The seven-year itch

In 1955 Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell starred in a film adaptation of a play by George Axelrod, ‘The Seven Year Itch’.  The film, which featured the famous  ‘Marilyn over the grate pose’ popularised the idea that at the point of seven years a relationship can begin to go stale and the eye begins to wander and terrible things can happen in a relationship that once appeared good and sound.  Perhaps there’s some truth in it, I don’t know, I’ve never experienced that phenomenon myself.


But I was thinking about ‘seven years’ this last week when on the news we were told that the war in Syria has now been going on for that long.  Footage was shown of children, aged seven, who were born into the appalling and frightening situations that we see day by day in Syria and who have never known any thing different.  Their world experience has been formed and framed in a situation of appalling and brutal warfare.  They have known what we shouldn’t know as children, the death and mutilation which is part and parcel of indiscriminate warfare in which every person is a legitimate target.


Yet another scene of pain and devestation

The question I posed to myself was the extent to which I was ‘itching’ for things to be different.  An itch is an interesting thing.  There’s that lovely scene in the Disney version of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ in which Baloo the bear, voiced by Phil Harris, is singing ‘Bear necessities’ and trying to rid himself of a troublesome itch. But sometimes the itch won’t go.

Both in the Old and New Testament writers refer to us having ‘itching ears’, ready to listen to anything, not necessarily the truth.  But my ears itch to hear some good news for the people of Syria.

It is a long time now since I had the privilege of visiting that country.  I was helping to lead a pilgrimage from Southwark Cathedral, a journey that took us first of all through Jordan and then around Syria.  It must have been around 2001 I think when we went and life seemed very different.  Things may have been very difficult under the surface, but as pilgrims we were not made aware of that.  What we did experience was a beautiful country full of beautiful people with a rich heritage of faith.  What I saw there were Christian communities that had been the first to be formed, a tradition going back to the very first days of the church and still being lived out in remote hillside communities where the liturgy was in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

We saw stunning archaeological sites, Palmyra, the queen of the desert; Bosra, Aleppo; the Crusader remains; the monastery of St Simon Stylites; Damascus itself, walking down Straight Street and thinking, ‘This is where blind Saul was led by the hand.’ And everywhere there were people ready to greet us, to take us by the hand and welcome us.  And no day passes when I don’t wonder where those people who were so kind to me now are, whether they are even alive, and I have no way of knowing.  But I am itching for change.

An itch keeps us restless, and we must be restless until this horror ends.

Restless God,
for the people of Syria we pray;
as you never forget them,
neither may we.


The life-long journey

Today at Southwark Cathedral is one of our ‘baptism Sundays’. We have about five a year, when perhaps three or four children are brought by parents and godparents and the rest of their family and friends to the Cathedral for the Choral Eucharist during which baptisms take place.  You’d imagine that, taking a lead from the Acts of the Apostles which we always read during the Easter season, there would be universal rejoicing that ‘the Lord is adding to our number’. But as with many churches the fact that the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, the two dominical sacraments amongst the seven, are celebrated together, is not met with unalloyed joy.  Some people are displaced from their ‘normal’ seat; there are a lot of people who ‘don’t know what they are doing’ and of course the babies tend to cry during the quieter parts of the service.  It’s all very disruptive!


A well behaved baby!


Of course, when I was a curate, those unreformed days, we did baptisms on a Sunday afternoon, the church packed with people and the congregation conveniently at home enjoying their Sunday lunch whilst new members of the Body of Christ were being welcomed by the harassed curate.

Last week I went to Ireland to meet members of the Society of Catholic Priests working there, both north and south of the border. It was great to meet other members of the Society working in a very different church environment and facing different issues to those of us in the Church of England including how they will work as one church in a post-Brexit environment when the border between north and south may be very real.  After the meeting had finished my host drove me out to see one of the more ancient churches in the area.  St Doulagh’s Church – Clochar Dúiligh – stands just outside the town of Malahide.  This was part of the Norwegian Kingdom in Ireland and there was thought at one time that St Doulagh never existed but was a manifestation of Olave.  But now it’s thought that the saint did exist, a hermit, maybe living in a cell on this site. The small medieval church dates from the 12th century and is the only church with a solid stone roof still to be in use in Ireland.  It is beautiful.  Alongside the ancient church is a Victorian nave and sanctuary constructed by the father of ‘Woodbine Willie’, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, whose Great-Granddaughter was visiting the church at the same time as I was (what a small world it is).

St D's

The baptistery at St Doulagh’s


However, what was most fascinating was that in the grounds around the church is a separate baptistery.  It’s the only one in Ireland.  The sunken octagonal structure covers a water channel into which those to be baptised were taken.  A pool by the side may have been for baptism by total immersion.  As a result of various bits of work to the land and the nearby road the water source has been diverted and the baptistery is now dry.  But it is a deeply wonderful, evocative place.  The main baptistery is dedicated to St Doulagh, the small pool to St Catherine.  It is said that St Patrick operated in this area, that a small community lived here.  It is certainly a place of deep and resonant history.

In between the ‘font’ and the pool a hawthorn grows.  My guide suggested that it was the descendent of a pagan hawthorn on the spot that the Christians ‘baptised’, adopted in the way that the early missionaries did, to take the local pagan population with them.  Whatever the truth it was amazing to see.  It took me to other places were baptisteries are separate and not least to northern Syria, to the complex of church and monastic buildings from the 5th century dedicated to St Simon Stylites that is a few miles northwest of Aleppo.  There too is an octagonal baptistery at the end of what would have been a triumphal processional route that the newly baptised would take into the church.  The baptistery and route to the church outside of Malahide are more modest but the principal is the same.


The baptistery of St Simon near Aleppo


It reminded me of one of the texts in the Common Worship Baptismal Rite.  After the baptism, as part of the prayers, the priest can use these words

In baptism God invites you on a life-long journey.
Together with all God’s people
you must explore the way of Jesus.

The early builders in Ireland and Syria knew this to be true.  The deep and flowing waters through which the child, the adult, was brought was a kind of Red Sea experience.  Then the journey began, from the baptistery into the church, from that Sacrament into the Christian life, ‘exploring the way of Jesus’. Perhaps we should build some more external baptisteries!

This prayer is also from Common Worship.

Eternal God, our beginning and our end,
preserve in your people the new life of baptism;
as Christ receives us on earth,
so may he guide us through the trials of this world,
and enfold us in the joy of heaven,
where you live and reign,
one God for ever and ever.

A memory of Aleppo

It’s getting on for twenty years since I was in Aleppo.  I was helping to lead a pilgrimage for a group of people from Southwark Cathedral. We had two weeks away, starting in Jordan and then crossing the border into Syria.  I remember going through the border control, the Jordanian guide waving goodbye and our Syrian guide getting on to the coach.  He was wonderful – gentle, friendly, a joy to be with.  The first stop was at Busra al-Sham with its amazing archaeological ruins in which people were (surprisingly) still living.  I remember Damascus, its beautiful Umayyad Mosque, the treasury on pillars in its central court, the shrine in the mosque where the head of John the Baptist is venerated. I remember walking down Straight Street and thinking about Saul and his conversion, seeing the window in the gate from which he was lowered.

But over the last years and months and especially over these last days I have been remembering Aleppo.  We had headed north, taken in the amazing Crusader fortress, Crac des Chevaliers, visited the place where St Simon Stylites sat on his pole and arrived in this huge city before we left to travel on to Palmyra.

The devastation of Aleppo

The devastation of Aleppo

Jordan had been lovely, the rose-red city of Petra, the ancient holy sites, Madaba and the rest, but it was quite commercialised and when you arrived anywhere people would descend upon you with things to sell.  That’s ok, it’s how money is made by ordinary people in these pilgrim and tourist places.  So when the coach pulled up in the centre of Aleppo outside the hotel where we were to stay for a few days, people appeared as if from nowhere.  We got ready to buy some postcards!

We were wrong though.  These people were not there to sell us anything, they had arrived to shake our hands.  ‘Thank you for coming’, ‘Welcome to Aleppo’ was what they were all saying to us.  The warmth and the sincerity of that crowd is something that I will never forget.  The city itself was amazing.  We went into the Citadel, we shopped in the Al-Madina Souq, we went into the Hammam Yalbugha, a Mamluk-era public bath, which was simply gorgeous.

Much of what we saw then has been destroyed.  But what about those people who shook my hand and welcomed me? What about the young guide who showed us his country with pride? What about the driver who drove us into the northern mountains and to the shrine of Our Lady at Ma’loula where we found Muslim and Christian women worshipping together? What about those women and the children holding their hands? What about the Syrian Orthodox priest who, in his isolated and ancient church, held out his hands and prayed the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic for us and we thought we heard the voice of Jesus?

This week has been agonizing as we have watched the on-off nature of the ceasefire in Aleppo, as we have seen lines of coaches waiting to take people away from their devastated communities, as we have seen women and children, the sick and the elderly in freezing conditions going from one level of suffering to another. When we were there as pilgrims President Assad’s father was still in charge.  Wherever we went we saw huge banners celebrating father and son.  But, to be very honest, we were shielded from seeing anything that was going on behind doors and beneath the surface.  All we knew was that we were meeting beautiful people.  That innocence of mine has gone and I now know that whilst I was looking at interesting things I was missing something more important, the oppression that led to rebellion that led to war that has led to where we now are.



The prophet Jeremiah writes of the destruction of another city, Jerusalem and these words still ring as true now as they did then.

Thus says the Lord:
We have heard a cry of panic,

   of terror, and no peace.

Your hurt is incurable,
   your wound is grievous.
There is no one to uphold your cause,
   no medicine for your wound,
   no healing for you.
All your lovers have forgotten you;
   they care nothing for you.

(Jeremiah 30.5, 12-14a)

From that great city the people went into exile as so many millions of Syrians have done and will do, the people who shook my hand, the people who cared for me.  Hospitality must always be responded to with hospitality – that is the challenge we face this Christmas.

Lord Jesus,
born in a stable,
laid in a manger,
taken into exile,
may we give
home to the homeless,
comfort to the comfortless,
refuge to the refugee.

In the Steps of Martin Luther

A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

Canda, Jerusalem, Mucknall

Southwark Diocesan Pilgrimage 2016

Hearts on Fire - Pilgrims in the Holy Land

A good city for all

A good city for all

In the Steps of St Paul

Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage June 2015


Reflections from the Dean of Southwark

Passion in real time - a retreat for Holy Week

Led by the Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn

Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark