2021 Census Results: In a changed landscape, need to learn to speak a new language

IMG_6634This week the statistics for the religious picture of England and Wales were released by the Office for National Statistics. These are based on the responses to the 2021 Census and they have been widely reported. The number of people self-identifying as Christian has dropped significantly from 59.3% in 2011 to under half the population (46.2%) in ten years. The big rise was in those who described themselves as ‘no religion’, up from 25.2% in 2011 to 37.2% in 2021. In Wales the figures are starker still with ‘nones’, what sociologists of religion call those who say they have ‘no religion’, overtaking the number of Christians at 46.5% and 43.6% respectively. Drill deeper and in Newport ‘nones’ and Christians are close at 43% and 42.8% respectively – pretty much level pegging.

These represent the big challenge that we know we face. It is a reminder of the cultural backdrop in which we minister, profess our faith and seek to draw people into a closer encounter and relationship with the good news of God in Jesus Christ. The language of faith, which previous generations could rely on, is not there and hasn’t been for quite a while. All the strategies that have been familiar have not worked and are going to work even less successfully as time goes by. Mere leaflets, posters and other things which will have spoken a shared language when Christianity could be assumed to be the cultural tone of our society are going to land like all the other junk mail that comes through the door. In short we have to work harder and smarter, to learn to speak a different language in a changed landscape. And many are not equipped for it; we need to listen to those who are fluent in a new cultural language. Our guides will be the younger members of our community.

Well, that’s one interpretation, and I agree with it to a point. The heart of our faith, though, remains the same. Christ came to change lives, to call us to grow in holiness, to pray, and to put that into practice in how we relate and care. He came to announce that life has a point and that point lies with God’s grace. We were created by the will of a loving creator and that love does not let us go, even at the point of death. It calls us to changed lives, ones that live in trust, justice and peace. It calls us, to use the gospel imagery, to be light and salt (Matthew 5:13-16) – to bring light wherever there is darkness and to bring out the flavour and beauty of where we are. To be yeast (Matthew 13:33) that takes dry flour, fluffs it up and something much more abundant – the bread of life – comes into being. What does it mean to be light in dark places? What does it mean to be salt and bring out the flavour, to help people flourish? What does it mean to be yeast, to make a difference and transform a situation?

The Bishop of St Asaph, Gregory Cameron, responded to the publication of these statistics by reminding us that the challenge remains to “demonstrate to society why we still believe faith is life transforming”. We cannot assume that the people around us know this or think it. In fact there is a strong chance that they don’t. He said, 

“We have become a society where we can be more honest about faith, and societal expectations are, if anything secular rather than religious, so to profess a faith is to stand out, rather than to blend in.” 

In other words, what we have gathered here to do this morning is weird to most people – who do not have the language, culture or understanding of worship or prayer as we do it, let alone the Christian narrative – the stories of faith. This is alien territory – to them and to us who have long since stopped noticing how different this is. And those of us who conduct life events see this very sharply and have done for a long time. What we are seeing is a continuing trend.

Before we despair, these statistics only give a partial snapshot. There has been a lot of work into those who self-identify as ‘no religion’. It is not a clear or homogenous group. Only 56,000 people in England and Wales described themselves as Humanist (10,000), Atheist (14,000) or Agnostic (32,000) out of 60mn. That offers a much more complicated and hopeful picture than might be assumed at first sight. When I was a student, a long time ago, one of my lecturers talked about the difference between Religion with a big ‘R’ and religion with a small ‘r’ – I can’t remember who he was talking about now. Big ‘R’ is institutional faith, signed up and belonging. Small ‘r’ religion is the more difficult to pin down spirituality, a sense of the numinous and ‘other’, the stirrings of awe and wonder that stands looking at the stars and ponders and dreams. That shows no signs of dying. It is an approach that can start to engage with the deeper meanings of biblical narratives and see connections – the kind of thing we try to do here as we preach each week, connect with Stormzy or whoever. But in doing this, we have to recognise the new language needed and that our culture does not start from a shared place. We have to work harder to begin the conversation.

The other area of hope is that when people see Christianity that seems real – deeply spiritual and pursuing social justice; Christianity with its sleeves rolled up and which is more human not less, more truly human is where good spirituality takes you – then they start taking notice. It catches them by surprise, as it caught those who saw the first Christians at work by surprise – their caring for the weak and vulnerable impressed because it was different. Feeding the spirit and feeding the mouth are intimately joined. When people come into this building and are struck by something they can’t identify, by a peace and spiritual depth, God is at work, as God has been here for 1500 years. When they see the caring, they see God at work through it and take note.

Our readings this morning provide more connection with this new world order than might seem obvious. Isaiah (11:1-10) gives a vision of a new world order, where peace and justice are the rule of the day and they flow from the Root of Jesse, from the promised one to come, whom we announce to have come in the child in the crib, the Christ who comes among us. It speaks of lives changed by the power of God.

In the Gospel reading (Matthew 3:1-12) we were given John the Baptist coming to prepare the way for the Lord. He is the warm-up act and we need John the Baptists today who will go as those who announce, who stir the hearts so that the awe and wonder, the religion with a small ‘r’, have somewhere to latch on to so that they can find out more. We are in times where the people have lost touch with the faith of their forebears and the connection needs to be made again. It has gone cold and needs to warm up. We have to give an account of the light and hope within us and join up the dots where we can.

The second reading (Romans 15:4-13) ended with one of Paul’s incredibly powerful and pregnant phrases – a good note with which to end: 

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Filled with the Spirit’s power, with joy and peace, with hope, we have light to bring to spiritual darkness, our own and others. And I see it. I see it in some of the newly ordained, those training and those exploring vocations. I see it in those who gather for quiet prayer and in the eyes of those who come forward to receive communion. 

This church is not dead and it’s not dying. But it is changing and it has to continue to change to be able to speak to a generation that doesn’t know the story, doesn’t share the cultural expectations and background, and has grown cold towards what we do and stand for. The task remains the same, to be people of hope, of joy and peace. And the God of peace will be with you and in you.

Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 4th December 2022

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Christ the King – ‘Heavy is the head that wears the crown’: trusting God beyond all others

IMG_0528On Tuesday night there was a programme on BBC1 Wales about the rap artist Stormzy. His style of music is a mix of rap and Gospel and it provided a gentle, calming at the end of the day. One song cut through for me, his track ‘Crown’. It was the line “But heavy is the head that wears the crown” that made me sit up a take notice. Those who are fans of Shakespeare will recognise that straight away as being a popularised version of Henry IV, Part 2 (Act 3, Scene 1), where the burden of leadership for the king draws the comment “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown”. It is a line that comes in response to the king’s inability to sleep as war approached.

The idea of the crown being heavy to wear is never far away when we celebrate Christ the King, when we use the imagery of kingship to talk of Christ. When in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels, Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is and they give the dramatic reply that he is the Christ, the Son of God, it is followed by his talking about his approaching death and resurrection (Matthew 16:13-21; Mark 8:27-31; Luke 9:18-22). This burden, this responsibility, that comes with being the Son of God, the Christ, the Promised One, the one who will save, God among us, is heavy on his head. And of course, the crown he wears is the crown of thorns, if it wasn’t clear enough. That would make anyone’s head heavy or uneasy.

Stormzy’s song begins with him searchin’ every corner of (his) mind, looking for the answers (he) can’t find. The searching, the looking, the desiring, is heavy too. It brings for him implied responsibilities. He is struggling with fame and what that brings. “Any little seed I receive, I have to share it” and “Any little bread that I make, I have to break it”. Is that bread as in money, sharing gifts received, as thanksgiving becomes generosity, even obligation? Does it carry the echo of Christ at the Last Supper, breaking bread to share his life, his love and his blessing? If that seems fanciful, each section of the song begins with a reference to Jesus, “Amen, in Jesus’ name, … I claim it” or “declare it”. The Gospel element of his music gives this a double meaning of personal fame and leadership, and how we mirror, imitate Christ as his followers.

Sharing bread, breaking bread, be it in the Eucharist around the altar or sharing money and things, connects us with the heart of bowing down before this Christ as king. We share in his banquet as invited honoured guests, where we are fed for service, sustained for the psychological and spiritual battles that lie ahead. And there are many as we contend with doubts and fears, anxieties and struggles, competing visions and convictions, power struggles and the games people play. We share of our resources in feeding and giving. We also share them in a challenge to the economics of our society which can be ordered to protect only self-interest, which is a false narrative because the best protection comes collectively rather than in isolation. It is surely not beyond our whit to so order this that all flourish in the goodness and bounty of God.

I am struggling in my mind at the moment with the nature of our economy which is not working. It seems to be based on a system of illusions. Money is not really based on anything tangible. It is based on trust, the trust that there is a stable government that will collectively order society so that we can function. The £10 in your wallet or purse is only worth whatever that is worth because everyone agrees it is, or at least enough do. As soon as that is threatened it collapses like the ephemeral pack of cards. Governments issue bank notes, create money, and pay for it with debts that they create and issue where interest is paid to those who buy that debt, and the governments pay for that by printing, creating money, some of which comes out of taxes and the moving of goods and services in exchange for more imaginary tokens. And round it goes in an extremely complex web of trust. But there is actually nothing there, nothing tangible – not since the gold standard ended in 1931. There is no pile of anything tangible behind our financial system. The small boy who shouts ‘the king has no clothes’, is perceptive and also deeply worrying, because as soon as everyone agrees, it all crashes. Ever wondered why we are in a crisis? And this system works for those who can play it, and against those who can’t. My worry is that this system has become a monster that eats the more vulnerable, if not itself.

It is not surprising that those who manage this, have heavy heads. Who wouldn’t have. They are juggling with the wind. It makes my head hurt just trying to comprehend it. Leadership based on fantasy, on illusion, is not at all as secure as it might want to be. It is always vulnerable to the small boy pointing out the illusion-come-delusion of the king wearing no clothes.

All leadership is based on a system of trust. There has to be something real and honest behind it, otherwise it really is chasing after the wind, as the book of Ecclesiastes would put it (1:14). Referring to Christ as king, brings not quite the strong image we might conjure up, the clothes that are not there. It brings vulnerability to events, to plots, to the machinations of fortune. And when Christ adopts this title he does so with embracing the cross, the passion, the crown of thorns, his death. 

The glory comes with the resurrection and what that displays about him. He is the one whose status transcends the changes and chances of a fleeting world. This is a kingship that goes to the other level. Stormzy struggles with looking for answers, with his purpose and the responsibility that goes with the status of being an image leader, one others look to. Christ struggles in the garden with the cup he is about to take, with the passion he is about to endure. ‘Heavy is the head that wears this crown.’ And thanks be to God that he does because through it all of us find there is a lasting place of redemption and salvation. This king has clothes, has substance and lasts beyond even death. We can trust in him beyond all others.

Sermon for Christ the King, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 20th November 2022

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Daniel and the Lions: Plots, Populist Politics and Promoting Peace

IMG_0191What is the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den really about (Daniel 6)? The book of Daniel in the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, is a book in two halves. The first six chapters give a series of stories about a Jewish captive called Daniel. The second half gives a series of visions. While it is set around 6th century BC under the Persian empire, it was probably written much later, around 164 BC. Our first reading came from the first part – stories about Daniel. It’s central theme is about the providence of God, how God’s purposes hold through all the ups and downs of events, and it is a book that aims to encourage faith and trust in God.

Daniel has been able to interpret the king’s dreams and because of this he gets promoted, attaining high office with positions of great influence. His wisdom, which he attributes to God, shines through. This brings out jealousy in others, those who don’t measure up, and they plot against him. They want his power and position. So they plot, and manipulate a king who doesn’t stand up to them for whatever reason, and Daniel is seemingly condemned to an unpleasant death as dinner for some hungry lions.

The pretext for their plot is Daniel’s worship of God. He refused to worship in secret, to keep it private and internal. This is because the aim of worship is to glorify God; it is not just something to be done in private, so Daniel does not regard it as a mere private matter. For the book of Daniel, God is God of all and not just a private lifestyle choice. The edict of Darius, the King of the Medes and Persians, is therefore foolish in the extreme; to claim, to demand, that he is to be worshipped and anyone who worships anyone else is to be put to death. The conspirators have tempted Darius with hubris and self-aggrandisement. It’s the antithesis of what worship is supposed to be. It also misses the point of Daniel, that his wisdom comes from being open to God, not from himself. When we gather to pray, to preach, to sing, to read, the focus is not on us but always on God and should open hearts and minds to God. Anything else is egotistical and bogus. Daniel survives in God’s providence and there is a quick about face by Darius, who seems to turn from persecutor to champion of Daniel’s faith. Maybe, maybe not. Does he really get it – that Daniel points to God, and that God is not something to be harnessed or possessed, rather worshipped, listened to and followed. There is a fundamental shift, difference, of understanding here.

Some of what happens in the story of the lions is very familiar. Exactly what led to the king listening to the conspirators is not clear. He seems to be fearful that his power will be diminished if he doesn’t concede to their demands and falls for the flattery of self-worship and adulation. He falls for all the allures of populist politics, which we have seen far too much of in the USA and also in Britain. Those with power can often feel that their grip on power is loose and fragile. It can lead to persecution of minorities, to demonising of those who are different, to abuse in order to protect power, or a shallow grip on it, to divert through division and scapegoating.

The outcome of this story is that those who conspire and set Daniel up, fall into their own trap. Daniel is saved. Those who plot overplay their hand as they so often do, and they are brought crashing down. They end up on the menu for the lions’ dinner. Those who seek to be populist can find themselves being eaten by their own scheming and deceptions.

The second reading brought us the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). It is familiar. It talks of different soil conditions from the deeply hostile hardened, rocky soil where nothing grows, to fertile soil where the crop will settle and grow in abundance. If we try to link this to the first reading, the faith of Daniel will bring out different responses depending on how those who view it are themselves prepared – what kind of soil they are. Are they hard-hearted, concerned for their own position over all else, or ones seeking to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God? And this works for politics, for church and community life. It comes down to the ego and how it will drive fruitful mission and how it will work against it because the heart is actually focussed somewhere else.

Remembrance Sunday is a day to be alert not just to the cost of war in lives lost and harmed, but the hardnesses of the heart that make war more likely or the heart more receptive to it. If anyone is seen as being dispensable for some personal gain, even protection of fragile and a weak grip on power, where power is for its own sake rather than the higher good of all, then throwing Daniels to the lions becomes easier to imagine and even execute.

And remember the words of King Darius just before he passes sentence on Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’ (Daniel 6:19). It’s the statement of a weak king who recognises the evil he is about to do but feels powerless to prevent it because the tide is against Daniel and it is more expedient for him to be sacrificed than to risk the throne. 

We could draw parallels of Putin’s war in Ukraine, the demonising of groups now to build up political power – all the ways we see populist politics creating a toxic climate. We can scale this down to those moments when conspirators will turn on someone because, if they can stir up trouble, their own power base will be advanced, or maybe even protected in clubs, workplaces, even churches – they are not immune.

The warnings of Daniel and the soil condition survey in the gospel reading take us to the heart of our own hearts. Do we seek God’s kingdom above all else, even our own advancement? And will we refuse to make someone else expendable in the pursuit of our goals? If the answer to these is no, then on Remembrance Sunday we have the conditions ripe for conflict, for destruction and the evils of warfare – beit between nations or withn them, even within the smallest groups. Remembrance Sunday calls us to promote and live in peace with justice and, as these readings remind us, that starts in the heart.

Sermon for Evensong, Remembrance Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 13th November 2022

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Safe from harm: a sermon for Safeguarding Sunday

Safeguarding SundayBack in the summer we had a visit from someone who brought into the cathedral a camera that took 360-degree photographs – ones that enable you to stand on a spot and see the view you would see if you were to spin round. This gives a sense of context and what is just out of shot, to see a fuller picture. That sense of seeing the fuller picture, seeing in the round, seems to me to be quite a good way into looking at safeguarding and today has been designated in this diocese as Safeguarding Sunday. I think one way into this is to think about seeing things in the round, so we get a fuller picture and take that fuller picture into account when planning what we do and how we respond to those who come through the doors or even don’t make it that far. 

Safeguarding first came on the radar of the Church with the publication in 1993 of ‘Safe from Harm’, which was a report and guidance produced by the Home Office. I remember going on my first training shortly after and it has been a regular requirement for ordained ministry since. Anyone who has been a school governor will have had this too. This is one of those areas where we can very easily tread on things which are difficult for people, for ourselves – we don’t know on the surface who is carrying what and the trainers are very good at making that explicit at the beginning – they are sensitive to what might be triggered in people as this subject is explored, and it can trigger. The same goes for this Sunday, for this sermon, and please do speak afterwards if you would like to.

That makes the whole area so much more important. We will know the statistics about how many people have been attacked or approached inappropriately, the teenagers who get requests to send intimate pictures – something those of us who are older never had to deal with, those who have been assaulted, emotionally abused or coercively controlled, those whose psychological state makes them vulnerable and in some situations can put them at risk. So we train, we plan activities carefully, and as we do we need that 3-60 vision which sees not just who or what is in front of us but the wider picture of how what we do in one place impacts others. Sometimes we get it wrong or miss something – but a church that takes safeguarding seriously is trying to do things better.

The Church in Wales handles safeguarding centrally and that means that we are required to adopt the policy produced centrally. The Cathedral Chapter discusses this each year and reaffirmed its commitment at its most recent meeting on 25th October. It is a standing item on the agenda for each meeting. We have two Safeguarding Officers for the Cathedral – Sue Smith and Hilary Sloan – who take their role very seriously. We have an external Provincial adviser, Wendy Lemon, because Fay cannot do this for us as a Cathedral Warden and therefore Trustee of the Cathedral. Their details are on the physical noticeboard by the west doors, outside the choir vestries, in the clergy vestry and in the cathedral hall. This is something that I updated and strengthened when I arrived here last year.

Churches have not always behaved well and the Church in Wales has been playing catch up in recent years. The Independent inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which reported last month, highlighted deficiencies in Wales in its interim report a few years ago. Big changes have been brought in and these are mandatory. We take them seriously.

There are twin dangers with safeguarding. One is that we think we know everyone and we don’t need it here. The other is that we can come to view everyone as a threat. Take that to extremes and it would destroy relationships. The best approach I heard is to have what was called ‘respectful uncertainty’. Respectful, honouring dignity, but recognising that there are things we don’t know and being prepared to hear when what we wouldn’t expect is said. Having been a chaplain in a Category B Prison with a sex offenders’ unit, I know that those who offend don’t always raise immediate suspicions. But if we plan safely, then odd behaviour will have more chance of standing out. Be under no illusions, though, those who want to offend can be very, very devious, often grooming whole communities to cover their tracks. They go on a charm offensive and create a climate where no one would think of challenging them. The classic wolf in sheep’s clothing. I have learnt to trust the sniff test – if it seems or smells iffy, keep digging until suspicions are either allayed or sadly confirmed.

There are different levels of safeguarding training. The basic one is open to everyone. The more who do it, the more we are all aware. Those who are volunteering for the nightshelter will have to do the next level of training and this is already arranged. There are also DBS criminal record checks. All of those who work with our choristers have had to do this too. So we have a lot in place already. And there are safe practices to make offending so much harder to do.

At first sight our readings might not look particularly themed on safeguarding. But look deeper at what is going on in that gospel reading (Luke 20:27-38). Andrew and I were talking about this yesterday. It sounds like a conversation about the resurrection and how it is possible, which of course it is. But behind it, is an assumption that this poor woman is the property of the men she marries. She is passed from one to another on their deaths as if a chattel to be passed around. Her role was to produce children and with each brother dying childless the others picked up the role. You could interpret this as caring for her in a society where widows were vulnerable, but it has a darker side to it, which today makes us squirm.

Treating people as property, as vessels for self-gratification is at the heart of safeguarding concerns. It is people being abused for someone else’s desires and not respecting their own agency or consent, manipulating them into a place they don’t want to be. Abusing the vulnerable gets very short shrift in the Bible.

Jesus’ response can be seen as him challenging the assumptions of the woman as property. In the resurrection she is no one’s property but is herself before God: honoured, loved and valued for who she is, in her own right, not who she belongs to.  It’s a radical challenge, which we can miss if we accept the distorted view that treats some as commodities for others appetites. This is something that time and again Jesus challenges. The passage fits with safeguarding more closely than we might at first imagine.

How we treat one another matters. Safeguarding is about how we create as safe an environment as we can. The aim of it is to care for everyone – to ensure that no harm is done and to respond appropriately when it turns out harm has been done. It looks at what we do in the round, 3-60 vision. That can take careful balancing, but through it, all should be respected, protected, enabled to flourish safe from harm.

Sermon for Safeguarding Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 6th November 2022

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Bible Sunday: Being light in dark and despairing times

IMG_1698My goodness this has been a turbulent few weeks. The Westminster Parliament, or more to the point the government, has been in meltdown and the third Prime Minister this year is about to be appointed. The cost of living crisis is biting even harder, as even more families are coming forward for help at foodbanks, there was a significant increase in the number of those taking shopping bags of basics through St Woolos School this week, 9/10 households were reported to have delayed putting the heating on this year, and many are anxious about how they will cope. There is more than a background of unease and tension. Anger and despair is flooding in on us from all corners and it takes its toll on the emotional temperature within us and around us. I want to think a little this morning about how we respond to this and how we can be people of hope and light in dark and despairing times. 

With the storms battering, our calling as a people of God in this place, in words from our readings, is with Luke to bring good news (Luke 4:16-24), with Isaiah the cry for justice and salvation (Isaiah 45:22-25), and with the Epistle to advocate living in harmony (Romans 15:1-6). We are to breathe peace into a troubled landscape. How do we do that when we too may well be feeling all those anxieties and strains?

We bring all of this with us this morning as we gather to pray, to break bread and celebrate the sacrament in bread and wine; to hear and receive the Word of God in the Bible. And these three represent the sure ground of God’s love to help us be people of praise and thanksgiving, hope and joy, in the midst of major crises. This is not to ignore the struggles and fears, but to ‘Be still and know that God is God’ (Psalm 46:10). Those are words that come from a Psalm which talks of the nations being in uproar. It is to be a still place when the battle rages around and offer a sure place, to point to a place, where all whose footing is unsure can find solidity.

Today is Bible Sunday. This week at daily prayers we have had readings which have plunged themselves into the storms and crises of political turmoil, shipwreck and leadership disputes. It’s interesting how the Bible can hit the mark. In these they have affirmed God’s presence, constancy, and hope which transcends all the trials and tribulations. On Thursday morning, during the Psalm, we read that in the sight of God, ‘a thousand years are but as yesterday, which passes like a watch in the night’ (Psalm 90:4). From the perspective of eternity, the transitory is fleeting and there is a bigger scale in which to assess it. That bigger scale builds confidence and provides the solid ground to hold on to; it lifts us above the turmoil, countering a malaise and prevailing culture that everything is futile and purposeless with a sense of the purpose that comes from confidence and faith in God. It is that confidence and deep trust that sets the tone to face the storms and be light to dispel the darkness.

Again, on Thursday, in the Acts of the Apostles, we read of Paul breaking bread amidst a great storm, after having given thanks (Acts 27:35f). Where do we hear those words – breaking bread and giving thanks? Paul used the Eucharist, the meal in which we share at the heart of this service, as the sign of hope in the storm. All of those who were with him were encouraged. Why would breaking bread, the Eucharist, be a sign of hope? Because it stems directly from the act of Jesus, the night before his death, in the storm of betrayal and plotting, where he gave a banquet of God’s Kingdom to shine precisely when trouble is at hand. Our confidence and faith is rooted in the saving, life-giving act of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Nothing beats that.

Passages like these bob up all the time. Through immersing ourselves in the stories and narratives of the Bible we keep this hope tuned for us. And we had more of them this morning. Isaiah (45:22) tells his hearers to ‘turn to the Lord and be saved, for God is God’, echoing the ‘Be still and know’ passage from Psalm 90. Only in the Lord, is righteousness and true strength found (v24). In case we are stumbling and feeling shaky in our steps, the Psalm encouraged us to keep our steps steady, to never let iniquity have the upper hand, have dominion over us. (Psalm 119:133). How the strains and powers that darken life can have the upper hand if we let them. Trust in God and drive away those dementors.

The Gospel reading gave us the triumph of hope (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus gives his Nazareth manifesto of anointing, good news, release, recovery and freedom. And here the gear shifts. This is not just passive hope, but active encouragement to bring about change if and where we can; to strive for it. In this mess that our national life has entered, prayers for the government, for people in it at this time, are also to be prayers for change and for those who have it in their means to step up to bring it about. They are being called to remember that the priority is for those who need to hear good news, who long for release to be set free from whatever holds them from flourishing, to look beyond their own interests and even party interest to the good of all, and that by definition has a bias to the poor.

So this morning we come here to pray, to break bread and to hear the story of faith, hope and love retold from the pages of the Bible. Through these we are enabled to tell a different story, one of joy and thanksgiving, the bigger picture that holds the passing news items. As we place and renew our trust and confidence in God, in the purposes of God, that in God there is a point, so we are enabled to be people of light and hope. May that be the song we sing today, that enables us to bring light in these dark and despairing times.

Sermon for Bible Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 23rd October 2022

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Healing of lepers – Outsiders made insiders

IMG_1208How often do you feel that you are an outsider; someone who doesn’t quite fit or, at its more acute end, someone whom others push away? Is this something that you do feel at times or have a memory of? It can be lonely and unpleasant, even if the reason for being excluded is for a stand you have had to take or because something that you know needs to happen is not welcomed and social exclusion is a power game some play. It is easy to feel an outsider who doesn’t fit, even in a crowd or in a group.

Our first reading (2 Kings 5:1-15) and the Gospel (Luke 17:11-19) this morning gave us people suffering from leprosy. Leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, was once thought to be highly contagious, but is now known to be hard to spread, especially with certain precautions. It is treatable with antibiotics, though in the first century was not so easily treated. The fear of the disease meant that those who had it were pushed to the edges. Naaman, in our first reading was a high-ranking military officer, but still he had the disease and wanted relief. The lepers in the Gospel would have been excluded from much of society, expected to live outside large gatherings and pushed away.

Jesus healing the lepers does more than treat a medical condition. He takes outsiders and makes them insiders. They are brought through his healing love from the outside to the inside. The wonderful works, the healings, in the stories of Jesus, are not just to be taken at face value, they are always signs of something deeper. As he cures them, he brings them back into the fold and so they become a symbol of the grace of God at work in and through him. They become a sign for the rest of us. Jesus takes all of us, who would otherwise be outsiders, and makes us insiders. It is John Newton’s phrase in his hymn Amazing Grace, ‘I once was lost, but now am found’. All of us have been lost, outside, and through the grace of God have entered into the fold.

It goes more deeply. This is what Christ does for humanity and creation. The scale keeps expanding. Christ, the Word of God made flesh among us, is the one who bridges the gulf between an eternal creator and transitory mortal life. He does this because this is what God does. There is really no gap, because it has been shown to be filled by the only one who can, and that is the very heart and mind of God in Christ Jesus – whom John’s Gospel calls ‘The Word’. So, when  we say at the end of the readings ‘For the word of the Lord: Thanks be to God’, we are saying so much more than thanks for the reading. We thank God for wisdom, for bridging the gap, for bringing creation into being from outside to inside the heart and love of God.

Making outsiders into insiders is the ministry of reconciliation. It is how penitents find release from their sins and are not condemned forever. It is how those at enmity can find a way to build peace and avoid mutually assured destruction – something that is needed with the war over Ukraine. It happens when there is conflict in communities. Outsiders have to become insiders, a new relationship has to emerge, one characterised by love and not hate, by hope and not fear, by inclusion and not exclusion, by making space and giving voice rather than closing off and silencing. Each of these could be a sermon in itself.

Today is also Homelessness Sunday. This is literally something that comes to our doors here and through the winter night shelter outsiders have been made insiders. I know from projects elsewhere that has changed lives. This hasn’t been able to run for a several years and we are working in partnership with others to see if it can start again. There is a new management at Edengate, which has improved the ways it operates and work is progressing. There is no council funding this year for it, unlike in past years, so funding has to be found. But we are stepping out in faith that it will be.

What we aim to do with projects like this, is not just patch up the cracks, though when someone has nothing, that is needed. But through the warmth of human love and contact, through the kindness of a bed for the night, through a hot meal shared, those who have become outsiders in so many ways, are helped to become insiders again. And these people have not been born homeless, they have become it, so ‘curing’ means they cease to be. And we know there is no magic wand; it takes the time it takes.

The stories of Naaman and the gospel lepers both end with thanks. Naaman wants to give a gift in return for his healing. One of the ten lepers returns to say thank you and in a further twist, this leper is revealed to have been even more of an outsider to the hearers of the story, for he is a Samaritan – a group regarded as being outsiders and not insiders. Thanks and praise is a sign that the welcoming in has been adopted and a change has taken place, or begun to take place. Thanks and praise change us all on the inside, on the inside of our hearts.

Whether you feel an outsider – sometimes, often or rarely – we are all as children of God welcomed inside into the heavenly courts and loving embrace of Christ’s love for the world. ‘I once was lost, but now am found’. The healing of lepers is a sign that God’s love changes us now and eternally.

Sermon for Trinity 17, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 9th October 2022

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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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