Eli – A study in leaders setting the culture

IMG_7742It’s easy to look at the news and think we are experiencing the worst political scandal of all time. But anyone with any knowledge of history knows that there is quite a track record of those in power thinking that they are above the law and that normal codes of behaviour do not apply to them. One of the reassuring signs of the current scandals being exposed in Westminster is that there is outrage and better is expected.

We don’t have to dig too far into our spiritual roots to find that these challenges have been around for as long as people have. At Morning Prayer during the week, we have started reading through the Book of Genesis and this last week we have had the fall, the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, and it won’t be long before we hit Noah and the attempt to reboot the story of humanity. 

Our readings this evening give us examples of those in power failing to live up to the standards expected of them. Eli (1 Samuel 3:1-20) is told, in that endearing story of the young boy Samuel hearing the voice of God and repeatedly interrupting Eli’s sleep, that because Eli has failed to create a culture of justice and righteousness, of wholesome living and behaving, he will pay a heavy price. Eli’s failure, for all his faithfulness, is one of failing to set the moral boundaries, to create a culture where various things just are not acceptable. 

At the very least, this is the charge against Boris Johnson. He may not have sent the email inviting 100 people and may not have been present at the party on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, but no one thought this was an unacceptable thing to do and that is a window into a culture that needs to be changed. To set the context in the pandemic, at that time, we couldn’t even book an overnight stay to come and look at the Deanery for the first time and had to make the visit on the Monday as a day trip – a 400 miles round trip – the first day we were allowed to cross over into Wales.

Paul clearly faced similar challenges because he told the readers of his letter to the Ephesians (4:1-16) that they should live a life worthy of their calling, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love. Towards the end he tells them to stop being ‘children tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming’. But speaking the truth in love: they are to root themselves in the culture and grace of the good news of Jesus Christ. And being so rooted in it, this is how they are. Culture matters enormously for how we inhabit the grace we seek to represent and advance.

All of us can fall short in so many ways. Stress can make us grumpy, impatience can make us short with people, some temptations can speak to our own weaknesses, whatever those are, from the trivial to the more serious, so there are always glass houses around these things. Perhaps that is why Paul talks about humility and speaking truth in love. But it is the job of the person at the top to set the tone and shape the culture, and if we are being transparent, that also needs the reminder of wise people who can help us stay on track. A community that is rooted in the culture of faith is easier to lead than one that is not because there is a ground swell of expectation which is itself rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Every organisation, and that includes church communities, has its own background culture for good and ill. I find the pull up banner in the entrance porch at the west doors rather too wordy, but it makes a statement about being ‘a place that practices the inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ, not a club, but a public space open to all people of good will’. I brought it out again last week, it was being damaged in the winds through the door and so got put away, but it fitted with my sermon last week and felt important to display it again. Perhaps a new version is needed. 

After a long list of those we might find here, in their rich diversity, there is an interesting admission, that “although we are not yet strong or vulnerable enough to show the unconditional love of God at all times, we hope we are moving in that direction”. The background culture that this banner displays, which was here when I arrived, is one that knows it has work to do, but is trying to get there. And that’s something I would recognise. We are all a work in progress. So the truth is told in love, because it is in love that we grow and learn to be strong and vulnerable enough to show the unconditional love of God at all times.

Trip hazards have existed for as long as there have been people and the challenge of leadership is the same – setting the tone and culture. But none of this can happen unless there is a desire to embrace the culture being advanced. And that comes through the daily drip feed that roots us in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Integrity matters – in politics, in the church and in our daily living.

Sermon for Epiphany 2, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 16th January 2022

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Baptism of Christ: The Love of God Magnified For All

IMG_6092There are quite a lot of phrases and terms that we use in the Christian faith and particularly in churches that need to be explained. Like with any group these develop as shorthand for something that requires much more explanation. If we never pause to think what they really mean we can lose the deeper thinking that the shorthand stands for, or perhaps never really think about it at all. Some of these require quite a bit of mental gymnastics to understand because they stem from a long distant past or a very different culture that collides with our own – the Creed, for example, is full of them, and as we say it, our brains can get quite a mental workout. 

I have one of these moments every time I’m asked to sing the worship song ‘In Christ alone’, which you may know – I confess it’s not one of my favourites. My brain has to go through several leaps and jumps to get some of the phrases into a place where I can assent to them. The one that causes particular mental gymnastics is the one about the ‘wrath of God’ being satisfied as Christ dies on the cross. 

It’s plugging into the notion of God being angry when we sin and when there is injustice and oppression, violence and hatreds at work in the world; when people lose the plot and forget to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.  God is said to be angry and requires something to be done to appease him. This notion of wrath and anger is quite an anthropomorphism, where we attribute to God human emotions, but I get its point – there is passion and it matters. The Old Testament presents God getting angry at the people’s sin and rejection, and they are punished for it. They interpret any misfortune directly to this. Sacrifices aim to appease an angry God but just don’t fix things long term, because they have to be repeated. So what is needed is someone who can remove this and that comes in the person of Christ, who is God among us. 

So in other words, the one who satisfies God’s ‘wrath’, if that is what it is, is none other than Godself and Christ comes from the heart of God because God so loved the world. In doing so, in the thinking behind this notion, God deals with any anger or wrath or disappointment in and through God’s own self-giving love. The only one who can span the space between humanity, between human frailty, and God is God. So, in God’s grace, any disruption brought about by sin is cancelled out by Godself. We can only understand the phrase in the hymn if we have a highly developed sense of the person of Christ, what is called Christology. The way the line is often interpreted reflects, I think, a deficient Christology, but that’s another story.

All of this explodes in my head every time I encounter verses and phrases like that in the hymn ‘In Christ alone’ about the wrath of God being satisfied on and through the cross. It’s one of the reasons I prefer not to sing it, or when I have to, belt out an alternative phrase like ‘the love of God is magnified’, it just saves too much brain work, and says what I really think – but the authors have been clear that they will not allow changes to their hymn, which is another reason for not using it. It requires too much explaining to the casual singer, reader or listener.

Today we are celebrating the Baptism of Christ, which brings what lies behind our own baptism into the centre of our focus. In going through baptism himself, Christ hallowed the waters of new birth into a sign and instrument of his Kingdom and a sign of sharing in his life. In the words of the Collect, the special prayer for today, we rejoice to be called God’s children. There are multiple levels to this, not least Israel being the chosen people of God and seeing themselves as God’s children and household, and this being expanded to embrace all people everywhere; a radical redefinition. It is the love of God that is magnified in Christ Jesus which deals with the problem of sin and injustice and rebellion in God’s self-giving love. God removes the barrier and opens his heart to us because God chooses to. The chosen people, the new Jerusalem and new Israel, the people of God and his inheritors of grace, is no longer constrained to any race, nation, gender but includes all and excludes none.

This is one of the radical things about the Christian Church. From its very earliest days, even going back into the moments of Christ’s birth, the invitations go far and wide. As we journey through the Sundays of the Epiphany we see Christ being made know and drawing in a vast array of people. On Thursday, as we kept the feast of the Epiphany, the exotic travelling star gazers turned up with their wonderful gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Today, as we celebrate Christ’s baptism, we see him drawing in those who had gathered at the riverside, the test being nothing other than a heart that wished to be washed, anointed by the Spirit in the waters of rebirth. The embrace which counts us in, counts in even those we can’t quite imagine. The challenge for the church is always how much we live up to this and are all embracing in our words and actions, our loving and caring, our passion for justice and peace.

Today, as we celebrate the Baptism of Christ, we give thanks for the love of God magnified, expanding to embrace all. May we, as brothers and sisters of the household of God, his children, be agents of that open love that extends to everyone without distinction. 

Sermon for the Baptism of Christ, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 9th January 2022

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Reflections at the turning of the year

IMG_7521It’s been quite a year, for us one of great changes. All of us started it in lockdown, we were in the east of England, and we end it with you in Newport with the pandemic showing it still has surprises up its sleeve.

I was interviewed for this post over Zoom at the beginning of January, which was peculiar, having been able to visit for the first round of interviews at the beginning of the previous December and then lockdown struck and we could not come back until just before we moved into the Deanery five months later. The announcement of my appointment as Dean of the Cathedral had to be online too.

We were unable to come over to look at the house until two weeks before we moved in at the end of April. Even then, on moving day we had to stay overnight at Ross-on-Wye, just over the English border, because no hotels in Wales would take a booking from England. My installation was held in accordance with the distancing rules then in force in May and numbers were restricted accordingly, so very few people could attend. Thankfully, it was streamed online and we’ve heard from so many people who tuned in to be part of it. It was an odd leaving and a strange arrival.

Since arriving I have had to hit the ground running. There has been little opportunity for a gentle introduction with an enormous amount to pick up. This has coincided with life being able to resume with some semblance of normality – though ‘normal’ is likely to be a misleading term in the post-pandemic world. I have had to make significant appointments to enable the Cathedral to function and tackle some of the issues needing urgent attention. The first was to gather a small group to form a management team, so we could begin to get to grips with everything.

Our hew administrator, Julie, was the first paid post needed to ensure there is good order in our affairs and to bring the finances of the former PCC and Chapter together, a process that will continue into 2022. Alan, as facilities manager, was appointed to look after how we welcome those who come for events and special services. This post replaces the previous verger and follows a pattern in various other Welsh cathedrals. Both have had an impact straight away. It was clear from day one that we needed to appoint an architect to carry out the much overdue quinquennial inspection. This is a survey of the state of the building and what repairs are required. It is the passport to removing the scaffolding protecting the west doors from falling debris from the top of the tower. Emma Mullen was appointed and carried out her inspection during November. The fourth vacancy, long overdue for being filled, was the Canon Residentiary, and as we enter 2022 we look forward to Andrew Lightbown joining us at the beginning of March. Andrew’s role has particular responsibility for the life and faith development of the Cathedral community.

I know that there are people I have not yet met, who are still nervous about returning to public worship, and the return of Alert Level 2 restrictions does not help here – we are back to 2m distancing. It was not until Harvest that we were able to have any kind of social gathering and subsequently reinstate coffee after the Cathedral Eucharist (now suspended again under the latest restrictions). There are many people I have yet to meet in the diocese. In just a few months I have already stood in the place of my predecessors as we have given thanks for much loved and valued faithful members of the community who have died.

I spent some time a few days ago looking through the service registers to see if I could discern the pattern of attendance pre- and post- lockdowns. The most sensible year to compare with is 2019 and we are currently running at congregations about 33% lower. The average in other churches is between 40% and 60% lower, so on that scale we are fairing better, but still face a challenge as we go into 2022.

Inevitably I have had to concentrate my time on the Cathedral in these early months. As I look into the distance of the New Year, I am looking forward to travelling into the Diocese and meeting those who keep the flame of faith burning with hope and joy and the new ministry areas as they take shape. It has already been a pleasure to welcome people from different ministry areas into the Cathedral and I look forward to being able to do much more of that in these coming months and years.

There is much we cannot predict, but it is likely that the pandemic will bring changes to our society. These kinds of events tend to have a bigger impact than we can often see at the time. We need to be ready to embrace this and proclaim the love of God into it – to proclaim the faith anew in a new season. We are inheritors of a faith that has deep roots in this place and has adapted with the twists and turns of 1500 years. It started with a vision of holiness and call, a reminder that everything we do and aim to be is rooted in God. Without that we have no purpose or reason.

2022 will no doubt bring more surprises, but with God they will always bring new hope. “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) The mission we are engaged in is God’s mission. All that is required of us is to go forward with faith and love, to live that faith and love and lives are transformed. The pandemic may yet be a catalyst to renew and reinvigorate the life of the church.

A New Year is never completely new, of course, some of the agenda has already been set. One challenge is for the Church in Wales to make changes to its culture to address the Monmouth Review – the report into what went on in this diocese around the departure of the previous bishop. The report makes for stark and grim reading. It highlights a number of areas: institutional protectionism, systemic failures of adequate processes and procedures – not least in the way investigations were carried out or failed to be carried out, a culture of entitlement and deference, and various issues of inappropriate behaviour characterised by #MeToo and references to vulgarity. There are multiple recommendations and the Bishops have to lead on this to drive a programme of being different. All of us on the Governing Body of the Church in Wales have responsibility to hold them to account in how this progresses. The new Archbishop has already committed to taking this seriously, so there are signs of hope. But the report goes some way to explaining why some things did not happen and have needed to be addressed both within the Cathedral and the Diocese. A new page is being turned.

The reaction to the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu has been interesting to see – it has been the main item on news broadcasts and other outlets. He was the inspirational Archbishop of Southern Africa and the admiration for him shows the appeal when faith is seen to inspire passion for justice and peace. When faith is dynamic, vibrant and has depth, it connects and any church wanting to connect with the people it serves would do well to try to be more Tutu. Simplistic faith is not attractive, although it seems to be superficially so. For most people it is a turn off. Faith that inspires will be able to cope with the complexities and ambiguities we see every day, for none of us have life sown up, not even if we might look like we have.

Testing before we go will be a feature of the life going forward. Unpleasant as it is, one friend referred to it as gag and sniff, they do help us be more confident that we are protecting others when we meet. So far we have had no cases of transmission in the Cathedral. By testing, those who have developed symptoms have been able to stay away. The vaccine has been a game-changer for so many.

We have many reasons to be hopeful as we enter 2022. There is much to do but with God’s grace we can walk ahead with joy and thanksgiving.

Happy New Year – Blwyddyn Newydd Dda.

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Love turning up to bring out the best in us

IMG_0329Have you sorted out your Christmas TV viewing yet? When our children were younger they used to try to work out which film I would fall asleep in during Christmas Day afternoon. Contenders this year are ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ on BBC1, just after The Queen. If I make it beyond that, then there is a double bill of marmalade sandwiches with Paddington and Paddington 2 a little later, or even perhaps Crocodile Dundee over on Channel 4.

Something all of these films have in common, apart from being feel good films that warm the heart, is that they are about someone who turns up and makes a difference to those around them for the better. Paddington manages to charm and bring out the best in a fractious family and hardened inmates in a prison. Mary Poppins of course brings out the best in all of the Banks family. Spit spot. Crocodile Dundee brings his Australian informality to bear on relationally stiff New Yorkers charming gangs, drivers and doormen, as well as the journalist sent to interview him.

Some things can’t be done from a distance. Emails won’t do what a conversation will. Whenever I want to explore a new place, there is no substitute for actually standing in the street, looking around and sniffing the air, getting a sense of the topography and social geography. You can get a certain amount of information from maps and Google earth, even street view, but nothing beats being there and feeling what it’s like. Nothing beats talking with a person and being able to read the body language and interact. It’s why this pandemic is so tough. A socially transmitted disease strikes at the very fabric of what it is to be human, to relate and engage with others.

Tonight we celebrate God turning up, standing in the square, seeing life as it is close up and making a difference that brings out the best in those he meets. The gospels reflect this right from the start. In Luke’s story, Shepherds, working the night shift on a hillside, are the first to turn up and see for themselves this wondrous thing that has happened. Prompted by angels who themselves turn up to bring them the good news, they go to see and are charmed by the sight of the new-born Christ. When God wanted to improve, to effect change and bring out the best in us, he comes alongside, comes among us and we can see what holiness looks like close up; we get it modelled for us. Those who met him were in turn changed by the encounter and go to do likewise.

And so, 2,000 years on, as we gather to celebrate his birth, we are charged to let his light and love so permeate our lives that we make a difference to the world and begin not on some distant shore, but where we are. When we want to know what that means we need to immerse ourselves in the gospel of grace and truth, in the rest of his story, which shows what it means to love unconditionally and bring life in all its fullness. We need the model of one who expands horizons to include strangers and outcasts, a Good Samaritan and the woman at the well; who showed that forgiveness means a new start not consignment to the rubbish heap, and so who opens a way out and a way into a new life. Christ brings his redeeming grace, so we are not locked into whatever blocks us living his life and love.

There is a lot in the world that needs Christ’s healing touch. And we have seen people at their best and worst these past months. The call of the child in the manger, of God coming among us with his grace and truth, is to be people who make a difference and bring life and blessing to a situation and not darkness and despair. As we look on this child in the manger he returns our gaze igniting the best in us. And if all of us go from this place and from all the churches gathering tonight with a determination and the grace to make a difference for good, for hope, for blessing, that’s quite a workforce let loose on the world.

We don’t always get it right, no one does, not even institutions which are charged to be signs and symbols of his new life. We’ve seen with the review into events in this diocese a few years ago, published last week, just how badly an institution can get it wrong. When things fall short of how they, how we, should be, whatever they are, all of us know deep down that we need to say and be sorry. But remorse is only a feeling, it is not a verb, and so, on its own, does not take us anywhere than despair and gloom. There is no ‘doing’ tense for remorse. The doing words, the verbs, are repent, forgive and restore – do what is needed to be different. And the Christ-child in the manger, invites us to repent, forgive and restore and to begin with ourselves so that we can be agents of a different way of being.

It is only when we repent, when we face that there is something requiring us to be different that we can seek the forgiveness that sets us free and thereby be restored in grace. It can be a process more than a flash moment, one with mini trip hazards on the way, but as we look at the child in the manger, who grew to inspire the world, we can press reset. This goes for the big things and also the little ones, the institutions which sometimes fail and also relationships and ways of being. Institutions have a way of taking on a life bigger than the component parts, but it is possible to change them, if all of us play our part and commit to be different. The same in any relationship, it takes honesty, which is the beginning of repentance, love which wants to restore that will forgive and offer a new start which is genuine and life changing.

This begins in the heart of God, who sends this vulnerable child to be among us, his image close-up and not distant. From the close-up he can change us, through love that invites repentance, forgiveness and being restored in grace, in a way long-distance and remote do not enable. May Christ’s presence, his love, change us, bring out the best in us, and inspire us to play our part to change the world.

Christmas Midnight Sermon, Newport Cathedral, Christmas Eve 24th December 2021

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With joyful love and firm faith

IMG_0266I want to begin with a little quiz. To ease it a bit, I will give you my answers and you can see if you find they match yours or you have something different.

  • Do you know all of the 10 Commandments and can you list them in the right order? I will probably have to work them out and I’m not sure I’d get them all in the right order, but I have a pretty good idea what they are.
  • Can you list all of the books of the Bible and do you know precisely where to find each one of them without looking at the contents page at the front? That’s an easy one, no I can’t. There are some I know well and some I have to resort to the contents page to find. Again I have a pretty good idea, but I’ve had to work them out and might not quite get them all first time.
  • Can you name all of Jesus’ disciples? That’s a trick question because different Gospels give different names and while we are familiar with there being 12 named disciples, the word ‘disciple’ means follower and we know that Jesus had quite a lot of them, including women. At one point he sent out 70 and most of them are unnamed. Still we might know the A-listers, but struggle with the support cast.
  • Do you sometimes hear a Bible reading and think ‘I don’t think I’ve ever heard this before’? I think I’ve probably read all of the Bible at some point or other, and more than once, but there are still passages which I think ‘I can’t remember hearing that before’, in fact I had that thought only a few weeks ago. There are people who talk in Bible references, just quote the book and chapter and I’m left thinking, ‘bear with me caller, I just need to look that one up’. I don’t have that kind of encyclopaedic memory.

If your answers are anything like mine, then you know that faith is not about learning things by rote; it’s not an exam. I’m the same with my times tables – I don’t know them, but I can work them out. So I can use maths and know how to use it, I just don’t know it parrot fashion, which is why I’m useless at many of the maths problems on ‘8 out 10 Cats does Countdown’, in fact there is quite a cheer if I do manage it. I have a mind that needs to know the application rather than random facts in isolation. And so it is for me with faith, I know building blocks to enable me to live by it and need to see the relevance of small details to make it worth remembering them. 

The Collect for today, the special prayer for this Sunday, talks about being ready to greet Christ ‘with joyful love and firm faith’. That is about so much more than a tick box list of random facts or tenets of belief in isolation. It’s about letting all of the shaping that comes through reading and praying and studying together and thinking, mould us and provide the markers we need to chart a course; the triangulation points. It means that there are some key themes – creation, revelation, God’s grace guiding and shaping, redemption in Christ and resurrection – which will be fixed points for us, but there are details in the story which don’t matter so much. And of course some of the details are myth and allegory, so those details don’t actually matter that much either.

When Jesus gave a new commandment it was to love and let that be the guiding spirit in all things. So when we have a new ethical dilemma to work out, or even a complicated one where the neat edges are just not so obvious, we can work out a response. There is much in our contemporary life which requires us to think things out afresh. AI and the challenges it brings is raising all sorts of questions and there is nothing in the Bible that talks about AI. I had a call recently where someone was struggling with a situation, which I won’t go into in detail, but her response while seeming on one level to go against a pure tick box ethic was shot through with grace and love and compassion and deep caring, the complexity and ambiguity of it required deeper thinking. And that seemed to me to be more in tune with our faith than a rigid legalism would be. And I think Jesus took this approach too. He looked into the depths of the heart and formed judgements based on how the blocks were being applied, worked out and lived.

Faith is not an exam pass. It is about trust, trust based on being shaped by grace which we see in God who comes among us and sends his Spirit to guide and shape. It’s about living in it and growing in it so that it forms us and our thinking. Rowan Williams was being interviewed this week on Radio 4’s ‘Front Row’, when he came out with this little gem. Faith, he said, ‘helps you keep looking without despair’. When we stare at life and its difficulties, we don’t have it all sorted, don’t necessarily understand, it doesn’t all necessarily fit neatly together, but hope enables us to keep looking and not despair. It is fed, in the words of the Collect, by joyful love and with that becomes firm and a secure base. 

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 5th December 2021

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Remembrance and Bond: Blazing with the light of Christ

IMG_0185The long-awaited final outing of Daniel Craig as James Bond came out in cinemas at the end of September, several years after it was first due. ‘No Time To Die’ is the usual mixture of high-octane adventure, romance and daring feats of bravery against a megalomaniac evil. Bond always comes out on top and somehow lives to face another mission, or does he? It’s probably safe to assume that anyone who really wants to see the film has now done so and many journalists have decided enough time has passed for them to be able to talk about the plot. We stayed in the cinema to the end of the credits to see if that familiar phrase ‘James Bond will return’ would be appear. How can he possibly get out of that one, we thought? And sure enough, right at the end just before the screen went blank, up flashed the message: ‘James Bond will return’.

If you’ve seen the film you will know that this is highly unlikely and it was announced last week that British novelist Kim Sherwood will be writing a trilogy of official sequels in which the 007 agent is missing. We’ll see how that goes down with fans. Can you have Bond with out Bond? Well, they managed it with Jason Bourne. You are getting an insight into my film watching here.

‘No Time To die’ ends with James Bond saving the world from a deadly genetically targeted nerve agent, but the only way to do it is to be blown up in the process. It certainly looks like he sacrifices himself in the cause of the higher good. Bond does this out of love and so demonstrates that no man does indeed have greater love than to lay down his life for those he loves most, Madeleine and his daughter. For many soldiers, it is the comrades.

There is a tribute used in the film, which M reads as he gathers with Moneypenny and Q to remember their friend. It was originally quoted by Ian Flemining in the novel ‘You only live twice’, as part of an obituary when they thought Bond was dead. It comes from a longer passage possibly by the American writer Jack London, but also might be by a journalist Ernest Hopkins, who wrote the piece in which it appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1916. The full quote is:

“I would rather be ashes than dust!

I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.

I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in a magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent plant.

The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.

I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.

I shall use my time.”

Counting days alone does not make a fulfilled life; it does not make one which bears fruit either. In the grand scheme of things length of days is still a blip in the scope of time. What counts more, is what we do with them and the impact that has. M’s use of this passage, which Ian Fleming used to highlight constant activity, for M it highlights love and loss, legacy and liberation.

Remembrance Sunday is a day full of so many mixed emotions and moral ambiguities. This is by no means a day without its questions. Going out in a blaze of glory can lead in rather different directions for good and ill. We gather today to remember the brave and the frightened, the evils that lead to war as well as the evils that take place within it, the moments where lives are laid down or taken and the freedoms and benefits won. It is a day when we place so much of the darker side of human struggle before the judging and healing grace of God. It is a day when the stark facing of mortality, of impending death, is foremost in the mind and for some memory, and in the face of which those who nonetheless kept going displaying the greater love is far more than sentiment.

A key question for us today is what kind of light we blaze with? The Christian call is to blaze with the light of Christ, who calls us to lay down our lives in the service of God’s Kingdom of justice and peace, truth and love. It is not the length of days that matters so much as the purpose with which we live. At the end of ‘No Time To Die’ Bond finds something worth dying for because he has found something worth living for, so much so that it matters more than he does.

A few weeks ago (5th November 2021), Bishop Richard Harries quoted the French philosopher and theologian Simone Weil in his ‘Thought for the day’ on Radio 4. He cited her observation that evil turns suffering into violence where Christ turns violence into suffering. It’s a mind-bending statement but I think it means that in the violence, which is spiritually turned into suffering, compassion is born and becomes redemptive. We find in it and through it the purpose worth dying for and therefore worth living for, worth giving all for. 

The struggle is very real and today is not one where cosy metaphors stand long. The reference at the end of the Gospel (Mark 13:1-8) to the wars and conflicts being but the beginning of the birth pangs, means that in the struggle for justice, for freedom and liberation, something is being brought into being. It comes through pain and suffering and the horrors of this being redeemed in the greater love, supremely that of Jesus Christ’s turning the horror of the cross into the glory of the resurrection. Death never has the final word.

On this Remembrance Sunday, as we stand and remember, let us reflect on how the violence of war can be redeemed into life-giving love, compassion and thereby the victory of God’s creative purpose.

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 14th November 2021

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Chartists and Kingdom

IMG_0157Over the past few days we have been commemorating the Chartists who were buried in this churchyard on 4th November in 1839. We gathered outside on Thursday evening, the anniversary of their deaths, and also hosted a convention here yesterday. The Chartists marched on the town in 1839 and their procession came past the then parish church, as it made its way down Stow Hill. Accounts are somewhat confused as to who fired the first shot, but the resulting exchange of fire with troops stationed in the Westgate Hotel resulted in several deaths, 10 of whom were buried that night in unmarked graves in this churchyard. I don’t suppose my predecessor at the time, Anthony Isaacson, would have been very sympathetic to their cause not least since the Chartists held silent protests in this church during his time and it is known there were sermons preached in churches against them. The established church does not come out on the winning side.

Their demands had been refused by Parliament and the march clearly rattled the authorities who did not appreciate their protest. Those who hold power often don’t and like to be able to control things, which can become addictive. It takes a confident leader to submit to the will of the people. Those who do share power, know this is where true influence lies as we have to work to win hearts and minds. It’s also where lasting change is made and true flourishing is found. 

Changes for liberation often require some kind of struggle, not least when those who block it don’t listen. If we look at the Chartists’ demands, carved in the stone steps from Friars Walk down to the riverside, I think they fall into two main themes. One of these is that the voices of all are heard and honoured. The vote for all men (it took another hundred years for that to be extended to women and actually full emancipation of everyone didn’t come in until 1969 with the Representation of the People Act extending the vote to all men and women over 18). Making constituencies fairer is about equal representation – that’s a live issue now with the parliamentary boundary review currently underway. 

I came across one of those simple statements the other day about what it means to be inclusive, something we aim to be. It’s a word often banded around but not always defined or unpacked. It gave some definitions which are helpful when we try to put some flesh on the bones of the voices of all being heard and honoured, not least when thinking where we might fall short, where we might think we are more open than we actually are being. It explored four words: Accessibility, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging; words which we hear a lot but don’t always think through what they mean in practice, what their impact should be if taken seriously.

  • Accessibility is being able to get in the building.
  • Diversity is getting invited to the table.
  • Inclusion is having a voice at the table.
  • Belonging is having your voice is heard at the table.

The Chartists have more relevance for today than we might have realised: being able to get in, have a place and a voice at the table and being heard.

The second theme which I think is reflected in their demands is for decision-making to be free from corruption. This comes in ballots being free, paying members of Parliament by the state rather than them being in someone else’s pockets. This is precisely what the most recent scandal in the Westminster Parliament has been about – cash for questions, as it was once called, and paid lobbying. The same goes for procurement and those odd looking contracts for PPE and Covid testing, and a number of other things. Decision-making being free from corruption matters for democracy, not least because it means Parliament operates in the interests of all people and not just a few rich vested ones.

If we are wondering how this fits with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we don’t have to look much further than our readings this morning. Jonah was sent to Ninevah to call them to account. Their crimes are not specified, but we can assume it was enough to make Jonah run in the opposite direct and even prefer to be swallowed by a big fish. Standing up and being counted is not always a pleasant experience. The cry for justice brings conflict and few of us relish that, few that is who don’t tend to go looking for a fight.

And if we think Christians should also be meek and mild, the Gospel reading gave us John the Baptist, mentioned at the beginning. He is not known for being either meek or mild (Mark 1:14-20). He told it how it was and didn’t mince his words. John the Baptist would have been in the march down Stow Hill in 1839. He would have gone up to the soldiers and told them to mend their ways, and given the politicians a piece of his mind too. And since we know how his story ends, he could probably have been one of those shot.

November, in the church year, has the tag of being Sundays of the Kingdom. It starts with All Saints, which we kept last week, and ends with the feast of Christ the King. In the middle it holds quite an array of commemorations, including Remembrance next week, for us the Chartists and the struggle for liberty and freedom, Guy Fawkes with his gunpowder and questions of political protest and the protection of law and order. All of these touch on justice and what it is that contributes to true flourishing.

We hold all of these themes under the concept of the Kingdom of God and they are viewed through  that lens. The struggle for the honouring of all people, against corruption, for voices to be heard and honoured, these things are part of how we see God’s Kingdom at work on earth as it reigns in heaven. The Kingdom of God provides a critical lens, it doesn’t just bless whatever we bring to it. All of the commemorations held under it this month have darkness and light within them, none of them are pure. All of them stand under the judgement of the Kingdom as we seek it more fully. The question for us to reflect on, is how does what we are doing contribute to the flourishing of all, to their liberty and life in all its fullness? How does what we do reflect God’s Kingdom on earth as it reigns in heaven?

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of the Kingdom, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 7th November 2021

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A Prayer Commemorating the Newport Chartists

IMG_0158I have been thinking about the Chartists and their struggle for democracy in the 19th century. Ten are buried in Newport Cathedral grounds. On 4th November 1839, a march walked down Stow Hill in Newport, past what is now Newport Cathedral and also where the Deanery now sits.

Their demands boil down to ensuring that the voice of everyone is heard and honoured, and that decision-making is free from corruption. These are as relevant today as they were then.

Over the next few days we will be hosting commemorations in Newport Cathedral, events which take place each year, remembering those who are buried in the churchyard. Below is a prayer I have written for this year’s commemorations.

God of justice and truth

we thank you for all

who have given their all

in the struggle for freedom and justice,

even paying with their lives.

May their sacrifice inspire us in our own age

to ensure that the voices of all are heard and honoured,

and decision-making is free from corruption.

Give us courage to stand and be counted;

we ask this in the name of Jesus Christ,

who gave his life for our sake. Amen.

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Darkness never has the final word

IMG_7654For the past few weeks shops have been filled with bags of bones and skeletons, pumpkins and witches hats. Some clearly light-hearted, some with quite a scary and gory tone to them. My local paper shop even offers a plastic chainsaw, which I don’t think is for would be tree surgeons. 31st October, the eve of All Hallows, All Saints, has become associated with ghosts, evil on the loose and fear. 

On its own that is a very dark view of the world. But it comes the day before the church celebrates the light of faith and hope in human lives. The saints of the past and the living-saints of our own day as we celebrate All Saints Day, brought forward to the nearest Sunday because it is so important. Our calling is to be those living saints. We are to be people who bring light, life and love to bear on whatever situations we find ourselves in.

We’ve had more reminders of the evil human beings can and do inflict on one another than I care to dwell on. So a place to hold that evil and remember that it never has the last word, has some health to it, but only of course, if we remember that it never has the last word. In Christ, the sting of death is removed in the new life and hope of the resurrection he holds out before us. 

When we think about our calling to be people of light and life, there are some very practical things we can do. The first is to be renewed and refreshed in our faith. This tells us that life has a purpose and it is held and loved by God. We are held and loved by God. There may well be times when our on grasp on that is not as tight as we would like it to be. One of the gifts of the church is in its gathering together people who hold to this hope, and by so doing we strengthen and are strengthened in this outlook and its inner light. There is sometimes debate about whether it matters if we come to church. It does matter, because the church is what happens when those who seek to be God’s saints today come together. It doesn’t happen if they don’t. So each of us by gathering makes it come into being.

The second thing we can do is to let that faith so infuse our lives that we bring light and grace into a room. Perhaps expecting that all the time is a little ambitious and I know there are times I don’t always manage it. There are times I’m grumpy, but finding the grace and reconnecting with it is a way we can bless those we meet and in so doing find we are blessed in return. 

Our second reading ended with a great encouragement, that since we are surrounded by the cloud of witnesses, the saints of the past, to run  with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). Running a race with perseverance does not imply that it is always easy, and may involve a struggle, not least in ourselves and our motivation and morale, but nonetheless it is a path worth taking. As a friend of mine is keen to say, ‘Be the light’.

Thirdly, with COP26 beginning their meeting in Glasgow today, we both make the changes we need to how we live, and keep the pressure on governments and industries to rise to the challenge we face. This is a critical moment and living with care and in a sustainable way shows we are living in line with the maker’s instructions, with gratitude rather than grasping, with grace rather than greed.

Today is also known as Reformation Day, the day that Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Thesis on a church door and so sparked the Reformation in 16th century. It’s around this time of year that I realise I am very much a child of the Reformation. I pray through Christ and not through anyone else – we have no need of any mediator but Jesus Christ who gives us direct access to God. We don’t need to pray to Mary, we don’t pray to saints. In Christ our prayer is a direct call. We remember the saints and we can join our prayers with theirs in a great community of eternity, but we don’t need them to put in a good word for us – Christ has done that already and since Christ is God among us, then God has shown his door is open. All we have to do, is walk through it into his loving arms. And as we approach we find he has not only left the door open but come out to meet us, come out in search of us.

It’s for that reason that the Reformers abolished Chantries – endowments established to pray masses for the dead. They turned those into educational charities, the Edward VI school foundations. God has this, he holds us and none of our eternal destination relies on our efforts. If it did we would be well and truly sunk. That means that on Tuesday when we gather for All Souls Day, we are remembering in the sure and certain hope of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. This is not unresolved. At their funerals we entrusted the dead to God and that is where they rest. All Souls is a place for those heavy with grief to be reassured that God holds all life and never lets go.

So today is a day to be hopeful and hope-filled. To live as people who shine the light of that hope wherever they go. To make a difference in spirit and in action. We are to be the light we proclaim. The deeds of darkness do not have the final word. Have fun, if that is your plan, but remember the light shines in the darkness and the darkness is not able to overcome it. The victory is Christ’s, the pioneer and perfecter of all faith.

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 31st October 2021

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Camels and Possessions – Fear and Trust

IMG_7742Fans of the children’s stories about Kipper the dog may know that Mick Inkpen, its author and illustrator, has also worked his magic on some Bible stories for children with a friend Nick Butterworth. One of these is called ‘The Little Gate’. It tells the story about a camel, loaded high with carpets to sell at market. He comes to small gate in the city wall, called the Eye of Needle, because it is so small. Try as he might, this camel is too big with his heavy load to get through the small hole. It’s a bit like the children’s game with trying to get differently shaped and sized items through various holes. That big camel is not going through that small door.

The story, which featured in our Gospel reading (Mark 10:17-31) is not really about a camel and we who’ve heard it many times before, know this so well. It’s about our attachment to goods, to riches, to money and possessions. If we lighten the load and live simply, we are not weighed down. Carved over the front door of the Deanery is a sign in Latin which translates roughly as ‘live as if you are about to move’. Not the most welcoming sign as you move in and a bit disconcerting as we moved box after box into the house. But it’s a strong challenge: how much stuff do we really need?

One of the things about moving house every so often is that it gives an opportunity for a massive clear out and we have done this each time. But not books. There are some things which just don’t get thrown out. And I know that one day I will have to face this quart-into-a-pint-pot moment, but I am sticking my fingers firmly in my ears for the time being and singing ‘la la la’, to pretend it won’t come, to try to make it go away. I tell myself my books are different; they don’t weigh me down, unless I want to move them, and they are really a resource I refer to. And so I justify their importance. There are probably lots of other things which have loaded up my particular camel as I approach the narrow doorway.

None of us can take any of the stuff we acquire with us on the final journey. And all of us will have to leave them outside if we are to get in, as the camel finds he has to do in the Mick Inkpen and Nick Butterworth story. The deeper challenge to the ‘live as if you are about to move’ or the heavily loaded camel is whether there are things, possessions, love of money which get in the way of being faithful to Christ? Digging deeper, the question is to ask what these things are covering up, helping us avoid facing because deep down we are scared. Fear often makes us reach for the blanket or cushion on the sofa to hide behind and that’s where the love of possessions and money gets us. It’s a smokescreen, something to cling to because the stark reality of being very exposed and vulnerable is too hard to face.

Later this week there will be a memorial service for a friend of ours in London. She was a Franciscan Sister; one of those holy people who opened her mouth and peace and stillness was brought into the room just by her tone and quiet manner. In the October lockdown last year she generously recorded a sermon for me to use in an online sermon around the feast of St Francis, and as soon as she spoke I could feel the empty church where Susan and I sat alone for the live-streaming both stilled and filled with a deeply spiritual presence.

Franciscans are known for their vow of poverty or simplicity. They embrace the letting go because they trust in God and for Helen Julian this moment came at the end of August when she had to let go in the ultimate sense as she died of cancer, aged just 63. We give thanks for having known her and the true gifts she gave, which were without price but more valuable than any price-tag could show.

The notion of embracing poverty is deeply problematic because no one really does it, not willingly that is. Poverty grinds people down and there are many facing stark choices between eating and heating this winter. I don’t think that is what is meant and even monks and nuns, friars and sisters, have what they need, they just set their sights so much more modestly and are prepared to leave it, to pick up what they find on the way but not hoard. 

Living as though you are about to move is a spiritual attitude of trust in God, knowing that God is where our true hope and security lies. Because, as we found with some of the carpets in the Deanery, moth really does consume. We have had to replace some and have some others repaired with a rather cool cookie cutter, which cuts out the threadbare bits and then patches are stuck-in taken from under furniture which will not be moved – not until we leave and then the next person will wonder why there are these little circles cut out in odd places. If you are here then, which is not likely to be anytime soon, you can let that person know.

Living lightly, holding on to things without too strong a grip is a spiritual exercise which also helps the planet. Our excessive consuming, throw away lifestyle and built-in obsolescence is choking the world. We have to learn to live differently and moving from petrol to electric, from fossil fuels to renewables will bring with it a changed way of living. And so it must. Since I’ve changed my phone this week, I find the spotlights shining brightly in my eyes as I say this. The more we try to grasp for ourselves, the less we have; the more we live modestly, the more we all have. Planet and people benefit in this radical economy.

What would you, do you, have you found particularly hard to hold to lightly? What fills the bags on the back of the camel that will make moving through a narrow gate a struggle? And that harder question, the one that will require the longer think, what are these things compensating for, what fear are they covering? Because one day, all fear will end and these things will not go with us as we travel through the narrowest of gates into the wonder that awaits us; as in the words of the memorial in the north aisle, we ‘exchange time for eternity’.

It is hard to cling to riches and truly enter the Kingdom of God, because they block trust, cover the gaps in our real confidence in God. That affects so much in how we live with generous and thankful hearts. True love casts out fear, but first it has to be filled with the love of God to truly trust. This is a spiritual challenge more than a financial one – money is just one of the ways it shows itself. How we approach this reveals how much we really have faith and confidence in God. Though I do want to exempt books and gadgets.

Sermon for Trinity 19, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 10th October 2021

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