Paschal Candle explained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Story-tellers of the hope we have in Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Easter Triumph, Easter Joy – Changes Everything and Completes Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alleluia! Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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

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Beware on Good Friday: God sides with the vulnerable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O happy foolishness, 

which loves so dearly 

to reach into the mire 

of human suffering and pain 

to rescue, redeem and restore.

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

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

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Was the Vineyard Owner Non-Dom?

IMG_0759Our second reading (Luke 20:9-19) gave us a wealthy landowner whose affairs appear to be complex. We are not told if he was resident in the hypothetical place the story is set, or whether he had non-domiciled status – his home was elsewhere and while he was resident he was really only a visitor. He clearly has interests abroad and goes off to attend to matters in this other non-specified country. 

The tax rules about non-domiciled status have been all over the news this week and they are intriguing. They go back to 1799 when William Pitt’s government first introduced income tax to recoup money from the Napoleonic war with France, war in Spain and America, as well as turmoil in Ireland. It didn’t take long for someone to raise the question about what income would be taxed, since some for the wealthy arose in the British colonies and of course that means its origin is linked with the slave trade and the colonial legacy. The result was some of these wealthy investors could claim that their permanent home was in these colonies, so only income that was brought into the UK was taxed. There have been several changes to the rules over the succeeding centuries, the most recent being in the Finance Act 2017. There is now a time limit, so after 15 years if the person is resident in the UK they are deemed to be domiciled here – this is their permanent home. 

Clearly this has been in the press with the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s wife’s tax status and where she regards as being her permanent home, which is where it becomes a hot political issue. The implied questioning is of how committed the Chancellor is to the UK if there is some doubt about where his wife counts as her home, presumably he is included in this open question. How much are they just keeping their options open for the future? It is political kryptonite.

There is a principle of ethical business that whatever country someone trades in they recognise the wider obligations on that society and its people, its environment and long-term wellbeing. Trade is not and never should be seen as just about money and profit. It is a social enterprise and always has moral consequences. We have obligations to the common good and non-domiciled status is really now something for those who are only here temporarily, their home really is abroad, otherwise it is just an attempt to keep some of a person’s assets out of reach, which is why some want to end it, regard it as belonging to a time that no longer exists. Our taxes have come a long way since 1799.

One reading of the story Jesus told in the second reading is that the workers in the vineyard seem to be questioning the landowner’s right to a return on his ownership. He went away and when he returned those who lived there resented his absence and his profiteering from land they had come to see as their own. They don’t want to pay, and so after various violent responses, they end up murdering the landowner’s son. That brings a terrifying reaction; they are thrown out and destroyed. The vineyard is given to others whose stewardship is deemed more trustworthy.

We are used to seeing this story as being one of rebellion and revolution – the landowner is meant to be God, so they are bad people. But if you are from a place where your land has been occupied and a vineyard you could have regarded as being your land has been seized, then this story may well seem very different. The landowner becomes unjust, though I don’t think that is how it is seen by the gospel writer. Still, the colonial legacy is not seen as being neutral by those whose land it is or was before it was taken and exploited. In first century Israel, occupied by a foreign power, the same sensitivity may well have been in the air.

However we read this story, it touches on how we live and whether we give due allegiance to God, who is the true and ultimate landowner. Are we out for our own ends with no regard for what is due, no regard to our obligations? The implication is that the vineyard workers have rebelled and lived as though the land they work is theirs with no regard for who really owns it. But there is also a hint that the landowner is also making assumptions here and has obligations which come from being a temporary steward, so that challenge would bite both ways, if we take the landowner to be just that, and not God. 

Psalm 24 sets the tone for us to find our way through this. ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’. It ends with a song of God being the King of glory, the one to whom all allegiance is owed. It doesn’t matter what legal deeds we have, all of us are limited in our ownership, all of us are really tenants for a season, and God is the one who holds the land truly. The martyred Archbishop of San Salvador in the 1980s, Oscar Romero, referred to wealth as being borrowed from the poor and with it came an obligation to pay interest to the poor. With that recognition our first reading (Isaiah 5:1-7) brought obligations for justice and righteousness to the fore, and condemned bloodshed and what leads to cries of anguish. 

Wherever we are, whatever the complexity of our trading and financial arrangements, they all come with obligations. These stem from our overarching obligation to God and when we live in harmony with that, justice and righteousness flow. When they don’t flow, then we have strayed and become ungrateful tenants who have usurped the true owners dues.

Sermon for Palm Sunday Evensong, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 10th April 2022

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Invisible, Radiant and Prominent – The Newport Rood

IMG_0528At the end of lockdown in 2020, the new Rood was installed at the entrance to the chancel arch. This striking modern work of art by the Singaporean artist Tay Swee Siong, is made from wire and hangs near the site of the medieval Rood, adjacent to the high-level doorway. Its appearance is highly dependent on where the viewer stands. In some places it almost blends into the background and becomes invisible. When the sunlight shines through from the south it can appear radiant. With the roofs as its backdrop it is prominent and full, hanging in the heart of the Cathedral.

Invisible, radiant and prominent, is a metaphor for how the cross stands in the heart of our faith and life. “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” (Lamentations 1:12) could be the words of a culture which sees Good Friday as another day, a sanitised faith that jumps from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday without passing through the passion of the cross. We want Easter without the pain, but such a faith has nothing to say to the darker sides of life.

“Inscribed upon the cross we see in shining letters, ‘God is love’”, from Thomas Kelly’s Good Friday Hymn (We sing the praise of him who died), brings the radiance of a love that will give most deeply of itself. This radiance holds out hope to the suffering, who can know that they are not alone, that God enters into the depth of their pain and holds it. They share in the passion of Christ, and so he shares in theirs.

The cross has become prominent in our faith. Its prominence is that its shame becomes its victory. What can almost be unnoticed stands at the heart of the Cathedral. All who come are able to gaze at it and marvel at its simplicity and power. As it stands at the gateway to the chancel, so it stands as the gateway into the heart of God, and so we cross ourselves at moments of blessing, sacrament and affirmation.

Due to the pandemic, the Rood has not been dedicated. We will put that right on Passion Sunday, 3rd April, when Bishop Cherry will dedicate it during the Cathedral Eucharist at 10.30am.

May the cross be present and radiant for us at the heart of our faith as we journey through Lent to the Easter joy.

Opening letter for St Woolos Quarterly, Easter 2022

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Prayer of Manaesseh – people can change

Our first reading came from one of those less visited and obscure corners of the Bible. It was The Prayer of Manasseh, which hides in the Apocrypha, a collection of books which many Bibles don’t include. The story of how the Bible came to look like it does today is a long one and for many centuries various texts circulated, were read and became valued by the Hebrew people. Because Christianity grew out of Judaism, it was schooled and shaped by these texts. When the New Testament writers refer to the scriptures, it is these texts, often in their Greek version, and not the ones we call the New Testament. The Apocryphal ones are more of an appendix of extra writings, and they have value in broadening our understanding of the various strands.

The contents list of the Bible was not largely settled until around the 3rd and 4th centuries AD and even then some of it was still in the ‘we’ll see how it goes’ pile. This is another of those reasons why the Bible being viewed as the ‘inerrant word of God’, as though it landed as a complete package, is just far too simplistic and will not do. We have to read it as ancient texts which can help us think about God and how we relate to God and one another. 

The Prayer of Manasseh is an interesting text. It was circulating around Christian circles in the second century AD, but no one really knows when it was written. It refers to Manasseh, who became King of Judah in 696 BC at the age of 12. He is given very bad press in 2 Chronicles (33) for doing such evils as building altars to dodgy gods, setting up sacred poles to be worshipped, practising sorcery, and dealing with mediums and wizards. Prophets were sent to tick him off, whom he ignored, so he was taken out by an invading army from Assyria.

He is taken off captive and repents. He decides his previous evil ways were wrong and he is very, very sorry. This book, the Prayer of Manasseh, is some later writer’s imagined attempt to set out the kind of imploring to God for forgiveness that he might have said. It’s a bit longwinded, but a summary might be:

O God, infinite in power (1-5), but also in mercy (6-8), my sins are innumerable and I am justly punished (9-10). I repent (11-12). Spare and save me now (13-14) and I will glorify you for ever (15).

(J C Dancy ‘The shorter books of the Apocrypha’, Cambridge University Press, 1972)

If it had been that concise, the first reading would have been considerably shorter. It worked and he was restored to power and set about restoring and reforming the religious practice of the land. He reigned in total for 55 years – not bad in an age of extreme regime change.

Things go downhill after him under his son Amon, with everything Manasseh had done before his repentance being brought back, which makes you wonder if the reforms were only on the surface.

What this strange book from the bit between what we call the Old Testament and the New Testament highlights, is people who get it spectacularly wrong but  then repent and change their ways. And we have so many people who fall into this category, and probably most of us here recognise it within ourselves to some extent. We get somethings very wrong, may have led a life before which has not been entirely pure and holy, and have come to see things differently. People really can change and they do. We may well be in the midst of the struggle at the moment.

This capacity for change is being explored in the current season of ‘Killing Eve’. Is Villanelle, the young assassin, really wanting to be different? Is there a heart inside her killer training and instincts that would like to be a nicer person? The battle seems to be between what’s in her nature and what is acquired by nurture, by what has happened to her and those who continue to have a grip on her and meddle in her life, wanting to exploit her skills, exploit her. Is this going to be a story of redemption or one of, as a psychologist character said, people who reinvent themselves are often avoiding facing the darkness that lurks inside, and of how other influences can refuse to let us go, be hard to shake off?

That seems to be crucial in this. Words are easy to say, but they need to touch the sides. Our repentance, however brief or stretched out it is expressed, needs to connect with the behaviours, the responses that have become natural, the ways we have learnt how to be, for it effect change within us. And new surroundings free of those who bring out the worst in us until we have the strength to avoid being led into temptation. But it can happen.

The Prayer of Manasseh invites us to ask what we need to change. Where are the dark crevices in our character and behaviours that needs the healing grace of God to get to work? What are the structural changes that are needed to create the right environment for flourishing? And do we need help for that to happen? Where will we find the model of what it means to be a better version of ourselves than we sometimes allow out? And in turn, how can we be a better model of ourselves to provide that example for others to grow in the grace of God, to be a place where it is different? In the words of an internet meme: if you want the world to be nicer, start by being nicer.

Sermon for Evensong, Lent 4, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 27th March 2022

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Why do bad things happen?

IMG_0684Why do bad things happen? It’s a question that has taxed so many people for millennia. Some threads in the Bible will imply that it’s because we are punished for some misdemeanour. You could read some elements of our readings this morning as implying this. The Gospel particularly gives that impression with ‘repent or perish’ (Luke 13:3). The Epistle referred to the Hebrew people rebelling in the wilderness and being bitten by snakes – a particularly good punishment for their grumbling and stirring (1 Corinthians 10:9; Number 21:6). How grumbling and griping can be like a snake slithering through a community – it is poisonous, so watch out. In the Old Testament reading, the call was to turn to the Lord and be pardoned (Isaiah 55:1-9). The implication there was if you don’t, bad things will happen.

There is some truth in this. Actions, attitudes do have consequences, but the direct link is something to be very cautious of. If you suffer it does not mean you are being punished by God; it is much more complex than that and sometimes just unfair. Fortunately the readings also had some nuance in them. For the whole question of testing and being able to meet it, in the Epistle, implies that there are forces at work that come from outside of what we have done (1 Corinthians 10:13). The Gospel too said that the deaths of various people was not because they were bad, but that they got caught up in other’s evil or failures. The crashing of a tower may well have been a building accident. The mixing of blood with sacrifices, hints at Roman violence being at work at a sacrifice, so we get the blood of the innocent mixed with the blood of the sacrificial animals (Luke 13:1-4).

We are seeing so many examples of how others’ actions have implications beyond, touching the lives of people who are unconnected directly with them. What we are seeing in Ukraine is evil at work and the bombing of maternity hospitals, children’s homes and apartment blocks can never be said to be any fault of those on the receiving end. It is victim blaming and gaslighting to suggest otherwise. And those who have been on the receiving end of gaslighting – a tool of coercive relationships where truth is twisted to convince another that what happened didn’t happen – and victim blaming, will recognise this with painful familiarity. Some politicians employ these tricks with alarming regularity to make you question their integrity and moral values. 

This week, after six very long and tortuous years, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the less well known Anoosheh Ashoori were released from their captivity in Iran. Nazanin was a charity project manager; Anoosheh a retired civil engineer. Both were used as political pawns over a debt that everyone admitted needed to be repaid. In the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe her plight was worsened by Boris Johnson’s careless use of words when Foreign Secretary – he seems to make a habit of that. Their suffering was not of their causing. Yet suffer they have and their release at last is a moment of much rejoicing. There is a third, Morad Tahbah, a businessman and wildlife consultant, who has not yet been released, just ‘furloughed’, whatever that is supposed to mean – given the hint of release from incarceration but not freedom.

The protections afforded by repentance and changing our ways is not just for ourselves. Indeed it might lead to quite the opposite if it then requires us to make a stand for what we believe to be right. The complex web is such that there can be implications beyond what we can imagine at the time and so constant repentance, the humility that recognises that we may be making things worse or just treading where we do not realise, is a wise one. We confess the personal but also the corporate, the things we are caught up in that are bigger than we are. The sins of a system that operates and others suffer because they are in the way when whatever it is comes crashing down. It’s like kicking a football with no sight of where it lands and there is the sound of breaking glass as it comes down from its blind trajectory.

Bad things happen because we live in an imperfect world where there is sin, there is fallibility, there is sometimes wilful evil at play. A response we can make to this is to be repentant, to be humble enough to realise that we can have effects we don’t see, or even intend, but nonetheless happen. It is to be humble to how political systems and economic systems can be set up in such a way as to make life worse for others, especially those who don’t have a voice where decisions are made. It is to be humble to realise that we have blind spots and therefore be open to them being pointed out. It is to be humble to be open to the challenge where we have stopped realising that the other is actually a person with feelings that our intemperate emails, Tweets, or just angry phone call may trample on. It is a strange phenomenon of social media that it depersonalises social contact, and so can switch off compassion and empathy, sensitivity and just plain human decency.

In the case of P&O Ferries, who made 800 of their UK staff redundant this week so they can hire cheaper staff on much lower wages and worse conditions, bad things happen when employees are seen as disposable units of production and profit, rather than personnel they have responsibilities for. It happens when business is disconnected from the web of relationships in which it operates and thinks money exists outside of human values and human purpose. This is why the Church in Wales has an ethical investment policy which we have adopted – all money is connected with relationships; many we don’t see.

Why do bad things happen? Because we mess up and others mess up. Some are through negligence, some through weakness and some through deliberate fault. And then there are others that just show the world is fallible and the complex web of relationships and actions can lead to them. We can’t stop all of them, but by walking more humbly we can reduce the impact of quite a few. Accidents happen. But grumbles and stirring are like a snake that slithers and bites, it is toxic and poisons. Those we can change more easily. We can be different, make a difference and thereby be a catalyst for change.

Sermon for Lent 3, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 20th March 2022

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Language of inclusion

IMG_0682Language matters; how we speak and the terms we use to describe ourselves, others, and God. So, the language of our worship matters enormously. It sets the tone which in turn shapes us, especially for those of us who use this language all the time.

On Thursday, at Evening Prayer, our lectionary gave us Psalm 137. This is the one that begins “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Sion”. It is a song of lament for an exiled people, who mourn their lost land and lost city. They wonder how they can sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. It then gets dark at the end. The anger, the visceral anger comes out and the last verse is shocking. It proclaims how happy they would be to see their oppressors’ children dashed against the wall – their heads smashed in and dead. This Psalm popped up on the same day that Russian forces bombed a maternity hospital in Ukraine. It was too much to say it – we cut it, as I have long thought we should do as a matter of course. With safeguarding and decency, it’s not a line to sing in worship. And that’s a debate in cathedrals – what we do with the horrible verses in the Psalms, cut or keep? There are valid reasons for both approaches.

The early twentieth century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Psalms ‘the Prayer Book of the Bible’. They express our deepest hopes, our joys, our longings, our pains and sorrows, fears and anxieties, abandonment along with praise and adoration. All emotions and experience are contained within them including our darkest secret thoughts, the ones we almost dare not name. By naming them we can bring those terrible thoughts into the open and realise just how bad they are. The flip side is that without a different lens to hold that through, we think this is normal, it’s OK because it’s in the Bible. Not everything in the Bible is meant to be taken as exemplary and to be copied. There is quite a list and those of us who read it daily will know just how awful it can be at times.

It’s a very long time now since I first discovered the movement for the language we use to be inclusivised, something like 40 years ago. I am a child of the 1960s and 70s and so was born and grew up in an age that was incredibly sexist. That meant that this wall had to be overcome before that discussion could break through and I’m pleased to say it did, mainly through the interactions that shape a person. It makes me bang my head on the table when I see signs 40 years on that some of this stuff is still current and not always seen. The assumptions are still there. A good friend of mine, Ellen Clark King, who is the new Dean of King’s College, London, has written an article on this which appeared on the blog site “Via Media” yesterday. 

I’ve come to see over the years that just changing the words doesn’t actually on its own change how we read something. So, a passage, a hymn, can carry assumptions in other ways that just changing ‘men’ to ‘people’ or ‘him’ to ‘them’ doesn’t tackle. Read the stories of the feeding of the 5,000 and tell me how many people are present. The answer is obvious, 5,000, surely. But it’s not. Luke, earlier on from our reading this evening, tells us there were 5,000 men (Luke 9:14) mirroring Mark (6:44). It is Matthew who gives the game away, telling us there were “5,000 men, besides women and children”, who were not counted (Matthew 14:21). What or those we don’t count, don’t count, something I tell those who enter numbers in service registers or don’t enter them in. We’ve recently standardised the words of the hymns here along with the most recent ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ (2013). This draws a line somewhere around 1950. By and large texts before that it leaves alone because we need to be clear it comes from a previous age and inclusion and exclusion are just one of the issues with the text. Those after, it thinks should know better, or a fair game to be adapted, and so makes small changes where it can, generally in line with the poetic sense. 

Language shapes us, as does who we see upfront doing things. If we can’t see ourselves we don’t fully feel included and so organisations like the Society for Women Organists and Anna Lapwood’s #PlayLikeAGirl, still have work to do and you don’t need me to tell you how sexist churches can still be. Emma told me recently that the girls here see that there is no job in the church they couldn’t do – sing, play the organ, be Cathedral Warden or Bishop. Big tick and we’ve come a long way from when I was a chorister in the 1970s, but it still feels radical to change how we refer to God from male assumptions to be more expansive. If we don’t do it, we assume God is male and that does none of us any favours. And it’s not that new. Mother Julian of Norwich called God our Mother in 14th century, echoing Jesus using the image for him being like a mother hen gathering her children to her. How long it takes for some words to be heard.

Our first reading this evening (Jeremiah 22:1-9, 13-17) was about justice. Justice is a word easily used but it goes very deep. Justice and inclusion, honouring the inherent dignity of us all, are foundational. Honouring, means that we don’t just tolerate but embrace, don’t just recognise as being in the room (though that’s a start) but count, have an acknowledged presence, a voice and are heard. It requires us to change, budge up and recognise space needs to be made. To fail in areas of justice is a very serious matter. Our passage cut off just before we find out what is to happen to Jehoiakim for his misdemeanours: 

“With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried, dragged off and thrown out beyond the gates of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 22:19). 

That makes justice very serious and not a nice to have, add on extra, but core business.

Language matters, the images we feed ourselves with matter. And when we face images which dehumanise, oppress and make injustice sound like the norm may we hear the demand for justice which is at the heart of our faith.

Sermon for Choral Evensong attended by the Society of Women Organists, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 13th March 2022

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Canon Residentiary – Installation Sermon

IMG_0662When I looked at the readings set for this evening, I thought, well I’m glad I don’t have to preach on those, especially at a welcoming for a new ministry. As the adage goes, be careful what you don’t wish for!

The story of Jonah is one of a reluctant prophet. I don’t know if Andrew was reluctant to respond to the call for ordination, a certain hesitancy is not a bad thing, but it is certainly a ministry that brings surprises at every turn and takes us to unexpected places. And I doubt that he has been swallowed by a whale, but there are times when ministry can feel like we have been swallowed by a big fish and spat out on the beach. As with Jonah, when this happens there is always God’s grace which picks us up, repeats and renews the call, sending us on our way blessed and renewed. Whatever we face, whatever surprising blessing and fruitfulness, as it turned out for Jonah, God makes use of us and guides us.

When I was thinking about what kind of person we needed here for the Canon Residentiary position, there were lots of different shapes I could have chosen. It seemed to me that what we needed was someone to focus on the Cathedral community, its life and faith, and develop these. And that is the particular focus that Andrew has. So he has been chosen by a panel of people, including choristers, as the person who will lead on this aspect of the Cathedral’s mission and ministry. We are a community of faith, first and foremost, and that needs developing and shaping, growing and widening. Where that leads will probably surprise us all, but as with Jonah it will be one of blessing and fruitfulness. 

There are so many opportunities that come with this ministry. From the beauty of this sacred space, with deep spiritual roots to tap into, to its capacity to draw people into that holiness. It is a flexible space for worship of all kinds, to offer hospitality and a place where all are welcome – of open and inclusive welcome, that we may all find a place in this community. A place for all to flourish, grow in faith and hope and love, and share that in the world. The prophetic ministry, to expound the challenge that comes from the gospel, is one that flows from the love at the heart of God in Jesus Christ, who made a point of finding those who didn’t fit quite how others might have thought they should. That challenge also requires us to ask questions of how we might shape our lives and the common life of our community and city on the good news of Jesus Christ. There are surprises in who Christ calls to share in the blessing and fruitfulness that he holds before us.

Every church at the moment faces an enormous missionary challenge and we are no different. This is a time of great cultural complexity with multiple generations where previous contact with churches and Christianity is thin, if not non-existent. These require very different styles of engagement and encounter, and part of that is equipping the saints who inhabit this place to be able to share faith and ease the travel to connect. No one can or should try to do it all alone, and none should think this is just one person’s job. We need storytellers, prophets and pastors – carers who live the love of God in Jesus Christ and get alongside; people who can build bridges with imagination and fresh thinking, and make the links that enable the spiritually curious to explore, encounter and engage with the faith that is our life and our inspiration for all things, and find that they can indeed have a place here too. This mission is one in which we all share and in which we all have a part to play.

There is a lot to do, but we never do this in our own strength. We pray for God’s grace to hold us and guide us. The Pharisee in the second reading, had assumed he was worthy and good and better than everyone else (Luke 18:9-14). He looked at the tax collector, the one everyone looked down on, and compared himself. ‘Well, at least I’m not like that!’  Lent is a time when we all face the darker crevices of our souls, beat our chests and say “God be merciful to me, a sinner”. The starting point of all ministry, of all mission, of everything we aim to do, is our recognition of our own need of God and the life-restoring grace that flows from his abundant love, which extends and reaches out to everyone. It is that we share. And for Andrew, I know, that this is important, for in the words of the hymn he chose that we have just sung, “All are welcome”, and this is a strapline for him.

So today we welcome Andrew and Sallyanne – and Kim, their fluffy white dog, who has already been adopted by the choristers as the choir mascot. We are delighted to have you here among us and look forward to all that God will do in you and through you in this place. There will be surprises for us all as God’s blessing and fruitfulness is brought further into being in this  holy and special place, in and through this holy and special community of God’s grace.

Sermon for the installation of Revd Andrew Lightbown as Canon Residentiary, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 6th March 2022

*Bishop Cherry was unable to be present due to testing positive for Covid-19, requiring a last minute substitution.

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