A touch of doubt

It’s that Sunday when we remember again ‘Doubting Thomas’ and there’ll be many sermons, I suspect, encouraging us not to worry about the doubts that we have.  I’ve said a lot about that over the past weeks and during Holy Week about that subject whilst we had Susie MacMurray’s art installation, ‘Doubt’ hanging as a cloud over our heads.  So this is a very short blog.  But I just wanted to share with you one lovely thing – well, I thought it was lovely.

Doubt 4

A little bit of doubt amongst the blooms

The Easter Garden at Southwark Cathedral has had to be, for various reasons, relocated and so it has given members of the Flower Guild the space to do something a bit different.  Where it has ended up happens to be right next to my stall and I was looking down at the daffodils and primulas (not very Jerusalem authentic I suspect) and the olive trees (better!) and I saw amongst it all some of the netting that had been rescued from the cloud when it had been taken down on Holy Saturday.  Hidden there, a little bit of doubt, the permission to ask the questions that as people of faith we should ask, we need to ask, the questions that Paul asks about resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 – and goes on to answer.

We need honest, not simplistic engagement with the gospel and with Jesus and the sight of the remnant of the cloud against the empty cross and amongst the spring blooms gave me encouragement to continue in my own deepening of faith through asking questions.

Bless us Lord
in our believeing
in our questioning;
bless us in our doubting
in our questing;
bless us in our journey of faith.


A new dawn

Dark and cheerless is the morn
unaccompanied by Thee;
joyless is the day’s return,
till Thy mercy’s beams I see,
till they inward light impart,
glad my eyes, and warm my heart.

This verse from Charles Wesley’s beautiful hymn ‘Christ, whose glory fills the skies’ strikes me as the song that Mary Magdalene was probably singing as she headed from the Upper Room on that Sunday morning.  The Sabbath had ended and so they were able to complete the burial rites for Jesus that had been curtailed by the beginning of that enforced period of rest.  But only as soon as it was possible and safe to do so.


All the cloud that had been bubbling up during the week, culminating in that period of darkness on Good Friday as Jesus hung in agony on the cross, had gone.  It was still dark but the first streaks of light of a new day could just be seen in the east.  The day was beginning, it was a cloudless sky but Mary’s heart was heavy.

Dark and cheerless is the morn
unaccompanied by Thee.

Mary was too impatient to wait for the others to wake and so she crept from that room, not disturbing the rest who were still sleeping, and made her way out through the gates of the city and to the garden in which the cave was located where Jesus was buried.  What she intended to do we don’t know.  St John who tells us the story just says that

‘Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.’ (John 20.1)

In the first light of day, with eyes still bleary with sleep, things don’t always seem as they are, things look different as the light changes.  But Mary was shaken from any remaining effects of disturbed and restless sleep when she saw that the stone was no longer sealing the tomb but had been rolled away.  John doesn’t say it but this brave and desperate woman must have gone into the cave, into the tomb, she must have seen what had happened, without knowing what had happened because the next thing that John tells us is that

She ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ (John 20.2)

I’m fascinated that when Mary reports the news she speaks of ‘we’, ‘we do not know where they have laid him.’ But she was on her own, she didn’t know where they had laid him.  Or was it that she was speaking for me, was it that she was speaking for us, is it as if we were accompanying her in that early morning vigil at the tomb who know that

‘joyless is the day’s return,
till Thy mercy’s beams I see.’

The cloud has been removed from the chancel of the Cathedral.  Since Ash Wednesday it hung there, brooding over everything that we have been doing.  It has hovered as a constant reminder of the clouds that can hang over us, those clouds of doubt and fear, the clouds of depression and anxiety but also those clouds of unknowing that are part and parcel of the Christian life.

It was an unknown English author of the 14th century who first coined that phrase in the book ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ where it is written

‘Beat with a sharp dart of longing love upon this cloud of unknowing which is between you and your God.’

Mary longs for Jesus.  He gave her back her life. He changed the lives of all those locked away in that Upper Room, out of fear, out of guilt, in shock at what had happened.  But whilst all of their lives had been changed it was Mary whose life had been saved.  As Jesus had once said of her to the others

‘The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ (Luke 7.47)

But she ‘has shown great love’ he says to them all and we see that played out this morning as she runs from the room to the tomb – and we run with her and see and do not know. There can still be a cloud of unknowing even though the sky is cloudless and streaked with the bright beams of a new day.  We beat ‘with a sharp dart of longing love upon this cloud’ longing for the one from whom we seem to be seperated.

There have been many interesting comments about this year’s Lent art installation by Susie MacMurray.  But one of the ones was made more often was amazement that a Christian church should exhibit something called ‘Doubt’.  ‘We thought you were about certainty’ people have said.  That has given us the opportunity to say that the opposite of doubt is not certainty but is faith.  We do not know for sure, we do not have a cast-iron proof of anything, we believe and belief is about faith.  We peek into the empty tomb and we share with Mary the not knowing so that she can say to the others ‘we do not know where they have laid him.’

Wesley’s verse ends though in that great place where Mary ends.  The men come with her to see what is going on and when they see it as we have told them they rush back to tell the others.  But Mary remains, weeping, and we stand alongside her.  Peter will always rush here and there and John will run after him, impetuous pair – but we will remain with the unknowing – and then into that space Jesus comes, even though for a moment we still do not know – do not know who he is

till they inward light impart,
glad my eyes, and warm my heart.

Jesus speaks her name and she knows him; Jesus speaks our name and we know him.  Our eyes are glad, our hearts are warm.  We may not have all the answers about resurrection but we know that it is true, because we have faith, because we believe and because on a cloudless day we are touched by the warmth of his presence in the chill of the early morning, as bread touches empty hands and we know that he is with us.

Alleluia.  Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.


It was Saturday.  It was the Sabbath. No time for doing anything but a time for staying together.  It was true.  Outside it was cloudless but for those in the Upper Room, who had headed back into the place they had left at haste on Thursday evening it was as though a cloud of despair hung about them.  The table had the remnants of the meal still on it – a vessel with a drop of blood-red wine at the bottom, the dregs; crumbs were on the table where bread had been broken. A chair was overturned, knocked over as Judas made a hasty exit. It was a room of echoing memories – but they were silent.  What was there to say? And as they sat in silence the cloud descended.


The ‘cloud-busting’ team

Installation art, of its very nature is for a time.  Those who constructed our cloud of ‘Doubt’ it are dismantling it.  The metres of black butterfly netting are being rolled up to be recycled, the supports that held the whole thing in place, the cords that extended from the clerestory across the chancel being removed and the cloud is taken away, no more, for a time only, its time.


And it’s down!

The wind can change suddenly and blow the clouds away, sometimes the ones we carry with us are harder to shift.  Sometimes, with the friends of Jesus, we just have to wait amongst the crumbs and dregs.

Lord Jesus, my light, my day,
stay with me in the dark, in the night.

Darkness came over the whole land

People will travel half way around the world to experience a solar eclipse; they’ll search out just the right place to experience a partial one.  We are fascinated by the experience just as our ancestors were.  Indeed, there is something primordial about the fascination with such an event as though we suddenly realise that we inhabit a planet among planets and that one has an effect upon another, that moons and suns coincide with dramatic and, literally, chilling effect.  The eclipse becomes a portent, a sign of deeper things happening and as Tomasz Schafernaker, or some other weather watcher or reporter stands there in the gloom, you expect momentous language to be used to describe what is happening.


‘Doubt’ by Susie MacMurray

From the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane, from the darkness of the cell beneath the house of Caiaphas, Jesus emerges into the glare of public attention as he stands before Herod, stands before Pilate, a man under judgement.  When we were still condemning people to death, when Capital Punishment was still being practiced in this country, the judge, before pronouncing judgement, would place the Black Cap on their head.  The Cap, still part of the official regalia of judges in this land, is a simple square of plain black cloth.  It is as though a black cloud is placed over the head of the one sitting in final judgement, the most final judgement that one person can make of another.

Pilate washes his hands of the whole affair and Jesus is led from the Antonia Fortress, close to where his mother was born, and along what we now call the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows, the Way of the Cross, the route of the world’s darkness.

The 19th century poet, William Ernest Henley, in his poem ‘Invictus’ writes

Out of the night that covers me, 
      Black as the pit from pole to pole, 
I thank whatever gods may be 
      For my unconquerable soul. 
The night covers us, yet in a sense we are unconquerable.  There is a strange and unmistakable dignity about Jesus even when he falls, one, two, three times, according to the tradition in the Stations of the Cross.  The Black Cap was donned for him, but who is really condemned, him, or us?
How many times have I read, or heard, or even sung St Matthew’s Passion?  But when I was rereading it I suddenly realised something – that the darkness didn’t descend when Jesus died, as I had somehow falsely imagined, falsely remembered.  The darkness descended from noon and Jesus was still alive.
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. (Matthew 27.45)
Jesus suffered in the darkness, the cloud was thick above him.  It was the darkness of the plague, the darkness that descended on the Egyptians in response to Moses’ prayer.
Moses stretched out his hand towards heaven, and there was dense darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days. (Exodus 10.22)
It was a curse, a plague, it was the unfolding of creation which had begun with a single command, ‘Let there be light’. The passion was not just of Jesus but the passion of creation itself.  Even the first act of creation was faltering, the roots of the universe hacked at as had been the roots of the tree out of which the cross was made.  As the theologian and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin wrote
Christ has a cosmic body that extends throughout the universe’.
As Jesus suffers so does creation.  This is no simple eclipse that lasts a moment, that passes whilst we are looking at it, but the pangs of a passionate universe witnessing the death of the one who as we say in the Nicene Creed ‘through him all things were made’.
Thick darkness descends and for three hours there is no light.  But Matthew seems to suggest that it all ended at ‘three in the afternoon’ when Jesus cries out ‘with a loud voice and breathed his last.’ (Matthew 27.50) Did that final cry disperse the cloud and release the light?  Did in some way that death break the spell that had held the earth in bondage? And did those who had watched through the darkness see now in the clear light of day what they had done?  Was that why that lone centurion, who had been kept in the dark, suddenly could see and make the declaration on behalf of us all
‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ (Matthew 27.54)
The great prayer of St Richard of Chichester is on my heart as I too look beyond the gloom and into the light.
Praise be to you, O Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the many blessings which you have won for me,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for me.
O, most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
may I know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.


And it was night

Those four words in John 13.30 say it all for me

‘And it was night.’ 

Doubt 1

A dark cloud hovers in a holy place

It feels as though the rest of this drama, which began in sunshine and optimism will be played out in gloom and darkness.  The row that began at the table in Bethany, as Jesus and his disciples enjoyed the too generous hospitality of their hosts, spills over into what is going on in the Upper Room.

It has been an intense day and emotions are running high and tempers are getting frayed. As we saw earlier in the week Jesus’ teaching no longer caused amazement but anger among the teachers who heard him.  His provocative act as soon as he entered the Temple in overturning the tables had set people against him.  Those who had been glad to see him on Palm Sunday where it all looked like a party are now beginning to think again.

The Chief Priests and the Pharisees are disturbed

‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ (John 11.47-48)

They can see storm clouds gathering around them and threatening everything they hold dear, not least their power and their positions. And when Caiaphas speaks up and says

‘It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ (John 11.50)

the beginnings of a plot are hatched.  And a disgruntled insider who has been storming around are just what they need.

John Donne in his sonnet, ‘Crucifying’, hits, as it were, the nail on the head

He faith in some, envy in some begat,
For, what weak spirits admire, ambitious hate;
In both affections many to Him ran.

We see all of that in the reactions of those around him, and in ourselves, and in myself.  The mixed emotions of that fateful evening are mixed up with the mixed emotions around the table, the envy, the ambitions (who can forget the uncomfortable ambitions of the mother of James and John), the fear, the confusion, the doubts and the love.  It is a heady mix into which Jesus breaks bread and says ‘This is my body’ and takes a cup of wine and says ‘This is my blood’.  And that is the same for the church every time we gather at the altar and look at each other and wonder why we are there. Our motives are not clear but clouded, we do not operate always in the clear light of day but often in the night.

It would be lovely if when the priest says to us from the altar at the end of Mass

‘Go in the peace of Christ’

and we repond

‘Thanks be to God.’

that that were both honest and true.  But clouds hover and darkness settles even around the church as the last three weeks of the ‘Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’ has shown all too clearly and painfully. However much we might wish the church were different, it isn’t.  We are up to our eyes in the mess of the world, we are groping in the darkness, living under a cloud, doubting and uncertain.  The poet R S Thomas makes that quite clear in his poem ‘The Coming’

Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
We live in that scorched land and into it Jesus comes.  Thomas’ poem ends with those chilling, thrilling words
Let me go there, he said.
And into that stormy room Jesus brings a bowl and a jug and a towel, and, despite their protests, washes their feet. And onto that stormy table Jesus places bread and he brings wine and shocks them with the offering of himself. Jesus gifts them with the sacrament of hospitality, washing and feeding, even though in their gloom and confusion they cannot understand what on earth is going on, even though it is night.  And when the church is groping forward in the night as she is today Jesus washes us and feeds us, even though we don’t know how to accept this sacrament of hospitality in our darkest moments.
Did Jesus whisper ‘Go in the peace of Christ’ as Judas stormed from the room and it was night? ‘In both affections many to Him ran.’ and many ran away under the cover of darkness – and still do.
Lord Jesus,
shine into my darkness
and dispel the shadows of night
to which I so often run for cover.

A storm breaks out

It’s great when there is somewhere we can use as a ‘bolt-hole’, somewhere we can go for a bit of peace and quiet, where we know we will be well looked after, fed and watered and no one is going to make any demands on us.  In reality that is a bit of a fantasy, such a place is a very rare thing indeed and, to be honest, most places where we look to take a break demand something of us in return.

Jesus was fortunate that three of his friends lived just over the other side of the Mount of Olives in a small town called Bethany. There has been a great deal of discussion about what the name of that town, which pilgrims still visit, actually means.  But it looks like people have settled on the definition being ‘The House of the Poor’ and one suggestion is that it was called this because it was the location of an ‘almshouse’.  That sheds a whole new light on what happened in the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, the friends of Jesus who lived in Bethany and to where he retreated each evening at the beginning of this final week.

Mary and Martha-Qi

Mary and Martha and Jesus

This was a house of hospitality, we have seen that before in the gospels when Mary and Martha row in front of Jesus about who is doing the cooking? But even though there was a dispute about the practicalities the hospitality itself was not in dispute.  This was also a house of sorrow and of joy, all because of Lazarus.  He had died and his sisters were plunged into deep distress and so was Jesus when he finally joined them and raised their brother from the dead.

So, a meal had been organised and John tells us all about it (John 12.1-8). Martha was serving (there was no row about this this evening), Lazarus was with Jesus at the table and Mary? Well Mary was again at Jesus’ feet.  Last time she was sitting at them, listening attentively to his teaching.  But now she was anointing them with costly ointment and wiping them with her hair.  It was the ointment, Nard, that caused the problem.

Nard was expensive, I mean really expensive.  John tells us that the oil that Mary was using on Jesus’ feet cost three hundred denarii – that was a years’ wage for someone and Judas knows that, everyone knows that – there was no hiding the smell, ‘the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume’ (John 12.3).  Suddenly there was a whiff of something else in the air, a cloud of anger in the room.  The row breaks out.  They all know there is an almshouse down the road, tending to the needs of the poor and next door money is being wasted on this scale.  It is scandalous.  Yet, in some ways this was a trigger for everything else that would happen.  As John tells us in his account of the events in the Upper Room on what we call Maundy Thursday

Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. (John 13.29)

The issue of the poor had not gone away and as Judas storms out of the home in Bethany and as he storms from the table in the Upper Room the clouds really do gather.

In the House of the Poor generous and well-meaning motives cause a storm.  We never quite know in life what is going to kick off a whole series of events and when the deluge will begin.

when we are caught up in a storm
bring your calm
and your peace.

A clap of thunder

The once sunny sky must have become cloudy.  Someone thought that they heard thunder.  They were listening to Jesus teaching.  This is what Jesus was spending his time doing; he could never stop it, never stop teaching the people.  After all he was a natural.  When he was twelve years old, and in this very temple, he was found with the teachers.  His parents were searching for him; they had lost him among the group of their friends with whom they were travelling, and returning to Jerusalem there they found him, seated with the teachers, teaching.  Luke tells us about the reaction of everyone to what he was saying

‘All who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished.’ (Luke 2.47-48a)

What a difference a few years make.  Now, when Jesus is teaching in the Temple, it is not amazement, astonishment that is the reaction of those who teach but anger, when they hear him they want to kill him.  But not all of them, of course, not Joseph of Arimathea, not Nicodemus, not Gamaliel.  They were teachers, they were leaders of the Pharisees, they were secret supporters of Jesus but were they also those who some years earlier had been seated discussing the finer points of some texts when a young lad had wandered up to them, sat down, listened and then asked that most insightful question? Is that where their discipleship began?  Did they become students of this teacher at that moment of revelation, were they those who were amazed and had they been looking out for his return from that moment onward?  They had seen him ‘carted off’ by his relieved but angry parents who were amazed to find him in such company, the gentle mother and the father with carpenter’s hands, but had they been looking out for their teacher, until now?

People came from all over to listen to Jesus.  John tells us that some Greeks came along, found Philip who found Andrew and together they found Jesus, teaching, and they too were spellbound by what he had to say.

And then there was a thunderclap.  Those threatening clouds were gathering and one caused the sun to disappear for a moment and the early spring heat and the early spring light disappeared with it.  There was a clap of thunder, just one.

‘The crowd standing there heard it.’ (John 12.29)

They thought that it was God speaking because God had a habit of speaking out of thunder clouds or at least that had been Moses’ experience.  And the teacher teaches.

But all was not right with Jesus.  He was doing what he loved doing, teaching, in the temple, the place where it all began, but something was not right.  In fact that thunder clap was part of the cloud that had gathered for him, in him.

‘Now my soul is troubled.’ (John 12.27)


We have lived in Southwark Cathedral for the whole of Lent with a cloud hanging over us, the cloud which the artist, Susie MacMurray, created and called ‘Doubt’. It has hung there as a reminder of our own clouds, of doubt and unknowing, but also of trouble and depression, the black dog day cloud that can be all too real for people, every day, for a season, for a time.  We have been recognising that such clouds are part of our reality and that, despite what I said on Sunday, it isn’t always ‘Sunny in Philadelphia’; I know, I have been there in the rain! Jesus could teach, eloquently, beautifully, life-changingly about the light and the dark as the cloud hovered but there was an internal cloud that had bubbled up.

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”?’ (John 12.27)

We shall hear him pray that prayer again, in the dark, in the garden but for now he answers his own prayer

‘No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ (John 12.27-28a)

and he carries on teaching as the rumble of divine affirmation sounds around them. But the clouds won’t disperse that easily and, sometimes, neither will ours.

Lord Jesus,
you know what a troubled soul feels like.
Rumble your affirmation
into my own troubles
and teach me to see the light
through the darkness.

A storm brews

It had been a lovely day when Jesus came down the Mount of Olives.  There was a party atmosphere, the crowds were out, the sun shone and the sky was clear.  There was no doubt in anyone’s mind – not in Judas’ who would betray him, not in Peter’s who would deny him, not in Thomas’ who would doubt him – this was the right thing to do.  This was the last stage of a journey that had taken them from their former life by the Sea of Galilee, through the towns and villages of that region to this great city, another world.  They had seen some amazing things on the way, the sick healed, the dead raised, the excluded included, storms were calmed, fish were caught, sins were forgiven and their fame had spread. Their fame had spread, not just that of Jesus, but all those who were travelling with him.  After all they had all gone off, two by two, to proclaim the Good News and they came back with such stories.  They were all celebrities.

So this felt like the culmination of all of that, this final leg of the journey, down the Mount and into the Temple.  No one was in any doubt that this was the right thing to do, no one.

The donkey was handed back, they washed in the mikveh and made their way up the steps that led to the first of the courts that surrounded the Holy of Holies, the place where none but the High Priest could go.

We’ve all seen it happen – a lovely day, a picnic taken out, the family on the beach, the barbecue set up in the back garden, the paddling pool filled, ready to make the most of the sunshine and then someone looks up and notices a huge storm cloud that has bubbled up out of nowhere.  ‘Where did that come from?’ someone cries. There’s a clap of thunder and the heaven’s open as picnic, deck chairs, children, uncooked sausages are rapidly gathered up and all head for shelter. ‘Typical … whatever happened to a proper British summer?’

It had all seemed like sunshine.  But Jesus’ face was suddenly dark and stormy and the disciples had all noticed it.  They had come through the entrance and had been confronted by the reality in the Temple, they had entered ritually clean to be met with the filth that was going on.

Cleansing Temple El Greco 1591

The Cleansing of the Temple by El Greco


Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, ‘It is written,
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”;
but you are making it a den of robbers.’
(Matthew 21.12-13)

Archbishop William Temple wrote, ‘His coming means a purge.’ Jesus, like a storm breaking out, all of a sudden, purges and cleanses, and the ritual baths at the approach to the temple overflow in the deluge that ensues.  As John Donne write in his sonnet ‘Temple’

Nor had time mellow’d Him to this ripeness ;
But as for one which hath a long task, ’tis good,
With the sun to begin His business.

Those summer storms pass quickly – but perhaps this storm will take longer to pass over Jerusalem – it has been threatening for a long time and has come to ripeness.

Lord Jesus,
do not look on me with anger
but purge me
and wash me
into newness of life.

A cloudless sky

It was a beautiful spring morning, not a cloud in the sky and Mary was about her normal tasks, helping her mother, Anne, to look after the home whilst her father, Joachim, went about his business.  There was one well in Nazareth and so that was where everyone gathered – or at least the women did – at various times in the day.  It was Mary’s task to go early, to get water so that the work of the day around the house could begin.  So, empty water jar in hand, she made the journey from their house to the place where the well had been dug.  There was not a cloud in the sky and Mary’s heart thrilled as she looked up and saw the deep blue of a spring morning in Palestine.

There were not many women at the well when she arrived, it was still early, and so Mary took a moment to sit and to pray.  Her mother had taught her about the great matriarchs of the faith Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Ruth amongst others, and how they had lived out their faith in hard times when the children of Israel were moving from place to place, seeking a homeland.  Mary had herself moved, but she had been too young to really remember it.  She was born in Jerusalem, the capital city, the focal point of her religion, the place of the Temple and the place where God abided with his people.  She was born close to the Pools of Bethesda, close to the Lion Gate in the city wall and on the edge of the Mount of Olives.  Her mother had relatives just over those hills in Bethany.  But the need to find work had forced her family to move and Mary, as a child in her mother’s arms, had been taken from Judea to Galilee, from Jerusalem to Nazareth, a well trodden path.


Mary at the well from the mosaics in St Mark’s Venice

She had a vague memory of those pools and those hills as she rose to draw water from the well.  There was not a cloud in the sky but all of a sudden she felt, overshadowed, there was no other word for it.  She had not felt empty but now she felt filled; she had not felt dead but now she felt alive.  She knew without doubt that she was to bear a son, a special son, that she was to be a mother to a child like no other.  There was no cloud to overshadow her but she felt overshadowed.  There was no doubt, just faith that what God had whispered to her would be fulfilled.

Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1.28)

Pilgrims to the Holy Land will visit the Church of St Anne, a most beautiful crusader building by the remains of the Pools of Bethesda and near to a less visited church which just says outside ‘The Birthplace of the Blessed Virgin Mary’. They will also travel to Nazareth and perhaps their coach driver will drop them off just a mile of so from the Basilica of the Annunciation, at Mary’s Well, where they will be told by their guide that for the Orthodox community this is the place of the annunciation and not where most pilgrims remember it.  I love the idea that it happened outside by living water, perhaps under that cloudless sky, Mary, like her predecessors and like the woman at Jacob’s Well in St John’s Gospel, having significant encounters where water was drawn.

Susie MacMurray’s installation ‘Doubt’ has been part of our Lenten journey this year, overshadowing the choir of Southwark Cathedral, a dark cloud.  But Mary’s overshadowing that Luke refers to in his gospel was different.  Not the shadow of dark clouds but of gentle wings as she received the angelic message.

It was a beautiful spring morning, not a cloud in the sky and people were about their normal tasks. But the stillness was broken by the sound of voices, the sound of singing, even the rocks on the hillside seemed to vibrate with the sound.  Then the crowd came over the crown of the hill and the full force of the noise was experienced.  Down the Mount of Olives came this band of people surrounding a man on a donkey.  They were waving branches they had torn from the trees, they were creating a carpet with their own clothes for the donkey to walk over.  And when in full sight of the city the procession halted.  And they looked.


Jesus enters Jerusalem


Spread before them was the city and the Temple, gleaming in the sunshine on this cloudless day.  The man got off the donkey and wept, Jesus wept.  Out of joy, out of sorrow, out of love – out of all of these and more besides.  But the crowd were not for stopping and he remounted the donkey and they continued towards their destination.  They could have taken the Lion Gate, which would have passed by his grandparents house, where his mother, Mary, had been born, but that would have led them straight to the Antonia Fortress where the Governor, Pontius Pilate, was based – and he had no desire to encounter him.  So they headed for the way in for all the pilgrims, to the place where the mikvehs were located, the Jewish ritual baths for purification, before they climbed the steps into the Temple courts.

The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’
(Luke 19.37-40)

They were in no doubt, these followers who proclaimed him as the awaited king and nor was he, it was a cloudless sky.  Washed clean for entry, with confidence, Jesus and his friends entered the Temple.

This year Palm Sunday falls on what would be the Feast of the Annunciation.  The passion of Jesus is inextricably linked to the incarnation and it is a good reminder of that fact and both divine events, it seems to me, are cloudless.  There’s an American comedy that we can still find on the TV, ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’ and both these events, the annunciation and the triumphal entry, seem to be like that, events played out in the clear sunshine.  But clouds are bubbling up below the horizon. As John Donne reminds us in his sonnet, ‘Annunciation’

That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo ! faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb.

We must watch the sky.

Lord, as I enter with you
this Holy Week,
may I watch with you
as the clouds descend.

A cloud on the horizon

We’ve all had that experience, lying on the beach, soaking up the rays, and then suddenly seeing on the horizon some cloud bubbling up.  Will it head in our direction, will we be running from the beach, towel in hand, escaping the downpour? The prophet Elijah had a similar experience, though he wasn’t sunbathing at the time.  Instead it was a time of drought in the land of Israel. Elijah predicted to Ahab that the drought would end and the heavens open and rain would be heard.  But there was no sign of it.  So Elijah keeps on sending his servant up to the top of the mountain to look for the cloud.

elijah cloud

‘Look, a little cloud …’


On the seventh time of looking the servant cries out

‘Look, a little cloud no bigger than a person’s hand is rising out of the sea.’ (1 Kings 18.44)

Like the cloud viewed from the beach, what looked small on the horizon, something the size of a person’s hand, suddenly becomes one of those big clouds that bring rain (or snow) and so it was for Elijah and Ahab.

There was a wonderful picture during the beginning of last weeks ‘snowmageddon’ which showed half of London under a heavy snow-laden cloud, half still in sunshine.  But the cloud delivered what it promised!

We are living with a large cloud in Southwark Cathedral during this season of Lent.  Susie MacMurray’s installation, ‘Doubt’, is causing a lot of interest and discussion.  For some it is too oppressive and depressing and I can understand that; for others it is a welcome invitation to think about their own clouds and also a permission-giving way of thinking about doubt.  But perhaps it has come at just the right time as a cloud hangs not just in Southwark but over all Cathedrals.

Those who try to keep up to date with the life of cathedrals, the real life Barchesters and Lindchesters of the Church of England, will be aware that last year there was a little local difficulty in two of our forty-two great cathedrals.  Problems were encountered at both Peterborough and Exeter which have had very serious consequences in those wonderful places and the ripples have caught the rest of the forty.  In order to look at some of the underlying issues which helped to create the situation in those two places and have contributed to something of the financial difficulties in many more, the Archbishops established a Working Group under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Stepney (himself a former Dean) to look at the issues of governance and financial control.

The deadline for responding to the draft report from the Working Group, which was published at the beginning of January, was last Wednesday.  All over the country people were trying to squeeze and conform their responses into the straightjacket of an online response form, to reflect the subtlety and nuance of what they needed to say in a system that allowed for neither. But in one way or another I suspect all of us have managed it, for better or worse.

In order to gauge opinion at Southwark the Chapter organised two meetings, one for the congregation, another for an expanded joint meeting of Chapter and Council (the Council has become something of an endangered species in this draft report). There was much that both meetings saw as positive, but much that we at Southwark were already doing, around financial scrutiny and reporting, around Safeguarding and resilience.

But there is a cloud ‘the size of a person’s hand’ rising from the sea.

Anthony Trollope explained how Barchester looked in his imagination

“Let us presume that Barchester is a quiet town in the West of England, more remarkable for the beauty of its cathedral and the antiquity of its monuments than for any commercial prosperity; that the west end of Barchester is the cathedral close, and that the aristocracy of Barchester are the bishop, dean, and canons, with their respective wives and daughters.”


The ‘aristocracy’ ,as he describes it, is clerical, bishop, dean and canons.  That was the way it was and that is the way it is.  We employ many wonderful lay people at Southwark without whom nothing would happen (the world is very different from Trollope’s day) and our governance structures are filled with talented lay people.  But it is the bishop, dean and canons who have the task of leadership and in a particular and subtle way.

The bishop is not the dean and takes their seat in the cathedral with the dean’s permission. The dean is not a canon who hold their own office and are given in their licence ‘a voice on Chapter’ which is more than simply being heard. It is a delicate structure formed over the last 450 years since the Elizabethan Settlement, adapted and changed, but essentially holding to that ideal that Trollope’s ecclesiastical aristocracy have the responsibility of governing and leading the cathedral.

So want is the small cloud? I think somewhere underlying some of the proposals, especially around the role of the dean and the role of the bishop and the role of the canons is a fundamental anti-clericalism that is creeping into the church on the back of a passion for a more ‘managed’ style of church.  It is thought, and probably with some justification, that you don’t find those ‘business’ qualities circled by a dog-collar but are found in those in the ‘real’ world.  So the logic is to move the power into the hands of those who know what they are doing.

This is a cloud that could bring a storm. For the cathedrals nor dioceses are ‘businesses’, our business is God and everything else that we do, which, yes, involves running enterprise sides to our life, is subservient to the principle duty of the bishop, dean and canons, to worship God and to lead others in that worship.  That is where all cathedrals, even those who fail some of the ‘business’ tests, are serving the church, and God, wonderfully well.  You only have to look through our doors to know that that is true.

So what do we do now? Well, the on-line responses will be analysed and a final report produced.  When, I do not know.  But I shall keep climbing that mountain to see what is happening to the cloud! Until then I will pray the prayer of a great defender of the Anglican catholic church in the early seventeenth century, Archbishop William Laud.  This is his prayer, and mine.

Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Saviour. 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