesus risen from the rock. His death has to be contemplated and confronted, the reality of his death, the implications of a universe in which God is dead, if we’re really going to be able to feel the force of the new life that comes through resurrection. Avoid the death and we avoid the life.

St Paul is quite clear about this in his Letter to the Colossians (3.1-4). We have to die if we are to live and that death might be the death to old self and old ways that we can, through the grace of God achieve now, or the death that will ultimately and in God’s time be ours that will lead to eternal life. Our own death is bound to Christ’s death and our own life is bound to Christ’s life.

We are wrong when we try to avoid the death of Jesus, when we’re seduced into thinking it didn’t happen. It did happen and our own death will happen.

This Holy Week has been about participation in the events of the passion and resurrection of the Lord, about, to some extent, seeing ourselves amongst those instruments of the passion, recognising that it was in response to our disobedient and sinful nature that God sought to save us, to redeem us. And the week has also been about recognising more about ourselves about seeing ourselves in the things that happened to Jesus.

Those who miss the death and celebrate only the resurrection will never be able to share in the stunned amazement of the disciples in the Upper Room on this evening of Easter Day. And perhaps our avoidance of the hard part of the story, the painful episode in the series has marks of what so often goes on in contemporary society in which so many avoid thinking about their own mortality.

It’s a hard thing to think about – as hard as rock, as uncompromising as granite. Yet Christ the Corner Stone, the rock on which we build for all eternity, is the one who gives us the confidence to look not just at our life but also at our dying.

The great seventeenth century Anglican bishop and theologian Jeremy Taylor wrote this in his book ‘Holy Living: Holy Dying’,

‘And how, if you were to die yourself? You know you must. Only be ready for it by the preparation of a good life, and then it is the greatest good that ever happened to thee’.

God has done a new thing. From the rock new life has burst free and no tomb will ever keep us either. ‘Do you not perceive it?’ Life, our life this week has changed and God has used the instruments that we made and chose to end life, to make life, new life, for all people, for all time. This is why we rejoice.

In the joy of this place, in the joy of this evening, as the light of a new day and a new world begins to fade we ask God to help us to live well that we might die well and that from the rock we too may rise.

Christ our rock, on the firm foundation of your passion, death and resurrection we build our lives. May we know you to be the ground of all being on which we can trust. Amen.

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