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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‘Be joyful, keep your faith, do the little things’

IMG_0565This coming Tuesday is a special day. It is, of course, St David’s Day. Having spent last weekend in a blustery St David’s, I thought this morning I would think a bit about him and his famous strapline – ‘Be joyful, keep your faith, do the little things’, and look to where it can help us as we respond to the horrific events this week in Ukraine. During lockdown last year, the teachers of the Primary School in St David’s and clergy from the cathedral produced a video for the students encouraging them with these words; words to give hope and strengthen them in a time of adversity. In the video it is clear these are familiar words to them, it’s their school motto, and they have simple actions to accompany them, to help them remember them:

  • Be joyful
  • Keep your faith
  • Do the little things.

Not a great deal is known for certain about Dewi, St David. The main sources come from much later, the earliest surviving being an 11th century ‘Life of St David’, written in Latin by Rhygyfarch, the son of Sulien, a Bishop of St David’s. This gave him access to much older manuscripts now lost. This ‘Life’ gives David’s death as being on the third day of the week on the 1st of March, which was therefore a Tuesday. His now famous words ‘Be joyful, keep your faith and do the little things’ actually come from a later adaptation of this ‘Life’, written in Welsh probably around 1326, and they not found in that form in the Latin version. These are reported to have been said by David at Mass the Sunday before his death, which would be today. 

They are a good summary of the life of David, so whether actually his or a brilliant bit of later screenplay, they capture his spirit well and the spirit of the Christian life, echoing a passage in Philippians. They are given because the community knows that David is going to die. 

“When these things were heard, the brethren made great lamentation with violent sobs… The monastery overflows with tears, saying, “O Saint David, bishop remove our sadness.” He, caressing them and sustaining them with comforting consolations, said, “Lords, brothers and sisters, Be joyful, and keep your faith, and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”

‘Be joyful’ is a deeply Christian encouragement. From the great thanksgiving we share in as we gather around this altar for the Eucharist, to the songs of Alleluia, which fill our praises and will be our song once more when we come to the Easter triumph. Rejoice, give thanks, praise God, these lie at the foundation of Christian living with hope. It is no whistling in the dark, but one that knows the victory already is Christ’s, and, like David, we walk the path so many have trod before us because it is in God that we find our true hope and can place our final trust. To be joyful is to have the song of the angels in our hearts.

‘Keep your faith’ is no vague statement. The full saying is ‘Keep your faith and your creed’. It means the faith in Christ and is an encouragement to hold it even when times are tough and weighed down with grief. Earlier in the ‘Life’, David had been invited to speak at a synod at what is now Llanddewibrefi, called according to Rhygyfarch because of the Pelagian heresy – put briefly, a doctrine that says we are saved by our own efforts and not by grace. So many bishops are present and clamouring to be heard that no one can hear anything over the din – perhaps a modern parallel would be how social media can just make nothing heard, too much flows. When David speaks the ‘Life’ says the ground underneath him rises and a white dove lands on his shoulder. A sign of grace, but perhaps a sign that truth can cut through for those who wish to hear it. Keep your faith, means remember to be rooted and grounded in sound doctrine, in the faith of Jesus Christ, and prayer. The classic Anglican tests of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, help us cut through the noise and the competing convictions today, to test them and find the landing strip for the dove of peace and truth. It is an encouragement to place our trust in God.

What has now been shortened to ‘do the little things’ has in some renditions been neutered to just small actions can make a big difference. They can, but David says more. Do the little things you have seen me do and heard about. That is a call to live simply, as he did, to avoid the grasping and endless wanting more. Be stable and secure in God and live with humility. As one person put it this week, imagine a world where renewables meant the clamour for fossil fuels did not lead to wars. ‘Do the little things’ is a call to a different way of life but also a reminder that we can all make a big difference through small actions. We’ve seen this so many times in the pandemic and can continue to as we take account of and are sensitive to how everyone’s new normal will differ. Small sensitivities will make a big difference.

Our Gospel reading today gave us Jesus being Transfigured on the Mountain (Luke 9:28-36). This passage is followed in Luke’s Gospel by Jesus foretelling his death. It is a moment of strengthen, of glimpsed glory to encourage to be joyful, to keep faith and continue to live in this hope – to do the little things you have seen and heard. Much of the two Lives of David, in Latin and Welsh, seem to echo biblical passages and so perhaps his final words are the Transfiguration moment in his story because he aims to live as one who points to the most important story, that of the good news of Jesus Christ. When we look to the lives of saints to inspire, it is to inspire us in our keeping the faith with joy and thanksgiving, to make a difference in simple love and humble service.

This week dark clouds have gathered a storm on the edge of Europe with the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. The Transfiguration is celebrated in August on the same day that we remember the nuclear bombs being dropped at Hiroshima in 1945. The cloud of glory for Jesus on the mountain is the cloud to seek and not the very differently shaped one of death and destruction. Let our prayer be that this does not escalate further. David brings hope in his words, which can strengthen us at a time of uncertainty and danger.

David’s words are ones as relevant today as ever. They shine light in dark moments and encourage us to live the good news of Jesus Christ with humility and peace.

‘Be joyful, and keep your faith, and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about.’

Sermon for Sunday before Lent, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 27th February 2022

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Being blessed – deeper than spending power

IMG_0534The Saturday newspapers have become a more substantial read in recent years, possibily eclipsing the Sundays. Each of them has a its own supplement, a magazine to provide a different take on life. Some of them have several – it requires a trolley to get it home. ‘The Financial Times’, which I like as a paper, for its intelligent analysis and social conscience, has a supplement I don’t like – it’s simply called ‘How to spend it’. This week’s is a special on Women’s Fashion. Large and glossy, it seems to be just a catalogue of opulence; displaying expensive items, which quite frankly add very little to the meaning of life, certainly nothing of any lasting value.

Money makes a difference to the choices we can make; things we can buy and plans we can put into effect. Without it life is a struggle with the tough choices of eat or heat, and many are already facing these starkly. With it, a difference can be made. It brings moral choices, confronts us with our moral values and where our life is orientated towards.

There was a scene in ‘Call the Midwife’ last week. One of the midwives has a Premium Bond win – £5,000, which in 1967 when it is set, was a large amount of money. You could buy a house for less. When adjusted for inflation, this is the equivalent of around £80,000 today. The calculation if you want it to find the equivalent value for £100 – to impress your maths teacher 

Screenshot 2022-02-12 at 11.03.28

There are tables where you can look up the relevant values for inflation.

Nurse Phyliss Crane’s win causes her anguish because she’s always had to struggle and so never really had to worry about how to spend it – that’s not been her problem. Now she has lots of money, which can make a difference in so many ways and she has difficult choices. 

How to spend it, takes us to the philosophical background to our readings, to the existential challenge they bring to our outlook and the very purpose we see of life, therefore how money should be used.

Our readings this morning have a central theme running through them. In their own ways, each of them takes us to the heart of faith and therefore the purpose of life. In the gospel reading (Luke 6:17-26) Jesus has been praying on a mountain, itself a sign of being connected with the deeper reason behind everything. He comes down with his disciples, who get named in the passage just before our reading. People are coming to him to hear him, to be healed and those with troubled minds are looking for relief, even release. All of them find their needs are met, which is quite an achievement.

But that’s not the heart of faith, merely a sign of it. He then goes on to say that those who are struggling with money, food poverty, emotional distress, feeling excluded and oppressed, they are not forgotten or abandoned. With God there is a purpose that goes beyond the trials and tribulations of the present struggles. Fancy goods don’t address the central question about life and its purpose, they merely fog it, dull the senses to it.

Paul uses questions of the resurrection to address the same challenge (1 Corinthians 15:12-20). If Christ is not raised then we have no hope beyond this passing life and when it is gone, it is gone. So if you struggle and suffer, then that is your lot. Pity you. ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die’. So this outlook would make the rich the blessed ones and the poor would be doomed. It would be a gospel of prosperity, where blessing comes with material benefits and their absence is a sign of being cursed.

Jesus turns that on its head. The blessed are those who are without and the cursed are those with riches. This is because of the fog, the dulling of the senses, the false sense of security and purpose which high wealth can bring. It takes a lot of spiritual character, of humility to be shielded from this, to see beyond it to the hope of eternity.

When we want to find the true purpose of life and the hope which is protected from moth and rust, from decay and passing fortune, we will not find it in the pages of the glossy supplements and their overindulgent adverts. We will find it in connecting the heart of the universe, which goes beyond this passing moment. The hope of the resurrection is not a mere comfort to dull the pain, but a hope that goes beyond it and connects us with the creator who is our redeemer. In the words of the first reading (Jeremiah 17:5-10), 

‘Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream’. 

The nutrients drawn are those that come from a much deeper source, one that is the very purpose of life and therefore its hope. Being blessed runs so much deeper than mere spending power.

Sermon for Third Sunday before Lent, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 13th February 2022

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Gracious, Noble, Devout – The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

queens_platinum_jubilee_english_0Whether you are an ardent royalist, a reluctant or surprised one like me, or convinced that we need a republic, over this past two years, during this pandemic, the Queen has given some of the most profound broadcasts. To my mind she has knocked spots of politicians and many religious leaders, managing to talk with profound faith and humanity, expressing the essential unity of a people who belong to one another and share a common experience. She is a remarkable woman and today has served her realm with distinction for 70 years. 

I have never known another monarch and when the day comes to change the response at Evensong ‘O Lord save the Queen’ to ‘O Lord save the King’, it will take me a while to get used to it. I think there will be a sense of having lost probably the most stable anchor of our national life. She is the nations’ granny and has the personal respect of so many people. It is the quality of who she is that has provided a stable sense of national life when politicians divide and have been found wanting at different times. We should not underestimate the value of this figurehead and the power to set a tone.

If you asked me to say what my democratic, analytical brain says, I would come down firmly on an elected head of state. How can anyone justify hereditary government or head of state? But, and it is an enormous ‘but’, no politician will gather the crowds, win allegiance, capture the hearts and minds like a loved monarch does. She stands as someone who transcends the political landscape and that seems to make a difference which doesn’t fit my logic. I find the royals, at their best, understand the lives of their people more than those who are directly elected often seem to. The Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales were exploring environmental concerns long before it became trendy and Prince William has taken up the baton. The Duke of Edinburgh awards scheme and the Prince’s Trust have both made a difference to so many young lives.

On this day, 70 days ago, the Queen learnt that her father had died and that she was now Queen. Her first public statement was one of service to her people. Acknowledging that her heart was 

“too full … to say more to you today than I shall always work… to advance the happiness and prosperity of my peoples, spread as they are all the world over.” 

She expanded on this in her first Christmas broadcast in 1952, that we 

“belong to a far larger family. We belong, all of us to the British Commonwealth and Empire, that immense union of nations … Like our own families, it can be a great power for good.” 

We can critique some of that in light of subsequent reassessments of empire and imperialism, but for the Queen it has been one of bringing people together, unifying and recognising common humanity across boundaries and continents. And the world needs such unifying and shared understanding of our common humanity and belonging. Empires need to let go and the British one has done, allowing independence for nations to self-govern. But we do belong to one another and share common humanity which makes us part of one giant family of nations. It’s on that basis that peace becomes the reconciliation of brothers and sisters.

She concluded with an appeal 

“to work for tolerance and understanding among the nations and to use the tremendous forces of science and learning for the betterment of man’s lot upon this earth”. 

And she asked that whatever religion people were, they pray for her, “that God may give wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises” to be made at her coronation to faithfully serve God and her people, all the days of her life. Fast forward 70 years, and with a new language, we talk of inclusion and diversity, of every voice mattering and each person’s dignity being honoured. 

In April 2020, with the nations still in lockdown, she spoke in a special broadcast about who we are not being a part of our past but defining our present and our futures. She spoke at Christmas that year about being inspired by the kindness of strangers, as with the Good Samaritan.

The Queen has not been shy about her faith. If there are times we are, we can taken inspiration from her. She has repeatedly described the teachings of Jesus as the ‘bedrock’ of her faith and her ‘inner light’. She said in 2002 

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

We will end this service with the National Anthem. It may not your favourite tune, it’s not mine – I think it’s quite dull. It is, though, a prayer to God, to save the Queen, give her long life of gracious service. But there are other verses, which go on to expand our prayer that she will defend laws and give us cause to want to seek God’s saving grace for her. Then the third verse looks for God’s blessing on all nations, that all will share in the common humanity and family bonds, which the Queen spoke about in her first Christmas broadcast 70 years ago.

We give thanks today for a life of service and stability for this nation. It is a remarkable offering, sanctified in the anointing at the coronation and in the quality of character which has been displayed over that time. It is a gift given we would probably never have invented given the chance. Gracious, noble, glorious, devout and stable; it is right to join in with the nation to say ‘thank you’ today. 

Sermon on the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s Accession, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 6th February 2022

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Candlemas – Changing bad mood into song of hope

IMG_5071January can be a tough month. It’s cold, it’s dark in the morning when you get up, the bills come in from Christmas and even if you don’t suffer from ‘SAD’ – Seasonally Adjusted Disorder, it can feel gloomy. If we add to that the continuing, jaw-dropping abuses of power and privilege in Westminster constantly in the headlines, and repeated Covid rules, changes and continuing trials, it’s not surprising that I sense there is just an air of bad mood about. And what is more, it seems to be one of those bad moods that is looking for somewhere to latch on to, and if it doesn’t find it, it keeps going until it finds something. I think it’s worth taking time to acknowledge this and to name the beasts that are dragging us down so that this doesn’t infect every area of life.

Contrast this with the theme of today, as celebrate Candlemas. There is darkness in this story – the taint requiring a new mother to be purified 40 days after the birth of a son (for a daughter the time limit is doubled), the oppressive Roman regime and the longing for liberation, and of course the warning to Mary that her child will be a sign opposed and she will know the hardest pain that there is – she will watch him die and receive his lifeless body from the cross. Today is a pivot between the cuteness of the crib and the cries of the cross.

And yet, that is not the tone. The tone is one of hope and light. Simeon, who longs for liberation, affirms Jesus as the light they have been looking for. He brings the hope they need; we all need. The song he gives, the Nunc Dimittis, has become the canticle for the night-time and so the words to accompany leading out the coffin at the end of a funeral. These are not words of despair and gloom, but hope, faith, trust and delight in God’s redeeming love.

We don’t know how old Simeon was. He’s often assumed to be an old man and that is how he is portrayed in the depiction in the window in our St Luke’s Chapel. But the text doesn’t say that, though it can be inferred from the tone of his song that he had been looking for the salvation of Israel and found this met in this child and the man he would become; he can now depart in peace. It implies, though doesn’t say, he’s been waiting a while. There is hope for the future, there is light in the darkness, and it comes through God’s grace among us in and through Jesus Christ.

The elderly come in explicitly with Anna, who has been widowed longer than she was married. She spends her days finding consolation in the Temple, the woman who has known grief and for whom the holy space is her rock, speaks of the child in wonderful terms. No one is ever of an age when they can be written off as no longer having anything to contribute, because deep insight comes from surprising places, especially in a culture where women are seen as being unclean, as property and often not even counted when working out how big the crowd was. 

We need Candlemas today as much as ever. We need light in the gloom; the bad mood which is prevalent all over the place and if we are not careful it starts to grind everyone down. A line from a well-known hymn has been rattling round my head these past few days. It comes from Charles Wesley’s great hymn ‘Christ whose glory fills the skies’. The second verse is particularly relevant:

Dark and cheerless is the morn 

unaccompanied by thee, 

joyless is the day’s return, 

till thy mercy’s beams I see; 

till thy inward light impart, 

glad my eyes, and warm my heart.

There is so much to bring the joyless day’s return and until we restore the hope and light of God’s love each day, it will oppress us and the news and general tone around us will not save us. The challenge is to be people who are so filled with these ‘mercy’s beams’, the ‘inward light’ imparted when, with Simeon and Anna, we see this child and all he brings. We can then make a big difference to everyone around us, be prophetic to and for the world.

The weather is still gloomy at times, it’s winter; the lies and moral failures continue to outrage, as do the pathetic attempts to defend them, and so they should if we care about moral probity and leadership; but if we take our example from Simeon and Anna, these are not to define us. There is hope and we can live and rejoice in that hope. We light candles not just as an aesthetic but as a deep sign of that hope and the light that comes in Christ. 

May the joy of this festival warm our hearts and ignite thanksgiving and praise, which will set a different tone and be healing and balm for us all. For Christ is the light to lighten all peoples and we look with great thanksgiving on the salvation he brings. May we live that light and let it drive away the gloom, turn bad mood into a song of hope.

Sermon for Candlemas, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 30th January 2022

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Eli – A study in leaders setting the culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Baptism of Christ: The Love of God Magnified For All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflections at the turning of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year – Blwyddyn Newydd Dda.

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Love turning up to bring out the best in us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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