Saturday 4th July
This is to be my last blog. With the re-opening of St Paul’s for services tomorrow, it seems the right time for me to switch off my computer and return to the altar. It’s good to feel that the virus is beginning to subside and that normal life is cautiously getting under way. My first blog was back on 19thMarch, just after the announcement of lockdown, which means that I’ve now been writing blogs every day for over a hundred days. I’m very grateful to those of you who’ve bothered to read them and who in some cases have sent me encouraging comments. Together with the Grapevine this hasbeen my way of reaching out to the parish and beyond during these unfamiliar times. I’m also very grateful to Martha, Liz and Zena for posting them for me every day on our website and on social media.
Today happens to be the anniversary of my ordination as a priest. On 4th July 1982 I was ordained by Bishop Peter Ball in the parish church at Uckfield in East Sussex, where I was serving as curate. It was a beautiful day and I was the only candidate being ordained. The parish kindly gave me a beautiful cope which I still wear occasionally on high days and holidays. I remember going with Fiona for a drink that evening and wondering what life held in store. I am thankful that I’m still in full-time ministry and my sense of vocation is as strong as ever, but I‘m very aware of how many changes have taken place since then, both in the church and in myself.
As I look ahead I’m very excited by the prospect of us fulfilling our dreams for the parish centre and finally getting a smart new kitchen. There are still several hurdles to clear, but I hope very much that we will be able to bring our plans to fruition, with the work possibly beginning in the autumn. I’malso conscious that Martha has now been ‘signed off’ by the Bishop, having more than fulfilled all the requirements of her curacy, and that she is now free to apply for jobs elsewhere. We pray that she will soon find the right post. It’s also important for you know that I am now in charge of St Wilfrid’s as well as St Paul’s, so I’m going to have to find a way of dividing my time between both parishes.
Having said that, as I get older I increasingly value thecontemplative side of life. In my earlier life as a priest I was almost always busy: rushing round the parish, trying out new ideas, organising special events and behaving as if the coming of the Kingdom depended upon me. In doing so, I wasn’t actually being true to my own nature, and looking back Irealise how much it drained me of my emotional and spiritual energy. Now I recognise more clearly the value of stillness and silence, and it is important for me as a priest to be able to find the time just to stop and ‘be’. Like Mary in the Gospels I am becoming more confident in choosing ‘the better part.’
In one of his poems, R.S. Thomas speaks of how ‘the silence holds within its gloved hand the wild hawk of the mind.’ The mind is indeed a ‘wild hawk’ (or even a peregrine!) and thinking is very often the enemy of prayer. It is through contemplation and the valuing of silence that we are able to discipline our minds and experience God’s generous presence, and if these last few months have helped us to do this, if only a little, it will have been time well spent. May God bless you all.
Friday 3rd July – St Thomas
‘There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.’ Tennyson’s words from ‘In Memoriam’ reflect the questioning of faith that occurred in mid-Victorian times under the twin pressures of Darwinism and Biblical criticism. Since then we’ve been through two world wars and have had unprecedented developments in science and technology. Religion has often become fused with politics, with explosive results. It’s not surprising if people are sceptical about faith claims in the twenty first century.
Today the Church honours the apostle Thomas, ‘Doubting Thomas’, who was not with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared to them in the upper room. It is in St John’s Gospel that we are given the most information about him: it was he who encouraged the other disciples to go to Judea with Jesus; it was his question to Jesus that prompted him to speak of himself as ‘the way, the truth and the life’. And it is St John who describes how Thomas was unconvinced when he was told that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead: ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
Thomas speaks for us all in questioning Jesus’s resurrection. We all struggle to understand in what sense Jesus could have risen from the dead. We all ask ourselves sometimes whether it was literal or symbolic, physical or spiritual, a fact or a myth. Every generation has asked these questions, ever since Thomas himself first demanded proof. And it may be that for some of you doubt occupies a large place in your Christian life, challenging many aspects of your faith and never allowing you to rest easy in the beliefs that you profess – and want to believe. Perhaps you relate closely to the father of the boy with a spirit who cried out to Jesus, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’
Doubt is generally a healthy thing unless it becomes obsessive. In any area of life it’s important to have a measure of scepticism and to be ready to put things to the test. We may be jealous of those who profess a ‘simple faith’ without any kind of inner struggle, but naivety and lack of critical awareness are not things to be proud of. Doubt is not the opposite of faith and it is not the same as unbelief. It has been described as ‘a state of mind in suspension between faith and unbelief, so that it is neither of them wholly, and it is each only partly.’ In other words it’s a form of committed agnosticism which is, I suspect, rather characteristic of the English spirit!
Thomas’s doubt was, of course, dispelled by another appearance of Jesus, offering his wounds for inspection: ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ How we would love to have the opportunity to see Jesus in that way and put his resurrection to the proof! Modern science teaches us to obtain empirical evidence to support our beliefs and without such evidence we are inclined to regard things as untrue, even though so many of life’s greatest gifts, notably love, cannot be tested or proved in this way at all.
But Thomas didn’t require proof. His heart gave him the assurance he needed. As soon as Jesus came and stood among the disciples he knew that his victory over death had been real, and he cried out, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Some people suggest that his cry of faith was intended by St John to be the climax of his Gospel; it is surely offered so that we can join in it and make it our own.
To live by faith is certainly a venture that requires courage, resilience and perhaps a measure of foolhardiness, but we cannot ignore the cry of our hearts that recognises Jesus as our Lord and our God. Jesus’s reply to Thomas is addressed to us, and it is a strong antidote to doubt: ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have come to believe.’
Thursday 2nd July
My morning walk usually takes me down Westgate and then along past Chichester College. Sometimes I think back to when the Theological College occupied that part of the city, especially in its latter days when what are now Marriott House and Marriott Lodge were its proud new buildings, adjacent to St Bartholomew’s Church which served as its chapel. The college was founded by Bishop Otter just two years after St Paul’s Church was built, and its first principal was Charles Marriott, a Tractarian priest and an associate of John Henry Newman. It was the very first college of its kind, originally occupying the Georgian houses at the top of Westgate.
I didn’t go to the college, but I sometimes rather wish I had. What a lovely place in which to have trained for the priesthood, with the Cathedral close at hand and such a variety of local churches. The college was always regarded as rather ‘high’, and some of my friends who went there were convinced that a priest who’d been ‘Chichester trained’ was definitely a cut above the rest in all matters liturgical. They were probably right. The brutalist architecture of its Gillett House (Marriott Lodge) caused quite a stir when it was built in the 1960’s, but it’s now a listed building and many people, myself included, love its uncompromising concrete and glass.
It was a sad day when the college closed in 1994, although the possibility of its closure had been contemplated for some time. The number of its former students still in active ministry must now be rapidly diminishing; Canon Bruce Ruddock at the Cathedral trained there in the early 1980’s and has fond memories of it, and of course Alan Wilkinson, John Hind and Peter Atkinson served as its Principal. Residential theological colleges are intense places, exercising a powerful spiritual and emotional influence on their students, and it is strange to think of priests today, in parishes up and down the country, whose formative years were spent here in Westgate. The viability of all residential training must now be in doubt as the Church responds to severe financial pressure.
One member of the college went on to die for his faith and is commemorated on 2nd September along with other ‘Martyrs of Papua New Guinea’. His name was Vivian Redlich, and he trained in Chichester in the early 1930’s. Soon after his ordination he felt called to work as a missionary and was sent to New Guinea at the time of the Japanese invasion. In 1942 he wrote to his father, I’m trying to stick whatever happens. If I don’t come out of it just rest content that I’ve tried to do my job faithfully’. One Sunday morning, as he was preparing to celebrate the Eucharist, he was told that a local villager had betrayed his whereabouts. He remained where he was and conducted the service; shortly afterwards he was ambushed by tribesmen and beheaded. He is remembered in this collect:
Heavenly Father, we thank you for the life of Vivian Redlich,
who in obedience to your call,
left the comforts and security of his homeland
and with others ministered your word and sacraments.
Stir up the hearts of all ordained ministers
to serve you well in all circumstances and
to hold high your light of truth and love.
Wednesday 1st July
Who decides in whose honour a church should be dedicated? Who chooses the patron saint? I imagine that if a new church were being built today, the parish itself would have a say, but in medieval times it was presumably the patron, or perhaps the bishop himself. Local saints would have been obvious choices, the Blessed Virgin Mary was a firm pre-Reformation favourite, some saints were chosen because of miracles that were associated with them. St Paul is a wonderful patron saint to have, and I wonder who chose him when our church was built in the 1830’s. The other well-known Sussex church that bears his name is St Paul’s, Brighton, which was built only a few years later.
I sometimes think about the array of patron saints that have marked the course of my ministry. Several of my churches have been dedicated to St Mary and several more to apostles. I have served two churches dedicated to St Michael and Angels, and some with less common dedications: St Margaret of Antioch, Holy Cross and St Anne. The little church in Eastergate in which I prayed every day during my time there, is dedicated to St George, who was a saint made popular during the Crusades. It is claimed, possibly correctly, that St Richard of Chichester dedicated the church himself.
And I’ve had one or two wonderfully regional saints. One of my congregations in Glasgow met in a local Church of Scotland church under the patronage of St Kentigern, who was a sixth century saint who ministered principally in the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde. He was also known as St Mungo, and Glasgow Cathedral marks the site of his burial. One of his contemporaries was St Serf, whom the Church honours today, and I also served as Rector of St Serf’s Church in Glasgow’s East End. Little is known about Serf for certain, but he is associated with western Fife, and the beautiful village of Culross on the Firth of Forth was founded by him.
Patron saints are a blessing and a curse. They are a curse because sermons are expected to be preached about them every year on their feast day, severely testing the vicar’s ingenuity and the congregation’s forebearance. There’s not much that one can say, for instance, about St Anne, other than that she was the (supposed) mother of Mary. There are indeed some lovely apocryphal stories about her and her (supposed) husband, Joachim. And there are some obvious parallels between her story and that of her Biblical namesake, Hannah. But beyond that a preacher has to struggle hard to find inspiration and often fails. I speak from bitter experience!
But patron saints are a blessing, not just because we can ask for their prayers on behalf of our church, but because they help make a church feel personal: a distinctive community, marked out by the name of someone who carried the torch of faith in former years. The fact that we may know very little about them doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they themselves were faithful followers of Christ, and that we feel a sense of belonging as we gather each week under their patronage. We may belong to other worthy clubs or associations with distinctive names, but none of them can inspire the same kind of loyalty as a patron saint. Long may the names of St Martin in the Pigmarket, St Andrew in the Oxmarket, and St Paul on the Gyratory be hallowed!
Tuesday 30th June
I remember once being out shopping with my mother when I was about six years old. An elderly woman (she seemed elderly to me, but was doubtless much younger than I am now) was holding a wicker basket. As we passed, she took from it a bunch of white heather and held it out for me. My mother’s reaction surprised me. ‘Don’t take it!’ she hissed as she took my hand and marched me on. ‘She’s a gypsy. She’s just after money.’
So it was that I, like so many people, formed a picture of gypsies - as they were always called then - as people who were not to be trusted, although I wasn’t sure why. And that image was compounded by sometimes seeing their caravans parked on verges or in parks, or seeing them going about their work in fairgrounds or at the seaside: running the dodgems, selling hot dogs, fortune telling, giving an extra spin to those on the waltzer. I felt threatened by the strangeness of their lifestyle and struggled to imagine what their lives were like, moving endlessly from place to place, with none of the comforts of home.
Over the course of my ministry I’ve had quite a number of encounters with travelling people, and my prejudice has been challenged in all kinds of way. In particular, I’ve conducted some funeral services for them, with American steel caskets for the deceased and countless large floral tributes. In some cases I’ve been to visit a family in the days before the funeral and have sat with them in their caravan around the open coffin. I’ve also conducted some equally large-scale weddings, at which no one sang the hymns and the front pews were filled with bridesmaids.
In this way I’ve learned a little bit about their life and culture, and the way they feel when people till describe them as ‘dirty gypsies’. I remember one man telling me how he’d gone to an expensive hotel outside Chichester to book a room for a family gathering. When he gave his address, which was a travellers’ settlement, he was told that no bookings were available; when he opened his wallet and took out a thick handful of fifty pound notes, the situation changed! I also remember naively asking a traveller family whether Romany still existed as a language. They immediately started speaking it and told me that they always used it among themselves – never English.
Some dioceses appoint priests to minister particularly to travellers. One such priest, who I’ve never met, was the Revd Roger Redding, who came from Aldingbourne and was fondly remembered by some of my congregation there. He used to assist in the Chalke Valley Team Ministry outside Salisbury during the winter months, but in the summer he went all over Wiltshire and Dorset spending time with traveller families on behalf of Salisbury Diocese. He’s retired now, and sadly I doubt whether such a post can still be funded.
I passed a cluster of travellers’ caravans this morning on the field in front of Chichester College. They may be the same ones who were recently in Oaklands Park. My immediate reaction was indignation: what a prominent and shameless place to park. But then I checked myself. I know nothing about how they’ve come to be there or how long they intend to stay. I’m normally respectful of people who have no settled homes; why should I treat travellers differently? And what a dangerous and unacceptable thing it is to pass judgement on others simply because of their lifestyle. And after all, Abraham himself was a traveller!
Monday 29th June – Ss Peter and Paul
Today we honour the two greatest apostles, Peter and Paul. Peter was the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem in the days after Pentecost; St Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles, whose greatness of mind and spirit shaped the Church as it spread around the ancient world. Peter began life as a Galilean fisherman together with his brother Andrew; Paul began life as Saul of Tarsus and was brought up as a strict Pharisee and a Roman citizen. Their relationship wasn’t easy, and when Peter came to Antioch, Paul famously ‘opposed him to his face’ over his reluctance to eat with Gentiles. But they have been honoured jointly on this day since very early Christian times, it being the supposed anniversary of their martyrdom in Rome in about 64 AD.
Both men displayed extraordinary courage in the service of the Gospel, but both of them also suffered failure and humiliation. They achieved remarkable things, but they also experienced a depth of shame greater than most of us, I hope, have ever known. And it was from that place of bitter defeat that Christ led them, teaching them to rely on his strength alone and to trust in his grace. It was as if their old lives had to be completely broken and dismantled so that they could be remade as true apostles confident in Christ’s service. They can teach us so much about the spiritual value of failure and the way in which Christ meets us at our lowest point.
For Peter, that moment of humiliation took place of course in the courtyard of the high priest. At the Last Supper Jesus had given him a terrifying warning: ‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail’, and Simon Peter had replied, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’ He was confident that he could live up to his name, ‘Rock’, and stand firm even in the face of death. But Jesus knew better and warned him that he would deny him three times that very night.
So it was that some hours later, as Peter sat among the crowd in the high priest’s courtyard, cold and fearful, he found himself repeatedly denying that he’d had any dealings with Jesus or even knew who he was. And as the cock crowed, announcing the dawn of Good Friday, Jesus turned and looked at him from the other side of the courtyard, filling him with overwhelming remorse. In her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, Julian of Norwich said the Lord looks at us ‘with pity, not with blame’ and doubtless Jesus’s look contained only pity for Peter. But it was not enough to console him. ‘He went out and wept bitterly.’
For St Paul, humiliation came in an even more dramatic way on the road to Damascus. Here he was, ‘still breathing threats and murder against the disciples’, supremely confident that he was on his way to do God’s work. He was carrying letters from the high priest authorising him to arrest any ‘followers of the Way’ that he might find in the city. He was surrounded by his subordinates. But as light from heaven flashed around him, he fell to the ground and heard the voice of the very one whom he believed to be dead: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And in that instant his life was changed.
The Book of Acts provides several details which help us to appreciate Paul’s utter brokenness as a result of his encounter with Christ. He was rendered blind, and his companions had to lead him like a child into the city to which he had been heading so confidently. There he had to surrender himself to the spiritual care of Ananias, one of the very disciples whom he had come to arrest. And finally, at the end of several days, he had to allow himself to be lowered over the wall of Damascus to escape from the Jews: from his own people, with whose blessing he had set out from Jerusalem.
Later in his life St Paul wrote of his utter dependence on God’s grace and his discovery that it is in our weakness that we learn to trust God’s power. Like Simon Peter he learnt that the moment when we are flattened by failure or humiliation is the very moment of our rebirth: the moment when God can take us by the scruff of our neck and teach us to rely on him, and him alone. For all their differences, I have no doubt that Peter would have agreed with him when he wrote: ‘Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’ (2 Cor 12.10) May we, too, find our strength in Christ and be his faithful witnesses.
Sunday 28 June - Trinity 3
It’s been a slightly subdued week at the Rectory. Both puppies have been to the vet to be spayed: Callie on Tuesday and Rae on Friday. To be honest, they’re now behaving as if nothing has happened and we’re having a hard to time preventing them from having their usual mad chases round the garden. We’re relieved that they’ve had the operation. When lockdown started, the vets cancelled all non-essential surgery and it seemed likely that the puppies would reach their first season before it would become possible again. But everything has just worked out in time.
Animals are blessed with no sense of self-pity. Sometimes, in the wake of surgery or during illness, we might look at them and think that they’re feeling sorry for themselves, but in truth they are just withdrawing for a while in order to recuperate. They don’t have the capacity to reflect on their condition and they bounce back as soon as they feel a bit better. How different we are when we are unwell, so easily falling prey to negative thoughts. The mental symptoms of illness and trauma are often the worst.
And animals know how to sleep. If they’ve been through any tiring or stressful experience their reaction is to find a quiet corner and close their eyes. Whereas we might spend hours re-living the experience by phoning up our friends or going over it in our minds, a dog or a cat chooses to shut itself away and allow sleep to work its own healing. And even when they are well they are unapologetic about sleeping. Cat-napping is part of their way of being. Dozing contentedly is part of what the good Lord intends them to do.
I wonder whether your own sleep pattern has changed at all since the start of lockdown. In so many ways the rhythm of our lives has changed, and some of you have told me how much you’ve enjoyed not setting an alarm clock and bothering to get up early. In some cases you’ve probably been catching up on years of sleep deficit, allowing yourself to relax properly and enjoy the occasional duvet day. I think of a line from ‘The Ancient Mariner’: ‘O sleep it is a wondrous thing, beloved from pole to pole. To Mary Queen the praise be given, she sent the blessed sleep from heaven that slid into my soul.’ We can all say ‘Amen’ to that, especially those who suffer from insomnia or broken sleep.
Having said that, our own days begin quite early with the sound of a whine or a bark from downstairs telling me that the puppies want to be let out. There’s little chance of a lie-in. It’s hard to believe that they are now seven months old and that we’ve had them since January. Fortunately we’d managed to fit in five out of six training classes before lockdown began, so they’re not total hooligans, although they do bark a lot when they play outside. I read recently that puppies are in huge demand as a source of companionship in these anxious times and have, as a result become ridiculously expensive. When I tell that to our two they look mildly amused and remind me that they’re just farm dogs from the mountains near Betws-y-Coed. Give them a few sheep to round up and they’d be delighted!
P.S. Make sure you visit our fabulous online Heritage Festival which opens this weekend!
Rector’s Blog: 27th June
At this time of the year my mind turns to ordinations. Petertide (The Feast of St Peter on 29th June) is one of the customary times of the year for the ordination of deacons and priests, and an ordination service should have been taking place in our Cathedral this weekend. Instead, the candidates were licensed as Lay Workers by Bishop Martin earlier this week, and their ordinations have been postponed until Michaelmas, at the end of September. It is hoped that by then there will be an opportunity to hold a large-scale service to which their families and friends can come.
Today is actually one of the ‘Ember Days’ that occur at various points in the Church’s calendar and are times when prayer is offered for an increase in vocations and for those in training for ministry. The term ‘Ember’ may derive from the Saxon Ymbren (a circuit or revolution) or from the Latin Quatuor Tempora, and the origin of Ember Days is obscure. They probably derive from agricultural feasts in Rome, and came to mark the different seasons of the year. They occur in groups of three within the course of a week, on a Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and traditionally involve both fasting and prayer. Please pray today for the three candidates from St Paul’s who are about to begin ordination training: Tracey Flitcroft, Liz Yonge and Emily Lawrence.
The fact that we are sponsoring three women candidates is worth highlighting. For the last three years running, women have outnumbered men among those beginning ordination training and last year, for the first time, more women were ordained than men. Statistics show that women now make up 32% of the 20,000 active clergy in the Church of England, with a growing proportion (27%) of senior posts such as Bishops, Archdeacons and Cathedral Deans, occupied by women. But only 3.8% of clergy are from BAME backgrounds. Despite all that has been achieved in recent years, there is a long way to go to ensure that clergy reflect more accurately the diversity of both Church and society.
The number of paid (stipendiary) clergy has stabilised in recent years after a period of decline, and now stands at 7,700. But the way in which parishes are organised and clergy are deployed is certain to change dramatically in the years ahead. Stephen Cottrell, the new Archbishop of York, has recently been asked to chair a vision and strategy group to look into the working of the Church of England’s 42 dioceses and to offer suggestions about how they might better use their resources. It’s a massive undertaking and there is wild speculation about its possible recommendations. But radical change is certainly needed, and we must all be ready to embrace new patterns of church life in which the contribution of unpaid clergy and lay people is encouraged and properly recognised.
This weekend our thoughts and prayers are very much with Meta Dunn and her family, mourning the death of Jimmy yesterday. We remember Jimmy with immense respect, gratitude and affection and we offer Meta our very deepest sympathy.
Friday 26th June
One of the most delightful afternoon outings at this time of the year, is to Selborne in East Hampshire. What could be better than the drive over the downs to South Harting, through the lanes to Rogate, up through the woods to Liss, and finally along the Alton road to Selborne. Not too far, no main roads, and delightful scenery all the way! And a trip to Selborne today would be particularly appropriate because today is the anniversary of the death of the Reverend Gilbert White, the great naturalist who lived there for most of his life.
Gilbert White’s grandfather was vicar of Selborne, and Gilbert was born in his vicarage in 1720. He took his degree at Oriel College Oxford and was ordained priest in 1749. He undertook several curacies and moved back to Selborne in 1758, where he resided at The Wakes, the family home. He served as curate of the parish on a number of occasions, but never actually became its vicar. He is buried in its churchyard and a stained glass window depicting St Francis honours him in the church.
White is remembered as a pioneering ecologist and observer of the natural world. He took an acute interest in the changing of the seasons, variations in the climate (his diary entries for 1783-4 are consistent with the dramatic effects of a volcanic explosion in Iceland at that time) and the flora and fauna of the countryside around Selborne. He observed nature with a deep appreciation of its God-given beauty and complexity and from a desire to understand it better. He was, for instance, one of the first to realise the ecological significance of the food chain and the extent of bird migration. He inspired some of the great Victorian scientists such as Darwin and Huxley.
In 1789 White published the book which made him famous and which has never subsequently been out of print, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. It takes the form of a series of letters to two of his friends, Thomas Pennant, the most distinguished zoologist of his day, and the Honourable Daines Barrington, a Fellow of the Royal Society. In a gentle and very personal way, White records the things that he sees and hears as he walks around Selborne each day, and the conclusions that he draws. Here is an example of his writing:
‘During this lovely weather the congregating flocks of house martins on the Church and tower were very beautiful and very amusing! When they flew off all together from the roof, on any alarm, they quite swarmed in the air. But they soon settled again in heaps on the shingles; where preening their feathers to admit the rays of the sun, they seemed highly to enjoy the warm situation.’
Selborne remains a beautiful village (apart from the traffic, for which we all take our share of blame) and The Wakes is normally open to visitors. It is a fine house containing some of White’s possessions, and has a large garden which White landscaped. Historic features that can still be seen include the original Haha, Sundial and Fruit Wall as well as the Great Oak planted in 1730. Much of the garden has been recreated using the notes Gilbert White kept in his ‘Garden Kalendar’. There are some beautiful walks in the nearby Hangers, including the Zig-zag: a steep path up the hillside which White created.
2020 is the three hundredth anniversary of White’s birth, and earlier in the year Pallant House decided to mark it by organising an exhibition called ‘Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the artists’. The exhibition has of course been on hold for the past few months, but perhaps it will return, so do look out for it.
Thursday 25th June
It rather amuses me that for the first hundred years of its history, St Paul’s had a ‘fawlty tower’: a tower at the west end that was indeed faulty in its construction and eventually required demolition. If you’ve never seen a picture of the tower, go on the church website this weekend and visit our Virtual Heritage Festival, which contains a fascinating selection of old photographs. The tower must have been a local landmark and it’s unfortunate that it was so unstable. I believe that Keith Catchpole, my predecessor as Rector, drew up plans to rebuild it, complete with a new meeting room, but the scheme threatened to be wildly expensive.
The towers and spires of our parish churches are one of the great features of the English landscape, and fortunately most of them, including those that are medieval in origin, have proved more enduring. I’ve got a watercolour painting of a view across the countryside of North Norfolk. In the foreground is the windmill at Cley-next-the-Sea, where we used to go on holiday when I was young, and in the distance is the great tower of Blakeney Church, one of the countless perpendicular churches for which East Anglia is so famous. Many large church towers have peals of bells to match them in scale; St Peter Mancroft in Norwich has a famous fourteen bell peal.
Sussex has few large churches, owing to the lack of suitable building materials and the relative poverty of this part of the country in earlier times. The classic downland churches date from a period between 1050 and 1125 when a concerted programme of church building seems to have taken place. They have modest proportions, few distinguishing features and diminutive shingled towers (a Sussex cap), and are built largely of chalk and flint. But for all their simplicity they are places of immense beauty, and Sussex has more of them from this period than anywhere else in England. One of the churches of which I was rector in Lewes was St Michael’s, which has a distinctive round tower, like two others further down the Ouse valley.
Elsewhere across the country, there are many places where huge towers and spires reach towards the sky and draw our hearts towards God. ‘Be exalted, O God, above the heavens, and let your glory be over all the earth,’ says Psalm 108, and for many of us the sight of a church spire rising above the roofs of a town or a great sweep of the landscape is enough to inspire prayer. Years ago I assisted at a wedding at St Botolph’s Church in Boston, Lincolnshire, the church famous for its ‘stump’, which rises nearly three hundred feet above the fens, and whenever I go to Bristol I look out for the spire of St Mary Redcliffe dominating the city down by the docks. But I’ve never seen the crooked spire of Chesterfield or the soaring steeple of St James’s, Louth, in Lincolnshire.
Cathedrals are in a different league from parish churches, and I’m sure you’ve all got your favourites. Chichester is the only cathedral visible from the sea, and there are so many places from which the sight of its spire is breathtaking. It’s certainly not the tallest cathedral spire, but it’s one of the loveliest, with its golden weathervane catching the sun. The original spire of course collapsed in 1861, miraculously without loss of life. What is it about the steeples of Chichester that makes them such fawlty towers?
Wednesday 24th June
St Luke’s Gospel begins with a mysterious encounter in the Temple between a priest and an angel. The priest was Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth the cousin of Mary. The angel was Gabriel, who six months later would go to Nazareth to bring Mary the news that she was to become the mother of God’s own son. St Luke ends his Gospel in the Temple as well as beginning it there. The closing verses tell how the disciples returned to Jerusalem after bidding Jesus farewell, ‘and were continually in the Temple blessing God’. The Temple and its worship frames his story.
Zechariah the priest went into the Temple to burn incense in preparation for the morning sacrifice. It would have been the greatest moment of his life. There were numerous priests, all of them descendants of Aaron, and many of them never had the privilege of performing sacred duties in the Temple itself. They were chosen by lot and they did what was required of them with the utmost care. All worship is an offering to God and for us, too, it is a privilege which demands the very best of us.
What do we expect of the worship we offer? Do we expect it to challenge us, to inspire us, to teach us, to empower us? Do we come to church with a sense of anticipation, or do we come half-heartedly, with little sense that we are entering sacred space and preparing to encounter the living God? Zechariah would have been filled with awe as he poured grains of incense on the altar set apart for that purpose, and watched clouds of fragrant smoke billow towards the Temple roof, catching shafts of sunlight. He would have prepared himself thoroughly for his sacred duties, washing himself and putting on clean linen robes.
And there, in that most holy place, with a large crowd praying outside, Zechariah encountered Gabriel, the angel whose name means ‘God is my strength’. St Luke tells us that Gabriel stood at the right side of the altar and that his sudden appearance filled Zechariah with fear. But Gabriel told him not to be afraid and gave him news that astonished him and filled him with joy. His wife Elizabeth was going to bear him a son, despite being past child-bearing age, and they were to call him John. He would have a special part to play in preparing people for the coming of the Lord, and would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth.
Zechariah’s joy and wonder was so great that he couldn’t believe it. How often do we say, ‘I can’t believe it!’ when something wonderful happens to us. And because of his reaction, the angel placed a cruel restriction on him, telling him that he would be unable to speak until his son was born. When he finally emerged from the sanctuary, he could only motion to the people, but they guessed immediately that he had had a profound spiritual encounter. When his son was born, nine months later, he called for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John’. And immediately ‘his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.’
Today the Church celebrates the birth of John, whose vocation was to be Christ’s forerunner, fearlessly preparing the way for his arrival by calling people to repent and be baptized. John is often regarded as a bridge between the Old Testament and the New: a prophetic figure, filled with the spirit and power of Elijah, who proclaimed the coming of the Messiah. And to us, as to the first disciples, he stands as a signpost, directing us towards Jesus and identifying him as uniquely worthy of our allegiance: ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ May we, like them, heed John’s words and follow Jesus without hesitation.
Tuesday 23rd June
For many people, some of you included, the last few months have brought huge anxiety and loneliness - and in some cases loss. The psychological and emotional cost of the pandemic has yet to be counted, but mental health experts are warning that countless people will have been scarred by their experiences and that cases of post-traumatic stress disorder are likely to be widespread.
But I’m aware that for others lockdown has felt like a unique gift: an unexpected sabbatical which has brought many blessings. Several of you have spoken of your enjoyment of these leisurely weeks spending guilt-free time in your homes and gardens, free from your normal routines and responsibilities. It’s taught you lessons about your need for sleep, relaxation and a proper work-life balance, and given you the chance to catch up with yourself and put things in order. It’s given you time and space that you do not normally have.
I hope very much that as we go forward from this strange period in his history, we will have learned to appreciate the time and space that we have, and will be less inclined to fill them or waste them. ‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?’ asks the poet, and he provides the answer: ‘A poor life this if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare’. A poor life indeed if we always rushing with our eyes to the ground.
What has happened since March has, on the surface, been our reaction to a virus which has put our lives at risk. It has been an unprecedented experience and a global catastrophe. But it feels to me as if it has also been a collective reaction to the madness of modern life, in which so often we lack the time and space to experience the kind of freedom that God desires for us. It’s given us a taste of that freedom, and we’ve seized it gratefully. We’ve rediscovered the joy of being alive.
A Russian philosopher, Vasili Rozanov, wrote 'All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking in the distance.' Perhaps that’s a rather jaundiced view of religion, but I think it captures the mood of many people as lockdown comes to an end and we prepare to resume the normal pattern of our lives. We’ve appreciated the chance just to stop and look into the distance. We’ve learned that doing so is not a waste of time; it’s the best possible use of time – healing our spirit and restoring our sense of perspective.
And an important part of prayer is doing just this. Prayer isn’t constant chatter. It’s about setting aside time just to be with God and to see the bigger picture of his loving purposes for us and for the world. It’s unlikely that we shall ever again have four months of the kind of suspended animation that the lockdown has required of us. But we can make prayer a greater priority in our lives, not out of compulsion but from a desire to honour with our attention the Lord of all time and space.
Monday 22nd June
When a crime is committed the first question that’s asked is, ’Were there any witnesses? Did anyone see or hear anything?’ If witnesses can be found, the criminal can be arrested and brought to justice. And in other areas of life, witnesses are important. Miracles need witnesses if they are to be taken seriously. Wills and other legal documents must be signed in the presence of witnesses. Marriages are not legal unless they are conducted in the presence of witnesses.
The word martyr comes from a Greek word meaning a witness. To be a martyr is to witness to Christ. Almost all the apostles suffered martyrdom, and the fierce persecution which the early Church often underwent caused the deaths of countless Christian women and men. It was Tertullian, in the second century who coined the phrase, ‘the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.’
The very first martyr of Britain was St Alban, who is commemorated today. The story goes that he was a citizen of the Roman city of Verulamium (now St Albans), who gave shelter to a priest who was fleeing from persecution during the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Alban was so moved by the faith of the priest that he received instruction in the faith and was baptized. When the priest’s hiding place was discovered, Alban dressed himself in the priest’s cloak and was arrested in his place. He was tortured and put to death on this day in about the year 250, and St Alban’s Abbey was later built in his honour.
Martyrs are disturbing figures. They force us to question the depth and sincerity of our faith. They challenge us to consider what kind of sacrifices God might be asking of us. In the early days of the Church a cult of martyrdom developed, such that people actively sought death in Christ’s name, in the hope of winning glory. Others chose to lead lives of extreme renunciation. The causes and motives underlying martyrdom are often complex.
Who or what would you be prepared to die for? For your family – yes. For your country – probably. For your political beliefs – maybe. For your faith…? Most of us, I suspect, are less confident about what we believe than our forebears, and would therefore be less willing to die for it. We value being part of a community of faith and respect the Christian tradition, but we are not sure just how much we actually believe, or how deeply we believe it.
But Christ needs witnesses. At his trial before Pilate, no one spoke up on his behalf. His followers were afraid to show their allegiance. But after his resurrection he promised to send them the Holy Spirit for the very purpose of making them confident witnesses. He wanted them to be courageous in testifying to his saving work.
And he wants us to be confident in our own faith and willing to show that it really matters to us. We honour St Alban not as a remote historical figure but as the first in a tradition of sacrificial witness of which we are the heirs. We, too, should be proud of our baptism and willing to put Christ before all else.
Sunday 21st June: Trinity 2
Tomorrow is Windrush Day: the anniversary of the arrival at Tilbury Docks of the first immigrants from the Caribbean, on board the Empire Windrush on 22nd June 1948. They came to this country because at that time, immediately after the War, Britain’s economy needed to be rebuilt, and countless jobs were available in heavy industry, the newly-created NHS, and public transport. Some of those who came on the ship had fought for Britain during the War; some came hoping to settle here permanently; others wanted to develop their skills and then return to the West Indies.
From the outset many of them faced extreme intolerance from large sections of the white population. They found that they were denied access to private employment and accommodation, and were banished from many pubs, clubs and even churches on account of their skin colour. Their arrival is now considered a major landmark in the creation of our modern multicultural society, and Windrush Day was introduced in 2018, the 70th anniversary of their arrival, to celebrate the contribution that they and their descendants have made to our life and prosperity.
Recent events have, however, made us aware that although so much has changed over the last 70 years, Britain is not the generous and inclusive country that we would like to think it is. Shockingly, racism still exercises an ugly influence. Tomorrow’s observance of Windrush Day is likely to be marked by penitence as well as celebration as we reflect on our need to listen more closely to the voices of black people. Earlier this week the Bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson-Wilkins, criticised the setting up of another commission on racial inequality, calling instead for everyone to get on and change their attitudes. She said:
‘What we need now is a kind of commitment that says, enough talking, let’s have some action. Every institution must look at itself and ask the questions. Why should we wait until something more catastrophic happens in our community, in our society? Why would we not use this as a catalyst, a kairos moment, instead of thinking it will blow over and ‘they’ll get over it’? This is our problem. All of us. And so we have to fix it.’
‘This is our problem’. Perhaps it doesn’t feel like that. What on earth can we can do to help fix the injustices of our society? The answer is to look into our hearts and confront those ways in which we discriminate against others whether on the basis of their colour, their ethnicity, their gender, their sexual orientation, their age, or their style of dress. If we’re honest we’ll probably have to admit that we are sometimes guilty of discrimination in at least one of these areas, and that we need to be healed of our prejudice. It is better to recognise our wrongfulness and repent of it, than to ignore it and pretend that it will go away.
The first black people I ever really saw were the staff on the London Underground, back in the late 50’s and early 60’s when we used to visit various family members around London. I accepted them without question as part of the fabric of London life, but it never occurred to me that I didn’t see them in well-paid jobs, or that they might have been victims of discrimination. Most of them would have come here as passengers on the Windrush, and a job at a tube station must have felt a far cry from life in Jamaica or Trinidad. But they came here to contribute to the life of our country, and in return they expected justice, respect and equal opportunities. It would seem now that many of them were denied those things, and it is time for us to help right that wrong.
P.S. Mother Martha was interviewed this morning on BBC Radio Sussex about issues of racism within the Church. It was an excellent interview and it was so good to hear the Bishop of Guildford (who followed her on air) endorsing all that she had said. Click on the link below to listen to her interview.
Saturday 20th June
During the War pictures of the South Downs were used to inspire patriotism because it was believed that they invoked the very spirit of England and gave people a sense of belonging. Amidst the fear and dislocation that the War brought to everyone’s lives, it was profoundly comforting to look at images of smooth turf, chalk cliffs, flocks of sheep and billowy clouds in vast blue skies. It made people feel at home and – more importantly – feel that their home was a place worth defending, no matter what the cost.
Vera Lynn did something similar with her singing. The songs that made her great (‘We’ll meet again’, ‘The white cliffs of Dover’, ‘There’ll always be an England’) caught the mood of the country by turning people’s thoughts to ‘home’, especially those who were far from home, fighting in other parts of the world. One of the things that made Vera Lynne win such devotion and respect was her willingness to go and visit our troops in Burma and elsewhere in the Far East; by so doing she – the girl from East Ham - demonstrated that they weren’t so far away from home, after all.
‘Home’ is, of course, far more than a place: it’s a symbol of all the things that give us a sense of stability and peace: our favourite possessions, our families and friends, our gardens and pets, and the space and privacy to relax and be ourselves. It encompasses both the actual house in which we live and its locality, and is hard to define too closely. We love to leave home and ‘get away from it all’ by going on holiday, and yet there is part of us that yearns for home, even as we board a plane or head off down the motorway.
Over the last few months our homes have acquired particular significance as we have lived with the restrictions of lockdown. Many people have used the time improving their homes: redecorating rooms, buying new furniture, landscaping the garden. Those sharing homes have had to learn to talk to one another, cook with one another, and agree on what to watch on Netflix. It’s been a challenging time, but we’ve all been thankful for the homes we have and the safety they’ve provided.
As an adult Jesus had no home of his own. He appears to have lived for a time in Capernaum at the start of his ministry, but from then onwards he travelled almost ceaselessly. ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’, he said, challenging his followers to let go of security and embrace a life of faith. The danger of ‘home’ is that it becomes too cosy, making us reluctant to move on and explore something new. The idea that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ is all very well, but sometimes we want to join the pilgrims and troubadours on the open road.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews we are reminded that ‘here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.’ (13.14). To be a Christian is to believe that our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3.20) and that no earthly home, however congenial, can compare with what awaits us beyond this life. Christ himself is our true home; it is in him that we shall find our peace. But in the meantime, we give thanks to God for the homes that we have been given and for our membership of his household here on earth. Vera Lynn may be rather too slushy for modern taste, but she certainly understood the significance of home – and, of course, chose to make her own home at the foot of the South Downs, in Ditchling.
Friday 19th June
In the midst of these turbulent times, when our post-colonial culture is under scrutiny and our post-Covid society is slowly emerging, it’s appropriate to commemorate a holy man who, a century ago, questioned many of the values and assumptions of Western life, including the Anglican Church. His name was Sundar Singh and he is honoured on this day in the Calendar of the Church of England, even though he travelled to Europe only twice, in the 1920’s. In this country he is now largely forgotten; among Indian Christians his reputation remains high.
Sundar Singh came from a wealthy Sikh family and was born in Punjab in 1889. He was devastated by the death of his mother when he was fourteen and fell into a state of deep despondency, despite his attempts to acquire a religious belief. One night he resolved to throw himself under a train unless the ‘True God’ revealed himself to him. The next morning he got up before dawn, washed and dressed and prepared to die. As he did so he had an overwhelming vision of Christ calling him to be his servant.
He was baptized in Simla on his sixteenth birthday, and in 1905 he put on the saffron robes of a ‘sadhu’, a holy man, and committed himself to a life of prayer and asceticism. ‘I am not worthy to follow in the steps of my Lord,’ he said, ‘but, like Him, I want no home, no possessions. Like Him I will belong to the road, sharing the suffering of my people, eating with those who will give me shelter, and telling all men of the love of God.’
Sadhu Singh travelled all over the Indian sub-continent preaching the Gospel. He trained for the Anglican ministry in Lahore but was ill at ease with many aspects of Anglican culture and believed that Western civilisation, marked as it was by materialism and colonialism, had become the antithesis of true Christian society. His passion was to develop an Indian Christian culture that was free of all Western elements.
His influence was profound and widespread. Many people were converted after hearing him preach, and countless miracles and mystical experiences were attributed to him. His enthusiasm for the Gospel, his simple robes, and his Christ-like appearance all made him a compelling figure. In the aftermath of the carnage of the First World War, he offered an alternative spiritual vision to that of the Western Church, which seemed staid and lifeless by comparison.
Every summer Sadhu Singh travelled north, to the remotest parts of India and across the frontier into Tibet. He became known by the scattered communities of the Himalayas who called him ‘the apostle with the bleeding feet’. It was on one of these trips to Tibet that he disappeared and presumably died in April 1929. He is remembered as a mysterious, prophetic figure who made Jesus real for countless people. His brother Rajender, who had repeatedly tried to poison him when he first became a Christian, was later converted himself, and testified to the many miracles he had wrought in Christ’s name.
Thursday 18th June
There’s a story about a man who went out into the desert in search of God. Before he left, he sought the advice of a holy person who told him to take with him a bag of dates and a jar of water. ‘Every night’, the holy person told him, ‘have a handful of dates and a drink of water, and then dig a hole in the sand and leave a date and some water there as an offering to God. Without doubt he will reveal himself to you.’
The man journeyed deep into the desert. Every night he did as he had been told, eating some of the dates, refreshing himself with water and making an offering to God. But as the days went by he began to feel that his journey was in vain. He felt desperately alone. He had no sense that God was with him. And he knew there wasn’t enough food left to sustain him if he turned round and attempted to go back. He would surely die there, far from home.
The day came when his food was about to run out. That evening he ate the last of the dates, leaving just one to bury in the sand with the last drops of his water. He lay down exhausted and fell asleep. God had abandoned him. Either that, or God didn’t exist at all. But next morning, when he awoke, he looked back at the journey he had made across the desert. To his astonishment, what had been just empty sand now had a series of oases at regular intervals: pools of clear refreshing water and groves of palm trees.
For a moment the man thought that it was all a mirage, or that sunstroke was causing him to hallucinate. But then it dawned on him that the oases all stood at the very places where he had left the gift of a date and some water each night. God had been with him every inch of his way and had blessed his offerings. His journey had not been in vain. He had found God at last by looking back and seeing how he had sustained him.
One of the benefits of lockdown has been the opportunity we’ve had to look back at our own life’s journey. Several people have told me how they have used this time to review their lives and take stock of where their journey has taken them. This has perhaps involved confronting painful memories and resolving to deal with tough personal issues. It will also have involved appreciating life’s simple gifts and recognising God’s guiding hand.
It is sometimes suggested that our lives have two halves. The first half is taken up with building a container for ourselves, consisting of our home, our work, our relationships, and so on. During this half of life we are concerned with defining ourselves through our achievements, our status, our prosperity, and all those things that give us, and others, a clear sense of ‘who we are’. It’s about establishing our identity.
But the second half of life is about actually looking into the container of our lives and seeing what’s really there. It’s to do with the depth and quality of our lives rather than their outward form. It involves reflection, silence, honesty and wisdom. For most of us the two halves of life are not equal, and many of us get stuck in the first half for far too long. The important thing is to move on to the second half, by letting go of the image we have created, and looking inward to the real truth of who we are. The pandemic has given many of us the jolt we need to do this – and it’s a precious gift.
Wednesday 17th June
Years ago a Franciscan friar, Brother Benedict (who is, I think, now the Minister Provincial for the Anglican Franciscans in Britain and Europe), taught me a worship song which we used to sing with local children in his flat in the shadow of Celtic football club. The first verse went like this:
We’re going to zoom, zoom, zoom
around the room, room, room,
we’re going to zoom around the room and praise the Lord.
And when the gates are open wide
we’re going to sit at God’s side,
we’re going to zoom around the room and praise the Lord!
It’s not one of the most profound pieces of hymnody (the other verses were no better), but we both enjoyed it and always felt a lot better for having sung it. And if it was a feast day we’d sometimes round off the occasion by having a few glasses of communion wine together (Brother Ben had a particularly pleasing variety). Simple pleasures!
Well, over the last few months I’ve learned a new verb: ‘to zoom’. It has nothing to do with zooming around the room of course; it’s the daily business of having online meetings. Before lockdown I’d literally never heard of Zoom (I remember an ice lolly called Zoom in my childhood: was it Walls or Lyons?), but now, like so many others, I’ve got used to making it part of my life. It’s a useful tool which not only enables meetings to take place, but generally keeps them focused and purposeful.
Methods of communication have changed so much during my working life. I remember with pride the moment when, as a young curate, I acquired my first push-button phone – replacing the old one with a dial. It felt very state of the state of the art. It was some years later that we bought our first Amstrad computer, and quite a long time after that I finally started using email regularly. Fax machines came and went, mobile phones became increasingly ‘smart’, and it’s clear that Zoom, and similar apps, are now here to stay. It’s never much fun going out in the winter to an evening meeting in a church hall, and both social and business meetings might be more comfortable online.
But there is a limit to all of this. St Paul chose the Body as a metaphor for the Church and, for all its failings, the Church dares to call itself the Mystical Body of Christ. A body is a physical reality, and just as Christ took upon himself a physical body, and offers us his body and blood in the physical elements of bread and wine, so he is most obviously present when the Church physically gathers as one body, inspired by his Spirit. No amount of zooming can ever be a substitute for gathering together at the Lord’s Table, and it is good to feel that it might be possible to do so again before too long.
Tuesday 16th June
My walk last September (how long ago it seems!) through the beautiful countryside of Hampshire, Surrey and Kent, gave me a taste of what medieval pilgrims must have experienced when they, too, made their way on foot to Canterbury. And it made me think of the other great pilgrimage routes that criss-crossed England in the years before the Reformation, many of which are being rediscovered and opened up again in our own time.
Chichester was, of course, an important place of pilgrimage, and for centuries pilgrims came here from all over Britain and Europe, to visit the shrine of St Richard.
This year was to have been a Year of Pilgrimage for our Diocese, helping to promote our Cathedral as a pilgrimage destination and exploring the meaning of pilgrimage. And today would no doubt have been a focus of all that, for today is the Feast of St Richard, commemorating the moving (the ‘translation’) of his remains from their original burial place in the Cathedral to the magnificent shrine that was built for them soon after he was declared a saint.
Richard died in Dover on 3rd April 1253, far from his native Droitwich. He was on a recruitment campaign for the Crusades at the time, and his body was brought back to Chichester, passing across the entire length of the diocese that he had served for nearly ten years. It had not been an easy episcopate for him, owing to the complex and often fraught relationship between church and state that was a feature of life in the early Middle Ages. For a year or so, he had lived a frugal life in Tarring, staying with the priest there and travelling all over Sussex on foot, getting to know his clergy and people. By all accounts he was an austere figure, dedicated to reforming and strengthening church life and expecting high standards of his clergy.
Richard was made a saint in 1262, following the occurrence of miracles for which his prayers had been invoked, and work soon began on the construction of his shrine. On the night of 15th/16th June 1276, the king, Edward l, stayed with his court at the Bishop’s country house at Aldingbourne, and the following day they arrived in Chichester for the ceremony at which St Richard’s body was translated. His shrine remained a place of pilgrimage until its destruction by Thomas Cromwell in 1538 and has only been properly restored as a place of pilgrimage in recent years.
Chichester should be proud to have its own saint. Richard was undoubtedly a man of holiness, and his shrine is a wonderful place in which to worship and pray. Above all, of course, we should be thankful for St Richard’s Prayer, which is included for regular use in Common Worship and has become one of the most famous and much-loved prayers in the English language. To ‘know, love and follow’ Jesus is indeed the aim of the Christian life, and today we can honour St Richard by rededicating ourselves to it.
Monday 15th June
I’ve recently been undertaking a long-overdue sort-out of my study. There’s been lots of paper to throw out and files to organise, but I’ve also tried to have a major cull of some of my books. It’s not that I’ve got an abnormal number of them, and I certainly haven’t got the sort of well-organised library that some clergy can boast. I simply have a random collection that has accumulated over the years and has begun to feel burdensome. Mark Twain said: “‘Classic’ - a book which people praise and don't read” – and I’ve certainly got a few classics among my genuine favourites!
A couple of years ago I talked to a priest who had recently retired. Inevitably he had moved from a large vicarage into a modest retirement home and it had been necessary for him to get rid of at least two thirds of his books. I asked him how it had felt. He told me that it been hugely liberating, and that when he’d glanced at many of the books on his shelves he’d realised how dated they seemed, including the ones that had once been a source of inspiration. He was confident that he’d never miss them.
I’ve not found it quite so easy, but like him I’ve discovered that my outlook on life has changed over the years and that many of the books that I once treasured and thought I would re-read, now seem irrelevant and uninspiring. In particular I find it quite depressing to look at old devotional books which present the spiritual life in ways that I can no longer relate to at all. And church life itself has changed so much over the years. Who now remembers the ‘Decade of Evangelism’ that brought the last century to a close? Or the ARCIC conferences of the 1980’s which promised unity between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches?
What are the books that have survived the cull? Well, I’ve certainly kept the kinds of reference books and Bible commentaries that I regularly turn to for sermon preparation or personal study. And there are quite a number of other ‘practical’ books that are valuable in connection with ministry and pastoral care. One day their time will come; for the time being they are safe. I’ve also spared several shelves of old favourites, including rather dusty books of church history, biographies, books about liturgy and church architecture, and one or two really trusted spiritual guides. I don’t often open them but I know I’d regret seeing them go.
Overall though, I’m aware that the balance between theological and non-theological books has changed over the years, and that the books that I now most value (leaving aside fiction) are those that have no obvious connection with the church or, indeed, the life of faith: books of poetry, books about history and art, books about wildlife and the landscape and so on. It’s not because my faith has diminished in any way, but rather that it is now shaped by a wider range of influences than was perhaps the case when I was first ordained. I’m comfortable in being able to acknowledge that and I’m grateful for those books of all kinds that have truly nourished my soul. It’s good to know that Waterstones and St Olav’s are open again!
Sunday 14th June – Trinity 1
In the Gospel reading appointed for today, St Matthew tells us that when Jesus saw the crowds, ‘he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’ The Greek word for ‘compassion’ in this context is a strong word, describing an emotion which we feel in the depths of our being, and in the Gospels, apart from one or two parables, it is used only of Jesus himself. He felt compassion for the sick, the blind, the hungry, the sorrowful, and the lonely. And on this occasion he felt compassion for those who felt spiritually lost. He recognised that they needed his help.
Compassion is perhaps the most important of all spiritual qualities. It is sometimes confused with ‘pity’ and is regarded as a kind of sentimental goodwill. But it literally means ‘to suffer with’, to enter into someone else’s pain, and it expresses very well what Jesus did through his ministry and especially through his death. He stood alongside people and shared their suffering, even to the point of surrendering to death on the cross.
All the world’s great faiths emphasise the importance of compassion and suggest that it is the test of true spirituality. If our faith makes us more compassionate it is a good thing; if it makes us less compassionate (more self-righteous, more judgemental) it’s a bad thing. That’s a crude test – but a pretty good one. And all faiths have a version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule: ‘Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself’ (some of you may remember the character of Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By in Charles Kingsley’s ‘Water Babies’). This is the basis of compassion: the recognition that it is wrong to inflict on others the kind of pain that we would avoid ourselves.
Compassion has been a feature of Christianity since its earliest times. Amidst the sometimes brutal conditions of the Ancient World, Christianity affirmed the importance of loving God and loving one’s neighbour as oneself. Jesus constantly modelled compassion, sometimes in ways that shocked the religious establishment. He reached out to those who were marginalised because of illness or possession, and those who were regarded as beyond the pale of the law (the ‘tax collectors and sinners’). He taught his disciples to love even their enemies and provided the ultimate illustration of compassion in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
But compassion has a tendency to get overlooked or forgotten altogether, even within the life of the church. Christian history is full of aggression, intolerance and exclusion, as well as generosity, kindness and compassion. Over ten years ago the writer Karen Armstrong created and launched a ‘Charter for Compassion’, calling on individuals and organisations around the world to commit themselves to making compassion fundamental to their lives. Never has compassion been more needed as we respond to the coronavirus and reflect on current issues of justice and equality. Never have the example and teaching of Jesus been more relevant.
Saturday 13th June
Earlier this week I conducted the funeral of someone who had served with the British Army on the North-West Frontier in the years immediately before the Partition of India. It was a direct link with our imperial history. To me, the North-West Frontier is a hugely evocative place, conjuring up images of mountains and ravines, narrow passes and ambushes, cannon fire and bugle calls. It was the most romantic border of the British Indian Empire, and for generations soldiers from this country patrolled it in the name of King and Emperor.
Or so I think. To be honest, I know almost nothing about the British Empire and even less about the history of India. My uncle worked on the Gold Coast in the 1920’s, my mother remembers the annual observance of ‘Empire Day’, my aunt had two illustrated books about the Boer War called ‘With the flag to Pretoria’, another uncle emigrated to Sydney in the 1930’s, and I grew up with an assortment of facts and anecdotes about the Empire that taught me nothing about what it was really like, either in its glory and its shame.
I have always thought this strange. Most pupils at school gain some knowledge of both the First and Second World Wars (in my day it was the Tudors and Stuarts!) and may also explore aspects of Victorian domestic history. They may even spend a term or two at primary school learning about the Ancient Egyptians and making models of mummies and pyramids. All of this is perfectly good. But for some reason they grow up without ever hearing about the largest empire the world has ever known (‘the empire upon which the sun never sets’) or seeing maps of the world with large areas coloured red.
Perhaps the reason is quite simply that we are afraid of exploring this hugely significant period in our past, which has left an indelible mark on the world, for good and ill. Whereas former generations were proud of the way in which the Empire promoted the export of so many aspects of British culture (models of government and administration, the English legal system, the Anglican Church, industrial and scientific knowledge and so on), we have become painfully aware that this was done at the expense of indigenous cultures, often through the use of force, and that it has left a legacy of political instability and resentment in many of our former territories. It’s not easy to contemplate.
However, unless we learn about the Empire and confront our imperialist past, we can never apologise for its shameful aspects which, at the present time, are stirring up such deep and explosive anger as part of the Black Lives Matter campaign. Statues of Cecil Rhodes and Baden Powell are in imminent danger of suffering the same fate as Edward Colston (and may deserve it, who knows?), but sadly few British people really know who they were or what part they played in our history. They have never been taught.
One thing that our parish link with Berlin has taught me is how well the German people have confronted their history, acknowledged their shame, and moved on from it without attempting to cover it up. The old joke, ‘Don’t mention the War’, has become meaningless; people in Germany often mention the War and are able to articulate very clearly the evils that were perpetuated by their forebears under National Socialism. As feelings in this country run high around our imperialist past, we too need to be helped to understand it better, and enabled to confront those aspects of it, such as the slave trade, that are among the worst human atrocities that have ever been committed.
Friday12th June – St Barnabas
If you could choose one word or phrase that you would like people to associate with you, what would it be? Or, to put it slightly differently, what nickname would you like people to give you? Jesus gave nicknames to some of his disciples: James and John were called the Sons of Thunder (‘Boanerges’), Simon was called the Rock (‘Petros’), the other Simon was called the Zealot, and Thomas was called the Twin (‘Didymus’). I always think it says a lot about Jesus that he liked to give names in this way. You can sense his warmth and affection.
Not long after the Day of Pentecost, a new disciple arrived in Jerusalem. He was determined to be a committed follower of Jesus and sold all his land in his native Cyprus in order to donate money to the apostles for the common good. His name was Joseph, but before long he, too, had acquired a nickname. The apostles saw the good in him and realised what a blessing he was to be. They called him Barnabas, which means ‘Son of Encouragement’.
What a great thing it is to be an encourager. We can all think of times when we’ve felt crushed or disappointed and how a few encouraging words have raised our spirits. Over the last few months particularly, we’ve all had times of worry and concern, and we have appreciated those who have been there for us, helping us to keep things in perspective and to look beyond the pandemic. And in the life of faith encouragement is particularly important. Most of us go through times of spiritual darkness, when God seems remote and we find ourselves unable to pray. We need the encouragement of our fellow Christians.
How did Barnabas use his gift? There are two things that he did that deserve particular credit. First, it was he who brought Paul to the disciples in Jerusalem and encouraged them to accept him as a believer. It was a courageous act: Paul had only recently undergone his conversion and was still regarded with great suspicion. Was he genuine in his desire to follow Christ? Or was he still plotting against the church and working for its downfall? Barnabas trusted him and saw his potential.
Second, Barnabas took John Mark under his wing and encouraged him in his discipleship. This began badly when, on their first missionary journey together with Paul, Mark turned back in Pamphylia and returned to Jerusalem. For Paul this was a sign of failure and he held it against him, but Barnabas obviously valued Mark’s companionship and later took him with him on a visit to Cyprus. Again he was right in his judgement, and Mark later became a companion of Paul in prison in Rome.
Barnabas not only had a wonderful nickname, but a wonderful epitaph. He is described in Acts as ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith’. We are told that it was while he and Paul were working for the church in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’. He is one of the great leaders of the apostolic church, who was probably martyred in Cyprus, and he is worthy of our remembrance today.
Thursday 11th June
There’s lovely post communion prayer that we use on the Second Sunday before Lent. Here it is:
God our creator,
by your gift
the tree of life was set at the heart of the earthly paradise,
and the bread of life at the heart of your Church:
may we who have been nourished at your table on earth
be transformed by the glory of the Saviour’s cross
and enjoy the delights of eternity;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
At the heart of the Church is the bread of life held out to us in Christ. He himself is that bread (‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’), and he is truly present in the bread of the Eucharist. We receive that bread with reverence and joy, praying that we may indeed ‘be transformed by the glory of the Saviour’s cross and enjoy the delights of eternity’. It is holy food that sustains us on our pilgrimage through life, just as the heavenly manna sustained the Israelites in the wilderness.
For the past three months we have been denied that holy food. The lockdown has meant that we have been unable to share in Holy Communion, and it would hardly be surprising if we felt spiritually undernourished and weakened. I remember the very first time I received communion, at St Paul’s Cathedral on the Sunday after my confirmation, and since then it has been a constant feature of my life. As a priest I have celebrated the Eucharist countless times and in all kinds of places: in churches, homes, cathedrals, hospitals – and by the Sea of Galilee. But not in recent months. The last time I presided at the altar was at 8am on 17th March, St Patrick’s Day.
Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi, the day when the Church gives thanks for the Eucharist. Maundy Thursday is in an obvious way the true feast of Corpus Christi, but the emphasis then is more on Jesus’s Passion than on the institution of the Eucharist. So it is always now, on the first ‘free’ Thursday after Easter that the Church takes the opportunity to reflect upon the bread of life which Christ has placed at the heart of his Church. I know how much many of you are longing to be able to receive that bread again, and we pray today that it won’t be long before we are able to do so.
I have decided to break my own spiritual fast today and celebrate the Eucharist in church. I am particularly doing so in order to consecrate bread (the ‘reserved sacrament’) for the aumbry that stands on the shelf behind the altar. Next week St Paul’s will be re-opened for private prayer, and I want you all to be able to come in and see a white light burning once again. It will be a sign that Christ, the bread of life, is indeed at the heart of his Church, and that in him all our hunger is satisfied.
Wednesday 10th June
We’re now back in Ordinary Time once again – at least as far as the Church’s Calendar is concerned. The last time things were ‘ordinary’ in this sense was back in October, when the Trinity season came to an end and all our green vestments were put away. Since then we’ve moved through the Kingdom Season (red), Advent (purple), Christmas and Epiphany (white), Lent (purple), Easter (white), Pentecost (red) and Trinity Sunday (white). And now we’re beginning the Trinity season all over again. When you next go into church (yes – the doors will be open next week!) you’ll see green in evidence: green - the colour of growth, the colour of ordinariness.
In almost all other respects, of course, things are still far from ordinary and are probably never going to be quite the same again. That rather irritating phrase, ‘the new normal’ has become shorthand for the very different world that we’re going to be inhabiting once the pandemic is finally over. Outwardly it may feel like a return to ordinary life, but we know that a great deal will have changed, especially for the millions of young people who will be left struggling to find jobs, homes and careers.
So what are we missing most at the moment, in these very ‘extraordinary’ times? No doubt we all have our own individual lists, but some things are obvious. Being able to meet and socialise with one another, going out for a coffee, going to school, going to a gym or a leisure centre, visiting a tourist attraction or a National Trust property, going to the theatre or cinema, going shopping without having to queue. All of these are very ordinary things that we previously took for granted; now we long to be able to do them again. If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it has certainly taught us to value what is ordinary and not to complain when things are entirely normal.
An American poet, Pat Schneider, has written this poem called ‘The Patience of Ordinary Things’, celebrating the virtue of the things we take for granted. It’s a simple reminder to appreciate them more.
It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they’re supposed to be.
I’ve been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things, how clothes
Wait respectfully in closets
And soap dries quietly in the dish,
And towels drink the wet
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?
Tuesday 9th June
Today the church honours the great Celtic saint, Columba. We remember how, in the year 587, he set out in a coracle from his native Ireland with a handful of companions, and let the wind carry them to the west coast of Scotland. There, on the tiny isle of Iona they made their home and established a monastery from which monks in due course went out all over Scotland preaching the Gospel.
Columba was probably of royal blood and his departure from Ireland may have been prompted more by political strife than missionary zeal. It is said that he always missed his homeland, but he nevertheless became attached to Iona, with its sandy beaches, rugged cliffs and sense of remoteness. He wrote these beautiful words:
Delightful it is to stand on the peak of a rock, in the bosom of the isle, gazing on the face of the sea.
I hear the heaving waves chanting a tune to God in heaven; I see their glittering surf.
I see the golden beaches, their sands sparkling; I hear the joyous shrieks of the swooping gulls.
I hear the waves breaking, crashing on rocks, like thunder in heaven. I see the mighty whales.
I watch the ebb and flow of the ocean tide; it holds my secret, my mournful flight from Eire.
Contrition fills my heart as I hear the sea; it chants my sins, sins too numerous to confess.
Let me bless almighty God, whose power extends over sea and land, whose angels watch over all.
Let me study sacred books to calm my soul; I pray for peace, kneeling at heaven’s gates.
Let me do my daily work, gathering seaweed, catching fish, giving food to the poor.
Let me say my daily prayers, sometimes chanting, sometimes quiet, always thanking God.
Delightful it is to live on a peaceful isle, in a quiet cell, serving the King of kings.
Columba is a patron saint of both Scotland and Ireland, and Iona remains one of the most important Christian sites in Britain. In medieval times a new monastery was built to replace the huts that had served Columba and his companions. This fell into disrepair following the Reformation, but in the 1930’s it stirred the imagination of The Reverend George Macleod, the Minister of Govan Old Church on the Clyde, and a man of both energy and ideas.
Govan had been deeply affected by the Great Depression, and Macleod decided to take a group of unemployed labourers, together with students and ministers, to Iona to rebuild the Abbey. So the Iona Community was born: a community whose members are dispersed around the world but who look to Iona as their spiritual home. It describes itself as ‘an ecumenical Christian community of people who seek to live out the Gospel in a way that is radical, inclusive and relevant to life in the 21st century’ and is a worthy successor to Columba and his fellow monks.
Monday 8th June
The very first hymn in our hymn books (and also Hymn No 1 in the very first edition of ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’) is the morning hymn, ‘Awake my soul, and with the sun thy daily stage of duty run’. It’s a bright and positive hymn: an invitation to ‘shake off dull sloth’ and live the day as fully as possible to the glory of God. It was written by Thomas Ken, whom the Church of England commemorates today, and ends with the doxology for which he is particular remembered:
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,
praise him, all creatures here below,
praise him above ye heavenly host,
praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
The same doxology is also used for Ken’s evening hymn, ‘Glory to thee, my God this night for all the blessings of the light, and the two hymns are intended to top and tail each day with prayer and praise. When I was at primary school we used to sing Ken’s doxology as a round, to the tune of Tallis’s Canon, and it gave me my first taste of the pleasure of singing in parts. I can’t imagine children today getting as much pleasure from singing Tallis as we did then!
Ken wrote those two hymns during the years that he lived in Winchester. As a young man he attended Winchester College and went on to New College, Oxford; later he returned to Winchester where he served as chaplain to the bishop and as a canon of the cathedral. For a short time he was also Vicar of Brighstone, on the Isle of Wight, a church which calls itself ‘The Church of the Three Bishops’ because it also became the living of two Victorian bishops, Samuel Wilberforce and George Moberly.
In 1684 Ken became Bishop of Bath and Wells. He was well-known to the king, Charles ll, because some years earlier Charles had stayed in Winchester and had attempted to take over Ken’s residence for the use of his mistress, Nell Gwynne. Ken had had been outraged and had bravely defied the king’s wishes. But apparently this earned him Charles’s respect, and on hearing of the vacancy at Bath and Wells, Charles is supposed to have said, "Where is the good little man that refused his lodging to poor Nell?"
Ken’s time as bishop was brief since he became one of the so-called ‘Non-Jurors’ who regarded the exiled James ll as their true, anointed monarch and were unable to swear allegiance to William and Mary. He was deposed from his See and spent the rest of his life in quiet retirement in Longleat. When he died, in 1711, his body was taken to St John’s Frome, just within his own diocese of Bath and Wells, and he was buried there at dawn while his friends sang ‘Awake my soul’. He is also remembered as the author of the lovely hymn in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, ‘Her Virgin eyes saw God incarnate born’.
7th June – Trinity Sunday
We all have our favourite hymns, and some of them have lines that make us smile. I’m always particularly amused by the lines, ‘Let every creature rise and bring peculiar honours to our King’ (it conjures up some very strange images in my mind!), and ‘Take my silver and my gold, not one mite shall I withhold’ (chance would be a fine thing!). There are several other old favourites, but the best of all is, ‘cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee, which wert and art and evermore shall be’. When I was young I used to think that Which, Wert and Art were the actual names of some of the cherubim and seraphim, rather like the names of the Seven Dwarves: Grumpy, Bashful and Sneezy and so on. And although I now know better, I find it a particularly comical phrase - perhaps one that I’ll manage to fit in a blog sometime!
The hymn from which it comes is, of course, the great hymn for Trinity Sunday, ‘Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!’ The hymn was written by Reginald Heber, who also wrote the Epiphany hymn, ‘Brightest and best of the sons of the morning’. It’s one that we would certainly have sung in church today under normal circumstances, and it takes its inspiration from both Isaiah 6.3 and Revelation 4. 8-11. Both passages offer glimpses of God in all his glory and majesty, surrounded by the heavenly host, and the three-fold repetition of the word ‘holy’ is suggestive of the three persons of the Trinity. In the Eucharist, the ancient hymn known as the Sanctus involves a similar repetition (‘Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might…’) and has a central place within the Prayer of Thanksgiving.
Trinity Sunday is the day when we draw back the heavens and contemplate the mystery of God. The Holy Trinity is not some kind of conundrum of human making; it is the way in which God has chosen to reveal himself to us. It is a mystery into which we enter through our worship and to which we respond as much with our hearts as with our heads. The hymn acknowledges that although God is hidden from our sight (‘though the darkness hide thee, though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see’), he alone is worthy of our devotion, ‘perfect in power, in love, and purity.’ And like Isaiah in the Temple, gazing at God upon his throne, our own contemplation of God should result in a desire to serve him more fully: ‘Here I am; send me!’
Reginald Heber wrote the hymn in the early 1800’s, when he was serving as vicar of the family living of Hodnet in Shropshire. He spent 16 years as a country parson but was also a fellow of All Souls College Oxford. In 1823 he was invited to become Bishop of Calcutta, and after initial misgivings about taking his wife and daughters so far from home, he accepted the post and the family set sail. He proved to be a conscientious and caring bishop and worked hard to improve the lives of those he served. But the combination of hard work, poor health and the hot climate proved too much, and he died in 1826 aged 42. He is commemorated in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Saturday 6th June
It is now getting on for thirty years since the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Lawrence, you remember, was a black teenager, from Plumstead, South London. He was stabbed to death by a group of white youths at a bus stop in Eltham on 22nd April 1993. Five suspects were eventually arrested, but charges against them were dropped when the Crown Prosecution Service decided that there was insufficient evidence to justify a trial.
It was a scandalous situation, and at a subsequent inquest in 1997 the jury took only thirty minutes to conclude that Lawrence’s death had been an unlawful killing ‘in a completely unprovoked attack by five white youths’. The suspects themselves refused to answer any questions, and the Daily Mail took the unprecedented step of branding them ‘Murderers’ on its front page. Many questions were asked about the apparent inability of the police to produce enough evidence against them.
Later that year the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, ordered a public inquiry into the case, headed by Sir William Macpherson. It concluded, among other things, that the original police investigation had been incompetent, that recommendations made by the 1981 Scarman Report following the race riots in Brixton and Toxteth had been ignored, and that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist. It included these words: ‘The need to re-establish trust between minority ethnic communities and the police is paramount... Seeking to achieve trust and confidence through a demonstration of fairness will not in itself be sufficient. It must be accompanied by a vigorous pursuit of openness and accountability’.
The production of fresh evidence eventually led to the re-arrest of two of the original suspects, Gary Dobson and David Norris and they were found guilty of Lawrence’s murder in 2012. The memory of Stephen Lawrence has been publicly honoured in many ways, and his mother, Doreen, has said: ‘I would like Stephen to be remembered as a young man who had a future. He was well loved, and had he been given the chance to survive maybe he would have been the one to bridge the gap between black and white because he didn't distinguish between black or white. He saw people as people.’
Last week’s brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has brought racial hatred into sharp focus, and all over the world support is being expressed for the human rights movement, Black Lives Matter. Despite land-mark events such as the Lawrence Inquiry, there is more to do in this country to root out racism and ensure the equal treatment and respect of all people. In Galatians 3. 28 (quoted by Martin Luther King in his ‘I have a dream’ speech), St Paul speaks of the unity that we all have in Christ, and it is part of the Church’s task to make that unity visible in its own life and to help promote it in society at large. Discrimination and racial prejudice are evils to be resisted. Black lives matter indeed.
Friday 5th June
We once had a memorable holiday in Orkney. The scenery was magnificent. The weather was glorious. The sun never set. Our (then) two children developed chicken pox but recovered quickly on empty sandy beaches. Our car had to be swung off the inter-island ferry onto the quay of the island where we were staying in a net (with our dog still in it, peering anxiously out of the window). The journey on an overnight cargo ferry from Invergordon to Kirkwall across the Pentland Firth was an adventure in itself.
We stayed on one of the smallest and remotest Orkney Islands – Papa Westray. It’s widely known because it is linked to the neighbouring island of Westray by the shortest scheduled air service in the world. Flights take less than two minutes. Papa Westray is just a few miles long with a population of less than a hundred. It has some fine Neolithic remains and also a tiny chapel dating from the 8th century, which is the only place of worship on Orkney apart from St Magnus Cathedral to have survived the Reformation.
The chapel is called St Boniface Kirk, and in recent years it has been beautifully restored. It stands above the rocky shore on the north west of the island and has a Norse hog-back gravestone and two early Christian cross-slabs in its churchyard. It’s a place of great spiritual and archaeological significance. Every week a simple evening service is held there, drawing together about a dozen or so island people and visitors, and I well remember the magical atmosphere created by the flickering candlelight, the howling wind outside and our unaccompanied hymn singing.
St Boniface himself was a saint of huge influence, hence a church dedicated to him in one of remotest parts of the British Isles (I also think of St Boniface Church at Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight). He was murdered by a band of pagans on this day in the year 754, and it is sometimes said that he had a deeper influence on European history than any other English person. He is regarded as ‘the Apostle of the German people’ and is still venerated by Catholics in many parts of Germany, especially around the city of Fulda, in the very centre of modern Germany, where his remains are preserved.
He was born in Crediton, Devon, in about 675 and, after training as a monk and a priest, he left Britain and went to Frisia, following in the footsteps of St Willibrord of York who was another great Anglo-Saxon missionary. After a brief return home, he returned to mainland Europe, gradually evangelising the people of central and southern Germany. A story is told of how he felled a sacred oak tree and how, when the pagan gods failed to intervene, widespread conversion followed. It might be a good thing if we adopted a similarly robust approach to the superstitions of our own time.
Eventually, in 732, Boniface was made Archbishop of Mainz. His life’s journey had taken him a long way from his birthplace in Devon, but he’s still remembered there with pride. He never returned to Britain but always corresponded with friends and kinsfolk. Next time you stop for a coffee at Rownhams Service Station spare him a thought. He trained as a monk just across the fields in Nursling!
Thursday 4th June
I think it was Frank Field M.P. who said of Archbishop Robert Runcie that he was ‘a man who nailed his colours to the fence’. That was a particularly witty observation and I’m sure it was made in a spirit of affection. Runcie was himself a very witty man, as well has having strong intellectual gifts, but he was blessed or cursed by being able to see both sides of an argument, and it wasn’t always clear which side he was really backing. He was part of the so-called ‘liberal establishment’ which at that time, back in the 1980’s, held sway in the Church of England and was rather different from the less nuanced and reticent leadership we have today, represented by Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell, both of whom are admirable figures who seem absolutely right for our own times.
I was rather an admirer of Runcie, possibly because I, too, usually feel most comfortable sitting on a fence! When it comes to making a decision I am frequently pulled to and fro by the competing arguments, and even when a decision has been made I sometimes find myself agonising about whether it was the right one. I am full of admiration for those who have the confidence to make decisive judgements under pressure, such as military leaders or front-line medical staff. But I struggle to relate to those who are naturally opinionated and seem to have a ready answer to any question, however complex.
This week M.P.’s gathered in Westminster to decide how they should conduct the business of the House of Commons during the duration of the pandemic and, in particular, how they should carry out voting. Up until now there has been a hybrid arrangement in place, allowing them to participate in Commons business online if they have needed to self-isolate, and in some cases also allowing them to cast their votes remotely.
But on Tuesday, under the watchful eye of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House (and the honourable member for the 17th century), M.P.’s took the decision to revert to their customary practice of voting in person. Normally this is done by physically entering one or other of the division chambers - a method that must terrify fence-sitters like myself – but it would appear that for the time being they will indicate their vote directly to the Speaker. Unfortunately, as we saw on the News, the requirements of social distancing mean that they will have to snake their way around Westminster Hall in order to vote safely. And of course they will have to jeopardise their own health and the health of others by travelling to Westminster from their constituencies.
Politicians must generally be people who thrive on decision-making, and they expect to be held to account for the decisions they take. But the kinds of decisions that they are now facing are of a different magnitude from those that normally concern them and must be a heavy burden indeed. And at other levels of national life all kinds of decisions are having to be made which have immense human impact. We pray for all our decision-makers that they may be blessed with wisdom, compassion, and humility. This is no time for sitting on the fence.
One or two changes seem to be taking place at the moment. Yesterday I said farewell to Fr Neil Shaw from St Wilfrid’s, who is leaving his native Sussex and moving to Lincolnshire. Neil will be widely missed, particularly for his ability to get alongside people of all ages and backgrounds and put them at ease. He has been a good colleague since he came to Chichester two and a half years ago and has given invaluable help with our Boys’ Brigade. He is due to become Rector of All Saints’, Stamford, where the Reverend John Richardson spent many happy years of ministry about thirty years ago, and I hope that he too enjoys his time there. Here in Chichester both St Wilfrid’s and St George’s are now in vacancy, so we pray that it won’t be too long before priests can be found for them. As with everything, the process is likely to be delayed by the pandemic.
The weather, too, seems to be changing. Today’s much-needed rain seems to be heralding the start of cooler, more temperate, weather. On Monday our instincts were confirmed by the news that this has been the sunniest spring on record (and the driest May), with nearly 700 hours of recorded sunshine here in England. We’ve all been immensely grateful for the continuous blue skies and warm sun, but inevitably it all points to the increase in global warming. It’s hard now to believe that we had such large quantities of rain during the winter, but there must be many households around the country only just getting back to normal after the terrible flooding in some areas.
And, of course, there are the slight but significant changes brought about by the easing of lockdown: the reopening of some primary school classes, the opportunity for people to meet responsibly in larger groups and the consequent increase of traffic on our main roads. As yet there is no news of when churches might reopen their doors, and Bishop Martin has written an Open Letter to all M.P.’s whose constituencies are in this diocese, urging them to lobby for a review of the continued closure of places of worship. In his letter he says: ‘At a time when tensions run high, I believe that there is a deep thirst for access to churches and cathedrals as places of prayer for people of committed faith, or for anyone who is in search of space in which to find peace.’ We hope very much that his efforts on our behalf will bear fruit.
What kind of changes are you undergoing in your own lives? The last three months have turned our lives upside down, and for many people the effects will be catastrophic in terms of unemployment and financial need. The phrase ‘nothing will be the same again’ is being widely used as we begin to count the cost of this defining year in human history. But at a personal level some changes may be positive. Perhaps we will have become more kind. Perhaps we will have become less materialistic. Perhaps we will have grown in spiritual maturity. Remember Newman’s words: ‘To live is to change, and to have changed often is to be perfect.’
When did you last use cash of any kind? The chances are that many of you have been doing most of your shopping online over these last few weeks, and if you’ve been to any kind of shop you will have either chosen, or been required, to use some form of contactless payment. The declining use of ‘real money’ over the last decade has been astonishing and will now have been accelerated by the pandemic. How quaint it isto think of the time some of us spent at school learning the mathematical complexities of ‘pounds, shillings and pence’. And how good it is to recall the childhood pleasure of being given a ten shilling note by a visiting relative or godparent!
Cash may be on its way out, but yesterday I found myself briefly in possession of one of the new twenty pound notes. I wasn’t aware that new notes had been produced this year, and was interested to see that Turner, the painter, is featured on one side of the note together with his most famous painting, ‘The Fighting Temeraire’: that powerful image of a huge wooden fighting ship being towed by a paddle-driven tug on its way to the breaker’s yard, all set against a remarkable sunset.
My father used to drag my brother and I regularly around the National Gallery and the Tate when we were young, and ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ was a frequent stopping point. At the time I didn’t appreciate its symbolism: the demise of sail power (The Temeraire had played a significant role at Trafalgar) and the advent of steam, marking the advance of the Industrial Revolution and the start of the Victorian era.
Turner’s own life ended in poverty and obscurity, and there are suggestions that the painting reflects his own sense ofbelonging to a past age and approaching the sunset of his life. It was completed in 1838, two years after St Paul’s Churchwas built, and was exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year. I’d like to go to Rotherhithe sometime and think of The Temeraire being broken up there on the banks of the Thames. I’d also like to revisit the National Gallery and the Tate and just spend an unhurried afternoon looking at some of the great paintings that, as a child, I struggled to engage with.
Among those paintings – in the Tate – is Turner’s exquisite painting of Chichester Canal, with the Cathedral spire in the distance, which we all know so well. Turner received the patronage of the 3rd Earl of Egremont, and was a frequent guest at Petworth House. It was on one of those visits, in 1828, that he came to Chichester and produced his painting, looking up the canal from Hunston, with a ship moored on the bank where joggers and walkers now pass by every day.
Over the years I have seen countless reproductions of the painting in the homes of parishioners in and around Chichester - and for good reason: it’s
a memorable evocation of our beautiful city and a fine example of the genius of Turner, whom many would regard as the greatest British artist of all time. He’s certainly worthy of his place on a twenty pound note.
Monday 1st June
The recent slight easing of lockdown will have enabled the reunion over the weekend of countless families and friends, and the chance to exchange news and catch up on gossip. Both joy and sorrow will have been shared: in some cases perhaps the pain of bereavement, in others maybe the joy of a new born baby. Some people will have made long journeys to see elderly relatives or grandchildren. Others will simply have joined their friends in the park or had a barbecue in their garden.
The sharing of news, especially good news, is something we do instinctively. Most of us find it hard to keep news to ourselves, and unless it is confidential we’re quick to pick up our phones and let everyone else know too. But there’s no substitute for being able to share news in person, and the opportunity to go and see our loved ones is infinitely preferable to the limitations of Zoom or Skype.
Today we think of a lovely moment at the start of the Gospel story which involved both a journey and some good news: the journey that Mary made from her home in Nazareth to her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country of Judaea. It is traditionally known as ‘The Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ and has been transferred to today from its proper date yesterday (31st May). Both Mary and Elizabeth were pregnant and the fact that they were was, of course, nothing short of miraculous: Elizabeth was beyond normal child-bearing age, and Mary had conceived her child as a virgin.
So it was that the meeting between them was one of both joy and wonder, and its significance was highlighted by the fact that Elizabeth’s baby – the future John the Baptist - ‘leaped for joy’ in her womb as he recognised that he was in the presence of the coming Messiah. Many years later it would be he who would stand by the Jordan and point towards Jesus with the words, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ Here, at their very first meeting, there is also a sign of joyful recognition.
Mary’s response to this was to utter her great song of praise that we call the Magnificat. It bears a strong resemblance to the Song of Hannah in the Old Testament, and praises God for the way in which he turns the world and its values upside down and defies human expectations. As William Barclay put it, many years ago: ‘There is loveliness in the Magnificat, but in that loveliness there is dynamite. Christianity begets a revolution in each man (sic) and revolution in the world.’
The Visitation is a mysterious and beautiful encounter and is an important part of St Luke’s careful scene-setting for Jesus’ birth. At a human level it’s the meeting between two cousins to chat about pregnancy and motherhood and catch up on family news. It has a homely quality about it to which we can all relate. But at a deeper level it is a celebration of God’s hidden purposes and an anticipation of the ministry of Jesus which John would announce. We are told that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months before returning home. Who knows what effect that time must have had upon them – and upon the babies they were about to deliver. Who can measure the value of time spent with family and friends?
Sunday 31st May – Pentecost
Earlier this week Prince William spoke of his struggle in the past with public speaking. Unsurprisingly he’d felt the stress of having to give talks and formal speeches, knowing that everything he said would be reported and judged by the media. I have to say that Prince William has always struck me as one of the best spokesmen for the Royal Family; he has a calm and sincere manner which enables him to connect with his audience. He has certainly concealed his nervousness very effectively over the years (How good we are at keeping our fears and inadequacies hidden).
Prince William is very aware of the even greater struggle that his grandfather, George 6th, faced in overcoming his stammer: the struggle that inspired the film ‘The King’s Speech’. And for so many people, having to stand up and speak in public is a terrible ordeal. As with everything, we have to find our own ways of dealing with it, and in Prince William’s case a slight deterioration of eyesight has apparently made things easier. He no longer sees his audiences facing him clearly; they have become a blur from which he can distance himself more easily. I know the feeling: when I am standing at the altar I can hardly see anyone through my Poundland reading glasses!
On the Day of Pentecost St Peter found himself standing up in Jerusalem addressing huge crowds of Jewish pilgrims from all over the world. He began, as many preachers begin, with a joke: ‘I don’t want any more suggestions that any of us are drunk – it’s only nine o’clock in the morning.’ But he then moved straight into delivering what was perhaps the greatest speech ever made. To what extent St Luke’s record of it in Acts is entirely accurate we don’t know, but if you read it out loud (Acts 2. 14-36) you will feel its power and get a feel of the impression it must have made on its original audience. It’s a great piece of oratory – up there with Pericles and Cicero, or Martin Luther King and Billy Graham.
Peter draws on the Old Testament to show that God is fulfilling his promises by pouring out the Holy Spirit on his people. The prophet Joel had foretold a day when everyone, young and old, women and men, would experience visions and dreams as the Spirit revealed God’s purposes to them – and now that moment has come. The catalyst has been the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, whose recent death and resurrection had been widely witnessed. The Holy Spirit is his gift, the proof that he is the one for whom history has been waiting. A new age is dawning!
Simon Peter began life as a fisherman. He had presumably received no formal education. He had followed Jesus with enthusiasm but on occasion had failed in his discipleship. He had experienced shame and forgiveness. But now he had emerged as the leader of the apostles, standing at their head and preaching with confidence and fervour. If anyone doubted the reality and power of the Spirit, his speech would have convinced them otherwise. Its effect on the cosmopolitan crowd in Jerusalem was galvanising: having heard his call to repentance in Jesus’s name, 3,000 of them became believers and were baptized.
Today we celebrate that great day in Jerusalem and the birth of the Church that it marked. The Holy Spirit is the ‘Comforter’: the one who gives us confidence to face life’s challenges and do things which we never thought possible, and Peter was the first to surrender to it. As Easter comes to an end we celebrate Christ’s living presence with us, and we pray that the Spirit may rekindle our faith and unable us as a church to do great things in Christ’s name.
Saturday 30th May
I wonder what Dominic Cummings is really like. He comes over as someone with a razor-sharp mind and an even sharper tongue, contemptuous of public opinion, disdainful of convention, arrogant, humourless and cold. He’s the man we all love to hate at the moment, and it’s hard to imagine how he’s spending this weekend. Certainly not going for a quiet walk in his local park.
And he has caused deep offence to all those people who, in recent weeks, have observed both the law and the spirit of the lockdown and have refrained from visiting their own family members, especially those directly affected by the virus. I know that some of you have been in this situation and have had to endure the agony of not being with those you love when they most needed you. You have respected the government’s guidelines and have resisted the temptation to jump in your car and go and see them. The anger felt for Dominic Cummings is entirely understandable and it’s little wonder that he’s been demonised in the public eye.
But, as this whole saga has revealed, Cummings has a family of his own and, at some level, must have feelings much like ours. He is a parent of young children, he is himself the son of elderly parents, he is happily married, and no doubt he has a circle of friends who see a different side of him from the one that he chooses to show the world. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for him, but he certainly must be feeling the pressure of so much public anger. Maybe he even feels a tiny bit of remorse.
What he has failed to do is to apologise in any way. He has remained defiant and has attempted to justify his behaviour. We all know that sorry is the hardest word, especially when we’ve convinced ourselves that we are on the moral high-ground, but there is little doubt that things might be different if Cummings had been able to offer a word of apology and given even a hint that he has learned in some way from the whole episode. As children we were all taught that saying sorry is an essential part of life. We all make mistakes. We all behave badly. We all screw up. But we can say sorry – to those we’ve offended, and to the God who loves us – and on that basis we can clear the air and make a new start.
Perhaps one reason why Dominic Cummings refuses to apologise is because he feels like a scapegoat. The lockdown has been a long and stressful time and it is far from over. We are all feeling frustrated and weary. The truth may be that we are using Cummings as a target for some of our anger at having to endure such a lengthy ordeal. In the Old Testament the scapegoat was sent out into the wilderness carrying the sins of the people. On the cross, Jesus became the supreme scapegoat: the innocent victim who ‘takes away the sin of the world’. And in modern times psychologists have used the idea of ‘scapegoating’ to show how societies transfer blame and responsibility onto chosen individuals in times of particular pressure. It’s way of restoring social order and wellbeing.
I suspect that Dominic Cummings would laugh at the idea that he was being used by us as a scapegoat. He’d prefer to be seen as a Rottweiler. But the possibility is one that we consider as we enjoy ourselves seeing him pilloried in the weekend newspapers. And, in any case, it would be a wonderful thing to see him laugh for a change!
Friday 29th May
I drove home from the crematorium yesterday behind a Tesla car. It was large and black and elegant, and almost totally silent. Electric cars fascinate me by their effortless acceleration and lack of sound, and I’m amazed that batteries can provide enough power for a car as heavy as a Tesla to pull away so quickly and to cruise so fast. The one I was following soon left me in its wake.
Elon Musk, the head of Tesla, is by all standards an extraordinary man. He’s a self-made billionaire who originates from South Africa, lives in the United States, and devotes both his energy and his money to extravagant pioneering projects. In 2006, he described his ‘master plan’ for Tesla like this: ‘Build sports car. Use that money to build an affordable car. Use that money to build an even more affordable car. While doing above, also provide zero-emission electric power generation options.’ That plan is probably in the process of being realised; Musk is certainly heavily involved in the harnessing of solar energy and the provision of radical new forms of public transport.
Musk is in the news at the moment as his company SpaceX prepares for the launch of its first manned flight, Demo-2, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch was to have taken place earlier in the week but was postponed because of poor weather. If it goes ahead this weekend it will make SpaceX the first private company to send astronauts into space and to dock with the International Space Station. It will be a remarkable achievement. The cost itself must be out of this world.
Technology and science are areas of life which I struggle to understand and know little about. But I recognise how exciting they must be to work in, and how much they contribute to human progress. The twenty first century alone has witnessed almost unbelievable technical advances. And it is very often individuals such as Elon Musk (and Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Berners-Lee and James Dyson etc) who make those advances possible, sometimes combining their genius with a deep sense of philanthropy. Musk himself is a controversial character and some of his schemes such as colonising Mars may prove unattainable, at least in his lifetime. But I have no doubt that much of his work, especially around clean energy, will prove highly beneficial to humankind.
At the present time it is medical research that is claiming most of our attention, as laboratories around the world concentrate their efforts on producing a vaccine for Covid-19. The Jenner Institute in Oxford has, of course, begun clinical trials of its own vaccine, and the pharmaceutical company, AstraZeneca, has announced its readiness to produce 400 million doses of it if it proves successful. All eyes are on Professor Adrian Hill, the head of the Institute, and his team. We pray for them in this hugely important undertaking, and we give thanks for all those who work for the common good in the fields of science and technology.
Thursday 28th May
Fiona and I heard a cuckoo when we were out dog-walking on Tuesday. I haven’t heard one for a long time, probably about ten years, so I was particularly pleased. Perhaps it was another sign of the confidence that animals and birds have regained in recent months. With far less traffic on the roads and a degree of silence still hanging over our towns and cities, the natural world is flourishing in unexpected ways. On the BBC News the other evening the camera picked up on a fox strolling nonchalantly past the entrance to 10 Downing Street. I read in the paper that buzzards have returned to Hampstead Heath. The question is, what will happen to wildlife when things revert to normal? I fear that some animals, having gained a new confidence, will suddenly find themselves at risk.
One of the most disturbing features of life at the moment is the incongruity between the terrible effects of coronavirus and the beauty and peace of the natural world. There’s something almost eerie about these endless days of sunshine, which are luring so many of us out into the countryside or down to the beach, given the fact that up and down the country many care homes and hospitals are still struggling to cope with the virus. I’ve been watching some of the special television reports on the critical care being provided by our London hospitals, and wonder what it must be like for doctors and nurses to remove their PPE at the end of a shift and walk out into the sunshine. No doubt it’s a wonderful relief, but it must be tempered by the knowledge that they must soon return to their duties. The contrast is almost unimaginable.
The poet Louis Macneice was aware of our struggle to reconcile the different facets of life and make sense of its contradictions. In his poem, ‘Snow’, he focuses on the two sides of a window: on one side, in the warmth of the room, are some pink roses; on the other side, in the freezing air, there is falling snow:
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener that we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible. The contrasting aspects of life are indeed hard to hold together, but it’s important that we try to do so. Joy and sorrow, beauty and pain, life and death, are all part of our God-given experience, and somehow we must learn to accept them as the two sides of one window. Eastern religions reject all forms of dualism and they probably have much to teach us in that respect. Life is a question of both/and, not either/or.
Wednesday 27th May
On Monday afternoon Fiona and I drove gently down towards Selsey. On the way we turned off and stopped at Sidlesham Quay. The Crab and Lobster was of course closed, so the little community was almost deserted, despite it being a Bank Holiday. In the distance the stubby tower and spire of Pagham Church rose above the trees; apart from that there were no buildings to be seen – just sand and mud and water and a perfect cobalt sky. I was reminded of holidays I’d spent on the north coast of Norfolk around Cley and Blakeney, which is a similar paradise for bird-watchers.
From Sidlesham we drove round Pagham Harbour to Church Norton. There we bumped into Tim and Julie Schofield from the Cathedral, who are preparing for Tim’s imminent retirement. They are both going to hugely missed by the Cathedral community. The view from Church Norton, north towards the downs and east towards Bognor, was stunning. I was reminded that Eric Coates had been inspired by the view to compose ‘By the Sleepy Lagoon’, the tune used to introduce Desert Island Dics, which most people probably associate with rather more exotic places!
I also thought of St Wilfrid and his companions choosing Selsey as their base as they set about the evangelisation of Sussex. Wilfrid had spent his earliest years in the monastery on Lindisfarne and when he came to Selsey, which was then similarly cut off from the mainland at high tide, he must immediately have felt at home. There is something very attractive about places whose life and character are determined by the movement of the tide, and its ebb and flow is a metaphor for the changes of life. Some of you will know this prayer by David Adam, inspired by his time as Vicar of Lindisfarne:
There are times when I need to be an island,
Set in an infinite sea
Cut off from all that comes to me
But surrounded still by thee.
Times of quiet and peace
When traffic and turmoil cease
When I can be still and worship thee
Lord of the land and sea.
Full tide and ebb tide
Let life rhythms flow
Ebb tide, full tide
How life’s beat must go.
I must be part of the mainland,
A causeway between me and others.
There are times when I can only find thee
In working with my brothers.
Times of business and industry
Freeing ourselves from captivity.
It’s when we give a helping hand
We meet you, Lord of sea and land.
Ebb tide, full tide
Let life rhythms flow
Full tide, ebb tide
How life’s beat must go.
Tuesday 26th May
‘Not Angles but angels’, Pope Gregory is supposed to have said, as he saw the English slave children in the markets of Rome. And when he learned that they came from a heathen country, he chose one of his monks, Augustine, to spear-head a mission to evangelize its people. So it was that Augustine and forty other monks set out from Rome in 596 and made their way northwards. We are told that when reports reached them in Gaul telling of the savagery of the English people, Augustine wanted to turn back, but Gregory would have none of it and urged him onwards.
Eventually, in the summer of 597, the monks landed on the Kent coast and were surprised by the friendly welcome they received. England was in fact not unfamiliar with Christianity, and the king’s wife, Bertha, was a Christian. King Ethelbert himself soon decided to be baptized and gave land to Augustine to found a monastery in his principal city of Canterbury. So it was that, after his return to Rome to be consecrated as a bishop, Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury and began the evangelisation of England at the same time that Columba and his monks were evangelising Scotland and the North from their base in Iona. He is honoured by the Church today, on the anniversary of his death in 604.
How do we know about the history of the early English Church? Largely because of the work of one man, who was commemorated yesterday: the Venerable Bede. Bede was a monk who spent his entire life in the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow in the North East, and was fondly remembered by his pupils as a man of holiness and learning. He never travelled further than York, but he was a dedicated historian, who gathered as much information as possible about the origins of Christianity in the British Isles and eventually, in about 731, completed his ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People.’ Without that great work we would know little about the way in which church life developed in those early centuries of faith, not least the part played by St Wilfrid in bringing the Gospel to Sussex.
Bede died on 25th May, the eve of Ascension Day, in 735. He is sometimes called ‘the Father of English History’. Here is part of what he wrote about St Wilfrid’s time here in Sussex:
‘At this time, King Ethelwahl granted the most reverend Bishop Wilfrid eighty seven hides of land so that he could maintain his exiled companions. The land lay at Selsey, which means the seal’s island, a place surrounded by the sea on all sides except to the west, where there is an approach about a sling’s cast in width… Bishop Wilfrid accepted this land, and having built a monastery there, established the regular life, most of the monks being his own companions: his successors are known to occupy the place to this day.’
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?