Bethlehem Bound

It is amazing how fast this month is going. I can’t quite believe that we are already at Advent 3 – though the way the calendar has fallen this year, with Christmas Day on a Sunday (always the best option for parish priests and others in ministry) – Advent is the longest it can possibly be, four whole weeks! Nevertheless, there hardly seems any time to get ready for Christmas. I have already been to lots of carol services and concerts and this coming week holds even more joy for me.

It also means that my recently published book for Advent and Christmas, ‘Bethlehem Bound’, is about to come into its own, and this blog is simply to remind you of that. Next Saturday is ‘O Sapientia’, the 17th December, when the Great O Antiphons begin to be sung. That is where the book begins. It then takes us on a journey to Bethlehem, through Christmas and to the Epiphany. In order to help you in reading it there will be Tweets every day, directing you to the right pages, and when it is relevant, the right times. So I hope you will join me in that.

You may also have seen that I was invited to post a weekly blog on the St Paul’s Cathedral learning pages. They develop some of the Advent themes and help get people ready for Bethlehem Bound. If you haven’t seen those you can find them here.

So by next Sunday the journey will have begun and we will be en route. Enjoy the journey; I look forward to travelling with you.

Lord of the journey,
with Mary and Joseph,
with shepherds and Wise Men,
I am Bethlehem Bound.
Bring me with them
to worship before Jesus
baby, brother, Lord and Saviour
and so make every journey
a walk with you.



One of the real joys of living in the Deanery is sitting in the drawing room on the first floor which looks out across the River Thames. In some ways it feels as though you’re that amazing picture by Canaletto, with St Paul’s rising above the surrounding buildings and the river full of boats – just a little less grand than he painted it! But there is of course one major difference. When we look out we see the Millennium Bridge. It lands on Bankside just a few yards away from the house I live in, it is a constant place of activity, it spans the river and ties London together. There are, of course, other bridges in London, notably London Bridge itself with which Southwark Cathedral has such a long and close connection. But none of the other bridges, however venerable or well known, has quite the character of the Millennium Bridge.

It is in itself the stuff of legend. Walking backwards and forwards between the Cathedral and the house I hear lots of tour guides telling people about this and that. They stand outside next door and tell people how Christopher Wren lived there – most probably not true – and they talk about the bridge, ‘the Wobbly Bridge’ as they tell people Londoners call it. Well I don’t call it that any longer – but we did.

The reason I mention all of this is that there have been celebrations in the last few days of twenty years of the life of the bridge, or at least twenty years of being able to use it. The bridge did open in 2020. In fact it had it’s official opening even before it was complete. One of my first responsibilities when I became Precentor in 1999 was to work with my opposite number at St Paul’s on the service that was jointly held to mark the opening. The choir from Southwark sang with St Paul’s choir. I remember Ireland’s anthem ‘Greater Love’ being sung – ‘Many waters cannot quench love’. Then we all went down to the northern end of the bridge for the official opening by Her Majesty The Queen. The bridge went half way across the river – it didn’t yet meet up with Bankside and Southwark. The Dean of Southwark, the late great Colin Slee was escorting the Duke of Edinburgh and I remember him jumping up and down on the bridge, in his cope, completely irrepressible, trying to see if the bridge wobbled – much to royal amusement. Colin was a prophet because when the bridge opened it did wobble; I was on it and it was like a fairground experience. So it opened, was closed and then two years of work followed as corrections were made.

Now it’s wobble free and is constantly in use by people moving from north and south and south to north. It’s iconic, the place to film action movies or documentaries, the place for a fashion shoot, a place to demonstrate against climate change, a place to simply get the most amazing shot of St Paul’s replicated in so many adverts and tourist snaps.

It is significant that the Bishop of Rome kept the title that the high priests in pagan Rome took to themselves – Pontifex Maximus – the great bridge builder. Connecting is what the Millennium does supremely well, joining two dioceses together, tying London together, and bridge building is what priests, high or low are concerned with. The priest stands at that place of intersection, between God and humanity, and nowhere more than when we are at the altar. With arms outstretched we pray on behalf of the gathered people of God, reflecting the one who as it says in one of our Eucharistic Prayers ‘opened wide his arms on the cross’, bridging the gap between God and humankind, uniting and re-uniting, making one the torn and divided. As it says in the First Letter to Timothy

There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 2.5)

It is Christ as pontifex that we seek to follow, building brides, being bridges, and in truth that is the priestly task of the priesthood of all believers, a community of bridge builders, holding all sides together and making the connections that lead to life.

Lord Jesus, reconciler, bridge-builder in your own self, may I give myself to the task where any need to be reunited, links made, and rivers crossed. Amen.


There’s such a lot to think about at Christmas.  For all of us the pressure is on in one way or another. Personally, I’ve always found it hard to get all the stuff done in church and all the stuff done at home.  I’ve never failed – yet – but there always comes this crisis moment, like this weekend, when you realise that time is running out and you have to get things done and you ask yourself, ‘Where am I going to find the time to do it all?’  Anyway, it all focuses the mind and helps when you are trying to imagine, desperately, what to buy for certain individuals!

At the same time as struggling this reality I hear myself telling people to use this precious time of Advent for that deeper level of preparation, ‘take time’, I say, ‘don’t just get caught up in all the frantic busyness; take time to think.’ Physician heal thyself!

St Luke uses a lovely phrase about Mary in his gospel, something that has always stayed in my heart as I have thought about Mary and the example she gives to me, gives to us.


Mary ponders


After the shepherds have left the stable, after they have greeted the new-born Jesus, Luke tells us this

‘Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.’ (Luke 2.19)

That word ‘pondering’ is the translation of a Greek word ‘sunballousa’ which means “placing together for comparison.” Mary treasured the experiences, she stored them up, so that like someone taking one piece out of a valued collection she could bring out the memory, bring out the experience and, metaphorically, turn it in her hand, like a precious object and look at it from every angle.  It’s a beautiful way of thinking about what we do with our memories, pondering them, pondering on them, properly valuing and curating them.

We can use the word ponderous however, quite negatively. It seems to imply someone taking too long to think about something, as though thinking should be a quick thing, instant, reactive instead of this beautiful, meditative way that Mary shows us.

I was pondering on this in the last few days because we have seen a week that has involved remembering.  On Wednesday we were joined at Southwark Cathedral by Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.  Charles and Camilla had come to visit the Borough Market and the community at the Cathedral six months after the terror attack on our community.  They came to see how we were getting on.  The next day they were in a packed St Paul’s Cathedral across the river remembering another community, the community that died and the community that survived in the disaster at Grenfell Tower.


A moment for pondering in Southwark Cathedral


The service they attended in Southwark Cathedral was small and quiet, a simple Service of Light on the Feast of St Lucy, as the sun set outside and the Christmas lights illuminated the shoppers in the Market.  By comparison the service in St Paul’s was huge but full of poignant acts, children singing, scattering hearts, relatives clutching the photos of their dead loved ones – pondering.

We will sing the familiar and beautiful poem, ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Christina Rossetti, many times this Christmas and we have probably sung it many times already.  In one of the stanzas it says this

But only His mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

Part of the process of pondering is to be able to kiss and love the love the memory – that is the treasuring that Mary displays. That is hard when the memories are painful, when they are terrifying.  As she stood at the foot of the cross, not so many miles where she had first held her baby in her arms, Mary’s treasury was given new and harsh memories, the images of the agony of her son, his painful final words, his last breath and as she collapsed into the waiting arms of her fiends and John, the new son given to her from the cross, Mary’s heart, pierced by the predicted sword, was full to overflowing.

Mary, the eternal ponderer, has to be a model for me of what I do with the good and the painful memories.  I must not seek to forget, not try to forget but somehow, somehow to treat every memory, even the most terrifying, as to be ‘placed together for comparison’, to learn to ponder.  It will take time.

teach me to ponder,
like Mary,
and to kiss the memory
however hard.

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My Lent Diary

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In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

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A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


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Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark