Saturday, May 30, 2015

Trinity and Cathedral - words for Trinity Sunday at Alcester Minster, 31st May 2015

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...

Before I've said another word, that opening prayer puts us straight into the heart of God.......and straight into the heart of today's feast.
Trinity Sunday – the day when limited human minds, and limited human language attempt to explore the nature of the God who is beyond all our greatest imaginings, our finest words.
The day when preachers across the world tie themselves in knots trying to explain the inexplicable, and stop, scratching their heads like Nicodemus to exclaim "How can such things be?"....and the day when curates, retired clergy and even the odd cathedral canon find themselves pressed into service as wise incumbents everywhere step AWAY from the pulpit.

Thankfully, though, Adrian took pity on me and suggested that you might be more interested in thinking about the life of the cathedral – and how it relates to the parishes, rather than my own personal selection of heresies .. and, in fact, as I thought about that I realised that, maybe surprisingly, the doctrine of the Trinity was part of the equation.

You see, the Trinity is, as I understand it, very much about God in relationship. If God is love, then Love needs a Beloved...
So, we have a God who lives in relationship - utterly self-giving relationship. 
Where all is mutual exchange and regard, there is no hierarchy, no anxiety over precedence.
Instead the love that defines and informs the one reaches out and spills over into the other
Look, says the Father.......look at the Son........
Look, says the Son...........look at the Spirit
They gaze at one another in mutual love and delight – and invite us to do the same – to participate in their love and to draw others to do so as well.

So – my favourite image of the Trinity is not St Patrick's shamrock, nor the other well-worn alternatives – water/ice/steam – neapolitan ice-cream (three flavours, one ice cream) – nor even jaffa cakes (chocolate/orange/sponge making one biscuit). 
My favourite image is that famous Rublev icon which depicts three figures sitting around a table. The icon is often called “The Hospitality of Abraham” - recalling those three strangers who appeared to Abraham out of the heat haze of the desert... It depicts three figures seated around a table, each intent on the other – but with the fourth side of the table empty, waiting – so that the whole icon is an invitation to us to come, sit, complete the circle.

And – That's what the Cathedral is about.
It's about invitation, to a place of hospitality, a theatre of memory where the story of Jesus and the story of the diocese come together, as we gather as a family around our bishop. Of course, a cathedral is nothing more than the place where the bishop has his seat – but because it is there, it gives a focus and a family identity to the whole diocese... That's what enables me to be with you today. We're family, related to one another through the relationship we have with our bishop...and the Cathedral is the place where that relationship is presented in concrete form.
(I promise I wasn't playing for laughs when I wrote that last sentence – but of course our cathedral is undeniably more “concrete” than many examples! For some, it's part of its charm)
Where the bishop sits, there he gathers his people. He instructs, encourages, admonishes, and challenges – and brings us together to share in the family meal... It is here that the unity of the church becomes visible, as the Body of Christ gathers at the altar. This is the prime expression of the Church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, as we will affirm in the Credd very shortly. And, just as the bishop is called to be a focus for unity, inviting us all to gather to share Word and Sacrament together, so the Cathedral too should be a place of inclusive hospitality.

We see that as we welcome parishes for confirmations, ordinations and other big events. Some describe the Cathedral as the mother church of the diocese – but I'd want to resist the suggestion of seniority present there. I think we're siblings together – but we just happen to have a larger house, so it makes sense for family meals to be held there. It's all about making space to renew relationships, to celebrate shared joys and significant events but also a place to explore differences and speak of reconciliation. Our Cathedral stands as living symbol of resurrection and healing through brokenness....and so offers a safe space to gather and hold individual and community stories of brokenness and restoration, tales of a city destroyed, reborn, and travelling onward.
Archbishop Justin says that we're specially blessed in Coventry, because, as a Cathedral, we have a particular vocation, beyond simply “look at me, I'm a Cathedral”. At the heart of our ministry is the vision from 2 Corinthians 5:19
God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and has entrusted us with that ministry of reconciliation”...
In practice this means we offer a safe space in which to acknowledge hard truths and name wounds where they exist, for until we recognise ourselves as we are, we're unable to grasp the reconciliation that God offers us in Christ. Our vocation has three aspects, looking back as we work to heal the wounds of history, learning to live with difference and celebrate diversity in our lives today and building a culture of peace that offers hope for the future.
That's often challenging – for us and for you, the wider family. We are called to nurture a reconciled and reconciling people, a people that understands that difference & diversity is part of life and won't try to bury inconvenient truths or don a mask of uniformity. Sounds good, but can be acutely uncomfortable, for it involves running the risk of honesty and vulnerability, as we offer hospitality to people whom we might find deeply uncongenial. So sometimes your cathedral may seem to be welcoming someone or something that you would prefer not to engage with...It might just be that we are uncomfortable too...but are sure that we cannot sidestep the responsibility to be a place where all stories are heard and honoured. He never said it was easy!

More straightforwardly, of course, we're just another church among many. Bigger, perhaps...more noticeable...with a bit of a “wow” factor if you like that kind of thing.
I first visited the Cathedral as a small child brought by my parents...who were enthusiastic church-crawlers, so I was no stranger to visits to all sorts of places of worship. Usually, though, they were small, quite dark and very very old – so the impact of stepping into that place of openness and light was extraordinary.
I never knew God was so BIG was my first reaction...and if we can express to other visitors something of the majesty of God, - then we're fulfilling part of our role, as we stand a sign of God's presence in and care for his world.
A year ago today, when I walked up the aisle with my previous congregation to be installed as a Canon, my feelings as I looked at the Sutherland tapestry of Christ in Glory were very much like those of Isaiah
Woe is me, for I am a person of unclean lips...”.I felt small,inadequate and altogether unworthy. That's not perhaps the ideal message for any church to put across...but then I realised that, just as there's space for humanity at the table in Rublev's icon, so there is one small, representative human figure standing between the feet of Christ in Sutherland's tapestry. From there, the figure is safe, protected, and able to look out on the world from Christ's perspective...something that we are all invited to do, as we come to worship and be transformed.

For your cathedral represents in itself a story of our life in Christ, which was at the heart of Spence's vision when he designed the new cathedral. Pilgrims gather in the ruins, the place of brokenness, as we all do when we meet to worship week by week. We start by acknowledging faults and failures...represented by that place where wounds are obvious and visible, where there is no chance to gloss them over. As we leave the ruins (carrying some scars with us, just as those very ruins speak daily of the wounds of history) we travel through the company of saints and angels on the west screen and, eyes fixed on Christ, walk towards the altar – the table where there is room for all.
There God's life is offered, represented by a fragment of bread and a sip of wine – and then as pilgrims turn they find the austere building transformed as light breaks through the stained glass that was invisible on the journey towards the altar. It is in that new light that they go out – WE go out – to live God's life in the world...and if the cathedral helps us to understand that process, then it is doing a good job.

Each one of us, marked as we are by that transforming hope that is at the heart of our faith, is likewise called to be a sign of God's kingdom breaking in. Churches and cathedrals alike are built of living stones...without them, they are simply difficult, costly buildings with no real purpose.

Whom shall I send and who shall go for us? Here I am send me...

Our common purpose, as the Body of Christ, dispersed today but gathered sometimes around our bishop in his Cathedral Church of St Michael, is to reflect in our lives that perfect community which the Trinity models. Here there is no sense of anxiety over who might be the senior partner, but a joyful sharing of resources, a mutual enrichment based on self-giving love.

That, when you come to think of it, is not a bad model for our life as the Church here – and everywhere – joyfully sharing resources in mutual give and take without reserve, demarcation or division...our common life rooted and grounded in the self giving love of Christ, to whom be glory with the Father and the Spirit both now and always.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Thought for the day

At the Cathedral we're very good friends with the altogether lovely people at Radio Coventry&Warwickshire - so it's always a pleasure when they phone up and ask if someone is free to talk. This time, they phoned me on Tuesday to ask if I'd do their Sunday Thought for the Day - and, reflecting as I was on the contrasts in Cathedral life this week, I was delighted to say "Yes". Only later did I realise that it might be a wee bit odd for a Christian priest to be speaking on Pentecost Sunday without mention of the Holy Spirit - but by then we'd agreed a topic and, as #2S suggested, I might well find myself using the whole 2 minutes trying to explain who the Spirit IS, before I could even start thinking about what I might want to say. So, Pentecost went unmarked - and I'm not really ashamed of that. Instead, here's what I offered...

It's been a bit of a week for the Cathedral – the OLD medieval Cathedral of S Michael that is- for it was its turn to take the lime-light, with two rather different special events.
On Tuesday evening we celebrated the disappearance of the scaffolding that has been in place continuously for the past few years. Of course, we weren't trying to rebuild – as a Coventry child said to her grandma “If they fix it, how will we remember?” Instead, the scaffolding helped us to preserve what remains.

The ruins are important, you see – an iconic symbol for the city, with an influence that stretches far and wide. They hold a special place in our affection, as a link with the past and a reminder of that remarkable decision made here 75 years ago, to choose peace and reconciliation rather than bitterness and revenge. I think it's really important that we didn't simply tidy up and build over the rubble...because those ruins speak of all the mistakes that we've made in our everyday lives, all the people we've hurt and the dreams we have shattered...but they represent future hope and fresh starts too, because of everything that flowed from the events of November 1940. When we held a service of blessing and thanksgiving there on Tuesday we recommitted ourselves to that agenda and all that goes with it...putting peace-making at the heart of our lives in the Cathedral and beyond.

On Thursday night things looked rather different, as Coventry University held a summer ball, transforming the medieval walls into a magical backdrop for students to dance the night away - a last hurrah before moving on from their time here to enter the world of work.

I love the thought that the ruins are a pivot point for such different experiences – not to mention providing welcome for  the hundreds of people who just spend time there quietly sitting, eating lunch, meeting friends. Somehow the ruins speak of both past and future – and of a way of being that accepts past wounds without being tied down by them. If these walls could speak – I know they'd be worth listening to.

Monday, May 04, 2015

God of surprises!

Is it just 10 days ago that I posted, on my return from On Fire, that the greatest joy of being there was being with a community who were eager and expectant for God to act?
That's a rhetorical question actually. I know perfectly well how long ago it was - but I'm asking myself the question because I'm both amused and rather ashamed of myself.

Last night, you see, our Later@CoventryCathedral service included anointing - and the Dean, who has just returned from the Holy Land, prayed rather beautifully that we might not only tread in the footsteps of Jesus, but see with his eyes, touch with his hands, love with his heart.
It was powerful stuff that had me rocking on my feet (very glad he restrained me: the marble floor of Coventry Cathedral is not one to fall on with not a catcher in sight, I can tell you). I went to sit down feeling rather full of joy and delight. I enjoyed the rest of the worship, caught up with some lovely people and giggled quietly to myself at the way in which God has persuaded me that the service which I viewed with most anxiety before I arrived at Coventry could become one of my greatest sources of refreshment here. As I introduced it yesterday, I had commented that Later always has rather the flavour of a family service - in which anything might happen, and frequently does. (It was at this service that someone once arrived wearing an umbrella and nothing else)...Before I came, I'd expected to loathe it - but have happily adopted it, together with the wonderful mix of people (normally fully-clad) who come week by week. 

All of which should, perhaps, have prepared me for God to get up to something - but being rather dim, I left the Cathedral expecting to head quietly home. 
That was before I saw the man lying on the pavement in Bayley Lane...

What unfolded next was both really sad and rather amazing.
Of course we stopped, tried to find out what had happened (trying hard not to draw too many conclusions from the beer can lying beside him), phoned an ambulance, tried to make him comfortable on the pavement...
We were joined by 2 lovely girls, dressed for a night out - but one a trained first-aider, the other a dental nurse...both of whom delighted N., as he swam in and out of consciousness, by their youth, their beauty and their kindness.
Seeing my collar, he grabbed my hand in both his and kept apologising profusely for letting everyone down, as he told me a little of the struggles that made each day bearable only with the help of more alcohol than is ever wise.

Feeling that intense grasp of my hand - the hand that had so recently been anointed in the clean and orderly world of the cathedral, something happened to my heart. The two worlds collided, and I knew that right now the Dean's blessing was coming to life. All rather overwhelming, really - but so absolutely steeped in the presence of God that it was hard to know what to do, except kneel there and keep on loving.

Please pray for N, and for those like him who find life too painful to bear.
And feel free to remind me, as kindly as you can manage, that God ACTS....

If you have ears to hear ... Revelation 3 sermon for Evensong Coventry Cathedral Easter 5 B


Quite a command!

Here we are, gathered in the Cathedral church of St Michael, Coventry...doing what we do, Sunday by Sunday.
Meeting to worship God, to learn more of his ways, to form community and to practice reconciliation.
But – today is different.
Today we have what sounds just a bit like the spiritual equivalent of OFSTED for churches.

The Spirit – GOD's Spirit – the Spirit who sees into the heart of all things – of each of us and of our community too – is speaking...
And She is speaking about the life and health of seven churches

Time, then, to sit up and take notice.

Of course, this final book of the Bible is hard to negotiate.
Revelation is a book that most people struggle with, one that was for many years only grudgingly included in the canon of Scripture, a source of controversy from the first century to the present.
Strictly it isn’t a book at all. It 's a pastoral letter, written by a Christian leader to the churches for whom he was responsible,- and what’s more, it is a letter that was designed to be heard, to be read aloud during worship,- and much of its apocalyptic imagery is most effective when it is encountered by the ear and the imagination…

We need to remember, too, that like Paul's epistles, this pastoral letter is not actually addressed to us. It comes from a particular person and is intended for a particular audience, belonging firmly in a specific context which we need to understand before we can rush off and apply its words to ourselves with cheerful abandon.

Maybe this isn't our OFSTED after all...
Let's see what common ground we share.

The Christian churches in the Roman province of Asia had been established by Paul and his team in the fifties of the first century Common Era. Scholars suggest that John had his vision towards the end of the reign of the Emperor Domitian, some 40 years later. At this time the Empire was troubled, and Christians were often adopted as scapegoats, blamed for both natural and man-made disasters, since they presented a threat to political stability with their refusal to adhere to the state religion and cult of the Emperor. Though full-scale persecution was not yet in sight, John was clearly expecting life to become harder and harder for the communities he served...Would they go with the flow and declare “Caesar is Lord”, as prudence dictated, or would they take the opportunity to bear witness to the reality and meaning of the Christian faith by standing firm, til death if need be?

John encourages them to hold on to their faith, for it is here that they will find meaning for their sufferings, beyond futile waste as part of God’s plan for the consummation of history.
For John’s original hearers, the meaning of his words was clear…only their own response remained uncertain. What would they do? What would WE do in their shoes?

That's something to ponder, right enough – even as we try to get our heads around the reality of persecution for our brothers and sisters in Christ today.
But it's not the whole message.

For each church addressed, there is greeting, an reflection that recognises and commends what is good in its life and witness, a challenge to bring that life into closer conformity with God’s will and finally a promise, to “those who overcome”…
A pattern for us too. Reflection on our current identity, challenge on our shortcomings, and a promise of future hope.

So, let’s consider what John actually says to the churches, or specifically the angels of the churches – for we are lifted from the mundane to the transcendent...
In the apocalyptic tradition, earthly realities have their counterpart in the heavenly realm and so each congregation has its own representative and guardian, the angel of the church, the embodiment of the spirit of each church, sharing her DNA, the characteristics of the congregation.

It can be really helpful to consider what the angel of our church might be like...for the angel provides a kind of snap shot of the state of the church, something to pray with and reflect on.
If you're a visitor, forgive me for being rather cathedral-centric for a might want to reflect on your home church, and your perception of the angel that guides and represents it...

Here with our dedication to St Michael – and our west screen that invites us to see the world through eyes of the ever-present holy ones – it should be easy enough to glimpse our angel...
We might use those represented in the art that surrounds us to get us started on our reflection.
Perhaps our angel is the one from the Gethsemane chapel - the angel of the agony, presenting Christ with a cup that he can only drain through obedience to the Father?
Perhaps he one of the heralds from the west screen – reminding us that we have a gospel to live and proclaim.
Perhaps he is Michael the archangel, stamping down the forces of darkness and despair.
Perhaps he quite different...
How do you see him...
Diffident or bold?
Nostalgic or enthusiastic?
Reflective or frantic?

LISTEN to what the Spirit is saying...for there will be a message for us and our angel, as the Spirit speaks to us of who we are now, our current personality and state of being, but also our future vocation.
For us, as for the churches of Revelation, the source of that vocation is the risen Christ and his action in the world.
But we do need to take a long hard look at's easy to miss something. Saris, after all, seems to be doing quite well
‘I know your works; you have a name for being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is at the point of death '

All OK on the surface...a flourishing community....thriving congregation, lots going on....Christian service, outreach, youth and children's programmes...but beneathr the surface all is not well. Reall life doesn't match the image...the angel is almost dead, it seems...
Time to wake up, recognise the crisis and strengthen what remains alive before it's too late.

Things are different in Philadelphia – which seems to be struggling, but is hanging on
"You have but little power but have kept my word"
Externally, there is little to celebrate...It would be so easy to despair and walk away, maybe to join a community that seemed more vibrant. Let's all move to Saris. ..or maybe not!
Hold fast to what you have so that noone may seize your crown
So...What of us in Coventry...?
Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, for the message is focussed on the particular gifts of these people, your neighbours sitting around you at this time, on the particular needs which exist in our context and above all on the faith that is the source and motivation of everything we do and are.

We have a wonderful story to share here – the Easter gospel expressed in solid form through our cathedral, ruined and recreated – but unless it impacts on our lives then we might as well keep silent.
We have a clear vocation – to reconciliation within our community – but beyond as well as we are called to be an active sign of God's healing and reconciling love in a church and world in desperate need.

That's quite a gift...but a challenge too.

Put simply, if we fail to live our vocation, then we become just another museum of 20th century art...With no justification for existing.
Of course The Revelation of St John was not written for Coventry Cathedral in 2015...but that doesn't let us off the hook.
Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Listen and act.