James the Apostle – Pilgrimage and the meaning is in the waiting

IMG_7305Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. Today we remember St James and two of our readings give a snapshot of his brief role in the story of the Gospel. A fisherman with his brother John, in his father’s business, they were called by Jesus right at the beginning of his ministry, as the first of his disciples while mending their nets. They have the nickname ‘Boanerges’, which means ‘sons of thunder’, possibly a reference to their impetuous and fervent nature. It might also hint at their parents, afterall it is their mother who tries to fit them up for top jobs.

James seems to have been part of an inner core of Jesus’ disciples, present at the Transfiguration, at his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane – when ironically Jesus prays for the cup to be taken away from him. That’s the cup he drinks of that he tells James and John they will have to drink too. And James does.

He became the first leader of the Jerusalem Church. Paul is taken to James after his conversion and when Peter escapes from prison, he asks for James to be told, not knowing that he has been killed by a sword-thrust on the orders of Herod Agrippa, sometime around AD44. He got to drink from the cup and he got to hold the top job. There is something about leadership that brings difficult decisions, having to stand up and be counted, be in the firing line when things go wrong, when attacks come for speaking out. It is no different today if a Christian leader uses their position to be a voice for the voiceless, to speak out for the defence of the weak and call to account.

The great shrine for St James is Santiago de Compostela in North West Spain. It is one of the great pilgrimage sites of the medieval world – ranking next to Rome and Jerusalem. It claims to hold the relics of St James, having been transferred there from Jerusalem in the nineth century. The evidence for that is thin. But it remains a major focus of pilgrimage today and the Camino de Santiago remains popular, even the subject of some interesting TV programmes of modern pilgrims from all backgrounds and faiths walking together and talking as they go.

The big symbol of pilgrimage to Santiago is the scallop shell, possibly because it represents the setting sun’s rays fanned out, and also because they are readily available at nearby beaches. It is also a handy tool for baptism and I tend to use one whenever I baptise, because it is a reminder that life is a pilgrimage of faith, of doubt, of struggle and courage to drink what you’d rather not drink, of hope and trust in Jesus Christ.

Earlier this week, I came across the poetic Kyrie confession we used at the beginning of this service. It was shared by a priest in the Bro Tudno Ministry Area in the diocese of Bangor, in North West Wales. It uses the poetry of RS Thomas and George Herbert. You may know the poems it reflects. The first is about the meaning being in the waiting, by implication found when we still ourselves from the inanities and vast myriad of pressures and commitments, of stuff we fill our time with. The stuff that stops us reflecting, thinking, going deeper into God.

The phrase ‘the meaning is in the waiting’ comes from a poem by RS Thomas – the final line in his poem ‘Kneeling’. I’ll end with it in a moment. He talks about how being stilled turns the air into a ‘staircase for silence’ and this being the gateway to perception and presence. Staircases are resonant with Jacob’s ladder and his dream of angels ascending and descending. Jacob is the Hebrew version of James. It is in the silence that God can speak, it is in the different rhythm of the pilgrim that meaning is clarified, often when we are least expecting it.

I am beginning to read Rowan Williams’ latest book – Looking East in Winter. It’s a slow read and has already had me looking up words I don’t know in a dictionary and following up a reference in one of his other books – so this is going to take me a while. It is about Eastern Christian mysticism. In one passage he refers to one writer who contrasts the ascetic, who put crudely wants to escape from wordly pressures, and the contemplative who stays with them, delves into them and in so doing finds them to be a mine of treasure or a well to revive and water us, to see beauty.

This is a particularly striking image for where we are. The call of the pilgrim is not to escape but to change the journey. It is to find in this moment the signs of beauty we otherwise walk past unnoticed, the signs of grace where gift becomes a moment of God’s touch, the rays of sunlight that shine through the darkness illuminating and making it clear that darkness never overcomes or wins. It is to see this moment as a sign that nothing in all creation can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, as Paul put it.

As we do this, we find that the meaning is in the waiting, because waiting is where we are for we are always awaiting the final fulfilment of God’s eternal kingdom. It is the goal of our journey, it is the source of our life, it is the hope which brings us to being and holds us. It is the cup offered to James and from which he drank, knowing then that status is but an ephemera, the meaning is much deeper. And so, I end with RS Thomas’ poem, ‘Kneeling’.

Sermon for the Feast of St James, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 25th July 2021

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Reasons to persuade everyone to learn to sing (William Byrd)

IMG_7300I received an email this week telling me that today is National Ice-cream Day. I have no idea who decided this, though it was a chocolate manufacturer who told me, but I am not going to argue and after the service we will celebrate it. Something that will be particularly welcome on a hot Sunday afternoon. What could speak of summer more than ice-cream and struggling to eat it before it melts. 

A few years ago, on my sabbatical, when the temperatures were breaking records, I decided to conduct some research into which was the best ice-cream to eat. Squirty, whippy stuff was particularly bad; it put up no resistance to the power of the sun’s rays. It was the Cornetto style cones that seemed to fair best. Ice-cream brings a smile and it feels like a treat.

We need those treats every now and then, to experience the joys of life, the things which brighten and boost a sense of feeling good. This is especially important when we face the unknown and this pandemic seems to have a way of bringing surprises and setbacks. When it is a particular effort to find the joys, the rewards can be all the more.

I caught an interview yesterday with a woman who has stage 4 cancer. She has lots of bad days and can struggle to find an hour or so of energy. There are days she finds she has to break down the day into small goals and take what she can find – bigger goals just seem too unobtainable and large to tackle or believe are possible. It’s a mindset that she has had to develop and train herself to develop the habit.

We might not all be facing something so enormous, but still can need help and there are some tools we can draw on and use. One of them comes in this incredible service of Choral Evensong. It brings music in abundance and the act of singing changes our mood. After I preached at the RSCM online Welsh Festival last month, a friend sent me something written a very long time ago, by the Tudor composer William Byrd. It could have been written yesterday and there are scientific explanations behind what he wrote. It comes from the preface to his collection ‘Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadnes and pietie’, published in 1588. He sets down reasons to persuade everyone to learn to sing. Whenever he says ‘man’, he means all people – men and women, boys and girls.

“First, it is a knowledge easily taught, and quickly learned, where there is a good master, and an apt scholar.

2. The exercise of singing is delightful to Nature, and good to preserve the health of Man.

3. It doth strengthen all parts of the breast, and doth open the pipes.

4. It is a singularly good remedy for stuttering and stammering in the speech.

5. It is the best means to procure perfect pronunciation, and to make a good Orator.

6. It is the only way to know where Nature has bestowed the benefit of a good voice:

which gift is so rare, as there is not one among a thousand that has it: and, in many, that excellent gift is lost, because they want Art to express Nature.

7. There is not any Music of instruments whatsoever, comparable to that which is made of the voices of Men, where the voices are good, and the same well sorted and ordered.

8. The better the voice is, the meeter it is to honour and serve God therewith:

and the voice of man is chiefly to be employed to that end.

Omnis spiritus Laudet Dominum.

[“Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6)]

Since singing is so good a thing,

I wish all men would learn to sing.”

When the bible writers were looking for a way to express worship, praise, marvels and salvation, they naturally turned to song. Our first reading (1 Chronicles 16:23-34) began with the exhortation to ‘sing to the Lord all the earth’ and through that to tell of marvels and salvation.

The second reading, moved from compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, to expressing gratitude through singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, so that in whatever we do we may be thankful (Colossians 3:12-17). Singing is a balm for the soul, especially in tough times, but also when we just want to let out a burst of praise and thanksgiving. In turn it lifts us and we need that lift. We have been given voices to lift up the praises, it is in our nature to do so, and something deep about what it means to be human is missing when we don’t or are not allowed to do so. The human souls needs it and when times are tough a song in the heart and in the voice changes how we see it and how we are.

So I give thanks for “quires and places where they sing”. In the final words of our Psalm this evening, quoted by William Byrd at the end of his reasons to sing:

“Omnis spiritus Laudet Dominum”

Let everything that hath breath, 

praise the Lord . (Psalm 150:6).

Sermon for the final Evensong of the Choir year, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 18th July 2021

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Climate Crisis and Chartists Reworked

IMG_7256If you spotted our social media feeds this week, you may have seen a video from me on how to make an origami boat. If you did, I wonder how you got on and did anyone bring their boat with them this morning? Here’s mine – one I made earlier in true Blue Peter fashion. I made this because it stands for two themes that have been with us this week.

On Thursday and Friday, we hosted various events for the Young Christian Climate Network relay. This is a walk from the G7 conference in Cornwall, held last month, to the COP26 summit of world leaders in Glasgow in November. That is an incredible 1,000 mile walk. There is a Welsh leg of this, so that all three nations are able to take part. The Welsh branch set off in Swansea last weekend and arrived here on Thursday. The aim is to highlight the urgency of tackling the climate crisis and ecological emergency that the world faces. If you wonder why a boat is a good symbol for this, if you look at the climate change maps for 2050, if nothing is done, if we don’t change our ways, then a lot of the low lying coastal areas in Great Britain are under water, including the lower lying levels of our city.  So this boat becomes an Ark. Tackling climate change with the ensuing rising sea levels is urgent and for our younger members of this congregation and our community it is clearly their generation that will be hit hardest.

So they are raising their voices to tell the current world leaders to get this sorted now before it is too late. You may have heard our choristers singing the Gee Seven song on our YouTube channel. They sang this on Thursday to the walkers as part of Thursday’s events. If you didn’t, then there will be a chance to hear it shortly because they re going to sing it at the end of this sermon.

The boat is a dramatic and stark reminder that our stewardship of the earth, our care of the earth and all God’s creatures, which is the fifth mark of mission in the Anglican Communion, is our Christian duty. God made the world and we depend on it for our very life. Poorer areas of the world are already suffering as a result of climate change, so this is not some future scenario, but a present reality.

As part of the events we invited our members of  the Westminster Parliament and the Senedd to meet with the walkers which included students from St Teilo’s School. On Friday the walkers were sent off with a special service led by children from Malpas Primary School. Both were full of youthful spark and imagination. The  song which the choristers’ sang has a sharp message to the world leaders: don’t let us down or we’ll run you out of town. It’s a radical song of prophetic protest because this counts. And, of course, standing here radical songs of prophetic protest have form with the Chartists and their demands for political equality and justice.

If we were to take the Chartists’ demands and give them a reworking for tackling climate change, they might look something like this:

  • Vote for all, becomes global politics working in the interests of all people around the world, not just the richest.
  • Free ballots, becomes no industry’s interests stopping or impeding the imperative to reduce carbon emissions.
  • No property qualification to vote, becomes  living more simply, reducing the excessive  demands that feeds unsustainable consuming.
  • Paying members of parliament so they don’t need a private income, becomes developing new technologies and renewable energy generation so we are not dependent on plastics and fossil fuels.
  • Making constituencies fairer, becomes recognising that we stand or fall together on this, either all flourish or we all sink
  • Annual Parliaments, becomes having a vision for the future where there is hope for all.

It might need some more work, but it’s a start:  global politics working for all, no industry blocking the change, living simply and reducing excesses,  new technologies and renewable energy to reduce fossil fuel use, recognising we are all in this together as a world, and there is hope. Perhaps you can have a go at writing your own.

Today is also Sea Sunday, so the boat works for this too. This is a day when we are asked to think about those who sail the seas, bringing goods to our ports and export products made here around the world. It is dangerous work and can be isolating and can leave crew members stranded. They risk pirates, the reality of which is far from romantic and fun. We have a mission to seafarers chaplaincy in the port in this city. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that climate change and rising sea levels is not good news for those who sail. It will make their task more hazardous.

How does all of this fit with our readings this morning, which as I have noted on the notice sheet, do not look like they fit the seaside much – with John the Baptist being murdered on a whim and a rash promise (Mark 6:14-29), Amos saying he’s not a prophet but a dresser of sycamore trees (Amos 7:7-15) and Paul referring to adoption as a child of God (Ephesians 1:3-14).

John the Baptist brings the whims and actions of those who wield power under the spotlight. The G7 conference has been criticised by climate campaigners and those working in international aid as failing to make any real meaningful commitments. Headline grabbing promises of a few million doses of vaccine around the world won’t stretch far. There needs to be a commitment to sustained and determined policies to make the changes needed. There are major investors who realise that business needs to champion ecological concerns otherwise the companies will be shortlived. This is where John the Baptist’s murder fits in. He was executed for short-term political face saving. He was thrown under the bus because of a rash promise made in a drunken moment of lechery. The gospel reading is an unsavoury one from every angle.  

Those who lead, those who have political power have a primary duty to ensure justice and peace, and the greatest threat we face – in terms of the very land we occupy, social unrest and the mass  disruption of peoples comes from climate triggered events. Tackling this is actually enlightened self-interest.

Amos took us from the macro level to the individual and personal. He may describe himself as being a gardener, tending sycamore trees, but everyone can make a difference. We can change our ways, change our energy use, reduce, reuse, repair and recycle. We can raise our voice, like our choristers and the students from the schools did this week. The challenges are enormous, but each small step taken is a step closer.

Paul reminds us that God does not abandon us and regards us not as disposable but beloved children of grace. Human beings have so much potential and goodness built into them, because they are brought, we are brought into being through love and grace. The call is to live this blessing and love. As children of God, to live the household rules and not trash the pad we have been given.

Paul ends us on a note of hope, as I tried with my climate charter with a vision of hope for all. All are beloved children of God and we trust that there is a future worth championing. With hope we can make the changes on which all our futures depend.

I will give the last word to our choristers, who are going to sing Gee Seven, written for Truro Cathedral for use around the G7 conference and a song of prophetic protest and challenge from a younger generation to us all.

Sermon for Trinity 6 – Climate Change – Newport Cathedral, Sunday 11th July 2021

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Unexpected conversations at the bagging area

IMG_7149Strange things happen to clergy when they go into supermarkets wearing their clerical collars. On Wednesday I was scanning my shopping at the self-checkout when someone came up to me and asked if I was a vicar and then asked me what I thought about all that is happening at the moment. Did I think it was all down to the activity of the beast. Taking this to mean the pandemic and not international trade deals and how they affect supermarket stock availability, I said that there is evidence that the pandemic may have its origins in a virus leaking from a lab. In short it was humans meddling in what they would be best not to meddle in. He was delighted with my answer. “A switched on vicar”, he said, and off he went. It was an improvement on the man who came up to me some years ago, touched me with his lottery ticket and said “that’ll bring me luck that will”. The following week I buried his father – I thought it not the time to ask.

The thinking behind my answer of a lab leak came from a piece in the Financial Times a couple of weeks ago (29/30th May 2021) about something called ‘gain of function’ research. This involves manipulating viruses to make them more lethal. The rationale is that doing this aids understanding and therefore the discovery of treatments. The counter argument is it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette to see if you can work out how the bullet comes out. The risk of one of these supercharged viruses escaping and causing a global pandemic is too great. You don’t say. In 2014 President Barak Obama stopped federal funding for gain of function research. The ban was lifted in 2017 and money has been poured into a research facility in Wuhan. The jury is out on this one, so it remains one of the possible causes. But all of the likely causes involve humans behaving in ways that are highly risky and just plain wrong.

Our readings this morning touch on this. Job is a book about suffering. It is long and at times miserable but it has flashes of wisdom and insight. The question of where does suffering come from has taxed philosophers and thinkers for all of time. So Job is a kind of thought experiment story to reflect on this. The cause of Job’s suffering is said to be that God is using him as a test pilot, to see how he shapes up with his faith when things don’t go well. Can he hold to it? Or is he really just a fair-weather believer, one who is faithful and devout in good times, but abandons it when things go bad. Ultimately the answer to Job, when he’s having a highly understandable moan, is ‘where were you when the heavens were made and if you weren’t around don’t expect to understand all the mysteries’ (Job 38:1-11). A bit of a paraphrase, but that’s the gist.

We can’t change the way the world is; the reality of being mortal, vulnerable, fragile and susceptible when things go ‘wrong’. Indeed the whole language of ‘things going wrong’ implies that it could be otherwise. We can do something about some of the causes which lead to these consequences, but not the reality that there is suffering, pain and mortality. Thinking about the problem of evil and suffering can lead us to ask, what did human beings do to make this happen? In the case of this pandemic, this is not mysterious as in it sprung from nowhere, but human activity is looking to be the likely culprit. Behave like this and you and others who are not responsible may well get their fingers burned. Speaking on Radio 4 this morning, former bishop of this diocese, Rowan Williams, said that it was blindingly obvious in this pandemic that we are all connected. The Aberfan Disaster, 55 years ago on 21st October in 1966, was man-made due to the siting and instability of the spoil heap. The Grenfell Tower fire in London was due to dangerous cladding, used despite warnings and shockingly still being used. An enquiry will be held in due course into how many deaths in this pandemic are due to failures of government making a bad situation worse.

On the sea, Jesus’ wave-tossed boat would now lead us to ask what led to the extreme weather conditions. And we are used to the answer that it is human activity leading to climate change. The accumulated pumping of CO2 into the atmosphere causes conditions that rock one small boat on a lake in Israel. So, ‘don’t you care that we are perishing’ (Mark 4:35-41), is an understandable cry, but the way the world is means that the affects of one group can bring disaster to another, who feel they are unrelated to it.

The problem of suffering and evil has no easy answer to it. It shakes faith and causes the most devout to wobble at times. And if our faith is to have deep roots it has to be able to cope with such challenges. It is ministering to people at the time of their deaths that I have found quiet members of congregations to show just how deep their faith is. Not necessarily people who talked about Jesus all the time, or who made the greatest outward show of faith, we might say they didn’t need such outward repetitions to cover for spiritual insecurities. But it was a faith that knew they trusted in God, even and especially in the face of the ultimate challenge for them, their own mortality and their response was one of praise and thanksgiving. The depth of their faith shone through and it is always deeply moving and inspiring.

I am fond of a story told by the broadcaster Gerald Priestland in his book on pain and suffering, ‘The case against God’ (1984, pages 13-14). He tells the story of a group of Jews in the full horror of a concentration camp during the Second World War. They decided to put God on trial and found God guilty of the worst crime going, that of permission, making a world where these things happen. When they were done, one of their number said, ‘let us not forget, it is time for our evening prayers’. The response in the face of such horror and suffering was to find God in their praises and placing their confidence in God. When in the words of St Anselm, 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, God is ‘that than which a greater cannot be thought’, the ultimate who is beyond all trials, then God is our source and goal and will not let go of the one he creates.

It might be easy to wonder if there are really two forces in eternal combat – a good source and an evil disrupter – the beast as my checkout enquirer put it. But that only goes so far. If there is to be any hope, then the good source has to come out on top. In Jesus Christ we affirm that God does indeed come out on top and is not defeated even by death. As the ultimate source and the one whose purposes include a world where things don’t always feel comfortable or smooth, to put it mildly, it is only through praises that there can be any sunlight in the darkness of suffering and pain. The book of Job ends with not so much a song of praise as a declaration of trust in God and the Christian Gospel is only remembered and proclaimed because of the joy of Easter morning. Alleluia remains our song.

Sermon for Trinity 3, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 20th June 2021

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Imagine a world without any music

IMG_7129Imagine a world without any music. No songs, no bird song, no playing of the merry organ or sweet singing in the choir. Back in February 2020 this would have been unimaginable, at least it was to me, and then this nightmare has been our reality on or off, more on than off, for the past 16 months. I haven’t sung for all that time. And it has impoverished us more than many may have realised it would do.

I can’t track it down now, but I remember a children’s story about an evil king who banned singing and music making. He was portrayed as being a tyrant. A young girl just could not comply because her heart was filled with music and she just had to sing. The beauty of her singing filled the air and it brought colour and life back into a dull world without music. It became a song of protest and others delighted in her song. The king relented, his heart changed by the beauty of her singing. I may not have all the details right, but you get the point.

Music is a different language, one that expresses what even the most eloquent poet struggles with. It is the language of praise and lament, of celebration and sorrow, of reflection and shouts of protest. Think of the South African anthem and how this became a song of protest during Apartheid, or how Michael Tippet uses African American Spirituals to such good effect in ‘A child of our time’. Music can plunge into the deepest mysteries and its intricacy can bring us to marvel at the sheer engineering of the sound. It can move the spirit to action, calm the troubled mind, excite with possibilities.

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone it is a beautiful harp that quells Fluffy, the three headed angry dog with big teeth guarding the entrance to the secret chamber. With it becalmed Harry, Ron and Hermione are able to get through, until it wakes of course. No music and its vicious side explodes. In the Old Testament David played the harp to quell the psychotic mind of King Saul, who on one occasion tried to pin him to a door with a spear.

A  couple of years ago, before Covid shut us down, while I was taking communion to a nursing home, a woman would tell me she would have nothing to do with it. I played the hymn the Old Rugged Cross through a speaker linked to my phone and this woman sang her heart out at the bottom of the stairs through the door. It unlocked something inside her and she was released and set free to praise, where words and environment closed the door for her.

It was St Augustine who said to sing is like praying twice. When the music matches the words perfectly, painting them, they take on an extra potency that enhances, deepens and strengthens their force.

I have long found choirs to be a place where the mystery and presence of God can be felt in a unique and profound way. Those who direct them are missionaries in the service of the gospel and those they train and nurture offer a ministry of great importance. Of course it is possible to put the ego in the foreground, but all musicians know that the music must lead and the performer must be its servant – not a bad schooling for humility and service. It trains us to be humble, proud and liberated to flourish – to almost quote Gareth Southgate, the England football manager.

That makes music something profoundly radical because it cuts through to get to the heart of who we are and what we are called to be, to the better selves we have it in us to be so that we are tamed Fluffys and not the angry ones. We are more than mere functionaries or a collection of randomly occurring cells. Music is the sound track of creation’s purpose, of the Creator’s purpose and it helps us flourish in wonder, praise and adoration.

So be radical in your music making, with songs of praise and protest, lament and celebration, and in your living of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. May the hymns, psalms and spiritual songs train you as beloved children of God and heirs of Christ’s grace, filled with the Spirit’s vibrancy and song.

Sermon for RSCM Wales Region Online Festival Service, Saturday 19th June 2021

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Saying ‘Yes’ to the Kingdom of God

IMG_7132This weekend the political leaders of the G7 nations have been meeting in Cornwall. Described on their website as “the only forum where the world’s most influential and open societies and advanced economies are brought together for close-knit discussions”, it brings together the UK, America, France, Germany, Canada, Italy and Japan. Added this year are Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa who have observer status at the conference. There are some notable omissions, like Russia and China, but the statement does say ‘open societies’. The G7 meeting has been an opportunity to address some of the most serious issues of justice facing the world – economic, environmental and medical – under the strapline ‘Build Back Better’. As I said in my installation sermon, the fairtrade movement has reworked that to ‘Build Back Fairer’.

High up on the agenda is the environmental emergency facing the world and to underline this, there is a relay taking place, organised by the Young Christian Climate Network, walking from the G7 in Cornwall to the COP26 conference in Glasgow in November. COP26 has the strapline of ‘uniting the world to tackle climate change’ and it’s under the auspices of the United Nations. There is a Welsh leg of this relay, walking from Swansea to join up with the main walk when it reaches Bristol and it will be calling here in the Cathedral on 8th and 9th July. There will be some special events around this. More details to follow.

Ecological images featured in our readings this morning. Our first reading from Ezekiel (17:22-24) used the image of the mighty cedar tree dominating mountain tops. Cedars can grow to 40m or 130 feet high. They can grow at altitudes of between 1300 and 3000m (somewhere between 4300 and 9800 feet). That’s the equivalent of between 1 and 3 times the height of Mount Snowdon. I found one steep enough. The cedar is prized for its fine grain, attractive yellow colour and fragrance. Its resin is an essential oil.

Once dominating the mountain slopes of Lebanon, the cedar is facing a crisis of its own. Global warming threatens it from fire, infestations of saw flies and warmer springs lulling it to sprout sooner and therefore become vulnerable to late frosts. The cedar is both a symbol of prosperity and vulnerability to climate change.

The Gospel (Mark 4:26-34) gave us parables of seeds growing and the ripening grain. The mustard seed grows into a mighty shrub. These are taken as symbols of the Kingdom of God, of it growing from small beginnings but becoming something mighty. They are symbols of the Kingdom being organic and needing to grow, not just something imposed or even off the shelf. We have to commit to it, let it work on us and grow into it. It takes commitment, passion and openness to the fire of God’s Spirit to shape and ignite us with this flame.

The great challenges around climate change can seem overwhelming. What is my feeble efforts in the grand scheme of things? But the mustard seed, a very tiny seed, is a reminder that great things can flow from small actions. Never underestimate the power of one small prayer, changing one small corner, and the influence it can bear. Wherever someone says ‘Yes’ to God’s Kingdom, a small corner is set aside and dedicated to it. And one of the Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion is care for the environment and stewardship of creation.

Greta Thunberg, the environmental campaigner, wrote a little book, well it’s a collection of her sayings, a couple of years ago called “No one is too small to make a difference”. From one small schoolgirl’s protests she has become a household name across the world and has given a face to a movement. And movements need faces, people we can relate to, if they are to prosper and effect change. Being someone who says ‘Yes’ to the Kingdom of God makes you such a face, such a figure for others to relate to.

Saying ‘Yes’ to the Kingdom of God means seeking to live the Holy Trinity, which we thought about a couple of weeks ago: looking to shape our lives on God who is mystery, present in Jesus Christ and inspiring through the Holy Spirit. It is to absorb and live the story of faith, through entering deeply into the Bible, into Christian thinking over the centuries and how that connects with today. The strapline for that is Scripture, Tradition and Reason, the three pillars of Anglicanism. It is to live a life that seeks to be shaped and shape according to all our faith inspires us with. 

Small mustard seeds, mighty cedars, the climate challenge facing the world, in God’s grace we can be a place that says ‘Yes’ to a different way of being, one that strives for justice, flourishing and the good of creation; one that lives for the glory God and the hope of all people.

Sermon for Trinity 2, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 13th June 2021

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Counted into the family of Christ

IMG_7048Family relationships popped up in the church calendar on Friday. For some reason not in the Church in Wales calendar but the Church of England one. On Friday we remembered Petroc, Abbot of Padstow in Cornwall and also with a connection with Bodmin. The earliest accounts say that he was the younger son of a South Wales tribal chieftain. It’s not until a 12th century life of him, written at Bodmin, that the chieftain is identified as Glywys of Glywsysing and his elder brother was our Gwynllyw. So we have spiritual connections with North Cornwall. Quite a family with Cadoc Gwynllyw’s son and Petroc’s nephew, who gets a bigger billing than his dad.

Spiritually we are brothers and sisters with all who worship God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are united in Christ and share a family identity. Those connections pop up in surprising ways, sometimes with literal bloodlines in the mix.

There are several ways we can read the gospel passage this morning, with Jesus responding to the message from his mother and brothers. It can be taken as a rude rebuttal of them. My real family are those who do the will of God and by implication the others don’t and he has no time for mere bloodlines. Alternatively it can be taken as an expansion of his hospitality and generous embrace. We are brought into his family by his grace and so no one is left outside. He is widening the inclusion, not excluding. Some people have a knack of doing this and their household takes in all sorts of people in love and nurturing. They transform lives through this.

Family ties had a deep significance, beyond just the nuclear and it brought with it care and protection. So the expanding also extends the scope of our caring and looking out for one another. Cain’s response to God in Genesis when being quizzed after he’s killed his brother Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper”, gets a resounding answer, “yes you are” and what is more your brother includes quite a lot of people, answered also in the story of the Good Samaritan.

Family meals are moments when our belonging is reinforced and nurtured. We gather round a table and all have a place, probably their usual place. We get used to sitting in certain places and many do the same in churches when not juggling Covid restrictions and measures. So it should not surprise us that the family shaping, forming and nurturing moment for church life, for the family of Christ, is to gather round a table. This Eucharist is at its heart a simple meal where bread and wine are shared. And although we can’t share the wine at the moment, we usually do and we feel its absence.

We gather round this table as the family of Christ. We gather with a strange mixture of people, some like us and some very different. Some we know well and some may be unfamiliar. The arrival of a new dean is a moment when the family has to adjust to who this new person is and their ways, as I of course have to get used to yours. But the warmth of the welcome has been one of a generous, hospitable family.

Jesus’ family have gone to find him because they think he’s lost the plot and they want to protect him. They know that standing out, seeming different and confronting the leaders is dangerous. So “your family are here”, could be a patronising push of ‘run along little boy, your family have come to take you away. Go with them and stop being a nuisance.’ Well, Jesus is having none of it. He pushes back with my family are those who hear what I am saying and take it seriously. You can be part of my family if you do that or you can show yourselves to be against the ways of God if you don’t. So it’s a counting in and a counting out with equal measure. The counting out, though, is a self counting out by rejecting the Christ who bids us welcome and  deciding not to do his will. That’s potentially a trap for all of us at times, so having a go counts us in.

Today Jesus bids us gather round his table and as he does shows the expanding scope of his loving embrace. However odd we are, there is a place for us, we are counted in and become part of his growing family. There is abundant grace enough for all.

Sermon for Trinity 1, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 6th June 2021

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Icon of the Hospitality of God

IMG_7018Today is Trinity Sunday, the day we think of our doctrine of God and are invited to both enter into the mystery and to live its life. Today we think of what it means to call God Father, Son and Holy Spirit and this is the distinctive Christian way of talking about God. It is how we express the full mystery of God, who defies definition and yet has make God-self known in and through this. I say ‘God-self’ because we have to watch out for the very strong pull to call God ‘him’ and God is bigger than one gendered term can capture. Last Sunday, on the Day of Pentecost, the choir sang ‘Enemy of Apathy’, which identifies the Holy Spirit as she, because in Greek Sophia, wisdom, the Spirit, is she. So we have to get over the gendered stereotypes and narrow boxing in of God.

Today I want to talk about the Icon of the Holy Trinity, which is usually behind the altar in the north aisle. I’ve moved it here into the centre so  that more of us can see it and it is also on this week’s Notice Sheet. It is a copy of Andrei Rublev’s Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham. Rublev probably wrote his icon between 1408-1410 in the monastery of the Holy Trinity and St Sergius in what is now Moscow. Ours was written just a few years ago by Romanian icon painter, Cristi Pašlaru. It uses the story from the Old Testament of Abraham giving hospitality to three strangers and thereby finding that he has entertained angels who bless (Genesis 18). This story has long been taken as a prefiguring of what Christianity termed the Holy Trinity.

Rowan Williams, formerly bishop of this diocese, in a book on praying with Icons of Christ  (The Dwelling of the Light, 2003) counsels caution about identifying each character in this icon with a particular person of the Trinity, not least because it can try to split up the Trinity into three characters in a drama. And the point of the Trinity is that it always acts as a whole. Our understanding of God becomes unbalanced and strays into error when we forget that balance. It’s a note of caution we should hold when we hear the current tendency to talk about Jesus all the time as if he’s an imaginary friend. You need the whole of the Trinity for balanced Christian faith. Rowan Williams says in his book “All that God does is done by the Holy Trinity equally”. So as we reflect on this picture we need to hold that.

To help us the picture is based around a circle. Make an imaginary telescope with your fingers and look at the image, you will see that the figures form a circle. That tells us that the three act as one and no part can be taken out. We need them all for a complete understanding of God and they are is dynamism between and within them. God is three and God is one.

The dominant figure appears to be the central one. He is dressed in a red tunic under a blue outer garment. This is the classic Eastern iconography for Christ. He is looking at the figure on his right, our left, while pointing to the bowl, possibly a chalice, on the table. Christ points us, draws us to the Father. The figure on the left looks at him with love in his eyes. The Father perhaps beholds his beloved Son, whom he gives to the world. Christ is God among us and for us; God making God-self known and accessible.

On the right the figure is dressed in blue and green. These are colours associated with water and vegetation, two things we need for life. Perhaps the intention is to reflect the life-giving action of the Holy Spirit, the vitality of Christian living and loving. The eyes of the angel appear to be on the vessel on the table, through which we commune and feed on God. The sacrament makes known and brings in its outward and visible sign the inward presence of the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ.

If you look carefully at the vessel, pointed to by the central figure, you will see what looks like a lamb’s face inside it. I’d not really noticed this before until we moved the icon and was able to get a closer look. The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, given, shared, broken and poured out for us. We are invited to come and take the fourth unseen seat at this table and so participate, not just gaze but participate in God. We are invited to share the life and dance of this Trinity. God is not just to be gazed on from a distance but encountered and embraced as God pours out his love for us and in us.

Then there are the feet. These complete the circle and the Father and the Spirit are united.  God is complete in God-self. And it is God’s generosity and love that makes space for us at this table. It is feet that brought the angels to Abraham. The feet can remind us of the encounter on the road to Emmaus and so many pilgrim journeys where God becomes known. These feet are washed by the Son with a towel on the night he was betrayed in the shape and form of his puzzled disciples. They are washed as we care and tend for the poor, those most in need, the hungry and homeless. As I expressed in the opening hymn for my installation last week, ‘With this towel, said Christ the Saviour, I will wipe my people’s feet washed in streams that flow from passion, met at altar and in street’. We are commanded to do likewise.

Behind each of the figures is a symbol. Behind the right hand angel is the Holy Mountain, where God’s revelation is revealed, the Transfiguration made known and the Sermon on the Mount given. Mountains are places of encounter and that encounter is Spirit-filled.

Behind the central figure is a tree. Abraham’s encounter takes place at the Oaks of Mamre but trees are important in other ways. There is the tree of knowledge at the centre of the Garden of Eden and the fall is a foundational theme in Genesis. It is on a tree, the cross, that salvation is brought and all that the fall represents is redeemed.

Behind the third figure there is a structure, perhaps a house. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places prepared for us (John 14). We have a home in the Trinity, which is our source and goal. God invites us in and of course we come back to the vessel which invites us to share, to taste and see how gracious the Lord is.

This icon is saturated with imagery and allusion. But it invites us to delight in God revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit; as creator, redeemer and sustainer; as mysterious, present and indwelling. Whatever image or language you take, no one word will do and we always need these three for balance and any hope of a full understanding. The Trinity can be a mind-bending doctrine. So perhaps, as with the greatest mysteries, it takes the arts to help us comprehend – I will may be talk about music on another occasions for that. 

Today we celebrate our doctrine of God, revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It invites us, through this icon, to participate in its life and love. When we think and talk of God we need the balance of the Trinity so that mystery, presence and indwelling are present for God is always active in God’s fullness, even if our focus is more narrowed at any one time.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 30th May 2021

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Pentecost Peace-makers

IMG_7011Each year I tell myself the same thing – it’s rubbish, the music is lost in some kind of time warp and they all hate us, so why watch. And yet I find myself sneaking into the living room to catch the Eurovision Song Contest. Last night was no different, though the music has in the main updated. But what can I say? We crashed and burned – UK nil point. If you did watch it – which was your favourite song? 

The idea behind the Eurovision Song Contest is a cultural exchange, a mechanism to bring people together across the Eurovision TV networks – which somehow extends to Australia – I never have been able to get my head round that one. The bonhomie of cultural exchange may be how it started, but there does seem to be block voting and politics at play.

It’s a moment when national flags and pride in identity are on display. Flags can be a unifying force; they can also be a dividing force. The UK Government edict that the Union Flag should be flown from public buildings brought quite a backlash from some. Others looked and thought, well others do it and we see the Welsh flag, the Saltire and the Cross of St George, so why not. 

When you see a flag what do you think? Here’s a few. 

  • Let’s start with the Welsh flag 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿. Is this a sign of identity, national pride and culture? You certainly see them flown with pride and in the rugby triumph too. 
  • What about the Union Flag? 🇬🇧 Is that one that makes you think of the nations of the union brought together or one of imperialism and domination by one of them diminishing the others, of a Westminster elite? And of course, Wales isn’t represented on it. Does it unite or divide? 
  • Here’s another, the rainbow flag 🏳️‍🌈. This version has become associated with Pride and LGBT+ communities striving for respect – self-respect and respect from others. It’s a banner from the struggle to be. Another version was adopted in South Africa for the Rainbow Nation as a way of bringing people of different colours together after the years of Apartheid. And over the past year the rainbow has been picked up again, this time for the NHS and a sign of hope in a pandemic. The other day, after a storm, there was fantastic double rainbow over the city, which was a delight to see from the Deanery – a sign of hope.

Flags and national identity can be a way of showing we are secure in who we are and so able to reach out with the hands of friendship and respect to other nations and cultures. They can also be a way of setting up boundaries and divisions; we are different to them – building ourselves up by nocking others down and that is of course much less healthy.

Today, on the Day of Pentecost, in our first reading (Acts 2:1-21) boundaries were removed as the gift of tongues of flame came upon the Apostles so that all could hear in their native languages. Something about this powerful and enabling gift of the Holy Spirit opened up the disciples to reach beyond boundaries and brought a new unity to emerge beyond tribal confines. Still secure in who they were, they opened and expanded their horizons.

In Christ all are brothers and sisters. We know families can fall out, but they have a bond that connects them, that is part of who they are. There is a new identity that enables fellow Christians to recognise one another, in faith and hope. Reading around the history of this place a little over the past few months, it is striking how links have been forged across the seas. Over the channel to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall; across the Irish Sea and also further to Britany. When sea is the main highway, then those links become inevitable and the shape of Welsh Christianity has many meeting points in its development. 

At the moment there is quite a discussion going on about contested histories, where different outlooks are not so much an opportunity for growth and development, for enrichment, but conflict and challenge: some of this is over tarnished or even deeply disburbing slave-trading, some over other oppressions and violence. One option is to lock horns and see who can push the other over. Another, more creative, more Spirit inspired approach, is to dig down deep enough into the contested histories and convictions, to listen deeply to why something matters so much to the other. As we do this we can find surprising points of meeting, though it may take some patience and pride swallowing to get there. ‘This matters to me because…’ ‘well it matters to me because…’ It’s a principle of conflict resolution and just like the dramatic and visible/audible speaking in tongues without a translation app switched on, it is a gift of the Spirit bringing people together who otherwise stand in different corners.

If there is to be movement on questions of justice, the divisions that run so deep in our society and nation of nations, and we see so destructively being played out in other places too, we have to find the common cause, the win for all. As with the vaccine, unless all gain, no one does. Flourishing and liberation are best and most secure when there is blessing for all – not leaving us where we are, as we are, but opening up the fruits of the Spirit to transform us and whatever issue is the point of dispute.

As we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, today we can think about how it opens us up and enables us to reach beyond boundaries and divides, to be people of peace and peace-making – which is, of course, one of the fruits of the Spirit.

Sermon for Day of Pentecost, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 23rd May 2021

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Reboot to bear Christ’s light to the world

IMG_6999Fans of BBC Radio 4’s ‘New Quiz’ will know its theme tune well. Taken from Leroy Anderson’s fun and imaginative ‘The Typewriter’, where the sound of a typing pool provides percussion for the fast-paced melody. There is a 21st century version which uses a computer printer, sampling the sound it makes as the basis for the track. Driving back from Kent to our then home in Leeds some years ago, with a van of stuff having cleared out my father-in-law’s house, this came on the radio during the early hours of the night. Sadly the copyright challenges for online streaming mean I can’t play it. I’ll post the link online later instead.

It’s by drum and bass DJ James Pullen, under the stage name of Mistabishi, it’s called ‘Printer Jam’. And as you can imagine, that is precisely what happens, the printer jams. There is a voice-over which utters the now infuriatingly familiar phrase ‘try turning it off and on again’. The system needs a reboot so that the software can work as it is intended; to clear the glitch.

Many people have looked at this past year and a bit, and decided that what we now need is a reboot, so much has been disrupted. A reboot is a chance to take a fresh look at who we are, where we are and how we are. The fairtrade movement has picked up on the UK Government’s slogan ‘Build Back Better’ with ‘Build Back Fairer’. Pressing reset does not mean going back to exactly how it was, otherwise why press reboot. The Financial Times had a piece last weekend on how the wealth of billionaires has increased over the past two decades, not least due to the money poured into the financial system evaporating up rather than trickling down (‘The billionaire boom’, FT 15th May 2021). Build back fairer, pressing reboot, brings some challenging questions to the fore.

Churches are no different in needing to reboot and cathedrals are at heart churches. We know the challenges so well. And this past week I’ve been dropping in on the Edward Cadbury Lectures at Birmingham University – the wonder of Zoom is I can do this from the comfort of my new study. These have been given by Linda Woodhead, from Lancaster University. She is particularly clued up on what she calls the ‘nones’, those who describe themselves as ‘no religion’ in surveys. And of course, when we look at the under 25s they are the largest group. The theme of her lectures was about how values have become the new religion, values and value statements are everywhere. In the words of the pop star Rihanna, the aim is to ‘live your life’ and this is judged by the values you live by. If we are to connect with the ‘nones’, those who declare that they have ‘no religion’, this has to be the starting point for any reboot. Our message needs to talk and show in practice the language of values. The message, the good news of Jesus Christ, which this cathedral stands to proclaim, will not be heard in our society outside of this ethic.

So what are we going to do with our reboot? This is a holy site, founded on a vision. The story is of Gwynllyw, St Woolos, with his vision of a white ox with a black spot on its forehead. Where he found it, he was to build his church and according to the story, this is where he found it. Who knows if it is true, or mythical? The ox can be associated with repentance and a new start, so perhaps a white ox with a black spot is a call to reboot, to restart, to be focused on what truly matters and Gwynllyw lived a changed life. That’s why I chose the first reading with Jacob’s vision of angels ascending and descending, of the presence of God blessing and bringing the assurance of hope to be trusted and embraced.

We have a story of faith which inspires our values. If it doesn’t, then we have a much bigger problem and scandals shake to the foundations because they reveal a gap in our integrity and therefore credibility. Interestingly, though, Linda Woodhead in her lectures, pointed to how there is a still a strong appeal for the gospel of Jesus Christ and the values that flow from him. This has somehow become separated from the growing secularisation. So I think the picture is much more complicated than it is often portrayed to be. ‘None’ or ‘no religion’ does not necessarily mean atheist. Values being at the forefront is a language we can engage with, and it demands we up our game.

At the end of this service, I have included an affirmation of some powerful values which we aim to reflect in our mission and ministry going forward to serve this city, diocese and all who look with goodwill towards justice and peace, the flourishing of all creation and lives of love and hope. These reflect our core values and the faith that shapes these. They are built on the story of hope – God in Jesus Christ calls us to be people of faith, who love our neighbour and seek to serve with love and joy, who work for justice and the integrity of creation.

When we look at a reboot as an opportunity to look at who we are, where are and how we are, our foundation is built on a vision of God’s presence blessing and assuring. ‘Who we are’ is beloved and called by God in Jesus Christ to be his agents of faith, hope and love. ‘Where we are’ is standing on the threshold of a renewed beginning, where we are being challenged to not just build back, but build back fairer. ‘How we are’, well let’s take time to ask one another that one. This has been a tough year and some will be stressed beyond measure, some grieving the deepest loss, some battered in faith and confidence. To this comes the Christ of the icon on the front cover of the service booklet, which is situated in The St Mary Chapel at the west end of this cathedral, taking the burdens for, not so much rest as relief and renewal.

Tomorrow is the feast of Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit is our power-pack for all that lies ahead. It is a healing pack, if that is needed. It is a strengthening pack to face the challenges, of which there are many. It is an inspiring pack to give fresh vision and renewed confidence. The vision 1500 years ago was of a call from God for a new, refocused start. Values call us to live what we proclaim, for the story of faith to make a difference in us and through us.

This sacred site has been for 1500 years a place of prayer, sacrament and loving service shining as a beacon for all. It is a privilege and honour to have been installed as its Dean. May God bless us all as we dedicated ourselves anew to a vision which will inspire our values that we may be faithful witnesses in our generation to the good news of God in Jesus Christ, and bear that light in the world.

Installation Sermon as Dean of Newport, Newport Cathedral, Saturday 22nd May 2021

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