Monday 25th May
One of the things that we value most at St Paul’s is singing hymns. Some of us may prefer the words, other the tunes; some of us may have angelic voices, others may struggle to stay in tune; some of us may prefer the old favourites, others may welcome those that are more contemporary – but we all value the hymns we sing and recognise that they are a really important ingredient of our worship. In fact, if someone were to ask me to define St Paul’s (Is it high or low? Is it catholic or evangelical?) I might choose to dodge their question and simply reply that we are a church with a great choir where hymn singing and the Anglican choral tradition are strongly valued.
The older I get, the more I value hymns. I’m not sure where else in world hymns are so important (they certainly are in the Lutheran churches) but they are an important part of our own cultural heritage. Most of us know them so well that we don’t need to follow the words too carefully, and although we may not claim to know much poetry as such, the poetry of our hymns is extensively written in our hearts. And there is nothing like a hymn to lift the spirits and draw us together in worship. One of the last hymns we sang together in church before lockdown was Cwm Rhondda (‘Guide me, O thou great Redeemer’) which we sang on St David’s Day, and as always it was a moving and uplifting experience.
Yesterday the Church of England honours John and Charles Wesley, for it was on this day in 1738 that John Wesley felt his heart ‘strangely warmed’ as he worshipped in London, and felt overwhelmed by God’s grace. John is generally thought of as the most influential of the Wesley brothers because of his remarkable ministry of open-air preaching, caring for the poor, promoting educational reform and revitalising church life. But Charles has an equal claim to honour for it was he who recognised the power of hymns to touch the soul and wrote so many of the hymns which we still value today. A biographical note says this:
‘His thousands of hymns established a resource of lyrical piety which has enabled generations of Christians to re-discover the refining power of God’s love. They celebrate God’s grace from birth to death, the great events of God’s work of salvation and the rich themes of Eucharistic worship, anticipating the taking up of humanity into the divine life.’
Not all of you will be great fans of Charles Wesley, and out of the six thousand or so hymns that he composed, not much more than a handful (admittedly, a pretty large handful) are still regularly sung. But they are very remarkable. Just try reading through ‘And can it be’, for instance, or ‘O thou who camest from above’ (which we always sing at Pentecost) and you will be struck by the ‘lyrical piety’ which has ensured their abiding place in Anglican worship. It may still be a long time before we are again able to have a really good sing in church, but in the meantime you can always go on You Tube and listen to your favourites.
Sunday 24th May
I associate May Bank Holidays with Brighton. During my childhood we would often come down to Brighton by train during the Whit Weekend and spend a happy day mingling with the huge holiday crowds. There was a great sense of excitement as the train emerged from Clayton Tunnel and approached the curve of the station. We would then walk down Queen’s Road to the Clock Tower (and how long that road always seemed when we walked back up it at the end of the day!) and spend some time in The Lanes, before going onto Palace Pier for some candy floss, a ride on the helter-skelter and the chance to waste some money on the old penny slot machines.
By that time my father would be growing impatient, so we’d take Volk’s Railway along the beach to Black Rock and would then walk along the under-cliff to Rottingdean. The village felt like an oasis of peace after the chaos of Brighton, and we’d spend some time sitting by the pond and visiting the church, with its pre-Raphaelite windows. I used to wonder what it would be like to live in such a beautiful place right by the sea. Eventually the afternoon wore on and we would catch an open-top bus back along the coast road in time for a cup of tea before the train journey home.
I still love Brighton, although I’m always rather relieved to leave it behind at the end of a day! Even as a child I was attracted by its seedy glamour and sense of menace and I was delighted to study ‘Brighton Rock’ for my English O Level. I didn’t witness the May Bank Holiday clashes between the Mods and Rockers in 1964, but there were always impressive rows of scooters and motorbikes along Marine Drive, and the sound of The Who was in the air, along with the smell of fish and chips. Later, I discovered Brighton's unique collection of huge Anglo-Catholic churches, and would happily spend a day going from St Paul’s to St Michaels’, from St Michael’s to St Martin’s, from St Martin’ to St Bart’s, and from St Bart’s to The Annunciation. Oh, the seductive power of religion!
Sussex by the Sea is a distinctive past of Britain and is certainly not to everyone’s taste. There’s no doubt that the Sussex coast has been ruined over the years by unregulated development, and many of the former resorts, such as Littlehampton and Bognor are very much ‘at the end of the line’ socially and economically, despite still having much to offer. But Brighton itself, and indeed Eastbourne and Hastings, are unique and wonderful places for those of us who like their combination of piers, promenades, Georgian terraces, beach huts, winding backstreets and ever-present sea gulls. As soon as lockdown is properly over, I shall look forward to a day out in Brighton once again!
Saturday 23rd May
Looking back in my diary I see that a year ago Fiona and I were in Bath, where I helped to conduct a wedding. It wasn’t a traditional church wedding; it took place in the Roman Baths themselves, and my involvement consisted of leading prayers and blessing the couple after the civil registrar had completed the legal formalities.
It was a beautiful May evening and a magical occasion. Before the ceremony began, the guests gathered under the colonnade that surrounds the main bath; the bridesmaids then led the bride around the colonnade to the sound of a harp; the registrar led the ceremony with great sensitivity while the water in the bath gently steamed in the soft sunshine; and after it was all over we went up to the Pump Room for the reception. It was a privilege to have been part of it.
Times change and it’s good to embrace something new. Once upon a time I was rather cynical about weddings that weren’t ‘properly’ celebrated in church; I now accept that for the majority of young couples a secular venue is often more appropriate and more attractive. When I worked in Scotland I celebrated weddings in some amazing locations: castles and galleries, the Glasgow People’s Palace, on the shore of Loch Lomond, and even the old Renfrew Ferry on the Clyde. I enjoyed being with people in places where they felt at home, and blessing them in God’s name.
Relationships of all kinds have been tested over the last few months. Some couples have found their relationships strained by having to spend so much time together. We’ve all heard of the shocking increase in cases of domestic abuse. Many young people have had to return home and live with their parents, with varying degrees of success. Siblings struggle with one another’s company as they endure home education together. Tempers fray. It’s not always easy being together under one roof – even with those you love.
In the Marriage Service, during the Giving of Rings, the couple say to one another: ‘All that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you.’ It’s an unconditional promise and sometimes I observe the truth of it only dawning on the couple as they actually say it. ‘Am I really expected to give all of myself to you?’ ‘Do I really have to share everything with you?’ ‘Surely not!’ But it is a beautiful promise, and all truly loving relationships express something of its generosity and totality.
And it is a promise that finds perfect fulfilment in God. God’s love for us is indeed unconditional; he is with us ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health’. And he withholds nothing from us. As St Paul puts it, ‘He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?’ (Rom 8.32)
Friday 22nd May
I can sympathise with those of you who are having to home-educate your children. Over these last few weeks I’ve been doing something equally challenging: teaching my younger daughter to drive. She’s lived in London since she left school, but since the start of lockdown she’s been back here with us with time on her hands. And with empty roads and fine weather it’s been the ideal opportunity to give her some practice behind the wheel.
Every day I try to vary our route, so we’re getting to know the city very well, especially its various estates. It’s fascinating to look at the different building styles and to try and work out the decades in which the different estates were built: Parklands, Kingsham, Portfield, Swanfield, East Broyle and so on. Some of you can probably remember when they were all green fields! And it’s also amazing to see at first hand just how much development is taking place around the city. It’s more obvious with less traffic on the roads.
The Madgwick Lane site seems to be nearing completion, making Westhampnett feel even more like a satellite town in its own right. The Shopwhyke development shows no signs of diminishing and seems to be spreading in all directions on the far side of the by-pass. The White House Farm site is already beginning to take shape and no doubt the contractors will be working again soon. And Graylingwell Park, as some of you will know well, is now looking peaceful, prosperous and virtually complete. It all represents an incredible expansion of our city in a very short space of time.
I’m not opposed to development and I respect the decisions of our politicians and planners. If we are to protect the unspoilt beauty of the South Downs we must be willing to accept more housing all along the coast. But I do wonder what life will be like for us as we struggle with increasing traffic congestion and as our social infrastructure becomes more and more over-loaded. I only hope that the wonderful views of the Cathedral from around Apuldram and Hunston can be preserved by curbing development in the few remaining fields.
The south-east of England is one of the most crowded areas of the country, and coronavirus has been prevalent in its more densely populated parts. Those of us who live in this part of Britain are sometimes accused of enjoying a disproportionate amount of national resources, but we know that it comes at a high price: that of crowded roads and public transport, disappearing countryside, and unacceptably high levels of stress. For now, Chichester is a quiet place and ideal for learner drivers. Before long it will no doubt revert to its usual character, with frequent gridlock and the bypass at a standstill.
Thursday 21st May – Ascension Day
It’s strange how things that once were so important to us become less so as we get older. I’ve been thinking about this recently in connection with hair-cutting. At my school we were visited each week by a barber who cut every boy’s hair on a strict rota basis. We absolutely hated it and made our feelings felt. He, in turn, took no notice of our wishes and was brutal in his use of the electric clippers.
Bearing in mind that this was the early 70’s, hair length and style were a big thing, and I can still remember my frustration about not being allowed to let my hair grow and have it cut ‘properly’. Now, with hairdressers still closed, I am desperately in need of a haircut and in danger of looking ridiculous, but it doesn’t bother me at all. After all these years I am far less self-conscious than I was back then, when we judged one another by the length of our hair, the width of our flairs and the breadth of our lapels!
I well remember attending a farewell party for a Church of Scotland minister who worked in the same community as myself in the East End of Glasgow. He was moving to a new post in what was regarded as a rather snobby village outside the city. One of his colleagues said to him, ‘Alec, when you go to Strathblane you’re going have to mind your p’s and q’s a bit more than here in South Carntyne. How do you feel about that?’ Alec wasn’t bothered at all: ‘They’re just going to have to take me as I am. At my age I really don’t care what others think of me.’
Growing older helps us to keep things in perspective and distinguish between what matters and what really doesn’t matter. It’s so easy to get the balance wrong. I’ve sometimes quoted Cardinal Hume who said, ‘Take God seriously, take the world seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.’ We could save ourselves so much unnecessary stress if we heeded the wisdom of those words. I sometimes try to say them to myself on a Monday morning.
Ascension Day is relevant to all this. As the apostles bade farewell to Jesus outside Jerusalem, they saw their own lives reframed within the bigger picture of the purposes of God. At that moment, as they looked up into the sky, their whole perspective on life was changed. Until then, Jesus had been their human companion: sharing meals with them, walking alongside them, listening to their hopes and fears. He had been their rabbi and their friend. But now, as he was taken from them, they saw that he was Lord of heaven and earth, and they recognised the eternal significance of all that he said and done during his time with them.
And as we, today, affirm the sovereignty of Jesus and raise our eyes to heaven, we are enabled to see our own lives in their true scale. Matched against the purposes of God and the vastness of the universe, we can see that many of our hopes and fears are in truth small and inconsequential – scarcely worth all the time and attention that we give them. But we are also reminded that Christ has left the world in order to make himself available to us all through his Spirit, and that we – small though we are - are loved by God and destined for glory. The First Epistle of Peter gets the balance perfectly: ‘Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.’
Wednesday Blog: 20th May
We are about to enter one of the most significant periods of the church’s year – the period between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost. Ascension Day is tomorrow, Pentecost (Whit Sunday) is the 31st May: the ten days between them mark the end of the Easter season, culminating in the giving of the Holy Spirit.
And this special liturgical time is strangely mirrored by the current circumstances of our life. As we heed the government’s advice by ‘staying alert’ and remaining largely within the confines of our homes, so we can relate to the disciples in the Upper Room, who also stayed alert as they waited for Jesus to fulfil his promise by sending the Holy Spirit.
According to St Luke, some of Jesus’s last words to his disciples were, ‘Stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high’, and we are about to do just that: to stay patiently where we are, here in our own city, praying that God will bless each one of us with a fresh outpouring of his Spirit. Indeed the theme of ‘staying alert’ is a thoroughly Biblical one, and there are several occasions in the New Testament when it’s very much part of Jesus’s message (especially Mark 13).
In recent years this season has become associated with a global prayer movement called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, when Christians all over the world pray for more people to know Jesus. It’s too early yet to know whether the coronavirus pandemic is generating a sense of spiritual hunger among those who might never before have thought about issues of life and death, but this is certainly a time to pray that those who are seeking answers may find spiritual fulfilment in Christ.
To help us in our prayer, Bishop Martin is inviting us to join him online each day at 12 noon for fifteen minutes of worship, prayer and silence. Joining details are to be found on the diocesan website, and over the course of the next ten days every area of the diocese and its parishes will be prayed for.
And at the risk of overwhelming you with too many resources, I’d also like to make you aware that I shall be posting a daily reading and reflection on our own website each day, starting this Friday (22nd) and ending on Saturday 30th. The reflections will, like those we used during Holy Week, be from resources published by the Iona Community and I hope that they will feel relevant and encouraging.
The effect of the Holy Spirit on the disciples was to drive them out from Jerusalem into the wider world, preaching the Gospel and baptising new believers. Hopefully the time is coming when it will be safe for us to go out freely once again with our faith renewed and our hope restored. There will be a lot of work ahead as we begin to rebuild the life of our church. In the meantime we must continue to be patient and alert, expectant that God will fulfil his promises.
Tuesday 19th May – Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury
Mayfield is one of the prettiest villages in East Sussex. It has a fine parish church at the end of the high street, and a Roman Catholic girls’ school and convent on the site of a medieval palace used by Archbishops of Canterbury. It once had a railway station on the so-called Cuckoo Line, which ran through the peaceful countryside between Eridge and Polegate. And it is associated with St Dunstan, one of the great English saints who lived in the 10th century.
You may remember the story of how Dunstan lived for a time in Mayfield as a blacksmith and how, one day, he was visited by the devil in disguise, who was determined to tempt him to do something that might compromise his holiness. Fortunately Dunstan was on his guard, and as the devil approached he seized his hot blacksmith’s tongs and tweaked the devil on the nose. Immediately the devil regained his usual hideous appearance, and ran away to Tunbridge Wells to cool his nose in the healing waters there. The tongs were later retrieved by Dunstan’s followers and are still to be seen in the convent chapel!
In truth, Dunstan was probably one of the first Archbishops of Canterbury to reside at Mayfield, and there is some evidence that he was indeed a skilled craftsman and artist. He was born near Glastonbury and had a good upbringing in the court of the King of Wessex. He then became a monk at Glastonbury at a time when the religious life was undergoing a great revival all over England, and in 943 he became its abbot. In this capacity his influence as man of holiness and organisational skill spread fast, and eventually he became chief minister to Edgar, the English king, and also Archbishop.
Dunstan is credited with having devised the coronation service for King Edgar, which took place in Bath on Whit Sunday in 973. This formed the basis of the coronation service which is still used. On the Eve of Ascension Day in 988 Dunstan received an angelic vision revealing that he would die three days later. He prepared for his death with great calmness and faith, celebrating the Eucharist and preaching several times. As soon as he died (on this day, 19th May) he was regarded as a saint, although his reputation was later overshadowed by that of Thomas Becket.
Dunstan is particularly associated with the East End of London. St Dunstan’s Stepney is regarded as the East End’s mother church, and Dunstan’s tongs are included in the coat of arms of the Borough of Tower Hamlets. But East Sussex is also proud of its connection with him (sadly, the former St Dunstan’s Home for Blind Veterans in Ovingdean no longer bears his name), and I have no doubt that he will remembered with particular devotion today in Mayfield, as well as in Canterbury and Glastonbury.
Monday 18th May
When we held our Songs of Praise last autumn, one of our top ten hymns was ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’. I expect many of you know it virtually by heart and draw comfort from its verses. In particular it contains those beautiful lines, ‘re-clothe us in our rightful mind, in purer lives thy service find.’ They’re a reference to the story of the healing of the man who was possessed by demons and who, after Jesus had healed him, was left ‘clothed, and in his right mind.’ In other words, Jesus had restored his sense of dignity and self-worth and had helped him to regain a sense of equilibrium and peace.
This week (18-24 May) is Mental Health Awareness Week, with its focus this year on kindness. The giving and receiving of kindness plays a big part in helping us maintain our mental wellbeing, and we shouldn’t underestimate the therapeutic value of a kind word (and the potentially devastating effect of a cruel word). A few weeks ago I quoted the late Caroline Flack, who said, ‘In a world where you can be anything, be kind’, and kindness can often be in short supply as we all pursue our ambitions and seek personal fulfilment.
Hopefully the stigma of seeking treatment for mental illness is diminishing, and we are now less inhibited about seeking professional help if we are feeling severely depressed or anxious. The coronavirus outbreak has had a considerable impact on mental health and a lot of work will be needed in the months ahead to deal with the effects of bereavement, anxiety and trauma (not least the trauma that our front-line medical teams have suffered). We all need to be kind to ourselves as we continue to live with uncertainty and constraint.
Nowadays we don’t generally think of people being possessed by demons, and the Gospel story of the possessed man contains the kind of features that are commonly associated with some kind of psychosis. The man was self-harming, possessed of unnatural strength, disinhibited, and hearing voices. It may well be that in a twenty first century context he could more appropriately have been treated by medication and psychological intervention. But Jesus ministered to him using the means that he understood and knew to be effective, and his words of exorcism immediately brought about healing.
Christ the healer wants to deliver us, too, from all that is harmful, including mental illness. He wants us all to be ‘clothed and in our right mind’. He wants us to be made whole. The reason why ‘Dear Lord and Father’ is such a popular hymn must be in part because it evokes the peace that comes from a secure relationship with God in which prayer plays a regular part. Let us mark this coming week by praying that Christ will help to restore peace and wholeness to our suffering world, and by asking him to re-clothe us in our rightful minds.
Sunday 17th May – Easter 6
It is now nine weeks since we were last together in church. At that time concerns around the spread of coronavirus were intensifying and we had already refrained from sharing the peace and receiving wine at communion. It hadn’t occurred to me that all public worship was about to be suspended and that churches would soon be required to shut their doors altogether. Nor did it seem possible that Holy Week and Easter would go by without any formal observance and that we would now be approaching Pentecost, the Church’s birthday, in a continuing state of lockdown.
I was at St Paul’s yesterday afternoon. The sun was shining and both the church and the churchyard looked very beautiful. The church chairs have been stacked away for the two blood doning sessions which are taking place this month and I stood alone in the space of the church in almost total silence. There can have been no time in St Paul’s history, except during times of reordering, when the church has stood empty in this way, unused and largely unprayed-in.
But things are beginning to change. The Bishop is encouraging clergy to pray regularly in their churches once again, and we shall certainly be doing that ourselves. The only frustration is that only one member of the clergy can be in church at a time, so Martha and I will be unable to say the daily offices together. Next month it is hoped that churches will be open once again for private prayer, and there is a possibility that limited public worship, with appropriate safeguards, will be allowed to resume during July.
In the meantime we must continue to be patient and to worship from our homes as best we can. If you are able to go to St Paul’s as part of your daily exercise you are, of course, very welcome to sit in the churchyard and perhaps meet a friend there if you’d like to. The churchyard is looking absolutely beautiful at the moment, with wild flowers flourishing along the western boundary and the most amazing pink roses facing the gyratory. Our faithful gardeners are doing a very good job!
And perhaps this long period of uncertainty and waiting will be rewarded in some way that we can’t foresee. Perhaps we will have learned lessons that will help to rejuvenate our life as a worshipping community and fill us with gratitude to God and love for one another. While I stood in St Paul’s yesterday, with shafts of sunlight all around me, I thought of R.S. Thomas’s poem, ‘Waiting’:
Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.
Saturday 16th May
I’ve been enjoying watching the newly hatched peregrine chicks via the webcam in the Cathedral tower. They made their appearance on Monday and already their demand for food is keeping the parent birds busy. The fact that you can watch them live always fascinates me, particularly knowing that they’re such near neighbours. I have no idea how many other cathedrals are also nesting sites for peregrines, but the presence of birds each year here in Chichester is something for us to be proud of. Our Cathedral was the first man-made structure in Britain to become a peregrine nesting-place. And the fact that such a major piece of work as the replacement of the Cathedral roof has all been timed so as not to disturb their nesting season is testimony to their uniqueness.
One of the most remarkable pieces of nature writing is a book about peregrines by an Essex writer called J.A. Baker. Baker lived an unexceptional life near Chelmsford and died in 1987. But he was a keen observer of the natural world and was able to record what he saw with both accuracy and beauty. His classic book, ‘The Peregrine’ is written in the form of a diary and covers a relatively short period, between October 1962 and April 1963. It describes the days Baker spent out on the flat lands around the Blackwater estuary, cycling from place to place, often in the bitter cold, in search of peregrines, and then standing patiently for hours watching their every movement through his binoculars. Here is an extract from his entry for 14th March:
‘A peregrine flew over, and hovered above the sea-wall where partridges were crouching in the grass. It was a lion-coloured tiercel, fierce and proud, looking down with luminous, dark, liquescent eyes. Where the wide wings joined the chest the feathers underneath were thickly mottled with diamond-shaped spots, like the fur of a snow leopard. The amber hawk glowed briefly in the sun, then flew inland.’
I admire people like J.A. Baker who have the capacity to observe the world around them and then to record their observations so elegantly. I admire their capacity to stand still and to give absolute priority to the task of watching and waiting. Nowadays we are bombarded so much by visual imagery that there is a danger of us losing our capacity for actually ‘seeing’ anything, just we have perhaps lost our capacity for attentive listening. Prayer is about paying attention to God, and the skills of watching and listening – and waiting – are fundamental to the spiritual life.
Mary Oliver, a great observer of the natural world, wrote this poem called ‘Praying’:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
‘Just pay attention.’ That reminds me of school! But perhaps that’s all that really matters.
Friday 15th May
Which is your favourite psalm? Psalm 23 (‘The Lord is my shepherd’)? Psalm 121 (‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills’)? Psalm 42 (‘Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks’)? Or perhaps Psalm 84 (‘O how amiable are thy dwellings, thou Lord of hosts’)? Each of those psalms, along with several others, certainly mean a lot to me, but the one which I’m particularly fond of is Psalm 16 (‘Preserve me, O God, for in thee have I put my trust’).
One of the reasons why I like Psalm 16 is purely sentimental. When I was at theological college it was one of the regular psalms at compline, which we sang every night at 9.30pm. Whenever I read it now I am transported back to the darkness of the college chapel, with a red lamp flickering in front of a single icon, and the sound of plainsong as we marked the ending of the day and prepared for greater silence. It’s a psalm which calls upon God for help, confident that he will never abandon us and that in him we shall find our rest. And it speaks confidently of the joy that comes from abiding in him: ‘Thou shalt show me the path of life; in thy presence is the fullness of joy, and at thy right hand there is pleasure for evermore.’
But there’s another reason why Psalm 16 stands out for me. It contains a memorable verse which was used as the text for a sermon which I heard preached when I was at university. The preacher, as I recall, was Canon Philip Morgan, from St Alban’s Abbey, and the occasion was Christian Aid Week. The verse in question was verse 6: ‘The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground: yea, I have a goodly heritage’, and Canon Philip used it to prick the conscience of the congregation as he explored aspects of global poverty and injustice.
It’s a beautiful verse, especially in the Prayer Book version, and as Canon Philip spoke about it I became aware, for the first time in my life, just how fortunate – indeed, privileged – I was. I’d never thought of myself in that way before. I’d grown up in a tiny two-bedroomed cottage in a nondescript corner of Surrey, we didn’t have a great deal of money, I’d attended local state schools, and I’d supported myself over the years by undertaking all sorts of part-time jobs.
But the stability of my life and the opportunities that my education had provided meant that I did indeed have a ‘goodly heritage’, and as Canon Philip reminded us of the plight of so many in the world who lacked many of the things that I’d always taken for granted, I realised how much my lot had fallen in a ‘fair ground.’ I had many reasons to be thankful and many reasons for wanting to try and give something back through a life of service.
As the coronavirus continues to take its toll, both physical and economic, many of us here in Chichester have good cause to be thankful. It’s true that life under lockdown isn’t easy, and I know that some of you are suffering greatly. The threat of the virus is far from over and the fear is real. But those of us who are well and who are not facing economic ruin should count ourselves hugely fortunate and be filled with a determination to help those whose lives are being so terribly shattered. We should count our blessings, not with complacency but with a profound sense of gratitude, and join with the psalmist in saying, ‘The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground: yea, I have a goodly heritage.’
Thursday 14th May – St Matthias’s Day
The one thing the apostles were able to do, as they waited in the upper room after Jesus’s ascension, was to choose a replacement for Judas. Judas’s death must have affected them deeply: he had been their close companion for several years; he had been the one to whom Jesus had entrusted the common purse; he may have been someone of high ideals, impatient for Jesus to inaugurate the Messianic age. But he had made a terrible mistake in handing Jesus over to his enemies and his guilt had overwhelmed him. The other apostles must have learned of his death not long after Jesus’s crucifixion, and the news must have been devastating.
Now, some days later, they were able to think more rationally, and they realised that they needed to restore their number to twelve so that they might ‘sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’ The choice had to be a careful one. They needed to find someone who had the twin qualifications of having been part of their company during the time of Jesus’s ministry, and also someone who had witnessed his resurrection. And the choice, ultimately, had to be God’s choice, not their own. This was a question of calling, not appointment.
So it was that they identified two suitable candidates, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias, and called upon God to reveal his choice through the casting of lots. Matthias was, of course, chosen; Joseph disappears from history but no doubt remained part of the company of believers. The whole matter was dealt with swiftly and efficiently, without too much discussion or hesitation. Peter showed himself to be their undisputed leader. Even though he had not yet received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, it was he who stood up confidently and proposed the course of action that they followed.
Leadership is essential for the Church. In those uncertain days when Jesus had departed from the disciples, it would have been easy for them to have drifted apart and left Jerusalem altogether. Indeed, we are told that the apostles themselves returned to Galilee within a short time of Jesus’s death, and that it was there that the risen Christ revealed himself to them when they were once more busy fishing. But somehow they found themselves back in Jerusalem when the time was right, and with Peter’s help made the critical choice of Matthias to ensure that they were a full complement in readiness for Pentecost.
In this time of crisis the Church also needs strong leadership. It is good to know that in this diocese we will soon be joined by our new Bishops of Horsham and Lewes (Bishops Ruth and Will), and we are blessed by the leadership of Bishop Martin and Justin our Archbishop. But here at St Paul’s, under my guidance, we shall have to take careful steps to rebuild church life once the danger from coronavirus has passed, and I have no doubt that it will be a challenging time in which hard decisions will have to be taken. Let us pray that we, too, may remain strong in our faith and in our commitment to one another, open to the guidance and strengthening of the Holy Spirit.
Wednesday 13th May
One of the most depressing aspects of the lockdown is the sight of so many super-fit people out jogging, whether on Centurion Way or by the Canal, leaving lesser mortals like myself feeling more inadequate and overweight than ever. Now that Boris has permitted unlimited amounts of daily exercise there will doubtless be even more of them, whizzing effortlessly past, occasionally glancing at their fitbits as they disappear into the distance in a blur of lycra. Jogging has become such a big feature of middle-class life, and it’s hard to believe there was once a time (back in the last century) when our parks and footpaths were places for gentle strolling rather than daily 5K challenges. What a frightening world it’s becoming!
Where did jogging originate? I suppose we can blame the Greeks, who not only liked to organise athletic events but also invented the marathon. Marathon, you remember, was the place where a battle was fought between the Greek and Persian armies. According to the historian Herodotus, an Athenian runner named Pheidippedes ran 140 miles to Sparta before the battle seeking help. After the battle the Athenians marched at high speed back to Athens – a distance of about 25 miles – to prevent a seaborne Persian attack. These two events were later conflated into a single story of how Pheidippedes ran at high speed from Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated, falling dead from exhaustion with the words ‘We’ve won!’ on his lips. It was this mythical feat which inspired the modern idea of running a ‘marathon race’, which first took place in 1896.
St Paul was a Roman citizen and was therefore part of a culture in which athleticism was prized and public games were common. He himself must have been incredibly fit considering the considerable distances that he travelled around Asia Minor, mainly I imagine on foot. Writing to the Corinthians he says, ‘Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one’ (1 Cor 9.24).
Those words would have resonated with the Corinthians. For hundreds of years Corinth was the venue for the Isthmian Games, one of the great sporting events of the Ancient World. The Corinthians would have understood the importance ofphysical training and self-discipline, just as so many people do today. What they appear not to have understood was that every aspect of life, including its moral and spiritual components, deserve the same degree of application and self-control. We are to care for our inner life as much as we care for our physical well-being.
As for Paul himself, he makes clear that he was intent on gaining that ‘imperishable wreath’ at all costs. His letters show that he was a person of immense determination, who allowed nothing to hold him back from his goal of winning the crown of life and finding fulfilment in Christ. In his letter to the Philippians he use the image of a runner heading flat out for the finish, and he invites his readers to ‘be of the same mind’ in their pursuit of glory: ‘Beloved… forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 3.14). That’s certainly a goal worthy of a new pair of trainers!
Tuesday 12th May
One of the most searching questions that Jesus asked was the one he addressed to the paralysed man who sat by the Pool of Bethesda: ‘Do you want to be made well?’ The man had been unwell for thirty eight years and came every day to the pool, along with many others who were disabled. But he never actually managed to get into the water and receive the healing that was associated with it. Somehow others always got there first and blocked his way; somehow he never quite made it. Jesus’s question went to the heart of his condition. Did he really want to be healed? Did he want to regain freedom and mobility – and the responsibility that would go with it? Or did he prefer to find excuses for remaining as he was – a victim, a ‘patient’, a figure of pity?
The prime minister is under great pressure to clarify the conditions of this new period of lockdown and to state clearly what is, or is not, permitted. Tomorrow marks a slight loosening of the existing restrictions, and with the prospect of warm weather returning at the weekend people are likely to be wanting a real taste of freedom once again. But what exactly is allowed? Is it acceptable to drive down to Dorset for the day? Will beaches and car parks be open? Will public toilets be open? Will it be possible to buy an ice cream? Will it be necessary to wear a face mask? Will it be possible to play a round of golf?
I feel rather sorry for the prime minister under these circumstances. Yes, the new ‘Keep alert’ approach is rather woolly and begs a lot of questions. It’s an attempt to ease the pressure of the last few weeks and allow us to begin to take steps towards normality, but it doesn’t provide for every eventuality. It’s easy to pick holes in it.
But behind all this there is one implicit question addressed to us all: ‘Do you want to be safe? Do you want this terrible pandemic to come to an end? Do you want to stay well?’ And if our answer to that question is yes, then we should be resisting the temptation to push the boundaries, however imprecise they may be, and doing our best to remain as cautious and vigilant as possible. There’s no point in blaming the government for curbing our freedom or failing to define its limits; what matters is that we take responsibility for ourselves and for one another, and avoid any behaviour that is likely to allow the virus to spread.
Like the paralysed man by the pool we have all, sometimes, felt the attraction of victimhood: allowing our misfortune to define us and free us from the need to take charge of our lives. As spring turns to summer and the lockdown continues, there is a danger of us losing our sense of personal responsibility and coming to accept, or even enjoy, this strange state of passivity and restraint. It’s going to be hard when the time comes for us to resume our normal lives. It’s far easier to sit back and criticise our leaders in their attempts to decide what’s in our best interests.
But we all have a part to play in resisting the spread of the virus and helping to get our country back on the road to recovery. We share responsibility for our future. Jesus’s question is one for us all: ‘Do you want to be made well? If so, learn once more to stand on your own two feet.’
Monday 11th May
The St Rollox Railway Works in Springburn, Glasgow, were once the most famous place in the world for the construction and repair of locomotives and rolling stock. All over the British Empire, from India to South Africa, trains were to be found, chugging along remote railways, that had been built in Springburn. And at one time almost two thirds of the trains in the UK had also been built there. When we lived in Glasgow in the early 90’s, a small amount of repair work was still carried out at the Works; today I imagine it has gone altogether.
The name St Rollox is a corruption of the name ‘St Roch’s Loch’, which referred to a small loch by that name which previously occupied the site of the Works. St Roch himself (otherwise known as Rocco or Rock) was a popular saint in the medieval times and his prayers were particularly invoked during times of plague. He is also the patron saint of dogs.
St Roch came from the area around Montpelier in France and lived at the beginning of the fourteenth century, about a hundred years after St Francis. Legend tells how he was living in Italy during an outbreak of the Black Death and how he was faithful in ministering to the sick, healing many by touching them with his hand and making the sign of the cross. Eventually he himself succumbed to the disease and he retreated to a forest where he built himself a simple dwelling place.
He grew steadily weaker, but once day a dog appeared, carrying a loaf of bread in its mouth. The dog licked his wounds and left the bread for him, and eventually the dog’s owner arrived. He was a local nobleman, and he took care of Roch until his strength returned. Roch eventually made his way back to his home, but people treated him with suspicion and he was thrown into prison, where he died. But his reputation spread and he became venerated as a ‘plague saint’: one of a number of saints who particularly offered hope and healing before, during and after times of plague. His body was taken to Venice, where Pope Alexander VI built a church and hospital in his honour.
St Roch (or St Roche) is one our own local saints. The Trundle is properly called St Roche Hill because a chapel dedicated to St Roche stood on the top of it in the years before the Reformation. No doubt it was a place of pilgrimage for those who needed protection or healing in times of contagious illness. In recent years the Weald and Downland Museum, in conjunction with the Parish of Singleton, has organised an annual service of healing on the Trundle on the 16th August, the Feast of St Roche. Whether it will go ahead this year remains to be seen; if it does, it will be a fitting opportunity to pray for all those who have suffered from coronavirus and those who have nursed them. And of course dogs will be very welcome!
Sunday 10th May – Easter 5
I have a little book which I value called ‘Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life’ (Paulist Press 1995). It begins with this paragraph:
During the bombing raids of World War 2, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit on the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’
The book is an introduction to a spiritual practice called the Examen which comes from the Jesuit tradition. It’s about asking ourselves two questions: For what am I most grateful? For what am I least grateful? These simple questions are revealing. They help us identify moments of consolation and desolation in our lives. They help us to recognise what draws us closer to God and what draws us away from him. For centuries prayerful people have found direction for their day and for their life by identifying these moments.
The Examen is something that many people try to practise at the end of the day. It can be done alone, or within a group. It is something that should be undertaken prayerfully, using the heart as much as the head. And it all hangs on those two questions: For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment today am I least grateful? Try asking them and discerning where God is at work in your life. Here they are, slightly re-phrased:
When did I feel most alive today?
When did I feel life draining out of me?
When today did I have the greatest sense of belonging:
to myself, others, God and the universe?
When did I have the least sense of belonging?
When was I happiest today?
When was I saddest?
What was today’s high point?
What was today’s low point?
We all need things to hold on to, especially when life is uncertain. The Examen is a way of acknowledging both the bread we have been given and the loss we have suffered, and discerning the ways in which God is at work in every aspect of our lives.
Saturday 9th May
The swifts have returned this week. During these calm, warm evenings they’ve been swooping through the sky above our garden, catching insects, in full cry. It’s good to see them back and to feel that summer has arrived. I read a little about them on an RSPB website. Apparently they can live to up to 21 years and spend virtually their whole life on the wing, except when they are nesting. In the course of their lifetime they can fly as much as a million kilometres, often travelling at considerable speed (one swift left the UK on 31st July and arrived on Madrid on 3rd August). All too soon, in mid-July they will be off again, returning to North Africa for a warm winter with plenty of insects to feed on.
Birdsong is a wonderful accompaniment to life, whether it’s the cry of swifts, the singing of larks, the call of oyster catchers, or the unearthly cry of the buzzard. When I was on my Canterbury pilgrimage in September I walked on a quiet side road along the foot of the Hog’s Back between Farnham and Guildford and was accompanied for a couple of miles by a pair of buzzards who circled above me in a clear blue sky, calling to one another. I appreciated their company.
Recently I conducted the funeral of someone who’d loved wildlife. Instead of listening to a piece of reflective music during the service, we listened to a high quality recording of the dawn chorus from a nature reserve. It worked very well, and we were transported in our minds far from the crematorium to an undisturbed woodland, just before sunrise, in the middle of summer. I’ve always admired those who get up very early specifically to go out into the countryside and listen to the dawn chorus. Sadly, my will power is inadequate, but if I wake in the early hours I do enjoy listening to the sound from the trees outside. The composer Messiaen was fascinated by birdsong, and in one of his works he effectively composed a dawn chorus for orchestra.
As the year moves on, the Cathedral peregrines become an increasing part of life here in the city centre. Every year we can hear the raucous sound of the young birds calling from their nest below the spire, and we look out for their first appearance above West Street. I know that some of you have actually seen the adult birds catch pigeons, dropping from the sky at incredible speed and making their catch in a flurry of feathers. That’s something I’ve yet to witness.
It has been widely noted that during the lockdown, with empty roads and public places, animals and birds have developed a new confidence and have begun to flourish. One of the most exciting wildlife projects this year has been the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles to the Isle of Wight, where they last made their home in the 18th century. They are, apparently, the UK’s largest birds of prey, with a wingspan of over two metres. Six young birds have been released, with more to follow, and it is hoped that eventually the eagles will once again be a familiar sight over the skies of southern England. What a wonderful thought!
Friday 8th May VE Day
The city of Rheims is at the heart of the champagne region and is the place where French monarchs were traditionally crowned. The magnificent cathedral suffered terrible damage during the First World War, but has been beautifully restored and has three wonderful windows by Chagall behind the high altar. The city was caught up in conflict once again during the last War and it was there, in the make-shift headquarters of General Eisenhower, that the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces took place in the early hours of 7thMay 1945. The news was broadcast to the world the following day, exactly 75 years ago.
In the speech that he gave that day, Winston Churchill said: ‘I say that in the long years to come not only will the people of this island but of the world, wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts, look back to what we’ve done and they will say “do not despair, do not yield to violence and tyranny, march straightforward and die if need be – unconquered”.’ Those ‘long years’ continue to pass, and today we pause to give thanks for the victory that was won in 1945 and for those who laid down their lives in order to bring it about. The fact that much of the world is struggling to emerge from a crisis of a different kind gives added poignancy to our celebration.
Eisenhower’s HQ is now a ‘Museum of Surrender’, and Fiona and I visited it many years ago. I remember our visit most because we somehow lost track of time and had to run all the way back to the station in order to catch our train back to Paris. But I also remember a strong sense of oppression in the room in which the surrender had actually been signed, as though it had been contaminated by a great evil. This was the place where the Nazi dream was finally shattered. This was the place where the Holocaust was brought to an end. It felt airless and gloomy. General Jodl, who signed the instrument of surrender, was hanged for his war crimes at Nuremberg the following year.
The aftermath of the War must have been a terrible time, once the initial euphoria had subsided. Millions of people all over Europe were homeless and displaced. The roads were filled with refugees, desperate for food and medical aid. People frantically searched for family members from whom they had become separated during the years of conflict. In Eastern Europe, Soviet forces took control and implemented their own totalitarian regime. The gates of the concentration camps lay open, but many of the survivors were too weak to move.
And people struggled to reconcile their faith to the horrors that they had witnessed. War can inspire faith as source of consolation and a spur to action, but it can also destroy it and create despair. In July 1944, on the day when he received news that the plot to assassinate Hitler had failed, Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in his prison cell in Berlin and wrote a poem called ‘Stations on the Road to Freedom’. It is a remarkable reflection on finding freedom through faith even in the face of evil. Here is the stanza headed ‘Suffering’:
Wondrous transformation! Your strong and active hands
are tied now. Powerless, alone, you see the end of your action.
Still, you take a deep breath and lay your struggle for justice
quietly, and in faith, into a mightier hand.
Just for one blissful moment, you tasted the sweetness of freedom,
then you handed it over to God, that he might make it whole.
Thursday 7th May
Last Saturday’s edition of The Times offered a selection of ’20 top walks’ to look forward to after lockdown. They covered all the corners of Britain and most of them weren’t too demanding. They were the kind of walks that you could enjoy on a sunny afternoon in the company of a few friends, with the promise of tea and cake afterwards. And they included one on our own doorstep – Kingley Vale. The writer of the article wrote:
‘Every summer I look forward to a lazy walk in warm sunshine, up the track from West Stoke car park and around the way-marked circuit of Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve. It takes all afternoon to stroll these three miles because Kingley Vale’s preserved chalk grassland is made for lingering and looking. It’s composed more of flowering plants than of grasses and attracts clouds of butterflies.’
Kingley Vale is indeed a remarkable place and a reminder of how lucky we are to live in this favoured corner of Britain, with the South Downs National Park on one side of us, and Chichester Harbour Conservancy on the other. Despite intense development, Sussex remains a place of great beautyand many of its most lovely parts are now protected. The Times article also featured a walk in East Sussex which some of you will know, around Alfriston and Jevington. I remember once walking in Friston Forest near Jevington and catching a strong smell of coconut. I found out afterwards that it is the scent of adders: a warning to keep to the footpath and not stray into the bracken!
One of the strongest impressions I was left with after I walked the Pilgrims’ Way last September was just how green and wooded much of South-East England still remains. As I made my way round the great sweep of the North Downs, through Surrey and into Kent, I expected to feel rather depressed by occasional glimpses of Greater London and the signs of creeping suburbia. But instead, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the countryside itself and the views to the south in which trees were the main feature.
Where are your favourite places in Britain? Where would you like to go today for a relaxing walk if you had a helicopter ready to carry you off? As I ask myself that question I’m aware of how little I really know Britain, despite having had many holidays in this country. Last summer I attended a conference at Launde Abbey in Leicestershire, and I was astonished by the beauty of the countryside in that part of the East Midlands. At the moment we can only dream of holidays and outings but the time will come when we will once again be able to get out into the countryside, if only to Kingley Vale or Alfriston.
Wednesday 6th May
Christian spirituality sometimes makes reference to the Dark Night of the Soul. It’s a broad term, open to different interpretations, but it generally refers to a period of ‘obscurity’ that is often experienced by those who are seeking God. Just as things are hard to see at night, so our relationship with God is sometimes clothed in a kind of darkness in which we lose our spiritual bearings. All we can do is to reach out to him in love and maintain the practice of our faith to the best of our ability.
The Dark Night is marked by a sense of disintegration and struggle, but it’s very different from psychological depression. It’s the means by which our inner world is reoriented towards God and we are freed from our attachment to objects and ideas. It may be a brief experience or it may last a lifetime. Mother Teresa of Calcutta felt a terrible sense of abandonment by God, and in one of her letters wrote, ‘In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss – of God not wanting me – of God not being God – of God not really existing.’ For her, the darkness was particularly intense, and yet she persisted in her life of radical service and prayer.
Whatever form it takes, the Dark Night is a time of transition, in which God carries us from one place to another, helping us to rely less upon ourselves and to trust in him alone. It is the kind of experience described in the ‘Footsteps’ meditation which so many people value. We often worry about whether we are praying enough, or whether we are doing so in the right way – but God wants us to accept the darkness of unknowing and allow him to move us on in our spiritual journey. As one writer puts it: ‘The dark night of the soul is an ongoing transition from compulsively trying to control one’s life toward a trusting freedom and openness to God and the real situations of life.’
One of the famous Spanish mystics who developed the idea of the Dark Night was St Teresa of Avila. She was a woman of great vitality and insight who helped to reinvigorate the Catholic Church during the 16thcentury. As a young woman she suffered a prolonged spiritual crisis involving all kinds of fears and self-doubts. But eventually she had the courage to surrender her life to God and to trust in his loving care, even in her darkest moments. With the help of a trusted friend she became a changed person with a new sense of faith which she expressed in a poem which has become famous:
Let nothing disturb you;
let nothing make you afraid.
All things pass,
but God is unchanging.
is enough for everything.
You who have God
God alone is sufficient.
Let us hold on to the truth of those words: ‘All things pass, but God is unchanging.’
Tuesday 5th May
It’s nearly two years since Tim Peake came to Chichester to be awarded the Freedom of the City. It was a great occasion, celebrating his achievements as an astronaut and acknowledging his close connection with our city. At the Freedom ceremony in the Festival Theatre, he described the six months that he’d spent on the International Space Station, living a life free from so many of the elements which give us a sense of reference and normality: gravity, social interaction, sounds, the changing seasons, proper meals, day and night.
In order to maintain his mental and physical fitness he’d had to develop various routines and disciplines as the Space Station hurtled round and round the Earth (3,000 times during his stint on board). He’d even run the London marathon on the ISS treadmill. The chance to communicate regularly with his family and friends had been a lifeline. The thing that he’d missed most was the smell and feel of fresh air.
I’ve thought about Tim Peake’s experiences a few times over the last few weeks. Here we all are, in the confines of our homes, cut off from our normal routines, aware of our frailty and our dependence upon others, counting the days until we are able to leave this strange orbit and return to everyday life. Later this week we are expecting the Government to let us know the timetable for this process; in the meantime we must continue to look out at the world and do our best to keep ourselves fit.
Tim Peake also spoke of how busy he’d been during his time in space, performing all kinds of tests and experiments. The time had passed quickly and he’d learned a lot – about physics and biology and computer science - and about himself. Looking out at the Earth had given him a new perspective on his own life and the life we share on this increasingly crowded and polluted planet. I don’t think he’s a particularly religious person, but he came across as someone who values people more than possessions and has a real concern for global issues.
What lessons will we have learned when we are allowed to re-enter the atmosphere of normal life and are freed from this strange constricted existence? Will our own perspective be different? Will we have become ‘better people’ in the sense of being more grateful, more accepting, more kind and thoughtful? As we begin to look forward to the day when we step outside our capsules once again, I hope that we will all have a new appreciation of the fresh air of daily life – and of all the simple gifts with which we are blessed.
Monday 4th May
A few weeks ago I read a newspaper article by Sir Max Hastings, the journalist and author. He suggested that one way of coping with the lockdown would be to write one’s memoirs. Each of us has our own unique life story which will be of interest to future generations, even though there’s little likelihood of us getting it published (Hastings did mention rather smugly that he has three volumes of his own memoirs in print!). Putting it down on paper should be its own reward.
Some of you may have already done something like this. Local history is an important area of research and life stories are valuable sources of information for historians. One of the key elements of our planned Heritage Weekend was an oral history project which had already gathered together the memories of several members of our community. We very much hope that a future opportunity will be found to present its work.
And the coronavirus itself is proving to be such a momentous event that our personal reminiscences (of food shortages, social distancing, school closures, home working etc.) will undoubtedly be worth recording. Already there must be researchers gathering together the memories of ordinary people in preparation for books to be written about the outbreak. We are all part of history in the making.
So why not try writing your memoirs and handing on something to posterity? Perhaps like me you’re not confident that you’ve got anything interesting to say. I love reading biographies and listening to people’s life stories, but that’s perhaps because my own seems very mundane and unadventurous. I rather relate to the poet Stevie Smith, who famously spent virtually the whole of her life in the quiet anonymity of Palmers Green, North London.
But I can certainly see the value of taking stock of our lives by putting pen to paper. It’s a way of achieving a sense of wholeness by gathering up some of the fragments of our experience. It’s a way of coming to terms with the kind of person we are and finding peace through acceptance. And it can help us to recognise the ways in which Christ has been at work in our lives, guiding us, strengthening us, forgiving us and loving us.
In the early days of the Church the Gospels were sometimes called the ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’. It’s a lovely expression, conveying a sense of the apostles looking back at their lives, all of which had been changed beyond belief by their encounter with Christ. Our own memoirs may be considerably less remarkable than theirs, but they testify to Christ’s involvement in our lives; they, too, make up a kind of Gospel.
3rd May – Easter 4
I remember clearly the copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that I had as a child. It was a hardback edition, with a pale blue cover, and it contained those wonderful Pauline Baynes illustrations, one of which was in colour. I sometimes wonder what happened to it: it must have been almost a first edition.
The account of Lucy hiding in the wardrobe and then passing through it into Narnia is one of the most memorable passages in children’s fiction. It’s a magical moment as she pushes her way past the heavy coats, smelling of mothballs, and then feels the crunch of snow under her feet and sees the far-off light of a lamppost. Suddenly, without any warning, she has passed from one world to the next; she has left behind a country house in wartime England and entered an entirely new world.
In today’s Gospel Jesus describes himself rather puzzlingly as a gate: ‘I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.’ We can’t be sure what Jesus meant by those words, but they suggest that he is the means by which we pass from a place of vulnerability (the wilderness where the sheep graze) to a place of safety. The picture we are to have in our minds is of a sheepfold, with the sheep passing in through the narrow entrance and the gate closing gently behind them.
Elsewhere in St John’s Gospel Jesus describes himself as ‘The way, the truth and the life, and in St Matthew’s Gospel he tells the disciples to ‘enter through the narrow gate’, warning them that that will have to make a real effort to squeeze through it (the Greek word usually translated ‘difficult’ in this context, suggests pressing grapes) if they want to embark on the road that leads to life. Just as Moses called the people of Israel to ‘choose life’ by being obedient to God, so Jesus challenges us to make the costly choices that will enable us to grow spiritually and rescue us from death.
Jesus is not like a magic wardrobe, and sadly he doesn’t offer us an instant passage from this world to the charm and wonder of a kind of Narnia. We might all enjoy the opportunity to escape in that way from time to time, but even Lucy and her siblings finally had to leave it behind and return to this world – finding themselves back at the very moment that they had left.
But Jesus is indeed a gateway to a fuller life: it is through him that we become members of God’s kingdom. The Church is a sign of the kingdom, and Jesus is the ‘gate’ through which we enter into membership of the Church at our baptism. But the kingdom of God is far greater than the Church, and Jesus is the gateway to a life shaped by its values: justice, equality, tolerance, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, peace. ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.’
Saturday 2nd May
My own pathetic tale of woe at the moment is mild toothache. A couple of weeks ago, while eating a piece of sourdough bread, I found myself biting on a tiny fragment of one of my upper molars, which had broken off. It’s left a gap which, although small, easily gets infected, so I regularly have to put up with a dull ache. I know that dentists are in short supply at the moment and busy with real emergencies, so I’m just going to have to put up with it until normality returns.
The trouble with toothache is that it somehow affects the rest of you as well. You feel grumpy and touchy and thoroughly sorry for yourself. I remember a historian once saying that in order to understand the Middle Ages you have to bear in mind that nearly everyone suffered from permanent toothache. Their poor dental health meant that they behaved in ways that we might find hard to understand, like having one another’s heads chopped off. It was all the fault of toothache!
St Paul wrote that if one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it (1 Cor 12.26). No doubt St Paul was speaking from personal experience (maybe he, too, had toothache), and he drew on it to help the members of the church in Corinth understand their relationship with one another. Throughout Chapter 12 of his Epistle, he uses the body as an image of the Church, explaining how each of its members has their own value and function and how they depend upon one another. No one is superior to anyone else; everyone has their own unique part to play, whether they are Sunday school leaders, coffee makers, bishops, safeguarding officers or pastoral visitors.
And he then goes on to make the important point about shared suffering: whenever one member suffers, the others suffer as well. The pain is shared and felt by all because they are parts of one organic whole: they are members of Christ’s own body, which is what the Church is. As we say in the Eucharist at the breaking of the bread: ‘Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.’ We are indeed one in Christ, sharing in the one loaf of communion, and we therefore cannot ignore one another’s pain. To do so would be to deny our place within the body.
As coronavirus continues to run its course, it is right for us to try and empathise with those who have contracted it, especially our fellow-members of the Church. They are our family. They are our body. They are part of who we are in Christ. Apathy and indifference are not options. We pray for them in order to open ourselves to their pain. Little wonder if we feel troubled and anxious as a result.
Friday 1st May – St Philip and St James
Thirty years ago a book was published called ‘The Christlike God’. It was written by John Taylor, the then Bishop of Winchester, and it was a companion to an earlier book he had written about the Holy Spirit, called ‘The Go-Between God.’
The expression ‘The Christlike God’ is a clever one. It helps us to see that Christ is our starting point. He is the reflection in a human life of the being of God. His life and teaching, and especially his death and resurrection, reveal God to us. We don’t have to try and imagine God. We are able to read the Gospels - and see God and hear his words. No wonder some people regard Christianity as blasphemous! What other religion would start with a human being and dare to say that he is (as Colossians puts it) ‘the image of the invisible God.’
Today the Church honours the apostle Philip, together with one of the apostles called James (‘James son of Alphaeus’). We don’t know much about either of them, but Philip makes some brief, but telling, appearances in St John’s Gospel. He is the third apostle to be called by Jesus, and he then brings his friend Nathanael to the Lord. It is he who questions Jesus about how he intends to set about feeding five thousand people. It is he who is approached in Jerusalem by some Greeks who are anxious to see Jesus. And it is he who prompts Jesus’ Farewell Discourse at the Last Supper, by asking the simple question, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’
That question is one that we can all relate to: Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied. Like Philip we all long to be able to see God - to satisfy our curiosity, to verify our faith, to allay our doubts. If only we could have just a fleeting glimpse of God, everything would be alright! We’d become the most loyal and committed disciples that the world has ever known.
And it’s easy to understand why Philip asked that question. He’d spent several years in Jesus’ company, listening to his parables, witnessing his miracles, watching him praying. He had come to believe that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, God’s chosen representative. No one was closer to God than Jesus.
But up until that moment, the truth hadn’t dawned on Philip that Jesus was God – God in human flesh – and that in his search for God he need look no further than the person standing before him. Imagine his amazement and his joy when Jesus replied: ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’
Jesus wants us to know that he is God. We, too, need look no further. There are other ways in which God makes himself known to us – through creation, through direct experience, through the working of conscience – but it is Christ who is God’s self-revelation. If we put our trust in him we shall not be disappointed. Remember St John’s words: ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’
Thursday 30th April
The word ‘Episcopal’ is an anagram for Pepsi Cola, but it comes from a Greek word, Episkopos, meaning someone who has oversight or supervision. A related word is ‘telescope’, and I sometimes imagine Bishop Martin standing up on the Trundle, keeping an eye on us all in the name of Christ (Remember the old saying: ‘Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you!’)
In the early days of the Church it was the apostles themselves who fulfilled this role, assisted by those whom they chose to become deacons. But as time went by, new leaders were appointed and empowered for their ministry by the laying on of hands, and for a time it would seem that the terms ‘episkopos’ and ‘presbyter’ were used interchangeably to describe them. Only gradually did the terms come to denote different ‘orders of ministry’: presbyters (priests) are those who preside at the Eucharist and exercise pastoral care within a local congregation; bishops are those who have oversight of a larger area (diocese), ensuring its unity and spiritual wellbeing.
Yesterday morning Downing Street announced the appointment of two new bishops for our diocese. The new Bishop of Lewes is to be the Reverend Will Hazelewood, who is currently Vicar of Dartmouth and Dittersham, and the new Bishop of Horsham is to be the Reverend Ruth Bushyager, who is currently Vicar of St Paul’s, Dorking. Their appointment marks a new phase in the life of our diocese and reflects something of our theological diversity. It remains to be seen when and where they will be consecrated as bishops, but we look forward to the start of their ministry here in Sussex. You can all read more about them on the diocesan website, and watch an interview that they gave with Bishop Martin.
It’s hard to imagine just how daunting it must be to take on the duties of a bishop, and our two new suffragans deserve our prayers and encouragement as they prepare to begin their ministries, with coronavirus still posing such a significant threat. They will face many challenges, but I hope that they will retain a sense of joy and enthusiasm in their work and will be able to help inspire us in our own Christian lives. Chichester Diocese has been through more than its fair share of difficulties over the last thirty or forty years and has sometimes suffered from a sense of cynicism and disillusionment. It would be wonderful if Bishop Will and Bishop Ruth together can help us turn a corner.
Wednesday 29th April
I heard yesterday that the former vice principal of my theological college, Canon John Armson, died recently. The news brought back all kinds of memories of the two years that I spent at the college (Westcott House in Cambridge, 1979-81) and John’s place in its life. He had a deep love of liturgy and the arts and a strong commitment to prayer, and he made the chapel a place of simple beauty. Among the three or four members of staff, who at that time included Rowan Williams, he was the one to whom I went for spiritual direction.
What are the memories of John that stand out in my mind? Being in his flat helping to make a giant Easter candle by melting down old candle ends on his cooker and pouring them into a plastic drainpipe. Listening to him explain the symbolism of Rublev’s icon of the Trinity, which at that time I’d never seen before. Being in chapel when he presided at the Eucharist, with a unique quality of stillness and intensity. Being taken by him on a walk around all the private Fellows’ Gardens in Cambridge on a beautiful May afternoon. Sharing his pleasure at his purchase of a painting of Wicken Fen, a National Trust property which he loved. Being severely rebuked by him for taking a weekend off to go and stay with my brother.
John left Cambridge in 1982 and went to Edinburgh to become principal of its own theological college. He came to lunch with us about ten years later when we were living in Glasgow, but I lost touch with him after that. He was a very private person and I never felt entirely at ease with him. But as the years have gone by I’ve realised how much I owe to him, and I’m sorry that I never tried to contact him and let him know. So often when someone dies we are left with feelings of regret and there is nothing that anyone can do to mollify them. We just have to bear them as best we can and learn to be more appreciative.
What John taught me particularly was that the best priests are often those who’ve experienced some kind of breakdown or disappointment and have learned to minister from their weakness and not their strength. Priests are often ‘wounded healers’, and they use their sense of woundedness to help them rely on God’s grace and to place their own ministry within the ministry of Christ. They are called to lives of holiness, not moral perfection.
John ended his ministry as Precentor of Rochester Cathedral, supervising its daily round of worship. I suspect that he would have liked to have become a bishop or a dean, but it wasn’t to be. His best years were probably those when he was involved in training ordinands – helping us grow up a little in readiness for the challenges of ministry. I hope he knew how much his work was valued.
Tuesday 28th April
I’ve sometime wondered what it would be like to live under siege: to be confined to a castle or a city, surrounded by an enemy. In recent weeks we’ve all had a taste of it, as we’ve retreated within our homes in response to the threat of the virus. At first I quite enjoyed the novelty of being locked down and forced to stay put, but it’s certainly worn off nowand I’d love to have a change of scenery, if only for a few hours.
Throughout history there have been many famous sieges. Chichester had its own siege in 1642, when Parliamentarianforces, encouraged by William Cawley, attacked the city and brought about the defeat of those who were loyal to the Crown. They then desecrated the Cathedral and went on their way, no doubt claiming a victory for democracy.
Jerusalem was, of course, besieged by the Romans in 70 AD, fulfilling Jesus’s warnings about the destruction of the city. It was a brutal and merciless act, coinciding with the 500thanniversary of the destruction of the city by the Babylonians. After four months of starvation and fighting the Romans finally broke through the walls, destroying the Temple and either killing the inhabitants or carrying them into slavery.
Similar in brutality and duration was the Siege of Malta in 1565. It was part of an ongoing struggle between various Christian forces and the Islamic Ottoman Empire for control of the Mediterranean. For weeks on end, a small force of Knights Hospitaller (‘The Knights of Malta’) withstood the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent, until eventually they were relieved by a force that had sailed from Spain. During the Second World War history repeated itself when the island sustained terrible bombardment by Axis forces.
And from ancient history we mustn’t forget the Siege of Troy. No one knows how much historical truth lies behind the stories of the Greeks and the Trojans, fighting in response to the abduction of Helen by Paris. But what a powerful and instructive legend it is. When the Greeks withdrew, leaving the wooden horse outside the walls of Troy, the Trojans thought that their troubles were over and that they were victorious. Little did they realise the danger that the horse contained; little did they imagine that their city was about to be destroyed.
As our own government decides whether our own siege is over and whether it is safe for us to begin to resume our ordinary lives, the story of the wooden horse needs to be born in mind. The virus may seem to be subsiding, the danger may appear to have passed, but it could return again with a new and deadly ferocity.
Monday 27th April
One of my most vivid childhood memories is of the harsh winter of 1963. It was the coldest winter for 200 years, and it’s hard now to believe just how bitter and sustained it was. For weeks on end, every part of the country was covered in snow, and temperatures dropped far below zero. I remember walking to my primary school with banked up snow on either side of the road, and the road itself covered in a permanent sheet of ice. Around the coast of Kent the sea froze for several miles out, and in some rural areas there were snow drifts of up to 20 feet.
And then, at the beginning of March, the thaw began. Slowly the temperature began to rise and the snow and ice melted. Life returned to normal and work began on repairing all the damage that had been caused. Wildlife had suffered terribly and some species of small birds had been decimated. Everyone had stories to tell of frozen pipes, damaged power lines, shortages of coal, kind neighbours, and the daily struggle to keep warm and get to work.
That was, I think, the last time that this county experienced a sustained period of disruption comparable to the present lockdown. Thankfully it didn’t involve loss of life on the scale that we have been witnessing over these past few weeks, but it did cause real hardship to many people, especially the elderly and those on low incomes. There was a huge sense of relief as winter gave way to spring and Easter approached.
The carol ‘In the bleak midwinter’, contains that memorable line, ‘Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone’, and for me those words always evoke memories of the big freeze of 1963. The carol was, of course, written by Christina Rossetti, who was a Victorian poet of great sensitivity and skill. Her first recorded verses were written on this day in 1842 and she is commemorated today in the Church of England’s Calendar. Her carol was published in 1872 and was complemented by the wonderful settings which Holst and Darke composed for it.
Rossetti suffered a good deal of sadness and disappointment during her life, but was sustained by her strong Christian faith. One of her most famous poems (‘Up-hill’) presents life as an uphill struggle, but one which has an ‘inn’ as its goal, a place of rest and refreshment. However tough things may be, Christ will be at our journey’s end and in him we shall find true peace and lasting joy.
Sunday 26th April – Easter 3
Captain Tom Moore has become the hero of the hour. Not only has he raised £28 million for NHS charities by walking round his garden (ten 25m laps each day), he has now become the oldest person ever to have a number one chart hit with his version of ‘You’ll never walk alone.’ This week he’ll be celebrating his hundredth birthday and there is a possibility that he might even receive a knighthood. What an incredible crowning achievement for someone who served in Burma during the War and later raced motorbikes in his spare time.
Captain Tom’s daily walk has caught the mood of the country at a time when everyone is wanting to show their support for the NHS. It has become a genuinely heart-warming story in the midst of so much sad news, and demonstrated the strength of the human spirit. It’s a particularly British kind of story, with a tinge of eccentricity and more than a dose of grit. All the right ingredients are there: a garden, three chinking medals, and the understated humour of a true ‘old soldier’.
From time to time we all need stories of this kind: unexpected stories that can make the news headlines and offer a glimmer of hope and reassurance. The expression ‘heart-warming’ can sound a bit sentimental, but we all know how good it is to have our hearts ‘warmed’ by things which lift our spirits and reassure us that death and disorder – and the fear that go with them – do not entirely have the upper hand. It may be that ‘bad news sells papers’, but only if it is occasionally balanced by good news that everyone can relate to.
Christianity offers us countless good news stories, all held within the bigger story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Today’s Gospel reading is one such story: the account of the two disciples walking to Emmaus, whose sadness was changed to joy when they recognised Jesus as the stranger at their side. It is the original heart-warming story: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us?’ the disciples said later, as they reflected on what had happened.
The disciples’ lives were utterly changed that day; their joy never left them. They knew that Christ was risen and that death had been defeated, and they ran back to Jerusalem to share the good news with the other disciples. Most heart-warming stories are soon forgotten: they make the news for a week or so and then fade into the past. But the Gospel (the ‘Good News’) is a story whose power cannot be diminished. It is Christ’s promise that we’ll ‘never walk alone’, proved by the experience of those two disciples. Remember that when you listen to Captain Tom.
Saturday 25th April – St Mark’s Day
Some of you will know the so-called Prayer of Sir Francis Drake, which speaks of the importance of seeing things through to their conclusion:
Lord God, when thou givest to thy servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same, until it be thoroughly finished, that yieldeth the true glory; through him who, for the finishing of thy work, laid down his life for us, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The prayer became well-known during the War, when the Dean of York, Eric Milner-White, fashioned it into its finished form from a letter written by Drake in 1587. It was used as part of a National Day of Prayer in 1941 which focused on the war effort at a time when defeat seemed a real possibility. It was used again at the time of the 400th anniversary of the Spanish Armada in 1988.
How good are you at getting things completed? It’s not difficult to embark on some new project or enterprise, but it requires real determination to bring it to fruition. Most of us have some sort of project on the go (a half-built extension, a half-written novel, a half-completed fitness programme) but in our heart of hearts we may know that we’re never actually going to get it done. It will go on haunting us for a few years until we finally have the honesty to admit defeat.
Today is St Mark’s Day, and one of the few facts that we know about St Mark is that he went with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, but then turned back at Paphos. He abandoned them. He didn’t see things through. He gave up. We don’t know why he did so, and he may have had very good reason for it, but Paul certainly regarded it as an act of desertion and a breach of trust (Acts 15.38).
Poor old Mark! We can all sympathise with him and we should be quick to forgive him, as Paul himself eventually did, because tradition suggests that later, in Rome, he wrote the wonderful Gospel that bears his name. But as we honour him today, perhaps we should reflect on the virtue of perseverance, and the glory that comes from seeing things through to their conclusion.
What is clear about the present pandemic is that there must be no let-up in our determination to eliminate it and no complacency about the signs that it is beginning to subside. It must be fought to the very end – and that may still be a long way off. St Paul’s words to Timothy come to mind: ‘ I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’. May we, too, be resolute in our discipleship and finish the race!
Friday 24th April
As far as I know, John Keats only stayed in Chichester for a short time, at the start of 1819. While he was here he began work on ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, and his stay is now commemorated by the witty bench sculpture in Eastgate Square as well as the plaque on the house opposite. From Chichester he went to Winchester, and it was there that some of his most famous poems were composed.
Two years before he came to Chichester, Keats had written a letter to his brothers in which he coined the phrase ‘negative capability’. He wrote, ‘Negative Capability is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ In other words, he was speaking of the ability to cope with ambiguity and doubt, rather than having to find certainty and assurance. Like being able to enjoy jazz, with its improvisation and unpredictability, rather than being wedded to Beethoven symphonies.
We’re beginning to discover that we are in the midst of an unprecedented period of uncertainty in almost every area of life. The stress that we are feeling is not just the product of fear, it’s the product of uncertainty. When will our schools return? When will shops, offices and pubs reopen? When will social distancing no longer be required? When will older people feel safe outside their homes? When will be able to gather once more for worship – and share communion?
No one knows the answers to these questions and the government, understandably, is being coy about what life is likely to be like at the end of the current lockdown. Equally, no one can predict how much our social fabric and patterns of life will have been permanently changed by the effects of the pandemic. We all long to return to normal as soon as possible, but we are just beginning to wake up to the fact that ‘normality’ has been swept away, and that we shall have to wait and see what emerges in its wake.
So it is that we need to develop our ‘negative capability’ and resist our longing for clarity and certainty. Our minds are crowded with questions, but we must learn to accept that for the time being most of them must remain unanswered. Faith itself is an expression of negative capability, and in all of this our faith is being put to the test – perhaps for the first time in our lives. St Paul said that we ‘walk by faith and not by sight’, and never was a there a time when those words were more true. Let us pray for the strengthening of our faith and for courage to embrace an uncertain future.
Thursday 23rd April – St George’s Day
When I was growing up I sometimes listened to ‘Desert Island Discs’ on the radio. At the end of every episode Roy Plomley, the presenter, would ask his castaways what book they would like to take with them to their island, ‘other than the Bible and Shakespeare.’ Those words always made me feel very inadequate. I knew little about either the Bible or Shakespeare, other than what I’d learned in confirmation classes and school lessons, and if at that point in my life I’d been washed up on a desert island, I certainly wouldn’t have cared whether or not they were available.
And I have to admit that even now, a good few years later, my knowledge of both of them is pretty deficient. I’m always nervous about taking part in quizzes in case there’s a section on the Bible (How I dread those words, ‘We’ll be alright – we’ve got the vicar in our team!’), and I’ve never been to Stratford-on-Avon except once, on a canal holiday, when the theatre was closed. If I ever aspired to be a culture vulture, I can’t yet claim to have flown very far from my perch.
But I haven’t entirely given up, and a year ago I bought a book which had received excellent reviews called ‘This is Shakespeare’, by Emma Smith, who is Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford. It’s very accessible and it offers an introduction to each of Shakespeare’s plays, putting them in context and analysing their plots and characterisation. The trouble is that I haven’t yet opened it! It forms part of a pile of books (including ‘The Bible Challenge: How to Read the Bible in a Year’) chosen with all kinds of good intentions, but as yet unread. Perhaps you have similar witnesses to your lack of resolve.
Today is, of course, Shakespeare’s birthday: he was born in 1564, a few months before an outbreak of bubonic plague which killed a quarter of the population of Stratford. It was a wonderful quirk of fate that delivered him into the world on the very day when we honour our patron saint, St George, and there could be no more worthy representative of the English people. He is known and studied throughout the world, and every year huge numbers of people attend performances of his plays at Stratford and the Globe - as well as our own wonderful Festival Theatre.
And what better time is there than now for me to start reading him. With Emma Smith to guide me I have no excuse for not opening the Complete Works and actually trying to read through one or two of his plays. It may well be that I’ll fail in my attempt and end up with the ghost of Roy Plomley mocking me, but it’s definitely worth a try. After all, as the Bard himself said, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” I think that’s in Julius Caesar, but I’ll have to read it to find out!
Wednesday 22nd April
I wonder how much your domestic lifestyle has changed over the last few weeks. At home we’ve noticed a few subtle changes. We’re now eating hardly any meat; we’re no longer bothered about brand names (we’re just grateful to be able to buy the things we need); we’re being more careful about wasting food; we’re learning to shop less often and to be more patient in queues; and of course we’re using hardly any petrol. Only little things, but together they’ve moved us in a slightly different direction.
Last weekend Sir David Attenborough made another impassioned plea to people everywhere to help protect the future of our planet. In particular he focused on waste - waste of any kind. If the Earth is to stand any chance of surviving, the one thing we must all do is to eliminate waste from our lives. No more wasted food, no more wasted energy, no more wasted fuel, no more unnecessary packaging. Unless we all play our part in this way, we will push the world through a ‘one-way door’ with irreversible consequences for climate change. We’ve got to learn to do things differently.
The pandemic is forcing countless changes upon us. Most of them are only temporary and will be reversed as soon as possible, but some of them may prove to be beneficial and long lasting. For instance, working from home seems likely to become a permanent option for more people, reducing the amount of commuting (with its associated energy consumption) and allowing them greater flexibility in the planning of their lives.
None of us welcomes change, especially when it threatens our comfort and personal freedom. But during these weeks when normal life has been suspended in response to a terrifying global threat, we would be foolish indeed not to think about the changes that are necessary to safeguard the sustainability of our planet. Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, highlighting the kinds of environmental issues that are now impacting on our lives and inviting us to play our part in responding to them.
The economist and Christian, E.F. Schumacher, author of the ground-breaking ‘Small is Beautiful’, wrote, ‘The real problems of our planet are not economic or technical, they are philosophical. The philosophy of unbridled materialism is being challenged by events.’ We are currently being challenged by ‘events’ which few of us could have foreseen. How wonderful it would be if this led to changes that helped safeguard the future of our planet.
Tuesday 21st April
Tooting is not one of the most distinguished parts of London, but it’s definitely ‘on the up’. It’s the home of Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, and in recent years it’s become a desirable place to live for those who want character, diversity and easy access to central London. To me it means little more than a couple of stops on the Northern Line, one of which, Tooting Bec, is up there with Chalk Farm, Mornington Crescent, Swiss Cottage and Arnos Grove among the most evocative Underground station names.
Why ‘Bec’? Tooting Broadway is perfectly comprehensible, but what on earth does ‘Bec’ mean? Is it some kind of South London slang, perhaps a rhyming word for neck (‘My husband’s a right pain in the Tooting’)? No, as some of you will know, it’s the name of a small village in Normandy which is very much connected with the early history of the Church in England.
Most people who find their way to the village of Le Bec-Hellouin, twenty miles or so from Rouen, do so because it is a particularly quiet and picturesque place. I remember stumbling upon it once, quite by chance, when we were on holiday. It’s recently been dubbed ‘one of the most beautiful villages in France’. But it’s also home to a large Benedictine monastery which dates from before the Conquest, and two of its monks, Lanfranc and Anselm (both of them Italians) became successive Archbishops of Canterbury.
Anselm died in 1109 and is commemorated today. Shortly before he moved to Canterbury, the Abbey at Bec was given land at Tooting, and he is believed to have visited it. He’s remembered today by a pub which bears his name on the corner of Balham High Road! The fact that both he and Lanfranc were monks of Bec cemented a bond between the Abbey and the Church of England which continues to this day. I once met a monk from Bec at the site of Emmaus in the Holy Land, and he spoke warmly of the Church of England as a sister church.
Anselm was a firm Archbishop, who won the respect of the English nobility and the affection of his brother monks. He is remembered today as an outstanding theologian and the author of many prayers and meditations, and some of you will know this prayer that he wrote:
O Lord our God,
grant us grace to desire you with our whole heart;
that so desiring, we may seek and find you;
and so finding, may love you;
and so loving, may hate those sins from which
you have delivered us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Monday 20th April
Last night I spoke to my mother on the phone. She’s in a care home just outside Bristol, close to my brother and his family. She sounded in good spirits and is being well looked after. One of the best features of her home is a sunny garden with views southwards towards the Mendip Hills, and the residents are encouraged to go outside and enjoy the fresh air whenever possible.
I last saw my mother on 7th March when we took her out for lunch to celebrate her 95th birthday. At that time coronavirus was beginning to make an impact, and I remember thinking how lucky we were that the care home allowed us to take her to a busy pub in Bristol. It never seriously occurred to me at that stage that it might have been an irresponsible thing to do. As things are, I have no idea when I shall next be able to see her again.
The decision to move my mother from her own flat into the care home has proved to be a good one. At Christmas, when she came to stay with us here in Chichester she was still adamant that she was able to live an independent life. But soon after her return home, she had a number of falls and a bout of flu which twice necessitated spells in hospital. Suddenly her circumstances changed and we took the decision to move her into care, despite her initial misgivings.
It’s hard to imagine what might have happened to her if she’d remained in her own flat in Surrey. We couldn’t have brought her to stay here during the lockdown because she was unable to manage our stairs, and it would have been virtually impossible to have attended to her needs at such a distance. She would have been isolated and vulnerable.
Care homes play an important part in our society, and they depend on large numbers of dedicated, and generally low-paid, staff. The number of care home deaths as a result of coronavirus are deeply shocking, and there are very real concerns about the extent to which staff have access to PPE. But despite all the challenges, many of them are still managing to provide high standards of care, and for that we should be extremely thankful. Please pray for them all, and especially for those within this parish.
Sunday 19th April
During the past few weeks our daily readings at morning prayer have been from the Book of Exodus, recalling the way in which God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt. Time after time we have heard Moses’ plea to Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go’, and have read of Pharaoh’s refusal to do so, despite the terrible plagues which God sent in response. The plagues always make for grim reading, and particularly so at the present time and I, for one, am glad to have moved on in the story to the point at which Pharaoh finally relents and tells Moses that the Israelites are free to leave and return to their own land.
Pharaoh soon changes his mind, however, and as the Israelites make good their escape they look back and see Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit. Before them lies the expanse of the Red Sea; it seems that they are trapped and must surely die there on the shore. But Moses tells them not to be afraid and as he stretches out his hand, the waters of the sea divide, and the people are able to make their way through it to safety. Behind them the sea resumes its normal flow, and Pharaoh’s army is destroyed.
The crossing of the Red Sea prefigures Jesus’ passage from death to life, and it’s a journey that we too have undertaken through the waters of baptism. It may be that our baptism took place many years ago in a quiet and understated way (and most of us will have no personal memory of it all) but it was, in truth, the most significant journey that we have ever undertaken: a journey from slavery to freedom, a sharing in Christ’s own resurrection.
But it also marked the start of another journey: our own life’s journey, like that of the Israelites, through the wilderness of this life towards the Promised Land which is our final goal. For the Israelites themselves that journey proved to be long and hard, and there were times when they cried out to God and accused him of abandoning them.
Perhaps we, too, find our daily journey hard and are tempted to blame God for not making it easier for us. Life can be rich, varied and exhilarating, but it can also be boring, tiring and dangerous. What matters is that we don’t lose our sense of direction, and that we always remember where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
Saturday 18th April
One of the most moving sights in the world is that of the Statue of Liberty, especially when seen from a ship, with the skyline of Manhattan beyond. Ever since it was dedicated in 1886, it’s been an icon of freedom to millions of people fleeing oppression in Europe and seeking a new home in the United States.
The West Indian poet, Derek Walcott, described his first impression of the Statue like this: ‘What was moving, I think, was the fact that the statue is a woman and not a heroic, manly figure. So for all her scale and immensity, there's something soft about the Statue of Liberty, something tender about her. I think at the heart of the idea of American democracy there is something tender.’
As a predominantly immigrant nation, with a collective memory of pogroms and the holocaust, America prizes liberty and is proud of its constitution in which key aspects of liberty are enshrined. Ironically, one of the reasons why many Americans insist on their right to bear arms is, of course, to do with their understanding that liberty is something that cannot be taken for granted and must be defended at all costs.
In this country we have a remarkable unwritten constitution which, by and large, protects our liberty and ensures that we enjoy an immense amount of personal freedom. We can say what we like, go where we like, and do as we like – within reasonable limits. We rely on the Judiciary to oversee the way in which our laws are implemented, and we hold Parliament to account for the legislation that it passes.
But at the present time, our liberty is restricted. We are required to stay at home. We can’t visit our relatives. We can’t go to the beach. And we can’t go to church. It all feels very unfamiliar, and it’s not surprising if we are beginning to find it hard to cope with. It goes against the grain of our national identity.
But it remains very necessary – and we know that it’s for our own good. The precious liberty of enjoying good health and receiving appropriate medical care if necessary, depends upon a few more weeks of lockdown, however frustrating. And our spiritual freedom remains unchecked. We can still pray, worship and proclaim our faith! The seventeenth century poet, Richard Lovelace, wrote:
Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such Liberty.
Friday 17th April
It’s a month now since I conducted my last public service in church. I remember it clearly because it was St Patrick’s Day, and I celebrated the Eucharist that Tuesday morning wondering how much longer worship in church would be permitted. Later that day word came from Lambeth that all Church of England services were to be suspended; less than a week after that came the prime minister’s announcement of the lockdown.
And now we are to begin a further three weeks of isolation, without any clear idea when we will be able to return to church (it certainly won’t happen as soon as the lockdown comes to an end). At one level things are probably easier for most of us now than they were a month ago, and we have begun to adapt to this new life of online shopping, increased dependency on social media, limited bursts of exercise, and greater time in the garden.
But I know that the extension of the lockdown will be met with dismay by countless others: parents with children to look after at home, those without any source of income, those struggling to pay rent, the owners of small businesses, the acutely isolated – and so on. On the rare occasions when I now walk through the city centre I wonder how many of our shops and businesses will survive this critical time, and what the city will feel like when we finally return to ‘normal’.
Some of Jesus’ parables are relevant to our present condition. I’m thinking of those parables of the kingdom which emphasise patience, growth, and hiddenness – such as the parable of the yeast and the parable of the mustard seed. Our own lives may seem relatively quiet and uneventful, but beneath the surface of things so much is taking place in response to the pandemic, and perhaps we shall emerge from it with a greater sense of compassion, tolerance and interdependence.
Not long before her death in February, the television personality Caroline Flack posted the message, ‘In a world where you can be anything, be kind.’ It is so sad that such a message ever had to be written, but it would be good to think that during these strange weeks we will at least have learned once more to be kind to one other.
Thursday 16th April
Over the past few weeks, Centurion Way and its adjoining fields have become a godsend for our daily dog-walking. I used to be a bit disdainful of Centurion Way, preferring to walk on the downs or by the sea, but that’s obviously out of the question at the moment. And I have to admit that I enjoy meeting other people out in the sunshine, cycling, jogging or just strolling – all of us giving one another a wide, but polite, berth!
As we walked along it over the Easter weekend the sounds coming from the gardens in Parklands reawakened memories of childhood bank holidays: lawn-mowing, music (it would have been transistor radios back then) the chink of lemonade glasses, and the laughter of children playing in paddling pools. In the past all the shops were closed on bank holidays, and for those without cars the natural place to go was one’s own garden. Sadly, that age of innocence has long since passed.
It’s easy to take for granted all our opportunities for exercise and recreation here in Chichester, and Centurion Way is certainly a great amenity. I know that some of you can still remember when it was still in occasional use as a goods railway, and there must be some Chichester residents who have memories of travelling on it in the 1930’s. My Auntie Kitty used it daily to get from Midhurst to school in Chichester over a hundred years ago, and I sometimes try to imagine her: a teenager from Huddersfield (she never entirely lost her Yorkshire accent) looking out at the Sussex countryside as the train puffed slowly down the Lavant valley.
Auntie Kitty came to love Sussex and was proud to have been one of the first pupils to have attended the Girls’ High School, but she was a forward-looking person who never allowed nostalgia to get the better of her. If she could return now to Centurion Way she wouldn’t mourn the passing of the railway, she wouldn’t object to the White House Farm development, and she’d love to see a continuous cycle way all the way up to Midhurst! She’d be delighted that a disused feature of the past should now be giving so many people pleasure.
Wednesday 15th April
A friend sent me a cartoon last week. It showed the Pope with his head in his hands, saying, ‘This is going to be the worst Good Friday ever’, and the figure of Jesus on a crucifix next to him raising an eyebrow and saying ‘Really?’
Is it ever possible to make jokes about Good Friday? And is it possible for us to introduce any kind of humour into our lives during this dark and increasingly tragic time? I was saddened to learn of the recent death from coronavirus of Tim Brooke-Taylor, one of that talented generation of comedians of the 60’s and 70’s, who most of us will probably associate with The Goodies. Would he have wanted us to become increasingly glum and depressed, or to keep our sanity by having an occasional goodlaugh. As a nation we have a great tradition of comedy and self-deprecating humour, and even during the War humour flourished, with many good jokes at the expense of ‘Mr Hitler’. I’m often aware of the way in which laughter breaks the ice and driesthe tears at a wake following a funeral.
I was reading recently of the Queen Mother’s love of comedy. As she got older and became less mobile she found particular enjoyment watching the television classics, particularly ‘Dad’s Army’, Fawlty Towers’ and ‘Keeping Up Appearances’. There’s something very endearing about the thought of Basil Fawlty’s voice echoing around Clarence House, as the Queen Mum sat there with a gin and Dubonnet in her hand. And of course Boris Johnson first came to the attention of the wider public through his rambling – and very funny - appearances on ‘Have I Got News For You’, naming one of his own books, ‘Have I Got Views For You’, and prompting Paul Merton to read extracts from it on air with the comment, ‘I wish I was making this up!’
Who are your favourite comedians and what are your own favourite comedy series? Perhaps you hark back to the great names of the past, such as Tony Hancock, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, or Morecambe and Wise. Perhaps you enjoy the kind of satirical comedy associated with Monty Python, or the comic creations of Rowan Atkinson. Or perhaps you pine for the sort of gentle situation comedy represented by ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ or ‘Only Fools and Horses’ or ‘Allo, Allo’.
Whatever your favourites, why not indulge yourself in re-watching some of them now. Laughter may not be the best medicine, but it’s pretty strong stuff.
Tuesday 14th April
Many of you will remember the screenwriter Dennis Potter (‘Blue Remembered Hills’, ‘The Singing Detective’) who died
in 1994. He was a proud native of the Forest of Dean, and he lived for many years not far away in Ross-on-Wye. During the last weeks of his life he gave an interview to Melvyn Bragg in which he described the intensity with which he had found himself viewing the world around him. Although he had become housebound, he was truly living in the present moment and appreciating his surroundings. Everything seemed vivid, and alive and remarkable – particularly the plum tree outside his window. This is what he said:
‘The only thing you know for certain is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life. Below my window in Ross, when I’m working in Ross, for example, there is at this season a plum tree… Looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that ever could be, and I can see it.’
And later in the interview he said: ‘The nowness of everything is wondrous.’
Like Dennis Potter, I have a plum tree outside my study window, and it’s just beginning to blossom. Sometimes when I look at it I am reminded of that interview, and the importance of living in the present moment and appreciating the wondrous ‘nowness’ of the things around us. It’s so easy to rush from one day to the next without ever being fully in the moment, either looking anxiously ahead or ruminating on the past.
At this time when all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, are housebound, the opportunities to practise the kind of intense seeing and noticing that Potter describes are greater than normal. Let’s make the most of these opportunities and discover what it feels like to live fully in the ‘present tense.’
Monday 13th April
There seems to have been a shortage of flour in our shops this Easter. While most other foodstuffs have been in good supply, flour vanished from the supermarket shelves sometime during the course of last week. It may be the result of problems with the supply chain. But I suspect it was more likely caused by an immense outburst of baking over the Easter weekend - an indication, perhaps, of a national instinct to bake ourselves out of a crisis.
Some of you are no doubt clever enough to bake your own hot cross buns, and perhaps for that reason you got yourselves to the head of the queue for flour. I love hot cross buns and always rely on them to sustain me through the rigours of Good Friday (yes – I know it’s supposed to be a day of fasting…), but I am perfectly content with shop-baked versions. I have eaten a few home-made ones over the years and they have been of decidedly variable quality.
But Easter definitely deserves a good cake, and the flour shortage suggests that the smell of baking must have hung over our land on Saturday as millions of Easter cakes were prepared. One of my childhood memories of Easter is of the simnel cake which my mother always made, complete with eleven marzipan balls for the apostles, minus Judas, and a marzipan nest with chocolate eggs. I’ve just googled simnel cakes, and it would appear that the name simnel comes from the Latin ‘simila’, meaning fine white flour. So there’s the evidence for what has caused the present flour shortage!
But in our household yesterday we tackled a formidable chocolate cake, laden with an extraordinary array of decorations including four Lindt chocolate paws, representing our dogs and cats. It was certainly very delicious, and there’s plenty left for the rest of the week. Next time I complain about having a crowded household I must remember the advantages of having keen bakers currently under our roof.
12th April – Easter Day
On Good Friday we watched Mel Gibson’s film, ‘The Passion of the Christ’. When it was released in 2004 it sharply divided the critics. Some praised it for its spiritual intensity. Some accused it of being both excessively violent and anti-Semitic. It’s certainly a tough film to watch, as indeed it should be, and it brings home like no other the scale and intensity of Christ’s suffering.
On his way to the place of his crucifixion Jesus stumbles several times, and on one of those occasions the film shows his mother kneeling down to comfort him. Jesus’s body is bleeding and bruised; he is exhausted and in pain and is barely able to speak. But he turns to Mary and speaks those words which we know from the Book of Revelation (21. 5): ‘I make all things new’.
It felt strange, watching the film, to hear those words spoken in that way out of their normal context, but it was very effective. As Jesus fell to the ground it seemed as if death had the upper hand and that everything would end in agony and defeat. But he could still see a glimmer of light on the horizon. He could still feel the presence of his heavenly Father. He understood that his death would be the catalyst for a new creation in which everything would be ‘made new’.
Today we celebrate that new creation and we pray that our eyes may be open to the ways in which Christ is making all things new – in our own lives and in our wounded world. It would be easy at the present time to fall prey to a quiet sense of despair and to doubt that things will soon get better. But Christ is with us, offering us hope and encouragement and inviting us to share his risen life. This prayer, which I sometimes use when I am anointing the sick, puts it well – and I offer it for each one of you:
‘Lift up your face to the light. The mark of Christ is upon you; walk free and open your heart to life, for Christ walks with you into a new day.’
11th April – Holy Saturday
Holy Saturday is an ‘empty’ day in the Church’s calendar. Christ’s body lies in the tomb. Worship and praise are inappropriate. This is the one day of the year when it feels right for our church to be silent and locked.
But all round us are the sights and sounds of spring. The weather recently has been exceptional and everything is coming into leaf. Trees and hedgerows are covered in blossom, the birds are singing and the days are long. How strange it is that one part of creation – the global human family – is infected by something that leaves every other part untouched.
God speaks to many people through the beauty of creation, and we can find particular solace in it at the present time. It feels like a gift to help sustain us in our troubles, even if we can’t get out into the countryside to appreciate it fully. The American writer and environmentalist Wendell Holmes (who describes himself as ‘a person who takes the Christian Gospel seriously’) has become famous for his poem ‘The Peace of Wild Things’, which speaks of the way in which nature can help us to regain our sense of equilibrium when we are feeling anxious and unsettled. I hope it will speak to you today:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
10th April – Good Friday
I have on my desk a framed postcard of the Pieta by Michelangelo. The sculpture stands near the entrance to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome; I remember it well from my only visit to Rome way back in 1982. Michelangelo carved it in the closing years of the 15th century, and it’s an astonishing achievement, combining classical beauty and shocking realism. Mary cradles the lifeless body of her son and looks upon him with tenderness and grief (‘pieta’). Simeon had warned her that a sword would pierce her soul; that moment has now come. The son whom she bore at Bethlehem now lies dead in her arms in Jerusalem.
I don’t speak any Italian, but I imagine that the word ‘Pieta’, or a similar word, has been prominent in Italian vocabulary over the last few months. The effects of coronavirus there have been so devastating, and countless families and medical staff will have looked upon the sick and the dying with ‘pieta’: a deep and compassionate sense of pity.
And now our own country faces loss on a similar scale. It would seem that the virus is nearing the peak of its ferocity and every day we hear shocking statistics about its effects. Most of us are powerless to do anything to help (other than taking care not to spread it); all we can do, like Mary, is to direct our pity –and our prayers - towards those who are most seriously affected, and not turn away from them in order to protect our own feelings.
Good Friday is supremely a day of Pieta. It is the day when our churches stand bare - stripped of all decoration. It is the day when we read again the Gospel accounts of the rending of the Temple curtain and the darkness that hung over the land. And it is the day when we steel ourselves to contemplate the agony and death of God’s own son, seeing in him the suffering of all humankind, not least those who at the present time are being treated in our hospitals.
Maundy Thursday 9th April
On Tuesday evening I went for a walk around the Cathedral. It was just before 8pm: the sky was beginning to darken, the immense full moon hung above the end of Canon Lane, and I had the Bishop’s Garden entirely to myself. There was an atmosphere of almost perfect beauty and stillness.
Tonight we think of Jesus going with his disciples to the peace of a garden. The name Gethsemane means ‘oil press’ and the garden bearing that name lies at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Jesus knew the place well and he chose it as the place to compose himself for his arrest and death. It was Passover time and the full moon would have been hanging in the sky that night also.
As Jesus prayed in the moonlight, his disciples struggled to stay awake. How hard we find it to remain faithful to Jesus. How easily we fall prey to spiritual lethargy and become absorbed in our own needs and concerns. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is indeed weak. All that Jesus asks is that we should ‘watch and pray’, but we struggle to do so.
And as Jesus prayed, he handed his life over to God. He made God’s will his own. He surrendered himself to God and overcame the fear that gripped him. He prepared himself for the arrival of the soldiers and the kiss of betrayal.
Authentic spirituality involves surrender to God and the acceptance of his will. ‘Let go, let God’ may sound trite, but it’s right! That’s what we – like Jesus – must try to do in order to grow to spiritual maturity. Richard Rohr says: ‘Surrender is not “giving up”, as we tend to think, nearly as much as it is “giving to” the moment, the event, the situation.’ In other words, it is not an expression of weakness, but of courage and spiritual strength.
Wednesday 8th April
It is often noted that the most repeated phrase in the Bible – in one form or another – is the phrase, ‘Do not be afraid’, or ‘Have courage’. It’s particularly evident, for instance, in the account of Joshua leading God’s people across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Three times God tells Joshua to be ‘strong and courageous’, and urges the people not to be ‘frightened or dismayed’ at this critical moment in their fortunes.
It’s all very well being told not to be afraid; it’s another thing putting it into practice. The experience of fear is part of being human, and it sometimes threatens to swallow us up. Jesus himself wrestled with fear as his death drew near; St John quotes him as saying, ‘Now my soul is troubled’. Who know how much raw emotion was contained within those few words?
One way of dealing with fear is to acknowledge it and look it in the eye, rather than allowing it to create a kind of story in our minds. Don’t try to shut it out; make it part of your prayer. Fr Martin Laird says: ’If you want to know the true nature of fear, look straight into it. Fear, anger, envy – any afflictive thought or feeling – cannot withstand a direct gaze. But if we look at the story and feed on the story we tell ourselves of our fear, anger, envy etc., affliction thrives. Affliction feeds off the noise of the commenting, chattering mind.’
The other way of dealing with fear is to remember that God is with us in all that we face. St John tells how Jesus calmed the fears of the disciples by assuring them that God would send the Holy Spirit to be a ‘Paraclete’ – an unseen helper and comforter, always there at their side. And his own parting gift was the gift of peace: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’ [John 14.27]
Tuesday 7th April
The adjective that I hear most commonly used to describe our current situation is ‘strange’. People regularly comment on the ‘strange times’ in which we find ourselves, and I find myself using the word too, without being entirely sure what I mean by it. I suppose that’s the point: so much of what we are experiencing is unfamiliar, exceptional, alien, and out of keeping with normal life. We don’t quite have the vocabulary to make sense of it. It is ‘strange’.
This strangeness creates a particular stress. People tell me how hard they find it to relax, despite the sunshine and their enforced time at home. They have a constant sense of unease. Everyday feels like a step into the unknown. L.P. Hartley began his novel, ‘The Go-Between’ with those now famous words, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Now even the present is a foreign country from which so many familiar landmarks have been removed.
There is one passage in the Bible that I particularly associate with the word ‘strange’. It’s a passage that we usually shy away from because of the violence of its language, but which sums up very powerfully what it feels like to inhabit a strange land. It’s Psalm 137: the psalm which describes God’s people far away from home in exile in Babylon, grieving over Jerusalem: ‘By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion’.
The exiles are so filled with sorrow that they are unable even to worship and to pray. Their harps are silent, hung on the willow trees; they cannot bring themselves to ‘sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.’ Strangeness robs them of praise.
And in our own way, we can relate to them. Easter approaches, but we wonder whether we will be able to cry ‘Alleluia’. Our prayers are prayers of concern and petition, not of praise and jubilation. We are exiles in Babylon and all is strange. For the time being our harps must remain silent.
Monday 6th April
In a sermon last year I reflected on the ministry of Saint Mother Teresa and her far-reaching impact. One of those who was most moved by her was the cynical intellectual journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, and his visit to Calcutta to meet her helped to prompt his conversion to Catholicism.
Muggeridge made a film about Mother Teresa called ‘Something Beautiful for God’, and a book was published under the same title. Both the film and the book focused on the day to day life of Mother Teresa and her sisters as they tirelessly showed compassion to the destitute and dying. The actual impact of the sisters was no doubt comparatively minimal, but the love that they expressed flowed directly from their faith.
During Holy Week we think of Jesus’s visit to Bethany, where Mary and Martha and their brother, Lazarus, gave a dinner in his honour. It was during the dinner that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, earning the condemnation of Judas for her apparent recklessness and waste. He was blind to the meaning of Mary’s gesture: an expression of reckless love, prefiguring the anointing of Jesus’s body later that week.
Mary will always be remembered for what she did. In kneeling before Jesus and risking humiliation she, in a very personal way, did ‘something beautiful for God.’ We don’t know what became of her (and her siblings) in later years; perhaps the rest of her life was entirely unexceptional. But what she did on that occasion – and what Mother Teresa did for many years for the poor of Calcutta - was an abiding expression of true Christian devotion: uncalculating, selfless, apparently foolish – and entirely motivated by love.
Sunday 5th April
I’ve always loved Palm Sunday. The smell of the palms, the procession into church, the change from purple to red, the reading of the Passion – all its ingredients make it a fitting start to Holy Week. It even has a special word of its own, drawn from Psalm 118: the word Hosanna, meaning ‘Lord, save us’. The people of Jerusalem recognised Jesus as the one who could liberate and heal them, and so they greeted him enthusiastically in this way.
What was Jesus thinking as he rode into the city? He knew that he was nearing the end of his journey and that within a matter of days the crowd would turn against him. He knew that Judas was plotting his arrest and that Pilate would hand him over to be crucified. He knew that even Simon Peter would deny him and abandon him to his fate. And yet he still rode on.
One of the great Palm Sunday hymns is ‘Ride on, ride on, in majesty’. It’s a stately hymn which captures the mood of a royal procession. But it’s full of irony. Christ the king is riding ‘in lowly pomp’ to face the death of a criminal. The angels look down from heaven ‘with sad and wondering eyes’ as they anticipate his forthcoming sacrifice.
So why did Jesus ride on? Why didn’t he turn round and return to the safety of Galilee? The answer is because he believed it to be his duty. He felt a profound imperative to surrender to his enemies, even at the cost of his life. He was convinced that his death was required so that life might be won for all. He understood the price of glory. And so he rode on.
Sometimes we must steel ourselves to ride on, no matter what the cost. Sometimes we know that duty will require of us some kind of sacrifice. Sometimes we are fearful of what lies ahead, but we know in our hearts that we must keep on going. As the old hymn puts it, ‘Trust in God, trust in God, trust in God and do the right’.
Let us pray for the courage to do so.
Saturday 4th April
I had a conversation recently with someone who’d served with the Royal Marines. Some years ago he’d been sent to a remote location high above the Arctic Circle. What he remembered about it most wasn’t the snow or the cold or even the Northern Lights. It was the deep silence. Each night, when the wind had dropped, he’d gone out into the freezing air and experience an absence of sound that he’d never known before.
And he likened that silence to the silence that now hangs over our city every evening. Here within the City Walls it is always remarkably peaceful, but for the last ten days the silence has sometimes been overwhelming. No traffic, no human voices, no aircraft overhead. When in its history has Chichester ever been so quiet?
Silence has many forms and meanings. There is the silence of fear, the silence of secrecy, the silence of the night, the silence of an empty church. What we call ‘silence’ is often in fact a level and quality of sound that we find relaxing and unobtrusive: the kind of silence that we might experience in a remote part of the downs on a summer’s day.
Our present silence is unnatural and some would call it eerie. But it does, nevertheless, offer us a unique chance to quieten ourselves and learn to be still. Christopher Jamison, the former Abbot of Worth describes silence as ‘the carpet on which we pray’ – making me think of those beautiful carpets in some mosques on which the faithful kneel each day! And Psalm 62 begins with that beautiful line, ‘On God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation.’
Friday 3rd April
I’ve conducted seven funerals over the last week – none of them connected to coronavirus. What has given them particular poignancy has been the inability of myself, or any of the mourners, to exchange even a hand shake, let alone a hug. Last Friday we held a funeral service in church, which will probably be the last of its kind for several months, and it was pitiful, when the service was over, to bid farewell to the coffin and see the mourners left totally bereft – unable to hold each other in their grief and unable to go and share in any kind of wake.
At present, here in Chichester, there seems to be an outward sense that all is calm and manageable, but indirectly the pandemic is taking its toll. The cost in terms of mental wellbeing is certainly heavy, and the financial cost is no doubt heavier still. The national demand for universal credit has soared, and it’s hard to believe that a significant number of local people are not in severe financial hardship. The ongoing effect of all this is likely to be long-lived and it will inevitably be the most poor and vulnerable who will suffer most.
How can we reach out to one another with comfort and reassurance under such circumstances? Our starting point must be prayer – not as an escape from action but as an expression of our concern and our determination to do all that we can to respond to one another’s needs. Prayer is not – as is often suggested – a technique aimed at achieving spiritual equilibrium and inner peace. It is not simply a means of finding personal fulfilment.
Authentic prayer is about wrestling with the hard realities of life and drawing on the grace of God to help find solutions when our own resources are exhausted. Someone has written, ‘There is in prayer an essential element of struggle, of radical questioning, of discontent, of striving. In prayer we seek to see more clearly, and such clarified vision must bring with it a dimension of pain and anguish’ (Fr Kenneth Leech).
Perhaps this is a time for all of us to begin to take prayer more seriously.
Thursday 2nd April
It’s wonderful how well the supermarkets are handling the current situation. After the weeks of panic buying and empty shelves, the situation seems to have calmed, and everything possible is being done to ensure that customers are kept safe and that adequate stocks are provided throughout the day. Pasta remains conspicuous by its absence, probably speaking less of stockpiling here than of the situation in Italy. It’s a powerful reminder that this is indeed a global crisis.
Some of my most worthwhile conversations are with checkout staff. They seem to be the ones who really know what’s going on, precisely because of the countless other snatched conversations they have during their shifts. They can give helpful information about levels of anxiety among the public and the kinds of things that are most on people’s minds. And they know that a friendly smile and a comment about the weather does a lot to reassure their customers.
To me it’s remarkable how many aspects of life are carrying on normally, and I’m full of admiration for those who are quietly undertaking essential tasks in order to keep our country running. Letters are still being delivered, rubbish is being collected, buses are running, repair and maintenance services are being maintained. In recent years I’ve become rather fed-up with the over-use of the wartime slogan ‘Keep calm and carry on’, but it’s impressive seeing so many people doing just that.
St Paul knew all about keeping calm and carrying on. Writing from prison he said: ‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ [Philipp 4. 6-7]
Wednesday 1st April
One thing is now becoming very apparent, namely that when this present crisis is over many aspects of life will have radically changed. Some shops and businesses will have closed permanently; jobs will be scarce; our social habits and routines will have altered. People will give more thought to the food they eat, the holidays they choose, the way in which they spend their time and money. Perhaps they will think more deeply about the meaning of life and will want to explore questions of faith.
And the Church will have changed too. Old patterns of worship may no longer feel relevant. Congregations may be smaller. New ideas about ministry and mission will have emerged. Theologians will be kept busy reflecting on the Pandemic. What has it taught us about God and the nature of belief? How has it impacted on our faith and discipleship?
It will be important that we reflect about these big issues rather than pretending that nothing has happened and simply trying to get back to normal. We will be living in a different world.
On this day in 1872 a great thinker of the Church of England died. His name was F. D. Maurice and he was a man of compassion and generosity of spirit who cared deeply about social reform. He’s largely forgotten now, but he symbolises precisely the kind of enquiring mind and open faith that we will all need as we come to terms with this defining episode in our history. And he wrote these inspiring words, which point us forward to Easter: ‘The Light of the world is not put out. Now have death and the grave been converted into the great testimonies for life and immortality.’
Tuesday 31st March
John Donne was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral and died on this day in 1631. He was a famous writer of poetry and prose as well as a powerful preacher. It was he who penned the line, ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’.
One of the things that the spread of the coronavirus has highlighted is just how interconnected we all are. When the virus first surfaced in Wuhan it seemed like a problem for the Chinese alone. But it has spread so fast that over a quarter of the world’s population is now locked-down and fearful. And as supermarket shelves have emptied we have learned just how much we rely on other people and agencies to supply our most basic daily needs. We are not islands, standing alone. Each of us is ‘a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’
But our interconnectedness is also our strength. In his broadcast on Sunday, the Prime Minister contradicted one of his distinguished predecessors by affirming his belief that ‘there really is such a thing as society’. People are doing their best to protect and care for one another. 750,000 people have volunteered to become NHS responders. Experts around the world have joined forces to fight the virus and produce a vaccine. Perhaps we will emerge from this crisis with a much sharper sense of our social and global responsibility.
And perhaps we will be less self-centred. Perhaps like Donne we will learn to be more engaged and empathetic: ‘Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.’
Monday 30th March
The homeless are, of course, among the most vulnerable people in society, and they are particularly at risk from coronavirus. Many are already in poor health, their immune systems are weak, their nutrition is inadequate and they lack access to medical care. It’s a common misconception that the general public are at risk of infection from the homeless; in fact, the danger is the exact opposite. The homeless face a real threat from those around them and require particular support at the present time.
Last week the Government announced that it is urging local councils to provide emergency accommodation for those sleeping on our streets, and there has been a good response to its call here in Chichester. Stonepillow continues to provide an excellent framework of care, but there is always a need for care at the most basic street level. Small voluntary organisations still have a vital role to play.
Within our city we have a regular group of about 25 people who are fed each night by the Four Streets’ Project and receive hot daily meals (at present a cooked breakfast) through the work of Heart, the partnership of local churches, including our own. Both projects have wonderful teams of committed volunteers, and Four Streets’ makes good use of surplus food from Marks and Spencer and elsewhere.
It’s easy for us to forget about the homeless as we concentrate on our own needs and avoid the city centre. But they are still very much part of our community and they need our ongoing support.
Sunday 29th March
I was asked yesterday what it’s like not to have a congregation any more. My reply was that I’ve now got a virtual congregation and that I’ve become a virtual Rector! It’s true that I can no longer see you all in person, but I’m doing my best to stay in touch with you using all the technology I can muster (not much, it’s true – but some of you are doing wonderful work on my behalf!).
We are indeed fortunate that we now have so many ways of communicating with one another, and the Pandemic is encouraging us to be creative in the use of technology. I have no doubt that when it’s all over, many churches will have developed forms of online communication that would have otherwise remained untried, and that even dinosaurs like myself will have come round to the idea of regularly streaming live worship.
What we must never lose sight of is that Christianity is fundamentally a corporate faith and that we belong together as members of Christ’s body. This has nothing to do with personality type, and it’s perfectly possible to be highly introverted and still a committed follower of Christ! But it does mean that we support and affirm each other, not least in times of crisis, and that shared worship is at the heart of our life. I look forward to the day when we can return to church and break bread together once more in Christ’s name, and I urge you all to pray for each other during this time of physical isolation.
Saturday 28th March
Coronavirus is no respecter of persons. Prince Charles has now been joined by the Prime Minister and one or two of his top advisers among its latest casualties. We are told that they have a ‘mild’ form of the virus (no doubt a way of indicating that they’re unlikely to need hospital treatment) and are still able to work. We wish them well and hope that they make a swift recovery. The pressure under which they have been working over recent weeks must have been overwhelming.
In the Bible (2 Kings 5) we read of Naaman the Syrian. He was a man of power and influence – the commander of the king’s army – but he, too, was vulnerable. He contracted leprosy and his whole life changed. The prophet Elisha told him that if he washed seven times in the Jordan he would be healed. But he was too proud to do so. What sort of river was the Jordan? Just a pathetic dribble! He wasn’t going to humiliate himself paddling in its waters.
Pride can sometimes stand in the way of healing – especially for Alpha males like Boris and Naaman! We may be too proud to admit that we are ill, too proud to go to a doctor, too proud to accept the prescribed remedy, or too proud to rest and recuperate. And spiritually we must learn to overcome our pride and self-reliance in order to allow God to heal us by his grace. Naaman finally agreed to wash in the Jordan and his leprosy vanished. Let us humbly turn to God in this present time of need and pray for the renewal of our faith and courage.
Friday 27th March
Most of us probably take the NHS for granted. It’s always been there for us. It’s one of the institutions of which we in this country are rightly proud. Many of us work either work for it ourselves or have family members who do.
It’s hard to imagine Britain without the NHS. But it is, of course, a product of the social reforms that followed the War. It belongs to recent history. My parents were married a month before it came into being. My uncle qualified as a doctor ten years earlier. My grandfather practised as a dentist in Midhurst long before it had been thought of.
Last night people throughout the country, including the younger Royal Family, took part in the ‘Clap for Carers’ at 8pm. Here in the city centre the applause was audible, and people have told me how it moved them to tears. It was a simple but powerful way of showing our appreciation for those on whom we all depend when we are faced by illness or physical need, particularly our hospital staff, our GP’s and their teams, our community healthcare workers and all those who service the NHS and keep it functioning under pressure.
We are indebted to them all, and we take immense comfort from the fact that they are always there for us. Last night made plain that they are certainly not taken for granted and that we are thinking and praying for them during this time of crisis.
Thursday 26th March
I know two young women in their twenties who were both planning to get married in April. Their weddings were due to be held in secular venues and they had invested a huge amount of time and money getting everything arranged. Whenever I saw them I enjoyed hearing about their plans and sharing their excitement.
I haven’t seen either of them for the last fortnight, but I know how bitterly disappointed they’ll be that their weddings will have to be postponed. I can’t imagine where they’ll stand regarding insurance, but I know that it will be the shattering of their dreams, at least for the time being, that will upset them most. But I also know that they are level-headed and generous, and that they’ll be able to put their disappointment in perspective. What matters now is people’s health and safety. Everything else must pale into insignificance.
Perhaps some of you are dealing with the shattering of your dreams in the face of the Pandemic. Perhaps you were planning a big holiday or anniversary or family gathering this year. Diseases have many destructive effects on our lives. But they cannot destroy our faith. With the shield of faith, as St Paul reminds us, we are able to quench even ‘the arrows of the evil one’ (Eph 6. 16).
Wednesday 25th March
A month ago I went on a retreat. It wasn’t in a particularly remote location, but there was a sense of isolation and the leader encouraged us to put our phones aside for the entire five days and forget all about the wider world. No emails, no social contact – and no news!
How do you access the daily news? Do you wait for the arrival of a newspaper? Do you follow the news online? Do you listen to it on the radio or watch it on television? For most of us following the news is an important activity; for some it’s an obsession. At the present time the news is dramatic and fast-moving and it’s important that we keep in touch with what’s going on. But too much daily news creates anxiety, and there are times when we have to give ourselves permission to ignore it altogether.
Today we celebrate the best bit of news in history: the news that God was about to fulfil his promises by choosing Mary to become the mother of his Son. Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, and all the worrying news that currently fills the media should be placed within the context of Gabriel’s great announcement that the Messiah was to be born and that his kingdom would last forever. This is Good News – and we rejoice in it!
Mary was perplexed: ‘How can this be?’ But the angel reassured her: ‘Nothing will be impossible with God.’
Tuesday 24th March
Yesterday evening we took our two dogs for a walk up Halnaker Hill. There were – please note – almost no other people around, and it was an exceptionally beautiful evening. The sun was setting, the sky was clear, and the larks were singing despite the chilly air.
Hilaire Belloc, that passionate devotee of the Sussex landscape, is known to many for his poem Ha’nacker Mill. It has been much anthologised and is regarded as a lament for the passing of a way of rural life that was accelerated by the First World War. Here is its middle verse:
Ha’nacker Hill is in Desolation:
Ruin a-top and a field unploughed.
And Spirits that call on a fallen nation
Spirits that loved her calling aloud:
Spirits abroad in a windy cloud.
Like Belloc, we sometimes feel sadness and bewilderment at the pace of moral and social change. And we are disturbed when our own way of life is disrupted and jeopardised. Fiona and I returned from Halnaker last night to hear the Prime Minister outlining the threats to our present ‘fallen nation’. We must all heed his injunctions and pray that the Desolation that now threatens us will soon pass.
Monday 23rd March
First it was Bondi Beach, then Malibu, and now – West Wittering! Last night the decision was taken to close the beach at West Wittering in the wake of the many visitors who flocked there over the weekend to enjoy the sand, sea and sunshine. The owners have decided that, like some other attractive beaches around the world, it presents a health hazard simply by drawing too many people together in close proximity to one another.
It’s a responsible and commendable decision, but it will inevitably be met with dismay by the countless people who enjoy the beach each summer. I wonder when it was last closed indefinitely in this way? Probably in 1940, when invasion seemed imminent and most of our beaches were covered in barbed wire and declared off-limits. The enemy then was very obvious, lined up on the other side of the Channel. The enemy we now face is invisible and largely unknown – hence the unease that most of us are feeling.
1940 was also the year that the great William Temple became Archbishop. Temple gave regular wartime broadcasts and helped people to think about the nature of faith. He made it plain that in a time of crisis it is necessary to return to God, not so much saying ‘I believe in God’ but, rather, ‘I put my trust in God’.
Are we able to trust God? Might the present crisis deepen our faith?
Sunday 22nd March
It felt strange to be at home earlier this morning, especially without the customary Sunday sound of the Cathedral bells. But I appreciated being able to watch Justin Welby’s streamed service at 9am and drew a lot of strength from it. The beautiful chapel at Lambeth spoke of the continuity and endurance of our faith and was a reminder that we are members of the wider Anglican Communion, fighting this global crisis together.
In his sermon the Archbishop warned against becoming self-absorbed and preoccupied with our own needs and concerns. Rather than turning in ourselves at this time, it’s important that we look outwards to God and to one another, even if we must stand physically apart. And he quoted St Anselm, his distinguished predecessor at Canterbury, whose words are particularly appropriate to Mothering Sunday:
‘Jesus, like a mother you gather your people to you;
you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness;
Through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.’
Don’t forget to place a lighted candle in your window this evening at 7pm, as a visible symbol of Jesus, the light of life and the source of our hope.
Saturday 21st March 2020
Thomas Cranmer, architect of the Book of Common Prayer, died on this day in 1556. The Prayer Book is often admired for the beauty of its language, but I think it has stood the test of time because it offers real insight into the human condition, not least our moral and physical frailty. I have never before had cause to use Cranmer’s Prayer ‘In the time of any common Plague or Sickness’, but the strength and directness of its language certainly makes it a powerful weapon in the present crisis. You will find it among the ‘Occasional Prayers’ in the BCP.
Cranmer was, of course, Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Reformation. Our own Archbishop, Justin Welby, will be leading the first national virtual Church of England service tomorrow morning, and I hope that many of you will share in it online, or listen to it on the radio. It will be broadcast on Radio 4’s Sunday Worship at 8.10 and all local radio stations at 8am, and will be available online at 9am. I wonder what Cranmer would have made of it all?
Friday 20th March 2020
The phrase ‘self-isolation’ has a slightly dramatic and fearful tone, and we are very aware that for many of you it has recently become a necessary course of action. We hope that you are not feeling too lonely; please don’t hesitate to contact us if there is any practical help you need.
But sometimes people self-isolate deliberately in order to find God. One such person was St Cuthbert, whom we remember today. Cuthbert lived in the 7th century, and towards the end of his life he withdrew entirely to the Inner Farne island off the Northumbrian coast. There he lived alone, with the seabirds and seals as his only companions, deepening his trust in God. It was a profound experience.
Cuthbert’s reputation for holiness spread far and wide. Eventually, long after his death, Durham Cathedral was built to mark his burial place. He reminds us that self-isolation can be a powerful means of spiritual growth. Remember the advice of the Desert Fathers: ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’
Thursday 19th March 2020
Dear Friends, I’m going to try and share a few thoughts with you daily until we are able to gather once again as a church. It’s so important that we still feel connected and that we are able to pray for each other and keep in touch. The church and parish office remain open and you are very welcome to contact me directly at any time.
Today the Church remembers Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, who is sometimes described as ‘Joseph the Worker’ – the patron saint of working people. This is a particularly worrying time for many working people, particularly those without salaries who live in rented accommodation. We pray that they may receive the practical help and advice that they need.
Joseph trusted God by marrying Mary, even though she was already pregnant. How willing are we to trust God and put aside our doubts and misgivings?