In Commemoration of Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II

IMG_1544What a life; what an example; what a witness. The death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II yesterday (Thursday 8th September 2022) brings an end to a remarkable life, lived as an example to so many in gracious wisdom; a life inspired by a profound and deep Christian faith. Her broadcasts have been some of the best evangelistic statements available, all the more so for coming from the heart.

In 2002 she said 

“I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God… I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.”

Her mischief and playful side came out with either a twinkle in her eye or the high-profile performances – skydiving with James Bond for the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics and of course afternoon tea with Paddington Bear earlier this year, revealing finally exactly what she keeps in her handbag: a marmalade sandwich, for emergencies. Two much-loved national icons sharing tea, well Paddington drank all the tea.

More words have been printed and said over the past 24 hours than I can really add to in tribute to her. Her death ends an era, more than an era – it’s an age which has itself seen many eras within it. She noted herself on her 90th birthday that “the extent and pace of change has been truly remarkable”, on one occasion she said it can leave you feeling dizzy. She was born before mass car and TV ownership. She lived through the major developments of the Twentieth Century  and into the Twenty-first, and embraced them herself. “Our world”, she said, “has enjoyed great advances in science and technology, but it has also endured war, conflict and terrible suffering on an unprecedented scale”. She knew the good times and bad that her faith sustained her through; the darkness that the light of Christ shines to dispel as well as the great joys.

This evening we gather to mark her life, her death and do so in the profound faith and hope that she held so dear. Our second reading came from the Book of Revelation (7:9-end), the last book in the Bible. It is a book with rich symbolism and sometimes strange illustrations, but above all it is a book of profound hope. The great hope in it is that God is the beginning and ending of all things, holds life as if in the palm of a hand, and treasures it. The life we receive as a gift is taken and kept in the heart of God. The life of Queen Elizabeth is now in the care of God who is her source and goal and final destination.

When someone who has always been there dies, there is a profound shock. All of a sudden the anchors that hold life steady move and a new secure point is needed. It’s a moment to make the strongest wobble. That is the same for a nation as it is for families. We now enter a new epoch, one which brings us into unfamiliar territory, if only singing ‘God save the King’ rather than the Queen; that will take some getting used to. 

It’s at times like this that faith, the deep faith attested to so often by the late Queen, is so important to us. It is the bedrock of life and so means that moments of grief are not of despair but can find hope. Tonight, we give thanks for the Queen’s long reign, her long years of service and dedication to the people of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. As we give thanks, we commend her to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in whom she trusted all her days.

May Christ gather her with all the saints and faithful departed into the great household of heaven and bring her to the joy of Christ’s resurrection.

Sermon in Commemoration of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Newport Cathedral, Friday 9th September 2022

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Prayer and surprising gifts from God (and that Lambeth ‘call’)

cover_calls_ENI was in a meeting this week when we started talking about communication and particularly the language we use in church. Every group, every organisation has its own words which are shorthand and the rest of us are expected to catch up. Anyone who’s spent time in schools knows education is full of them, and acronyms too. The financial press has these – ESGs for investments – where the criteria is Ethical, Social and Governance for determining the moral probity of a company. The more we get steeped in the world of the church and the Christian faith, the more we forget what we’ve learnt and come to take as normal, and therefore how this is just mysterious at best, gobbledegook to anyone looking in from outside.

Perhaps one word that falls into this category that may surprise you, which came up in the conversation, is ‘prayer’. The idea being put forward was that many don’t know what we mean by prayer. They may have heard it, but come at it with all sorts of assumptions which may be profoundly unhelpful. So our notice outside talks about ‘prayer and reflection’, to open up rather than narrow down.

Actually this shouldn’t surprise us. Prayer does come with all sorts of baggage about how you do it, what you are doing when you do it, what you expect to come out of it, and what words to use. Jesus’ first followers were no different and in our Gospel reading we get them asking him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1-13). It’s not entirely clear whether this was ignorance – they were devout Jews after all, so would have prayed before, grown up with it – or if they were wanting a specific intention, treating prayer as a kind of magic to make something happen. The reference to John the Baptist may well be that they wanted a radical prayer of liberation and justice, of prophetic challenge and announcement of the restoration of the political state. Did they want a messianic figure to rise up to take on the Romans; to drive them out of their land, and the prayer would be a rallying cry for that?

What they get in Luke’s version, is a very short form of what we now call the Lord’s Prayer: it praises God, seeks God’s kingdom, asks for food, forgiveness and we need to forgive too, and protection from whatever the time of trial is. It begins by addressing God as Father, which presses all sorts of buttons from their history – in the Old Testament Israel is described as God’s son, so to call God Father is to plug into this and identify with being God’s special people – chosen, liberated and established. And it goes back to Abraham in our first reading (Genesis 18), by those Oaks of Mamre, being blessed by the visitors with the promise of multiple generations flowing from him and his wife Sarah, and this comes in the face of a place of corruption and vice down the road at Sodom. The result of the diminishing confidence in finding just 10 righteous people is that only Lot, his wife and two daughters were found to be righteous, and even Lot’s wife ends up being turned into a pillar of salt for turning back to gaze on where they had left, a reference perhaps to not actually having turned her back on it. The place is destroyed.

Prayer is not magic. It is to align ourselves with the will of God. And there is a much deeper tradition than a shopping list of requests. The passage begins with Jesus praying and we don’t know what that meant – he might have used words, he may have been in silent stillness and oneness with the fullness of God, lost in contemplation. But the words he gives are about resetting the focus and purpose. If you want to be forgiven, then forgiving others is part of the deal. Whatever your desires, the deepest one must be for God – seek first the kingdom of God. The examples sound like a shopping list, but the true prize comes at the end with the gift of the Holy Spirit. And I spoke about the Holy Spirit being the great disrupter at Pentecost – what we expect or want is not what the Holy Spirit tends to bring. Be careful what you pray for.

This coming week, bishops from across the Anglican Communion, from around the world, will gather at the University of Kent at Canterbury for the Lambeth Conference. Our own bishops will be there too – though they are having to stay outside of the main campus because Cherry and Wendy are not allowed to be together in the main conference accommodation. They decided as a block they were not playing that game and booked a hotel together off the campus. When we pray for unity, for the Anglican Communion, what are we hoping for? There are some profound differences within the Anglican Communion and they stretch it to its limits of accommodation. There are those, like our own province here in Wales, that are openly affirming of same sex relationships, offering blessings. Some, like Scotland and the United States, conduct same sex marriages. And there are others who believe this is the greatest sin that there is and want to rule it out – they have even proposed a re-affirmation of a previous resolution from 1998 to do this. That resolution was divisive at the time and it is ridiculous to think nothing has changed in the time since. It is a mischief motion or ‘call’ as they call them. Our bishops, along with the Scottish bishops, have issued a statement calling for this to be changed.

When we pray for unity, for brothers and sisters across the world in very different places, we open ourselves to will of God, to the purpose of God, and that always takes us to strange places. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, it makes connections that we otherwise don’t see. And when we disagree, the Holy Spirit has more chance of working on us if we actually engage and relate, enter into conversations that include listening more than talking, listening to the reality of lives, to what life looks like from that other person’s place. It is then that grace can start to work on us and between us.

The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. They may well have had a specific expectation of what that might have looked like. Instead, he gives them something that says start with God and how God has called us all by name, told us we are his beloved children, and as a loving father has perhaps a better grasp than we do. He tells them to seek God’s kingdom above their own, above their own prejudices and preconceived ideas. He prayers for bread, the staple of life, for forgiveness for ourselves and those who hurt us, and to pray that God will strengthen us when life is trying – what one priest once called ‘extra grace required’ moments.

The greatest gift, the greatest answer to pray we can receive is the Holy Spirit. May that Spirit strengthen us, sustain us and change us to seek God’s Kingdom first, last and always.

Sermon for Trinity 6, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 24th July 2022

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Music: training in humility – a life skill

IMG_7197We are in a period of change as a nation. Whoever is chosen by the about 200,000 members of the Conservative party will lead not only that party but by default become the next Prime Minister. Given how government seems to work, that means they will set the direction of so much of our common life in the UK. Some aspects are devolved in Wales, but not everything and for some things the Senedd relies on money passed on to it by Westminster. 

When we think about what makes a good leader, the popular image is someone up front, leading the charge, and riding at the front of the parade. That was the model of Roman Generals at the time St Paul, who wrote our second reading, was writing (1 Corinthians 4:8-13). In fact, the people at the back of the procession we not only the least important in this way of thinking, they were often the prisoners or slaves dragged through the streets for humiliation. They may even have been executed for sport.

So, when St Paul refers to himself, to Apostles, as those at the back of the parade, ‘as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world’, he is drawing on a very different image. It is one of humility and not aggrandisement, one of self-abasement rather than self-advancement. And it is this tradition that we display at every service where the order of procession is reversed. At the head should be the cross and we want to bring that back when we have a cross that doesn’t fall apart as it is carried. At the back is either the president at a Eucharist, or the Dean or Bishop at other services. Sometimes Bishops’ chaplains walk behind the bishop just so there is someone beneath them! It becomes more obvious this, when you see civic processions where they are very clear the most important go first and the ones at the back just needs to make sure the door is shut.

Paul goes on to talk about us being ‘fools for the sake of Christ, weak and the dregs’. His response to this, and it is clear that he means this both literally and figuratively, is one of grace and blessing. ‘When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly’. Those are all very hard things to do. The temptation is to get back and find the perfect putdown. That is always a sign of injury and comes from hurt rather than strength. It takes a lot of spiritual grace to be able to reject the bite back and find the response of grace.

It is rooted in the humility which is acted out in the processions. It is a sign that with us it is not to be as it is with the rulers of this world, who, when James and John asked for the top jobs, Jesus told them that those who would lead must serve, those who want to be first must actually walk in last. And one of the aims here, is that we are seeking the Kingdom of God and not the kingdom of our own ego. Paul mocks the Corinthians for thinking that they have everything they want, all the riches they could need and have become kings in their own sight. No, he says, the most important things are still lost to you. They need to be hungry and thirsty for the things of God, for the Kingdom of God and it is not just about building this in the world – which can become more about making ourselves look good – but it starts in the heart.

Music is a good training ground for this. All performers know that if you are really going to pull it off, the music has to take precedence over your own ego. That goes for musicians, but also actors and other artists. It is to allow yourself to be a vehicle for something so much bigger than yourself, something which connects with something deeper. There is a word in spirituality for this, and it is quite simply ‘humility’. This is where I am not the most important element in this, but merely enabling it to have a voice. And my delight is to be in what is produced, not in me being the producer. In fact if you are to work as part of a choir, then the voices have to blend and sometimes other parts will have the lead.

Churches and cathedrals are no different in this. The common life here is also built on this ensemble approach. Different people will have the tune at different times, or the main theme, and that makes everything we do about something so much bigger than our own sense of importance or glory.

Today we give thanks for another choir year. It’s been one where what we do has opened out from being spaced in the side aisle to flourishing in the stalls again. We’ve built up the services and over the past month or so hosted quite a few special services for the diocese, the city and for others. The training in humility and being part of something bigger than ourselves is a life skill that I hope will stay with our younger singers for the rest of their lives and feed into whatever careers and roles they occupy in the future. 

Some years ago I wrote a prayer for use at the beginning of concerts and to give thanks for the gift of music. It reflects some of this with uniting different voices in one song, stirring the depths of the heart in praise and longing for our lives to rejoice in God’s love. I end with that prayer*:

God, the source of life and joy,

we thank you for the gift of music,

its uniting of different voices in one song,

its stirring of the depths of the heart in praise.

Fill us with this vibrancy

that our lives may rejoice in your love

and be renewed in the Spirit’s hope,

now and always. Amen.

*From Ian Black, ‘Prayers for all occasions’, SPCK 2011, p32

Sermon for the choir valediction evensong, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 17th July 2022

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Foundations of Public Service

IMG_7139The hymn Amazing Grace, which we have just sung, is well known. It shot to fame in the 1970s when the pipes and drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards released a recording of it and it held the number 1 spot for nine weeks. It was written by a former captain of a slave ship, John Newton. His life was dramatically changed by a conversion experience triggered by reading a spiritual classic, ‘The Imitation of Christ’ by 15thcentury writer Thomas à Kempis. He was on a long voyage across the Atlantic. A violent storm blew up and he found himself crying out to God for help – we’re not told of the cries from those in appalling conditions below decks, but perhaps that played on his mind too. John Newton later credited that storm for the first stirrings of his faith.

He gave up the slave trade and seafaring and, after becoming a friend of John Wesley, trained for Anglican ministry, being ordained in 1764. This hymn first appeared fifteen years later. It refers to his intense conversion experience and his profound sense that it was only the overwhelming grace of God which saved one as wretched as he saw his earlier life to have been. People can change in dramatic ways when something stirs deep within.

The slave trade is quite a topical subject at the moment, with concern rightly being expressed about what is politely referred to as contested history and monuments, with its legacy. The more I look at this, the harder I think it is to separate out that legacy. It is so shot through British history that there is no institution that has not been touched and benefited from its profits, the church included. The statue of slave owner Thomas Picton is in the process of being removed from Cardiff City Hall at the moment. The other day, I was talking to one of the architects involved.

At a recent conference, one of the speakers, a woman of colour, spoke about how for her the important response was to be open and tell the story. Admit where things have gone very wrong and evil has been perpetrated by people who have also used their wealth for good. The story is complicated and we kid ourselves if we think we can separate out the good people from the wholly bad people. There are shades in us all, though for some that shading is very dark. So, we can’t airbrush the past and shouldn’t. What we can do is own up to it, tell the whole story and explain how and why we aim to be different today.

The complexities of what lies behind how we go about things, the moral blind spots we can all have, is one of the reasons why I think the values in the Nolan Principles of Public Service are so important. These form the basis of the Act of Re-commitment we will say together later. All of us need something to call us back to what is actually to be our primary task in public life, especially when the complexities of ourselves let alone the issues are in front of us. Who do we serve, how do we ensure that the highest standards are advanced and upheld? They are questions for a city council as much as any other public body. We know that these principles came out of a very shady time of British political life – with cash for questions and various other sleaze stories. These prompted the then Prime Minister, John Major, to set up the Nolan enquiry that produced them.

Being selfless, having integrity, acting impartially, being accountable, open and transparent, honest and having respect for all people regardless of their background, these are core, foundational values for public service and it is the responsibility of leadership to ensure they are upheld. They are reflected in the principles of good governance for charities and are what we would include if we tried to define what it means to behave decently.

They put a method into the summary in our first reading (Micah 6:8) of what it means to be good: doing justice, loving mercy and walking with humility before God. In our second reading (Philippians 4:8), used at the Queen’s Jubilee Service just a few weeks ago in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, truth, honour and justice were centre stage. And then we have the phrase echoed in St David’s final words to his friends and fellow monks: ‘keep on doing the things you have learned and heard and seen in me’. As St David put it, ‘be joyful, keep your faith and do the little things you have seen and heard in me’.

Wales is a much more multicultural society than it once was. A school near here has 35 languages among its students, way beyond the bilingual focus on Welsh and English – and I was reading in the National of the plans for teaching Welsh to all students to expand it. But with cultural diversity, when we are rooted deeply in our own faith, tradition or cultural identity, we can find that there are far more points of convergence on basic moral principles for governance, public life and what it means to be decent. These points of convergence, of meeting, show that truth does have something eternal and foundational within it that is shared and crosses boundaries. It’s not just some slippery term to be scared of and airbrushed away in case we offend. If it is true, it will only offend those who want to ignore these principles. All people of good will find they can converge on them.

So today, as we come here to this ancient sacred place, the one on which the settlement that became Newport is founded, we are taken to the heart of what guides public service. Truthfulness, integrity, impartiality, accountability, openness, honesty and respect for all; in these we will find the building blocks of a healthy society. May God bless you all as you struggle with the difficult issues you face, wrestle with solutions and seek to work for the wellbeing of all the citizens of this city.

Sermon for Civic Service, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 26th June 2022

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Participating in the life and love of the Trinity

IMG_7052Today is Trinity Sunday. It is one of those days when preachers tie themselves up in knots trying to define God and use all sorts of inadequate images of threefold states to try to explain how the Trinity is possible. While our Gospel reading does give us God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it also offers us a different way of looking at that, one that is not bogged down in doctrine and definition so much, as and invitation to reflect on what it means to participate in the life of the Trinity, in the life of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit (John 16:12-15), and that opens up a rich seam to explore. So, I want to spend a few moments, this morning reflecting on that by picking up on just one word from that Gospel reading, which I think can help us do this. 

John has Jesus saying “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (v12).  That seems a strange thing to say. Jesus is saying there is more, but I don’t think you are able to hear it, or hold it, or carry it. That word ‘bear’, “you cannot bear them now”, is rich in meaning. In John this word ‘bear’ will be used later to refer to Jesus bearing the cross (19:17), and the context of this passage is Jesus’ long discourse at the Last Supper after Judas has gone out to betray him. Jesus warns the remaining disciples of what is to come. He will be glorified, through the cross, they will have to make a choice and Peter will deny him three times. The Holy Spirit is promised, but there’s quite a bit to get through first. In Luke’s gospel,  Jesus uses this word bear to refer to the disciples directly on this, if they want to be his disciples they have to bear their own cross (Luke 14:27). They have to be prepared to carry it.

They cannot bear what Jesus has to say to them, they cannot carry it or cope with it, because they have to go through a dark moment for the space to be opened up in them for the Spirit of God. Only then can they bear it, carry it, cope with it, participate in it. This is about so much more than just head knowledge. ‘Bearing’ comes with a cost, the cost of discipleship and that may well involve pain and suffering. He tells them, ‘You cannot bear it yet because you’ve got some stuff to go through to open you up to be able to receive it’, not just know it. This was reflected in our Epistle reading, where Paul referred to suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:1-15).

I’ve said before that the four-fold actions of the Eucharist are how we are to live, to be. We are called (taken as the bread and wine are taken); we are blessed (as the elements are blessed in the Eucharistic Prayer); we are broken (as the bread is) before it is shared, sent out. That being broken is literal in the case of the bread with the crack of the wafer. It may be literal for us too but in the light of this notion of ‘bearing’, being able to bear it, cope with it, it is a metaphor of being opened up, having a space where God in God’s fullness and Trinitarian mystery can get to work on us, because the Trinity is the whole life and love of God. Bearing comes with the cost of breaking, which makes space for God, and the redemption that comes through his cross and resurrection.

The word ‘bear’ has many allusions in the Bible, that take us to other places. Again, in Luke’s gospel, the word is used for the mother of Jesus bearing him – the women cry out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you” (Luke 11:27). It’s the same Greek word that is used. You cannot bear it yet, is that you are not yet able to carry Christ, to bring him to birth in your hearts and lives, to participate in him, and therefore not able to bring him to birth in the hearts and lives of others, until you have the space for God to grow inside, until the Spirit works on you. They can’t give what they don’t have. And that comes from the full mystery of God dawning and growing, birthing in them and the fruits of the Spirit that brings: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). We understand better when the space for God has been opened and filled with the life and love of God, when we are drawn to participate mystically in the life and love of God.

I saw a video this week of Rowan Williams quoting a Greek theologian, Christos Yannaras, saying Christianity is not a religion, but it is life and that means it is to do with the life of God. Morality is therefore not so much about good versus evil, as life verses death. The church, then, becomes the place where we can grow in life, grow in the life of God and that by definition is to grow in the life of the Trinity: God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is so much more than mere institutional religion, which is really rather dull.

When thinking about this life, how it manifests itself, bearing has another connotation in the New Testament. It is also used for carrying and sharing one another’s burdens – putting up with one another’s failings, with our weaknesses which can burst forth in spectacular fashion: ‘bear with one another’ (Romans 15:1), or put up with one another. You might call it cutting one another a bit of slack, looking a bit deeper to see what might really be going on. And churches as communities are places where we need this as much as anywhere else, and in my experience can be very forgiving places.

I had one of these moments when thinking about the Tory MPs voting by a fairly narrow majority to back the Prime Minister on Monday in the confidence vote in Westminster. It’s easy to call out moral bankruptcy, elitism at work and contempt in that vote – how can they back him after all that has gone on and been revealed? Some of that mud may well stick. But there is such a thing as ‘wilful blindness’, where the consequences of facing something can be so great that we ignore  it – our brains hit the escape button because it’s too big to deal with what it means. This happens in so many institutions and personal morality and behaviour. Many companies who have been through a crisis later say that they knew the problem was there but it was too big to face so they had a blind spot to it. Those involved in safeguarding and protecting know that a parent can have a blind spot when the other parent is abusing because facing it means their world collapses and that’s too big to deal with. We are complex and have our blind spots, some of them wilful. I think there was quite a bit of that going on too. Which doesn’t let them off the hook but it does say the kind of things that can get in the way of facing up to truth, to all truth, which God through the Holy Spirit offers to open up to us, if we have that openness within. So we look for where life is growing, rather than death destroying, where we need to be opened up to be able to bear what we know deep down to be true. May be, as with all of us, they have some journey to make yet.

When we think about the nature of God, the Trinity, we find God making God-self known and wanting us to be filled with God’s life and love in the mystery, majesty and magnificence of the Trinity. God wants us to grow in the life of the Trinity – this is of the nature of God which the Trinity expresses. We are to bear that in our lives, in our encounters, but we can only do so when the space has been opened up inside and the Holy Spirit come to fill us. It’s a daily challenge, because birthing, bearing fruit, letting life grow, is also linked with the weaknesses and failings we all have, with how we choose death rather than life in so many ways. Cutting one another a bit of slack over this is not about excusing and ignoring what we do, but giving space for the redeeming power of God who is creator, redeemer and sustainer of all things, whose love enables us to bear all things, believe, hope and endure (from 1 Corinthians 13). 

Trinity Sunday is not so much a day for dry doctrine, as one of invitation to grow and live in the life and love of God, to bear what Jesus has to say to us, to participate in God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 12th June 2022

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Holy Spirit: Disrupting fountain and well

IMG_1027I don’t know if you watched the service from St Paul’s Cathedral to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee on Friday. A number of things stood out for me. One was the young people challenging the congregation of leaders and diplomats, royalty and clerics, with an Act of Commitment. There is something about the challenge from the young, which gives the words more power and force. This is the future, which will judge the present for how it tackles or fails to tackle the big issues of our day and they came quick and fast: care for the world and the environment, honouring life in its richness and diversity, peace and justice, seeking out and nurturing all that is good. 

That was also reflected in the second reading, given to the Prime Minister. ‘Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, just, pure, commendable… think about these things, keep doing these things, and the God of peace will be with you’ (Philippians 4:4-9). St David’s final words echo these with his ‘be joyful, keep your faith and do the little things you have seen and heard in me’.

And it was the Queen’s faith that was really the whole theme and purpose of the service. Not that you would know that if you only saw the report on the BBC news, which could only mention the Archbishop of York’s reference to horse racing. Airbrushed out was the importance, the central importance of the Queen’s faith for her life. I was in a little exchange with our new Archdeacon, Stella Bailey, about this, and she observed that if you are steeped in the faith you spot the references to it, but if you are not all you hear is the horse racing. May be there is a BBC that is also frightened about speaking about these things, which might be another dynamic at work here, but it is a reminder of the missionary context that we are speaking into, people who don’t hear faith, they hear horse racing. And our reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:1-21) gave a similar mix up; we had disciples speaking in the power of the Spirit and what people heard was they’re all drunk. With that always strikes me as a humorous moment, they can’t be it’s only 9 o’clock in the morning – well believe me I’ve known people who could be drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning. They don’t hear it.

The Archbishop was at pains to point out that the faith of the Queen is the “fountain and the well” of her life. From this she draws her inspiration and her sustenance, the grace she needs to fulfil the role she has to play and has played for 70 years. A life of service, inspired by faith and guided, strengthened in the grace of God.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, or you may prefer in Imperial measures – Whit Sunday, when we remember and celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit. This came to disciples who had been locked up in fear and dread, afraid to sing the praises out loud and to declare the hope they had in Jesus Christ. Following the Ascension, they prayed together, they opened their hearts and on the Day of Pentecost in poured the life changing, disrupting, enabling Holy Spirit. In their diversity, different languages sang the same song and these scared people found the courage to go out and proclaim to the world the saving love of Christ. That’s the miracle of Pentecost. It’s also the challenge for us.

And I was also struck by a stark contrast between watching the congregation in St Paul’s on Friday and watching this service online last weekend, in my precautionary Covid confinement at home. The hymn singing in St Paul’s seemed pretty lacklustre. Mouths barely moving. Contrast that with the wholehearted sound which came over the internet from here, on a week when the choir was on its half term break too so you all had to do the work, this was very striking. It is very striking and powerful when we get to the great ‘Amen’ at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer each week, the moment when we assert whatever we believe to take place in that prayer has happened. We join with the angels and sing the ‘Amen’ of heaven. It’s a sign of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts and voices, to open the voice and let the song out – whether you can sing well or not, that’s not the point. The song is in the heart and out it comes. We will hear it again this afternoon, after what I think is a very dull National Anthem for Great Britain, we will sing the Welsh one and, oh my, as an Englishman coming into Wales it’s quite a sound when you get a congregation of Welsh people singing it. You can’t beat it.

St Augustine famously said that the one who sings prays twice. I think there is something much deeper in that. It is the one who is open to the life changing power and love of God, to the movement of the Holy Spirit, who prays twice in their singing. There is a well which bubbles up and bursts forth as a fountain to change lives and then change the world, which is expressed in the song of the double praying.

The Holy Spirit is no mere comforter, like a child’s cuddly toy. That’s a misunderstanding of that word comfort. There is a wonderful bit in the Bayeux Tapestry which has someone is prodding the troops in the backside with a sharp spear and the caption underneath says ‘Harold comforts his troops’. Prods them, stirs them on. It may of course calm them, give them the ability to do what would otherwise not be possible – and many of us in various roles and responsibilities know that we just would not be able to do what we do without it. I couldn’t even contemplate this role without the grace and extra strengthening, the boost that can only come from God’s Spirit. It is prayed at ordinations with the words, remember you cannot do this in your own strength, you need God’s Spirit to guide you and equip you. And, oh my goodness, over the years, approaching three decades, I’ve learnt just how much that is needed. Sometimes even wondered if I could carry on but found that somehow enough is given, perhaps so much more is given, to overcome that sense of inability and at times collapse. It was a telling moment when Stephen Cottrell stood in the pulpit in St Paul’s Cathedral before his sermon, he was still and silent for a moment, actually what felt quite a long moment, before beginning what he earlier described as a slightly terrifying prospect. I think he prayed and allowed the Holy Spirit to enter in.

The Holy Spirit is far more than a becalmer; it’s a disrupter and it changes things. The first disciples were disrupted from the safety and comfort of their locked room and sent into unknown places, with unknown people – some of whom were hostile and life-threatening, but there are always those who bring life in a new way and blessings, and they found that too. Give thanks for them, because they remind us of the joy that is to come through the song we sing and that song will drive away the paralysis that comes with the fear, just as it drove away the paralysis of the disciples locked in their rooms who went out to sing, to preach, to pray, to proclaim. When we come to the Cathedral to pray, don’t make the mistake of thinking this is just a comfortable moment – remember the word comfort is not as comfortable as it might sound – one which will enable you to stay as you are. It is not. It is a disrupter and it will change you and enable the change which God requires of us to live the life of the Spirit. I don’t think, even those of us who say these words, we have a clue half the time what this means, but over time it comes.

We are going to find this with climate change and today is also World Environment Day. Big changes will be required of us and so some big disrupting is going to be required to reset the health and balance of the planet. The image of Prince Louis with his hands over his ears and pulling faces on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with the roar of the fly pasts has been used in quite a few memes over the past few days. But one I saw put the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere for the year of their birth above the heads of the Queen, the Duchess of Cambridge, his sister Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis himself, and his was the highest number even in such a relatively short time, especially between his sister and himself it had changed dramatically in that short time. If we pray to God for the care of the environment, do not be surprised when God’s Holy Spirit disrupts and challenges, brings change. It has to.

The Spirit’s gifts to us, expressed in song, enable us to pray twice and that prayer comes from a heart that is open and allows the Spirit to enter in so that it can disrupt and, in its disrupting, become the fountain and the well as we live the life of Christ to the glory of God.

Sermon for Pentecost, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 5th June 2022

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Paschal Candle explained

IMG_0779Every now and then people ask me about the meaning and significance of different signs and symbols in the Cathedral. I thought I’d spend a few moments this evening talking about the paschal candle which stands by the altar during Eastertide. This might become an occasional series. Feel free to suggest others.

We renew this candle each year at the Vigil Service on Holy Saturday evening – the first Eucharist of Easter. If you were here, you will have heard me talk about no one being a witness to the resurrection – it takes place during the night and is discovered in the morning when Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb and finds it empty. She has an encounter with the risen Jesus, but does not see him rise – no one does. So the Vigil service is one when we retell snapshots from the story of salvation from Creation to Easter proclamation. It makes Easter not something separate but the culmination and fulfilment of Creation, of God’s intention from the beginning and this candle stands as the sign and symbol of this.

It has symbols on the front of it. The main one is a Christogram, a stylised representation of the first two letters in Greek for Christ – the Chi and rho characters. These are often mistaken for being an X and a P, but this is not an old computer operating system. This is an ancient Christian symbol, older than use of the cross. It was in use during Roman times and has been found in mosaics in villas in Britain, and on a pewter dish found at Caerwent, dating from AD 370 – one of the earliest pieces of evidence of Christianity in Wales. This candle signifies Christ, for it bears his banner, his Christogram. I use the Chi-Rho symbol as a shorthand for writing ‘Christianity’ when making notes.

Above and below it are two more Greek letters – Alpha and Omega. These are the first and the last letters in the Greek alphabet and when the New Testament writers, who wrote in Greek, wanted to represent the beginning and the end, all time belonging to God, they used their A to Z, Alpha and Omega. God is the beginning and the end of all that is; Christ is the firstborn of all creation and the fulfilment of it.

Below the Omega is this year’s date – 2022. Our dating system has been based on Christ since the 5th century when a Scythian monk, Dionysius Exiguus – Denis the Insignificant, first came up with the idea. Before then dating was derived by how long a particular ruler had been in charge. So, Isaiah’s great vision begins ‘In the year the King Uzziah died’ (Isaiah 6). And 2 Chronicles date’s Josiah’s discovery of the book of the Law, while he had the builders in during the eighteenth year of his reign (2 Chron 34:8). Dionysius decided that these were insignificant in comparison to the advent of Christ and so he worked out what year he then thought they were in. He got his sums a bit wrong and is a few years out, but not bad given what he had at his disposal. And he started his dating scheme on the feast of the Annunciation – March 25th, so that is the proper New Year’s Day in this scheme and was until 1750 when it changed.

Set into the candle are 5 brass studs, containing grains of incense. These symbolise the five wounds of Christ on the cross – the nails in his hands and feet, the crown of thorns and the spear that pierced his side. It is by his wounds that we are healed, by this passion that redemption is brought. There is no resurrection without his death, which becomes the portal for our new life.

The first recorded mention of a paschal candle comes in a letter from St Jerome to a deacon named Presido in Italy in AD 384. It follows use of candles at Evening Prayer to dispel the darkness and Christ is referred to in John’s Gospel as being the Light of the World. So it is not surprising that this took on extra special significance at Easter. This follows Jewish practice of lighting a lamp on Saturday evenings to mark the end of the Sabbath. So it’s roots run very deep and go back to the beginnings of Christianity.

This candle stands as a sign of Christ, his completion of Creation in rising at Easter and therefore stands as a sign of the great hope we have in him. It is used at baptism – this is the candle from which the baptismal candles are lit – and at funerals reminding us that we commend our loved ones in the hope and love God. It is a special and poignant symbol in the Cathedral taking us to the heart of our faith.

Sermon for Evensong, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 8th May 2022

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Story-tellers of the hope we have in Christ

IMG_0862There’s a story I heard a little while ago about a shepherd. A man was walking in the hills and came across a shepherd looking after his sheep. He had his traditional stick with the crooked end. The man asked the shepherd whether he really used his shepherd’s crook to pull stray sheep out of a brook or some pit they’d fallen into. The shepherd’s reply surprised him because he talked about how he would stick his crook in the ground and stand very still. And slowly the sheep gather round him.

It’s a lovely image of calm and stability. Of presence and being known. Of how these become a draw in a world of so many options and competing voices, of frenetic activity and lots of wandering. I’ve been reading up on my Welsh history and particularly the history of Christianity in Wales. The earliest days tell stories of particularly holy people who felt a call from God and set up their cell, their place of prayer and story-telling. They effectively behaved like the shepherd in the story, who planted his staff in the ground and established a stable presence that became attractive. Those who came heard and learned more about the life-changing story of Jesus Christ and over time they were shaped to likewise become story-tellers. Churches and chapels grew up over the place where the holy person was buried, or in our case Gwynllyw was buried in the floor of the church he established, which became a place people came to associate with faith and prayer, with the presence that they knew made a difference.

And this radically simple strategy lies at the foundation of this holy and ancient place. A man heard the call of the true shepherd, who knows his sheep. It led him to change his life and follow, to plant his staff and on that place a great church has grown up. One thought is that if we are seeking to revitalise the life of the church today, of our story-telling and presence, then this is a place to start, with a stable presence where the story is told, prayers are said and the holy is made known.

Our gospel reading spoke about a shepherd who knows his sheep, they hear his voice and respond; they follow him (John 10:22-30). That is the crucial test of whether or not we are one of the true shepherd’s sheep. If we hear the voice, we respond, we go to where the shepherd has set his staff. And surprising people come; look around, we’re an odd bunch, but a real one. No one has to pretend they are someone different to who they are, and that is one of the things that drew me here.

Today has the tag of being Vocations Sunday. It is a day to remember that being one of the true shepherd’s sheep takes on many guises. Hearing the voice and coming to him comes with a commission to use the gifts God has given us to make a difference. This is a day when the whole of life comes under the auspices of what it means to follow Christ. No area is left out, no aspect or job or role we have. And this lies at the foundation of all ministry, of all roles and everything we aim to do. It has to be rooted in hearing the voice call and going to the place where the true shepherd has planted his staff.

I was struck by some of the phrases last weekend at the Archbishop’s Enthronement service in Bangor Cathedral. As the Archbishop entered the cathedral with the other bishops, they were greeted by two school children who reminded them at the font what their vocation is rooted in. They were encouraged to remember, to not forget, “that everything starts here, in our shared calling, heard at our Baptism, to follow Christ in Faith, to be sustained along the way by Hope, and to show forth in our lives Christ’s Love for all.” Hearing it from a young voice gave it all the more power and force. 

At little later in the service, another school child greeted the Bishops as “preachers and story-tellers, as evangelists and proclaimers of the Good News.” And then they cut to the chase: “Speak to us of the things that matter; talk to us in the language of heaven and with the accents of our times; help us to become our own preachers and story-tellers…” There is so much spoken about being a secular society today. I don’t buy that and the generation Z, the latest generation, are very interested in the “things that matter, the language of heaven spoken with the accents of our times”. The sociologists call this ‘spiritual but not religious’ and in census returns they tick ‘none’ for their religion. This is often taken as proof they are completely secular and atheist, but it is not. It is very open and looking to find the staff planted with a still presence, that speaks of holiness and faith and hope and love.

Sheep are not as passive as we tend to think they are – they will be led but that leading has to be engendered through trust. And they send out messages among themselves which means they bring one another to the shepherd – they are social creatures. By calling us sheep, Christ calls us all to come to the true shepherd and be so shaped and moulded by him that we become the preachers and story-tellers. He calls us to use our social networks and set an example of faith and hope and love. Be careful of the prayer to the Lord of the Harvest asking for workers to go into the mission fields, because it is a prayer that will rebound with lightning speed. God is sending lots of workers and the truth is they are all sitting here this morning or watching online. 

Vocation Sunday gives the image of shepherd and sheep a twist. We gather around the one where we find the things that matter and then live it in so many ways. Some will be apostles, some prophets, pastors and teachers, some given other skills for the building up of the body – some ordained, some not, some accredited and some not specifically. But all are called first and foremost to be rooted in the true shepherd, gather round the Christ who plants his staff in the ground, be story-tellers of the hope we have in him wherever he leads.

Sermon for Easter 4, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 8th May 2022

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Easter Triumph, Easter Joy – Changes Everything and Completes Creation

IMG_0779It is dark. Jesus has been in the tomb for over 24 hours now, wrapped in his grave-clothes. The sabbath is finally over and preparations can be made to visit his grave at first light to complete the acts of love that could not be done with a hasty burial after execution. Three days is a bit misleading, because the day of death is the first day, he lay in the tomb for the second and now, with nightfall, the third day has begun. The shock and the grief is still raw and, well, his closest friends and followers are still processing that he really is dead, even though some saw it close up and others from a distance.

No one knows when the resurrection happened. The Gospels do not tell us the precise moment in time – just after dark, just before dawn, with dawn. There are no witnesses to it. No one is identified as the one who saw it happen. All we have is confused disciples and friends, finding the body had gone at first light, in the early morning, and even then the first ones, the women, aren’t believed. So this service is a strange one. We have jumped between the pages of the gospels, into the gap in the story as we gather in the dark and affirm what we cannot see and no one saw. We enter the mystery of Christ’s resurrection itself and delight in it. At first light, later in the morning, we do something different, delighting in the discovery and what that means. Tonight we rejoice in the event itself which, according to the gospel writers, took place at some point in the night. It is an act of faith and trust in God’s redeeming love.

The readings tell, in brief truncated snippets, the story of salvation from creation (Genesis 1:1-5, 26:31a), rainbow promise (Genesis 8:15-18; 9:8-13), liberation at the Exodus (Exodus 14:10-22) to Ezekiel’s bringing life to dead bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). God does wonderful things and promises are always exceeded. But the resurrection is still a surprise, so much so they don’t all believe it at first and some take more convincing than others. It is not expected and new life comes where no one assumed it would. Creation is out of nothing; God’s breath sweeps over a formless void of nothing and brings things into being. That is the first surprise, that there is anything rather than nothing, and once that has been done nothing is beyond the scope of God. Into this comes promise that created matter will be loved unconditionally and unendingly, and the sign is the multicoloured rainbow that still delights, even though we know the physics. The rainbow is the central theme throughout the Bible.

The human sin of oppression saps hope, and the journey, the Exodus, to liberation is tough; it can seem like everything gets worse long before it gets better. But the waters that threaten to block the path and drown do part and safe passage opens. What seems impossible becomes possible; what seems impassable becomes passable. The dry bones, viewed in the valley by Ezekiel, where death seems permanent and unmovable spring to life with a dance of vigour and vitality, rather than a dance of death and decay. Death is the final ultimate oppression, whose chains are smashed in the wonder of this night and as a sign of that we pass through the waters of rebirth, of new life at baptism – and will be splashed with those waters in a moment to remind us of this.

In this night of wonder and astounding joy, we affirm God’s unstoppable presence. This makes our song Alleluia. We sing it, shout it from the roof tops, live it and let it define us. It takes the rest of Eastertide and beyond to teased out, work out the implications of Christ’s rising. Tonight the glory belongs entirely to God and we glimpse into the heart of the eternal Trinity on something only they can see, with adoration and great thanksgiving. We step between the pages in faith.

Easter changes everything. It completes creation, for it shows that the universe is not random and purposeless, but the outpouring of a love, a rainbow love that will not give up or discard. No one is rubbish to be thrown away – the image of those dry bones on the scrap heap coming to life affirms that God who gives life and brings it to an end, reignites it in the joy of God’s eternity. 

It is dark and into this darkness the brightest light shines. 

Alleluia! Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Sermon for the Easter Vigil, Newport Cathedral, Holy Saturday 16th April 2022

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Beware on Good Friday: God sides with the vulnerable

IMG_0771Which words stood out for you as we read John’s account of the final moments of Jesus’ life – his trial before Pilate, condemnation and immediate crucifixion and burial? At the moment one phrase seems particularly relevant, Pilate’s question ‘what is truth’. In an age with so many perspectives, views in abundance, competing convictions and reinventions of what might or might not have happened, it can be a challenge to separate fact from fake news. What is truth is something we have to address every day.

One course is to check things out, to see if they stack up. Does this match with what we know, what we experience and what others tell us? Can we find corroborating evidence to uphold the claim? What is it really based on? The spin industry is so advanced that we can be left puzzling this one quite a bit. It is not helped with a UK government who seem to have scant regard for truth and honour, something which fosters disillusionment and a sense of hopelessness.

I was struck by a phrase used by the Dean of Windsor in his sermon at the thanksgiving service for the Duke of Edinburgh at the end of March. He described him being ‘guided by his inner spiritual compass – being true to it’. An inner spiritual compass sets us in a place where we can assess, can have a frame of reference set to work out whether we are living truth or living deception. It is a long-established principle that justice is truth in action, so when we live truth we live justice, and when we live justice we live truth. 

Pilate’s question strikes at the heart of so much of how we live. It goes to the heart of treating people with the respect and dignity that they are due as fellow human beings, with justice set as the foundation stone, itself set on the sure ground of truth. It’s here I struggle with the latest announcement of shipping over 4,000 miles across the world to Rwanda in central Africa the most vulnerable people, those who have come seeking asylum and refuge, trafficked by gangs and at great risk. It’s a plan that just strikes at basic human decency and I wonder about the moral compass that allowed that idea to even get out of the room where it was dreamt up. It is shabby, smacks of desperation and dishonours a nation. Is there no low to which they will not sink?

The Gospel writer John is quite clear where truth resides. It resides in the one who stands before Pilate. We see God’s truth being worked out in the life and now death of Jesus Christ. To St Paul, this was a stumbling block to Jews – how could anyone blessed by God, let alone God, be subjected to this horrible torture and die?; and it was folly, foolishness to Greeks. The whole notion seems just too ridiculous in the extreme. And yet we come here to reverence a symbol of suffering borne, pains absorbed and darkness embraced. You may choose to focus on the cross that will be brought in, or even the large rood handing in the arch with its twisted and contorted features. There we see God’s foolishness played out to be wiser than any human wisdom.

Christ on the cross brings the pains and sufferings, the unspeakable evils committed at the moment in so many places into a direct confrontation with truth and justice. Here we might scream at him, how can truth and justice hold or absorb this suffering? How can we hold on when all concepts of truth and justice are just torn up in so many ways in the evils of the battlefield, the rape and torture of civilians, the abuses of so many, the use of vulnerable people  as a political shield and distraction?

God’s answer to this seems to be to take responsibility and hang on the cross absorbing it all. Not only identifying with the suffering, but entering it and enduring it directly and first hand.  Beware, on Good Friday, God sides with the vulnerable and suffering. There is no other way to redeem that pain and suffering and show it doesn’t have the final answer. Good Friday always has the light of Easter shining through it, just like if you look at the rood in the morning light the light from the east window shines through, because this story has a part two. Today, though, we hold the pain as Christ bears it. Don’t rush through this to the joyful conclusion, for we need to sit with this, as uncomfortable as it is, as unbearable as it is. Give thanks that in his wounds we are healed, in his suffering we can let go of ours knowing it is shared, in his death we are brought life. 

O happy foolishness, 

which loves so dearly 

to reach into the mire 

of human suffering and pain 

to rescue, redeem and restore.

What is truth? It hangs on the tree of shame so that it might rise in glory and bring us to share in that life and love everlasting.

Sermon for Good Friday, Newport Cathedral, 15th April 2022

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