Sunday, September 28, 2014

Travelling Light - more belated thoughts inspired by Greenbelt 2014

I began writing this post during our summer holiday on the narrowboat Polyphony..,somewhere that travelling light is almost irrelevant, as there's so much of home already waiting aboard - though this time round we did travel with a poorly chicken, which put a somewhat comic gloss on the whole thing.
Leaving things behind is always a big deal for me - and I've learned that when you travel, the heaviest things are often those you don't take with you - the people you leave when it's time to move on, the beloved pets who simply wouldn't enjoy sharing a family holiday but whose absence is felt like a small, heavy lump weighing on your heart.

Sometimes those things you leave become so heavy that you can't actually keep going - and then you realise that there's a whole work of letting go still to be done
The wonderful Anne Lamott, whose presence at this year's Greenbelt was a lifetime highlight, says of letting go "Everything I have ever let go of has claw marks on it" - and that's so true for me.
Things and people - the things of home, the people of your community - can be both an anchor, offering stability and certainty
("Your firmnesse draws my circle just, And makes me end where I begunne") and a dead weight which might just drag you down til you sink without trace beneath waves of grief and desolation.

That is so much part of the process of bereavement. If a "good death" is about letting go of unfinished business, trusting that somehow (by God's grace, on a good day) those you love will be OK without you, even though the thought of being without them is a pain so huge that it would rob the sun itself of warmth and light...If that is what a good death means - handing oneself, ones work,ones relationships into untiring, ever-open arms...then a good bereavement must involve a complementary letting go as well...

Because, on this life journey we both carry and are carried by other people..Through the death of my parents, I have been, and will probably be again, the precious burden that others have laid down...I've experienced the way in which our relationship cannot be unchanged by their departure (though I firmly believe that love itself is not changed by death, for the dead or for the living)
I've known the sadness that comes from being left behind, the way that absence seems to be for a time a bigger reality than presence had ever been...and I have learned to gradually build a cairn, turning the dead-weight of grief into a tower of precious memories, a land mark that changes the sky-line of my life, something by which to regain my bearings not once, but again and again.

I don't yet know how the final leave-taking will be...though there are, I guess, faint echoes in the process of leaving a parish, of moving from a space at the centre to one totally outside, seeing the tide come in and wash away any sign of those castles you built so assiduously, with so much energy and hope.
Of course you're not forgotten, but the space that you left is rightly filled by others, and a new normal quickly becomes just the way things are.
That's not altogether comfortable to the ego - we often imagine that it might be good to feel indispensible - but it's certainly the way things should be.
At my best, I want those I love to travel light too...
No claw marks!
What's it all for?: sermon for Evensong on the Feast of S Michael & all Angels


What's it all for?
That's a question that has been trotted out so often it now represents a comic caricature of existential angst...but for all that, it might be one worth asking from time to time.
What's it all for?

Perhaps it's specially important for those of us who work in a place like this, where the ways of the institution, the demands of the building and the expectations of our common life can provide enough impetus to keep us active without undue reflection pretty much seven days a week. But to press on like that is unwise, even dangerous...
Cathedrals, - even when they are as beautiful and beloved as this one – are never ends in themselves. Everything we say and everything we do must, in some way, proclaim and further the work of God's Kingdom, and so here in Coventry we have three specific purposes against which to measure all our activity, whether amid the high celebrations of our patronal festival today, or in the down to earth business of a Monday morning.
Those purpose are Welcome, Worship and Reconciliation – which is reassuring since the Catechism would suggest that of those, worship is, in fact, the whole purpose of human existence. “Our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever”. In other words, Worship is the only proper response of creation to Creator, the final answer to that question “What's it all for?”,

And as we celebrate with St Michael and all the angels today, we are given an imaginative glimpse of how worship may be when we sing to God in heaven, something to look forward to while we travel on.
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!’
The writer of Revelation has quite a strict sense of hierarchy - there are angels, living creatures and elders not to mention, in another chapter, those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb – but the focus of all their energy is worship...the business of putting things in THEIR proper order...that is to say, re-ordering them so that God comes first. That's what worship is – giving God his worth...Neither more nor less.

And if God is given God's worth – then God will come first.

That's easy to write and you might think it was a given for all of us who profess the Christian faith – but my own experience is that it is overwhelmingly difficult to do. Though I long, with St Patrick, to ensure that God and God only is first in my heart, so many other things threaten to supersede Him...and I'm not alone. Through the centuries people repeatedly lapsed into idolatry, placing something else, something less at the centre of life.. Sometimes these idols are neutral – money perhaps – sometimes they really are good in themselves – things like family, Church, or social justice – but they are no substitute for God...so we need to keep on practising this business of putting things in the proper order...We need to keep on practising worship. That's what we do when we gather here – we practice worship so that we may more fully engage with it in the world outside...we play at heaven, if you like, aided by angels, archangels and the whole communion of saints.

So when we worship, our routes in are pretty much incidental. Whether you prefer Chris Tomlin or Thomas Tallis, Mozart or Matt Redmond doesn't matter a hoot...because, you see, worship isn't about you. . It’s about God. If God is glorified, and the place where earth touches heaven is recognised and revealed – THAT is worship.
Sometimes it seems that we come together with a rather different agenda,that has more to do with satisfying our own tastes, or meeting our own needs....but true worship is not about how we feel, though we will find it fulfilling beyond all our expectations if our intention is to immerse ourselves in that constant stream of praise and thanksgiving that is the whole business of heaven.

I've never had close dealings with anyone from Tibet, but I've always been fascinated by the idea behind their beautiful prayer wheels...that prayer is a constant thread running through creation, in which we join from time to time. Some prayer wheels are placed in streams, or beneath waterfalls, so that they really do turn constantly, so that it is obvious to all that the prayer never stops. The worship of heaven is like that...continual, under-girding everything, - something into which we step whenever we fix our mind on God and God's glory alone.


That may sound such a high ideal that we don't know how to approach it...if that's so, the psalmist gives us a clue.
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
    before the gods I sing your praise;
2 I bow down towards your holy temple
    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;

In other words, we need to be whole hearted, as we celebrate both who God is, and what God has done. Stop for moment and think...Even on an ordinary Sunday in Coventry, that list is quite overwhelming, touching every aspect of our selves and our life together. We live and breathe...We hear and are touched by gifts of music, of art, of friendship. We glimpse for a second the wonder of God's self-giving love.
How can we do other than give thanks?
We may be in a hard place – for life is often less than gentle with us.
When we, or those we love, are hurting, all those gifts may seem empty...but God carries on giving.
There is no-one else who should stand in God's place...the lesser gods fade into obscurity before the steadfast love that holds the universe in being and will never, even for a moment, let us go.

So – if you don't feel like worshipping – worship anyway. Take lessons from the angels, who understand that worship is a way of being, not simply one activity to be chosen from among many . To engage your whole being in worship is to open yourself fully to its transforming power. Worship is, above all, an encounter with God, from which not one of us can expect to emerge unchanged...and that's wonderful because we too are being changed from glory into glory, til at least we can find our place in that crowd who worship round the throne.

Because, you see, that IS what it's all for.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sermon for the Cathedral Eucharist on Holy Cross Day

Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world! Come let us worship...

Part of the proclamation of the cross that is included in the liturgy of Good Friday for thousands of churches across the world – but this is September, and in an on-line conversation last week some friends were completely baffled that Holy Cross day remains in our calendar at all. After all, since we know that the strife is o'er, the battle won and the cross, like the tomb, is empty – what need of a further observance?

And on one level, this could be right. Certainly the origins of the feast might well give you pause, rooted in St Helena's pilgrimage to the holy places of Jerusalem, and her conviction that she had found the site of the crucifixion and of Christ's burial – and close by, 3 crosses buried. Though an early chronicler insisted

All held it as certain that one of these crosses was that of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that the other two were those of the thieves who were crucified with Him.

I'd guess most of us would be inclined to approach the discovery with a little more scepticism...However, in no time Helena had overseen the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and as the years passed, the longing of the faithful to have access to even a splinter of the true cross snowballed until it was drastically out of hand. Hardly a church or monastery was without its relic so that at the Reformation Calvin complained

if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it."

So if we see today as but an excursion into cultic extravagance and superstition, then it is only right and proper to be cautious. But, touch wood the cross seems to have survived this. It remains a popular symbol, chosen as jewellery, as tattoos, as memorials by many who would never claim to follow the crucified one. Strange indeed.
It is hard to imagine anyone choosing to wear a little golden gibbet or a beautifully crafted electric chair pendant round their neck – but it is not this that creates a scandal.
The shock, the scandal comes when the Saviour of the world hangs here - HERE upon that instrument of death...
How can this be...?
Can we grasp, even for a moment, what Paul is celebrating as he quotes that early hymn?
This is God GOD – the creator of all, the one who holds the universe in being,
deliberately choosing to throw in his lot with his creation, to identify with us in an act of such deep and utter commitment that he not only lives a human life but dies a human death, entering into the darkness and experiencing for himself that moment when he can do nothing but surrender.

Total abandonment – to the human condition and to the ultimate purpose of love.
How can this be?

It is, in one way, nothing new. God has always been utterly committed to and connected with his people, their rescue and renewal prefigured by Moses but perfected by Christ. Those who looked at the bronze serpent erected by Moses, trusting in God, escaped death...They looked at an emblem of their trouble, and were healed.
Jesus, lifted high and suffering death himself, offers the route for all of us to escape death forever.
But we have to look with the eyes of faith – to really see the true light that has come into the world, to recognise that God's glory is present as fully as Christ hangs on the cross as it is when he bursts from the tomb in the joy of Easter morning.
We have to look – BEHOLD the wood of the cross...

One of my earliest memories is of looking out of the window on the bus ride home from town, and finding myself eye to eye with the Christ figure on the crucifix that still hangs outside Christ Church, St Leonards...
having looked at Jesus I asked my mother what was written underneath.
The words came from the Reproaches
Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by” - and I felt overwhelming sadness for it seemed that nobody else on the bus was looking, that maybe none of them cared.
Even then it seemed obvious that the cross demands a decision, a response...
You cannot truly SEE the One who is hanging there and do nothing...
He hangs there to draw the all people to himself but He will never constrain, never demand.
Instead, he opens his arms in an embrace wide enough for all the world and says

SEE how much I love you”

but it is your decision whether or not to accept that invitation to be loved.

To accept carries with it the responsibility to pass on the love we have been given, to do all that we can to communicate its overwhelming reality, to live so that others can see for themselves the truth of what Love can do.
We are to lift high the cross, and with it the Son of Man, so that all may see the route to eternal life. I once asked a class of 9 year olds to count the crosses they could find in our church, reminding themselves whenever they saw one “THAT'S how much God loves me”....Before their visit left I asked how many they'd found, expecting a couple of dozen, perhaps a few more. 
But one small boy announced proudly
 “Hundreds and hundreds Kathryn”...
because he had counted every intersection of the tiles on the floor, seen crosses wherever right angles met. And of course he was right. The evidence of God's love cannot really be calculated or recorded.

THAT'S how much he loves us.

Whereas in Holy Week we are often caught up in the liturgical drama, already emotionally exhausted by the highs and lows of the journey from triumphal entry to empty tomb, but straining ahead to Easter joy, today is something quite different.
Today we can simply pause and ponder.

As so often, the poet-priest Malcolm Guite says it best: this is part of his series of sonnets for Holy Week

See, as they strip the robe from off his back
And spread his arms and nail them to the cross,
The dark nails pierce him and the sky turns black,
And love is firmly fastened onto loss.
But here a pure change happens. On this tree
Loss becomes gain, death opens into birth.
Here wounding heals and fastening makes free
Earth breathes in heaven, heaven roots in earth.
And here we see the length, the breadth, the height
Where love and hatred meet and love stays true
Where sin meets grace and darkness turns to light
We see what love can bear and be and do,
And here our saviour calls us to his side
His love is free, his arms are open wide.

So – beyond excess and superstition, beyond apathy and over-familiarity, let us glory in the cross of Christ once more...and let us ask, too, for the grace to empty ourselves so that we may be filled with and transformed by the Love that is hanging on the tree.

Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world.
Come, let us worship.






Sunday, September 07, 2014

In praise of volunteers

so this is shamefully late in the day, but I wrote it on our narrowboat immediately after Greenbelt then had no mobile signal til reaching home this weekend. However late, it is, I promise, 100% wholehearted....a huge thank you to the countless wonderful people who together make one of the highlights of my year.

Greenbelt:  a site steward invites us to wave our wristbands in the sunshine as we join the long march from camp-site to Communion
Greenbelt: with rain pounding on the Big Top, where Martyn Joseph has just sung the last notes of the festival, and BHP Pip Wilson reads a Serious Announcement in a Serious Voice about dangers in trying to leave the site til morning
Greenbelt: as a smiling welcomer asks you if your journey was OK - so you suddenly decide that it was, even though it really really wasn't
Greenbelt: a member of the listening team sits patiently under an umbrella on an inflatable sofa doing her festival job of LISTENING - no matter what the weather
From the moment you turn off the road onto the farm tracks of the Boughton Estate, everything you experience depends on volunteers.
Of course there are those whose hard work and kindness you can't help but notice...those lovely site stewards who keep us safe as we womble about (I often find that I've failed to pack all of my faculties when heading for the festival);
the Venue Managers who have made their various spaces beautiful and tend them with loving care, making wave after wave of Greenbelters welcome in their temporary home; 
those who reunite parents and children, or (less alarmingly) cameras and other lost property and owners;
those who answer incessant, and sometimes impossible, questions at the info booth;
medics, nurses, fire crews and hospitality teams;
bar staff and G store sales teams;
those who record talks and process them for the rest of us;
those whose photographs delight and inspire us through the long Greenbelt-less winters;
site vibers, who turn fields and parkland into a wonderful playground (there's a whole team whose energy is devoted to flags and bunting! would you have guessed?)
Front tesk, where S and her team answer well-nigh any question you could possibly dream up;
children's workers, youth team, accessibility team  - and more and more AND MORE!
The public face of the Festival - which surely no-one can miss...though you might not think about how your speakers get to the site, about the driver teams that collect and deliver them from stations and air-ports all over the country, and often get up in the middle of the night to ensure that nobody misses an early flight, or the Night Stewards, who are are around as dependably as the 24 hour Cafe, but with much less attention.

And - beyond all this - have you ever thought about the countless volunteer hours that make Greenbelt a full-time job on top of the day-job for  that list of amazing people whose names appear on the back pages of the festival guide?
The festival actually employs just 8 - that's right EIGHT- paid staff - so everything else that happens depends on volunteers.
They do jobs that I can't even begin to get my head round.
They are people like my friend L...a senior engineer who combines all her engineering know-how with more wit and common-sense than most of the people I know put together, which makes her a genuinely indispensable head of operations. She spends weeks of her life (if you add up the endless hours spent after work) making sure the Greenbelt site is safe, functional and everything else that we take for granted.
Routes...onto and across the site...Walkways...Access...Site capacity...and all sorts of stuff I haven't grasped at all - simply wouldn't work without the Ops team, however much optimistic and impractical souls like me might imagine that several thousand people could just converge on a field and make a festival! She and S travel regularly from Manchester to London (while others travel as far but in other directions), give up weekends beyond number to site visits and ops team weekends, field dozens of Greenbelt related emails pretty much every evening...and they do this FOR LOVE!

And there are many many others like them...
For every single thing that happens - checking the Fair Trade credentials of the traders; ensuring there's somewhere to charge electric wheelchairs; recognising that a greenfield site will need a shop (let's ask our church - I'm sure they'll oblige - drawing yet more volunteers into the mix); drawing maps; managing electric safety checks; arranging for loos, and the emptying thereof; booking someone to clear away and recycle the rubbish...NOTHING happens without volunteers.
There is no distinction between "Greenbelt" and "the volunteers". The volunteers ARE the festival...

I'm very proud that all my children have chosen to make volunteering at Greenbelt part of their summer, even now that this involves sacrifice of actual annual leave...because it seems to me that the wonderful, wonderful army of Greenbelt volunteers is what makes the festival not simply 4 happy days at the end of the summer but a time when, no matter how short-sighted I may be, I cannot help but glimpse heaven.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Moving Swiftly On - handling the baggage of transition.

As my earlier post may possibly have suggested, Greenbelt matters alot to me. 
So much so, in fact, that being invited to contribute to a panel at this year's festival had much the same impact as a receiving a sign of approval from someone much loved and admired...or (for those who like such things) an O.B.E.! My silver wristband seemed ridiculously precious and the thrill of walking into the CONTRIBUTORS' LOUNGE (gasp!) was so great that it took me til Sunday to actually have the courage to do so.

Of course, the only reason that I had the courage to offer myself as a contributor at all (contributors, after all, are Seriously Grown Up People, whom other people have heard of and to whom they are prepared to spend time listening) is because I have some rather splendid and more courageous friends. And so it was that on the Sunday evening I found myself leaving Grace Petrie's set on the Canopy stage rather earlier than I would have wished, in order to appear in the Living Room, as calm and adult as possible...

Together with the aforementioned Splendid Friends I had already planned the overall shape of our conversation...so here's the gist of my contribution - though the fun of the evening, from our perspective, was the opportunity to bounce off one another and to say things that we hadn't planned at all. Thank you Sara, Claire & Emma for making it all so easy.


  1. What did you find the most unexpectedly difficult part of the change you've just made (what are the things that crept up on you and made you cry?) 
The big difference in this move was that it was, unlike the move at the end of curacy, one I had chosen. In other words, have been intimately involved in the joys and sorrows of a community whose self confidence was never particularly high, I was deliberately walking away…
This was hard enough in itself – as a wise colleague said, There would never be a good time to leave that parish – but what compounded it for me was the necessary secrecy about the process. 
I spent what the parish thought was an autumn break hiding at a friend’s house writing an application…
In the week before Christmas, when I should actually have been leading 1001 carol services I dropped out of circulation in order to attend 2 days of interviews, and I knew I had been appointed just a few minutes before walking into the end of term service for my much loved church school…but could tell nobody - NOBODY in my congregations. 
To say that I felt like an adulterous wife would be an understatement – and those weeks between appointment and the clearing of DBS checks, medicals etc seemed like the longest of my life.

Later, I was overwhelmed by the sadness of leaving behind the ordinary, everyday things of ministry which I had handled and interacted with unthinkingly almost every day. On Holy Saturday, during the Grand Annual Spring Clean of the church, I found myself reduced to helpless tears as I cleaned the Paschal Candle stand -and thought about those babies I had baptised, whose continuing stories I would not be part of, those bumps whom I would never get to know...and the reality of departure hit home with a vengeance.

  1. What was actually easy, but you were you expecting to find difficult? 
Following on from my response to the last question – for me the easiest thing turned out to be telling the congregation. They were all uncompromisingly delighted and excited for me at what they saw as a promotion to a Cathedral job and, I think, genuinely proud that “their vicar” was going on to something bigger and, they presumed, better. Though one Warden told me later that she had gone from the meeting when I told her of my new job and cried for 2 days, she didn't let on at the time but was all encouragement and congratulations, bless her. 

3. How have you been able to "create a good letting go?" What would have made it easier? What would you do differently? 

This was my 3rd experience of letting go during this journey of ordinatnion - and by far the easiest. I think this was because we actually acknowledged what was being left behind and, inspired by a friend, created a farewell service that was in some ways a mirror-image of of the service that happens when a new priest arrives in a parish. Thus, during the service I not only gave back my keys to the children of the parish, who placed them on the altar, but also formally handed over to my colleagues the "cure of souls" which I had received from the bishop - whilst making a new commitment to continued prayer for the community I was leaving.
When I left my curacy, none of that happened. I had a very lovely farewell service and party, I got to preside and preach, and to respond to the many generous things that were said about me - but there was nothing to recognise the change of relationship that was going on, or helped me to deal with the process of uprooting that whole community from my heart. 
The scars were real and painful - but this time, though I wept buckets, and miss many things and many many people dearly, I found myself able to move forward, knowing I had ended as properly as I could, and that the things I was leaving behind were being formally and properly received and looked after

4. What would you do differently? 
In a way, I think I've answered this already. I changed my approach to letting go, and made it easier for myself, and perhaps for others, by making space to formally hand back the people I had loved and journeyed with...which made this leave-taking the best so far.
The other thing that I would do differently is to avoid too long a gap between jobs. 2 weeks is a rush, 3 is fine -but 4 gave me just long enough to lose all confidence that I could possibly manage the work that lay ahead...I felt that I was spending a week gazing into the abyss before jumping - which is never a good idea!

Our prepared questions were followed by others from the floor - and I was amazed and delighted by the way strangers stopped me to continue the conversation for the rest of the weekend. Transition is the hardest stage of labour, the bit where one decides that actually, we won't bother to have this baby today (the babe usually arrives in short order after such decisions)...and it's not easy even when it is chosen and prepared for so maybe, having agreed initially that our topic was "of no possible interest to anyone who is not involved in ministry in the C of E", there was more use in our discussions than I had dared to hope.


The thing that I didn't say during our conversation, though it was always hovering on the edge of my thoughts, is that all these leave-takings are, of course, a preparation for our final departure. No matter how much I may long to be ready, the truth is that I am almost bound to leave some unfinished business. My desk will not be cleared, nor my to do list completed and it is the simple and unlikely things that I will miss most as I take my leave.
The work of liturgy in making sense of those goodbyes is one of its most important functions - and as priests we tread this path beside so many. It is no longer popular to talk about preparing for a good death - but to be ready to move on, travelling light and abandoning excess baggage is surely part of our discipleship




Greenbelt Moments 2014

Alas...the last of my offspring has returned to their place of employment/study - so I'm home alone contemplating with delight the mix of challenge and inspiration, joy and discomfort, discovery and homecoming that was Greenbelt 2014.


A new site meant that I, along with many others, was slightly nervous before the weekend. Apart from one unhappy visit in the early 80s (when my friends wanted me to like Christian rock and I only enjoyed Renaissance polyphony!) we've only been Greenbelters for the Cheltenham years, so had no memories of happy nights on a greenfield site to encourage us, and with one uber conscientious site steward in the family concerns about arrivals, departures and associated logistics weighed somewhat heavy in the week before the festival.

And yes - getting on site on Friday was hard. 
Very hard for those with particular needs and not that straightforward even for the able bodied who had taken the theme of Travelling Light to heart....though when we arrived we seemed to be surrounded by people who were so happy to be there that the grumps and difficulties were soon sorted - and the lovely lovely volunteers who met us as we parked and asked how the journey had been, whether we were 1st timers or needed particular help were just the icing on the cake. 
For me, Greenbelt is home in all sorts of ways that I can't quite articulate - and as we came down the hill and saw the camp-site spreading out in front of us, I totally failed to suppress squeals of delight.
I know I should know better at my age - but...you know...GREENBELT!!!

It was a vintage year in many many ways. 
Sometimes the festival makes me sad about paths not taken as I look wistfully at families towing cart-loads of golden children and fall into that familiar trap about which Ann Lamott warned 
"Never compare someone else's outside with your inside". 
Sometimes I waste time wishing that I had grown into myself earlier, had not spent my 20s and 30s trying so very hard to be the sort of good girl who never walks on the grass.
This year, though, it felt good to be me. 
It was at Greenbelt 2013 that the first conversations happened that led to my move to Coventry - and I guess I'm absolutely where I should be, since there was not a whiff of envy or regret about the place  - a gift I've both noted and been thankful for.

 As the weekend unfolded, my hopes and expectations were not disappointed. But - as so often - it was the surprises that delighted me most.




Chief among them, to my utter amazement, was the absence of any reliable signal on my phone. Occasionally, a window would open for a few moments and whole raft of texts would arrive -but every time this happened, by the time I'd read them the signal had vanished and I couldn't reply...and I LOVED IT! Instead of spending the weekend anxiously working out how I could see all the people whose numbers I had carefully collected in advance, I wombled happily about the place, went to a good number of talks, heard some amazing music - and managed to see a remarkable number of dear and special people through serendipity alone. I have to accept that there is never enough time for all the conversations that I long to have, - so being relieved of the responsibility for organising them was wildly liberating - so much so that I'm tempted to try a technology fast for one day each week.

There were the predictable joys - some splendid talks (Ann Lamott talks as she writes - and is officially confirmed as the additional god-mother whom I'd not yet met: Sara Miles & Nadia Bolz Weber were as exciting and inspiring as ever);
great music (Yvonne Lyon, Grace Petrie & the Benefits Culture & more) and the annual delight of sharing Communion with friends whom we rarely manage to see much outside Greenbelt...
There was the thrill of finally becoming a contributor (interestingly this felt very much like approval from some adult whom I love and admire...) and the sheer fun of the panel itself, with friends Sara, Claire and Emma, the pleasure of basking in Sunday's sun while my youngest god-child did what three-year-olds do...and the deep deep joy of having all my children on site for at least one day, and getting to spend time with them. I love that Greenbelt is our "other Christmas", the time when we will do everything in our power to be together. This year an MPhil thesis and a complication with work shifts meant that we only had one day - but that day was quite wonderful.

Interestingly, perhaps my most powerful Greenbelt moment came about because I wasn't doing something that I normally would. 
On the Monday evening, as the rain fell in torrents, I was part of the Taize service that is almost always a Greenbelt highlight.
There was so much light in the venue that, instead of focussing on candles and icons, I closed my eyes for a while and then (completely unheard of) 
I stopped singing. Singing is my default route into prayer...It's part of who I am, and how I come before God...If there is singing to be done, you can pretty much guarantee that I'll be doing it.
But - I stopped.

And, as I sat there with my eyes closed, the voices of my fellow worshippers joined with the Communion of Saints as they sang to me
"Trust in God, do not be afraid..."
And - it was so.




Monday, August 11, 2014

Verging on the ridiculous...

Those who know me even a little will also know that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a details woman. 
I'm not bad at the big picture, at dreaming exciting dreams and even, on a good day, sharing those dreams with others...but the step by step process of getting from here to there is really not my thing. 
For this reason, as much as for many others, I'm really glad that I share an office at the Cathedral not just with the Precentor and the Director of Music - but also with the Head Verger.
Otherwise, I might just have been so seduced by the seamless performance of our verging team, again and again, that I  failed to register just how much work is involved.

However, fortunately J is there so I see at close quarters quite what it costs her small team to keep things running smoothly - and a couple of weeks ago I was also allowed to be a supernumerary sub-assistant-under-verger for a morning shift...and learned so much.
First - that our beautiful marble floor is punishing if you are walking from end to end of the Cathedral repeatedly all day. Think long shopping trips on London pavements and you're in the right area.
There's lots of walking and your feet know about it by the end of the day.
Second - that the essence of verging, beyond the obvious remit of loving service, is THINKING AHEAD
(you see - I would undoubtedly make the world's worst verger...I am incapable of anything that smacks of a plan...so life is an endless series of surprises, which can be fun but would be useless in this job).

I began my (abbreviated) shift after Morning Prayer - by which time the duty verger had already been at work for 90 minutes, unlocking the building, switching off alarms and making everything ready for the day ahead. Then said verger attends the Office, usually reading one of the lessons. If by some mischance no cleric appears at all, then it's also her responsibility to lead Morning and Evening Prayer...and it seems to me that the motto must either be "Ich dien" or "Expect the unexpected"....

As I followed in A's wake that morning he was constantly thinking ahead - the books that we were putting away after Morning Prayer in the Prayer Circle at the West End would next be needed in the Lady Chapel, so now was a good time to get them there...
Would there be enough quiet moments now to refill the oil candles, so that it wouldn't be a problem the following week when we would be a verger down due to holidays?
We were passing the votive stands quite early in the day - a good moment to clean off the wax before the stands were crowded with candles...
There were chairs and tables to move, safes to empty, service books to mark up with the many-splendoured ribbons of Common Worship Daily Prayer, mics to set up for prayers on the hour, litanies to introduce (and lead, if nobody else is detailed so to do)...
And so it went on.
Vestments were loving set out for Sunday, with due regard to the height of all the sacred ministers...
Questions about art, faith, history were answered - for to the public, of course, anyone in a cassock must be the fount of all knowledge but also fair game if you're feeling unhappy about entrance charges or really really don't get why Graham Sutherland envisaged Christ looking like that...
And, of course, every time a member of the clergy has a bright idea about prayer stations for General Synod, an extra service for a special occasion, poppy petals dropping from the ceiling for WW1 Remembrance, extended opening hours or a longing to pray the Litany standing on her head in a bucket of water (yes, I am making that one up - but you never know) the process of making it happen will involve the ministry of the vergers.
Those poppies were the work of any number of people, who, in the week leading up to the WW1 commemoration spent any spare moment cutting out petals. The visual impact on the day was stunning - the team work beforehand even more so!

As Head Verger J undoubtedly keeps about her person a Swiss Army knife, a tape-measure, some spare batteries, a polyglot dictionary and probably a small hip flask..
If you find yourself in pretty much any kind of need in a Cathedral, your first and best port of call  is bound to be a verger.

But the frustrating thing, of course, is that as long as everything is running smoothly (and with our team, even under-strength, that's pretty much what it does) nobody will notice at all.
If the Cathedral is a swan gliding effortlessly down the bright stream, then the vergers are those feet paddling like mad that keep her moving forward.
I don't know where we'd be without them.


[The splendid diagram is, of course, the work of the still more splendid Dave Walker, Copyright © 1999-2013 Dave Walker
and published here with his kind permission.
For more delights, visit http://davewalker.cc/
Dave understands all the foibles of the church so very well, but always balances frustration with love.]

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Collaborative ministry

Having presided this morning and officiated and preached this afternoon, I found myself approaching my desk with a distinct lack of enthusiasm for a homily tomorrow morning.I'm very fond of both John Henry Newman AND Clare of Assisi, but somehow neither of them seemed to strike a chord for me - partly, I think, because I'm not convinced that people actually need a word at 8.30 on a Monday morning.This being so, I appealed to twitter for inspiration - and within minutes tweets had come in from all directions...a non conformist friend pointing me to an RC hagiography, assorted Franciscans recommending pet sites, and at least two wise friends reminding me that Malcolm Guite's poetry is almost always the answer in any search for inspiration.
So, I did some patchwork - and because I am genuinely delighted at what I garnered from my assorted friends, I'm posting it here. Practically every word either comes from Clare herself, or from the collective wisdom of the internet...so my apologies if you feel I've borrowed your words without leave. I'm just amazed at what we found together, in the space of 10 minutes on a wet Sunday evening. Thank you all.


We become what we love, and who we love shapes what we become...

Words from Clare of Assisi, whose feast we celebrate today.
Friend and companion of Francis, and founder of the order of the Poor Clares, her love for Christ, her share in the vision of St. Francis and her extraordinary gifts as spiritual director, friend, and leader made her a shining light and a clear mirror of Christ for thousands in her lifetime, and she remains a light and inspiration to Christians from many denominations today.
She was above all committed to the Crucified Christ in His poverty, encouraging her sisters, in this letter to Agnes of Prague,to share the way of poverty as the heart of their vocation.

If so great and good a Lord, then, on coming into the Virgin's womb, chose to appear despised, needy, and poor in this world, so that people who were in utter poverty and want and in absolute need of heavenly nourishment might become rich in Him by possessing the kingdom of heaven, then rejoice and be glad! Be filled with a remarkable happiness and a spiritual joy! Contempt of the world has pleased You more than [its] honors, poverty more than earthly riches,  You know, I am sure, that the kingdom of heaven is promised and given by the Lord only to the poor: for he who loves temporal things loses the fruit of love. 

O blessed poverty,
who bestows eternal riches on those who love and embrace her!
O holy poverty, to those who possess and desire you God promises the kingdom of heaven
and offers, indeed, eternal glory and blessed life!
O God-centered poverty,whom the Lord Jesus Christ Who ruled and now rules heaven and earth,
Who spoke and things were made,condescended to embrace before all else!

If she had been familiar with the concept of a life-verse, hers might have been
Where your treasure is, there your heart is also” and she encouraged her sisters to focus constantly on Christ whatever the apparent cost.

What a great laudable exchange:
to leave the things of time for those of eternity,
to choose the things of heaven for the goods of earth,
to receive the hundred-fold in place of one,
and to possess a blessed and eternal life.


One radiant image in Clare's letters is the mirror. You can gaze at her words as you might gaze at an icon of Christ, tracing your own reflection in Christ’s love, and being transformed little by little into an icon of Christ yourself. Here is a template for the three fold way of prayer which others would express more fully...Gaze, consider, contemplate
or – as her Poor Clare sisters present it today...behold, hold and enfold - the Lord whose likeness you are called to bear in love.

Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!
Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!
Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance!
And transform your entire being into the image
of the Godhead Itself through contemplation.
So that you too may feel what His friends feel
as they taste the hidden sweetness
that God Himself has reserved from the beginning
for those who love Him”

We become what we love, and who we love shapes what we become. 



Finally, some words by the poet priest Malcolm Guite, from his most recent anthology The Singing Bowl, which is every bit as wonderful as Sounding the Seasons


Santa Chiara, lovely claritas
Whose soul in stillness holds love’s pure reflection,
Shining through you as Holy Caritas,
Lucid and lucent, bringing to perfection
The girl whom Love has called to call us all
Back into truth, simplicity and grace.
Your love for Francis, radiant through the veil,
Reveals in both of you your saviour’s face.
Christ holds the mirror of your given life
Up to the world he gives himself to save,
A sacrament to keep your city safe,
A window into his eternal love.
Unveiled in heaven, dancing in the light,
Pray for this pilgrim soul in his dark night.


Evensong for Trinity 8: Psalm 86

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; 
be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.

The opening of our psalm as it appears in the NRSV – and variations of these words have surely been poured out in many places across the world this past week.
In Gaza, in Iraq, in Syria...and closer to home as well, men, women and children have cried out to God in the face of unspeakable violence, terror and pain.
They have cried for deliverance and yet the violence continues.
Where is God?
Why does he do nothing?
Does he not care at all?

Today's readings may not present an answer to those agonised questions...but this Cathedral, itself born from the ashes of war, of hatred, cruelty and violence, must surely be a safe place in which to ask them...for they are real and urgent, not simply for those who find themselves under fire as I speak, but for all of us as we try to live on in a world where such things can happen, where children are beheaded or buried alive – and nobody seems to intervene.

So – is there anything in our Scriptures to help us?
Can we find something to allow us hold on to faith in God, if not in humanity?
Today's psalm is one of many in the Hebrew Bible that give voice to lament – for individuals and for nations.
Already, by turning the stuff of raw suffering into prayerful poetry, the psalmist implies that there must be a pattern somewhere.
He fits his bitter experience into a framework that contains and shapes it, so that it may not simply overwhelm his life, and leave him in despair.
As we hear his words sung, the tranquil chord progressions of Anglican chant belie the intensity of the writer's emotions, - so that the music provides a short-cut from current pain to the equilibrium he strives to discover.

Beyond the cataclysms of here and now, is there any certainty of a larger purpose, an ultimate good – or is it all pain, discord, horror...?

Let's use our psalm to reflect together – on the pain of our brothers and sisters, on God's role as they suffer, and what this might mean for our faith.

It is, and always has been, a huge problem.
Sometimes, it seems that we in the Church have ducked the issue, refused to engage with it, as if some questions were too huge, too fearful to bring to God, lest God's answer is somehow inadequate...but such evasion is futile.
Better by far to follow the lead of our psalmist, who begins by being absolutely real about his situation.
There is no room for polite pretence here.
Things are utterly bleak and he is at the end of his tether. Poor and needy, with no resources of his own – all he has is a relationship with the God whose past performance encourages him to believe that God will, against the odds, act again.

Sometimes, of course, the past is all we can hold on to...the remembrance that once upon a time the world seemed a kinder place, God's presence a tangible reality, everything ordered as it should be.
It's that kind of understanding that shaped the words found scratched on a wall in Auschwitz

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when I cannot feel it. I believe in God, even when God is silent”

But those are not words I would dare to offer in Gaza this week...nor drop unthinkingly into conversation with a family grieved beyond imagining by their experience of loss and suffering.
Remembering sunshine does not warm you as you shiver with cold, and past performance does not, of itself, guarantee a future hope.

Still the psalmist revisits a happier time, both to reassure himself and, it seems, to remind God of what God could be doing.
He enters the long established tradition of bargaining with the Almighty, hoping to persuade him to change his mind, take a different approach – as Abraham pleaded for the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, - as the Samaritan woman would with Jesus...
In point of fact, he seems to be trying something very much like flattery
“there is none like you among the Gods O Lord...You alone are great and do wondrous things” - like rescue me from my enemies...

But the evidence is not encouraging. The enemies remain present, rising up against him...and God is doing nothing.
Tempting at this point to walk away, to abandon faith...but this way lies ultimate despair and the end of any impetus to make a difference.
Eli Wiesel realised this, writing in the wake of the Holocaust.

"Master of the Universe, I know what You want- I understand what You are doing. You want despair to overwhelm me. You want me to cease believing in You, to cease praying to You, to cease invoking Your name to glorify and sanctify it. Well, I tell you: No, no - a thousand times no! You shall not succeed. In spite of me and in spite of You, I shall shout the Kaddish, which is a song of faith, for You and against You. This song You shall not still, God of Israel."


Though God can't be won round, manipulated to suit our agenda, though the pain of life may be more than we can bear, yet still, retaining the audacity to believe despite everything is the only way to move forward.
As Job discovered, having walked a path of deep and bitter suffering, in the end God is God, his thoughts and ways beyond us...
This is the place that our psalmist reaches, when he prays

Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;”

That is the only way.

There is no sense that his problems have eased, for his fervent pleas continue til the very end of the psalm...but these lines are a turning point, as he recovers an underlying confidence that has nothing to do with the external situation, a new equilibrium that comes from believing in a greater purpose.
While he is still surrounded by enemies, his inner being is stronger than ever before for he triumphantly reasserts his relationship with God, his refusal to be driven to unbelief
You have delivered my soul from the depths”

Fine – I hear you say.
And that helps the children of Iraq, the Palestinians shelled out of their homes, the Syrian refugees exactly HOW?
And you're right.
On one level there is no help, no comfort here at all – and there is so much need

But if we pray that prayer seriously, then perhaps help will come...as we find ourselves moved by our prayers to become an answer in ourselves.
Perhaps the inhumanity that fills our tv screens can become an impetus for responses from us that proclaim a greater humanity – a demonstration of what it means to be shaped by and held in relationship with the God whose whole being is sacrificial love.
Pray with sincerity, and with an openness to God's call, and who knows what may happen.
Andrew White went from this place to achieve incredible things for God as the Vicar of Bagdhad...and I'm certain that Coventry has something particular to bring to the table as human intransigence and a longing for peace confront one another across the Middle East and beyond.

Certainly, there is nothing to be gained by disowning God, by placing all the blame for human suffering on his shoulders and walking slowly away.
After the war, a group of rabbis met to reflect on the atrocities that had taken place (atrocities that are used somehow, to give Israel a mandate to perpetrate further crimes against humanity)
They met to determine where blame might lie – in human sin or in divine indifference.
Could God have prevented the slaughter of God's chosen people?
Could God BE God, if He was either powerless or unresponsive?
The conversation was long, emotional, exhausting and the debate lasted painfully into the night.
Finally a decision was reached.
The ultimate guilt lay with God.
That group of men whose adult lives had been dedicated to serving God and his people looked at one another.
What would happen now?
How could they go forward from this place?
There was a profound silence.
Then someone went to the window, drew back the curtains, and they saw that it was dawn.
"Come," said a voice from around the table "It's time to worship God."

So in the face of human hatred and human need, in the face of our own indifference and our own helplessness, in the face of all the powers of darkness and destruction that seem to have the upper hand – it is time to worship God...to reaffirm our faith, however fragile, and to ask that God will enable us to walk in his truth til that truth shapes the whole world, and the Kingdom comes.