Vision

In the book of Proverbs it says this

Where there is no vision, the people perish. (Proverbs 29.18)

Elephant

The Elephant – a vision of …. ?

Perhaps when you think of the Elephant & Castle vision isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.  You may think about the ugly pink shopping centre that we hope will soon be replaced by something much better for the whole community.  You may think of the traffic which never seems to be eased whatever the planners do. You may think of the Tube station, the interchange between the Northern and Bakerloo lines.  You may think of the old story that the place is named after the visit to the Infanta de Castille who supposedly lodged on the south bank of the Thames, in Southwark, next to what is the Deanery I have the fortune to live in.  It seems south Londoners in the sixteenth century didn’t understand ‘infanta’ or ‘castille’ and thought it was Elephant & Castle that they were talking about! Sounds like rubbish to me.

But last week I was involved in something at the Elephant or more accurately in Walworth that is about vision.  Visitors to the area will have watched the huge 1960’s housing blocks that boarded the New Kent Road being emptied and demolished to make way for new housing.  The whole project is not without its critics.  Those blocks had lots of problems but they did provide a huge quantity of affordable social housing.  Whatever the actual figures are that provision is reduced.  But in its place is being built ‘Elephant Park’ a district of new homes and some public amenity space.

Walworth 1

The Dedication Ceremony

I went along to dedicate a new piece of public art, a ‘war memorial’ for Southwark which has been placed in the public square created by the side of the old Walworth Town Hall.

Often the statues and monuments we see nowadays are not so impressive.  But when the wraps came off this monument what was revealed was stunning.  The work by the Scottish artist Kenny Hunter is the cast of a fallen tree trunk, representing the lives lost by war and in conflict of all kinds, complete with the figure of a youth standing on the trunk and looking hopefully to the future.

Kenny Hunter said of his work that it is ‘structured around two coexisting dualities. The first sets in opposition the trauma of war to the idealism of childhood innocence expressed through the fallen tree and the figure of the youth. The second is between this horizontal bronze tree and the living trees that surround it. One is memorialised, while the others continue to grow and change.’

The work is called ‘I’ll hold my human barrier’, a line from a poem by the Second World War poet, Hamish Henderson.

But it’s the figure of the young man that is so affecting.  For a start off he is a youth, he is dressed like youths in the area, he is black, he stands proud, he is nothing like the people we normally see on our memorials, he is everything that so many of our young people in the area are.  Yet he has a vulnerability which also is a feature of the lives of our young people in the inner city.  This memorial is to all whose vulnerability has led to them losing their life – in active service but also in violence, or acts of terror, or acts of hatred.

Walworth 2

‘Your young ones will see visons’

A passage from the prophecy of Joel was read

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old ones shall dream dreams,
and your young ones shall see visions.
(Joel 2.28)

and then the memorial was dedicated. This is the prayer I wrote and used.  It’s a prayer for vision because without it even more will perish, in Walworth, in south London and beyond.  So pause at the Elephant and catch the vision.

God,
give us the vision that sees beyond destruction
the hope that sees us through despair
the healing that sees us through pain.
As we remember all those who have suffered
in war, in conflict, through terror or hatred
we dedicate this memorial to their memory.
May it stand here as a symbol
of our vision
of our hope
and of that healing which comes through you
and in whose name we ask for blessing
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Amen.

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More tea, Vicar?

One of the things that a curate used to have to do – back in the day, as they seem to now say – was to develop the capacity to drink a huge number of cups of tea in an afternoon without having to ask to go to someone’s loo! This was in the day when we did that very old-fashioned thing called ‘visiting’.  Our day was divided into three.  The morning was for doing stuff like going to Morning Prayer and Mass, taking assembly, writing a sermon, doing some admin and taking the Sacrament to the sick and housebound.  Then after lunch you embarked on visiting – some planned, some ‘cold calling’ – and you did this until it was time to go back to church for Evensong.  Then you had your tea and then you went to meetings in the evening.  It was all very straightforward.

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A perfect cuppa

And when you arrived in someone’s home the first question you were asked was ‘Would you like some tea, Father?’. The answer could be never anything else but ‘Yes – that would be lovely!’ because accepting hospitality was all part of the deal.

The thing that I notice about Jesus is his willingness to visit people in their home and his eagerness to accept their hospitality.  Some of his greatest encounters with people were during a meal, like in the house of Simon the Pharisee, who had a lot to learn about true hospitality.

But the people of east Leeds, where I was walking the streets each afternoon, knew all about it.  A nice tea-tray, with a few Hobnobs, maybe a piece of home-made cake and nourished we would sit and chat for half an hour.

So, last year when I was asked if we would be willing to bless the first of the new tea harvest, the First Flush Darjeeling, for one of the stalls in the Borough Market, I, of course, said ‘yes’.  The owner of Tea2You, Rattan, had seen what we did for another trader in the Market, BreadAhead, our local bakery.  They produce a Lammas loaf with the flour milled from the new grain.  They bring it to the cathedral and we use it for the celebration of the Eucharist that day.  It’s a very ancient – Anglo-Saxon – tradition.  There isn’t the same tradition with tea, well, not in this country.

But given the relationship between vicars and tea I felt I couldn’t refuse.  In his memoir one Revd Sydney Smith, wrote this

“Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea.”

I think he meant, before we started drinking tea over here, because of course the tradition of drinking this beverage is ancient.  But I too am glad that the tradition was brought here.

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Blessing the tea

So last week we repeated the blessing.  Rattan and his staff with friends from the Borough Market brought some of the newly picked and dried Darjeeling, the very first and tender leaves, to the Cathedral and we blessed them and gave thanks for the harvest.  It is all in the tradition spelt out in the law of Moses that the first fruits be brought to God.

The Lord said to Aaron, ‘All the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the choice produce that they give to the Lord, I have given to you. The first fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring to the Lord, shall be yours; everyone who is clean in your house may eat of it. Every devoted thing in Israel shall be yours.’ (Numbers 18.12-14)

We read a poem “Song of Seven Cups” by Lú Tóng.

The first cup caresses my dry lips and throat,
The second shatters the walls of my loneliness,
The third explores the dry rivulets of my soul
Searching for legends of five thousand scrolls.
With the fourth the pain of past injustice vanishes through my pores.
The fifth purifies my flesh and bone.
With the sixth I commune with the immortals.
The seventh conveys such pleasure I am overcome.
The fresh wind blows through my wings
As I make my way to Penglai.

And then I blessed the tea using these words

Generous God,
you visit the earth and water it,
you make it very plenteous
and from the soil
you bless us with food to sustain us
and drink to cheer us.
We thank you for the tea harvest
and for this First Flush of Darjeeling.
We thank you for tea planters
for tea pickers
for tea merchants and importers.
We thank you for all who make tea
at home, in the market, in our teashops
and pray that all who drink it
may be calmed, strengthened
and comforted.
May your blessing rest on this tea
and those who will enjoy it
for you are God,
Father, Son and Spirit,
Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer,
now and for ever.
Amen.

And then? Well, it was time for another cup of tea, brewed in the market, the cup that cheers, for which I am always happy to give thanks to God.

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Enjoying a cup of ‘blessed’ tea with Rattan and Darren

Creator God,
for the food we eat,
for the drink we drink,
for this bountiful
and beautiful earth
we give you thanks and praise.
Amen.

‘I am with you always’

This is the text of the sermon I preached at Southwark Cathedral on Trinity Sunday 2017 the day on which we were able to reopen the Cathedral following the terrorist attack on our community a week before.

Saturday night last week was like a living nightmare. It’s the kind of experience that only happens to other people, not to you, not on your own doorstep. But it happened to us, it happened on our own doorstep, literally; it happened in our own community that we love and that we’ve served in Christ’s name for over 1400 years. Those years have seen their share of war and pestilence and fire but I doubt that ever before has the church been inaccessible to worshippers for a week, inaccessible as the place of peace and contemplation that people expect and need, inaccessible as the place of welcome and embracing, radical hospitality and love that we seek to be. But it happened.

Flowers

When I first heard that something was happening in the London Bridge area I put on my dog collar and headed down Bankside to try and open up the Cathedral so that we could be a place of refuge. But initially I didn’t get far.

So I went through the back alleys and got as far as Park Street and Neal’s Yard Dairy and the Market Porter. But heavily armed police barred my way and forced me back. ‘Run, run’ was all they shouted. I was directed on to Southwark Street and there saw people lying on the pavement being cared for by the emergency services. ‘Run, run’ was all I could hear through the sound of sirens and helicopters and I was forced on and on until I got back to the Deanery and shut the door behind me on the living nightmare.

Around midnight I received a text from Amir Eden, a young man who lives on Park Street, a lawyer who was a pupil at Cathedral School, a practising Muslim who’s the chair of the Bankside Residents Forum. ‘Could I come to yours? I can’t really go anywhere.’ was his text. I texted back ‘Of course’ and so he arrived and with 8 other people spent the night in our house.

The rest I suppose you know about. 8 brutally killed, 48 horribly injured. The Cathedral was forcibly entered by the police searching for more attackers, doors broken down, glass smashed in a desperate effort to stop more bloodshed. It happened on our doorstep, on the threshold of God’s house.

And now we’re here on this Trinity Sunday, back in this sacred place, which is still sacred. The risen body of Jesus bears the marks of the nails and the spear and Jesus shows his hands and his side to his disciples. The Sacristy door shows the marks of the baton rounds fired at it to break open the door and allow the police access. We bear on our body the marks of suffering that so many bear in their flesh and in their soul and spirit.

St Matthew places the final encounter of the disciples with the risen Jesus not on the Mount of Olives, just outside the city of Jerusalem, but back in Galilee, the place where they started, the place of call and from that place of call he sends them out to the nations, to take the Good News, to baptise and teach. But then, before he leaves them he makes a promise, a promise to them and a promise to us.

Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. (Matthew 28.20)

In the horror of the moment it’s all too easy to imagine that you’re on your own, that you’re abandoned to the nightmare, lost in the terror, but Jesus says ‘No; remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.

God was not absent on that Saturday night; God is never absent. The Psalmist knows it to be true when they say

Where can I go then from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. (Psalm 139.7-8)

We are not abandoned by the Sprit, we are not abandoned by the Father, we are not abandoned by the Son for we have this promise ‘I am with you always.’

On Friday I was invited to go to our local mosque by the Imam. I went with other clergy from here and we were welcomed with open arms. I’d been invited to speak to a packed congregation. The Imam preached about our shared humanity and our shared heritage through Adam and I was able to respond to that, taking your greetings to our brothers and sisters, telling them that we do not hold the Muslim community to blame, telling them that we recognise that we share so much, praying, peace upon you, greeting them as Paul greets the Christians in the multi-cultural, multi-faith, complex and exciting city of Corinth

‘Live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you’. ( 2 Corinthians 13.11)

That is what we have to do. What we share is what God has given, a shared heritage, a shared humanity, not just with the Muslim community but with all people, all men and women, regardless of anything that others might identify as difference. Difference does not mean division unless we chose to make it so, and we chose to make difference a blessing and an enrichment to our community which is why we celebrate who you are, who we are, male and female, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight – and I will say that again and again and again from this pulpit until it is deep in all our hearts, to the very core of our being.

The great metaphysical poet and Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, famously wrote a poem, so well known.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

‘Any man’s death diminishes me’ which is what the Quran teaches, that killing one life is killing all life. We have all been scarred by what happened last Saturday on our doorstep and we will bear those scars. But they will not make us bitter but make us stronger.

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ said Edmund Burke. We will not do nothing. We will rebuild with the community what good things we have, we will rebuild the joy and diversity, the confidence, the acceptance, the inclusive, radically beautiful nature of this community that has been built over centuries and millennia. The roots go deep and cannot be destroyed by evil men and we will not allow it but will confront that evil with love.

wounds of crucifixion

We bear on our body the marks of Jesus

The Feast of the Holy Trinity is the feast of relationship, that beautiful relationship of diversity in the very Godhead, the Perichoresis, the divine dance into which we’re drawn. And we’re drawn and invited to this altar, through the Spirit, by the Father, to share in what the Son gives to us. With scarred hands he gives his broken body to us, gives his shed blood to us, and he asks us to eat and drink so that through his death we may have life. He is always with us, always, at the altar, in the world, walking through the dangerous places and showing his scarred self to a scarred world and making it, ultimately, beautiful.

Loving God,
when terror came to our doorstep
and stalked our streets
you were there with us in the fear and agony.
Remain with us
and with all those caught up
in the horror of these events
the injured and distressed
those who died
and all who seek your peace
which passes understanding.
Amen.

Silver and red

The house in which I have the real privilege to live whilst Dean of Southwark is lovely but nowhere near as historic or photographed as the house the other side of Cardinal Cap Alley.  That house, 49 Bankside, even has a book written about it, ‘The House by the Thames’ by Gillian Tindall.  The book is a real social history of Bankside and whilst the author debunks some of the myths around the property, principally the story that Wren lodged there during the building of St Paul’s Cathedral, nevertheless the real stories of the house are even more interesting.

One famous resident was Guy Munthe, from my understanding an exotic and rather wonderful socialite. He came to mind on 1 December as I returned to the Cathedral following my sabbatical and presided at the early morning Eucharist.  It was World AIDS Day and so the Mass that morning was in St Andrew’s Chapel which is in the retrochoir of the Cathedral.

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I arrived in the chapel, kissed the altar and went to the ligilium to begin the liturgy.  As I did I looked to my right and quickly read the plaque on the wall commemorating the dedication of this chapel as the ‘AIDS Chapel’, the place which provides a focus for our prayers and witness on behalf of those living with or affected by HIV/AIDS.  I immediately noticed that the dedication took place in 1991 and as this was 2016 it was the 25th anniversary, the silver anniversary, of the chapel.  I mentioned that in my introduction to the Mass; it was something to give thanks for.

And my former neighbour? Well, he died in 1992, one of those caught up in the horror that at that time was sweeping through the gay community in London and beyond.  He is commemorated alongside that chapel in a simple and non-ostentatious plaque.

I remember that when I arrived at the Cathedral in 1999 as the Precentor, one of my responsibilities was to organise the AIDS Day Service which took place on the first Sunday in December.  It was a large service, ecumenical and inter-faith.  We had Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Zoroastrians all taking part with a large and broad Christian group.  The London Gay Mens Chorus once provided the music, we sang ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ (of course), candles were lit and processed, a quilt was brought  in, we all cried and remembered those who had died since the last service and prayed for them.  It felt like a vignette of the world of Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’ with a few Mrs Madrigals amongst the crowds of men.

Seventeen years later there is no service. The energy ran out of it. It no longer seemed necessary and our partners who helped with the service all faded away. The issue had changed, people now lived with a positive status, they didn’t die.  It was no longer a male, white, gay issue, it had changed.  One of the things that had changed in south London was that the community now facing up to the challenge of HIV/AIDS was made up of a great many more recently arrived black migrants and they weren’t as organised or cohesive as the gay community and we had no easy way of making contact with them. It is a sad story for me to write and one in which I have no pride.  The ‘big’ event drifted away from us, though we still offer the Mass every Saturday in the AIDS Chapel for those living with or affected by HIV/AIDS and we still wear our red ribbons.

But things have changed again. The numbers of those being infected and living with HIV has increased. Over the decade 2006 to 2015, there has been a 73% increase in the number of people in the country accessing HIV care. 46% of these people live in London, and almost 96% of infection is as a result of sex, split almost equally between heterosexual and homosexual sexual encounters. The Boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark now account for almost 25% of HIV cases in England.

The other changes are, of course, around the success of drug and other regimes that mean that people can live with the infection and not see a positive diagnosis as a death sentence.  The debate on whether Pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, should be paid for by the local authority or by the NHS is a side-show compared with what could be the effect of this drug being made available.

The commemorative plaque in St Andrew's Chapel

The commemorative plaque in St Andrew’s Chapel

Over the years we have wondered from time to time whether it was right to keep St Andrew’s Chapel as an AIDS Chapel.  But each time we talked about it we decided it was.  To our knowledge it is the only one in this country.  It still makes people stop, think, ask questions and, I hope, pray.  It still serves as a focus for our prayer and concern as a Cathedral community.  In fact, when in response to our new vision statement we were working out what our priorities should be renewing this ministry and looking at ways to live out in action what we proclaim in prayer as far as the HIV+ community is concerned became one of our priorities.  Given the changes that I have already mentioned and the extreme needs in Lambeth and Southwark it feels as if the chapel is a relevant today as it was 25 years ago.

The most important thing, of course, is to continue to witness to the unfailing, hospitable and transforming love of God through all of this.  It is right that we do the praying in St Andrew’s Chapel for it is Andrew who we remember ‘first found his brother’ (John 1.41) and brought him to Jesus.  We do the same with all our sisters and brothers.

Lord Jesus,
you love us
just as we are.
May we love
as you love.
Amen.

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A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

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In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015

LIVING GOD

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the personal views of the Dean of Southwark