Thursday, October 09, 2014

Nine Very Important Meetings

This morning I was writing a funeral address in the Minster office, when someone came in to express thanks for a (small) way in which we had been able to help him out recently. He wanted to buy me a coffee (there is a café within the building). I had a little less than half-an-hour before taking a mid-week service, but I agreed. That was my first unscheduled conversation of the day.

One of the regulars at the service wanted to speak with me afterwards, and we ended up having a fairly long and very good conversation. The second unscheduled conversation of the day.

At that point I had the choice of going home, to work uninterrupted on the funeral address, or taking a walk around the city centre for some fresh air, and then returning to the Minster to work there. I chose the latter option.

On my way out, I had my third unscheduled conversation of the day, with a time-to-time visitor who had attended the mid-day service and then had lunch in the café (while I was having that second conversation).

Walking through the shopping centre, I saw someone whose wedding I had conducted in the summer. We stopped and chatted. The fourth unscheduled conversation.

Around the corner, I ran into someone I know through our partnership with other organisations to mark four years of Sunderland First world war anniversaries. We stood and talked on the pavement. The fifth unscheduled conversation.

On the High Street, I spotted the young man who sells The Big Issue outside Marks & Spencer. We speak regularly, but hadn’t seen one another for about three months. The sixth unscheduled conversation.

Cutting back through the shopping centre, I overtook one of our older congregation members, who lives in the neighbouring Alms Houses. We stood talking. The seventh unscheduled conversation.

Another Alms House resident came past, and stopped to chat. The eighth unscheduled conversation.

I got back to the Minster not long before it closes for the day (the building is open 9am-3pm Monday to Saturday, and much of the day on Sundays); but, having checked-in on the office and locked the compass-point doors to the building, I stopped for a longer chat with the person refreshing the flower arrangements that help make it such an inviting space. The ninth unscheduled conversation of the day.

Probably an-hour-and-a-half of unscheduled but very important meetings.

I can’t think of anything more rehabilitating than being given the time of day. And I say rehabilitating not to refer to the most broken people, but simply to recognise that life can be quite hard, and in the pressures of life – which, for reasons of confidentially I haven’t reported in recounting these conversations – it is easy to become worn down.

People comment fairly regularly that I must be busy – and of course, at times I am. But, as I tell them, I work quite hard at not being busy, precisely in order that I might have the time to give them my time.

In that, I recognise that I am blessed to be part of a team. But it also involves choosing not to do certain other things. I can be busy avoiding people, or busy not avoiding people.

And in that I recognise that clergy are not a different class of people from laity, who do certain things so that others don’t have to; but, rather, that clergy are a group within the laity, whose time has been set aside in order to be available, where others might not have such freedom; and who are visible signs within the wider community of something that is going on, on a daily basis: the quiet, deeply subversive task of helping one another become more fully human.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Breathing Space

There are times when the Minster is full of people. We are increasingly partnering with others to shape ‘the Minster Quarter’ into a part of the city centre that is an inviting place to be. At the recent African Festival, 3,800 people visited the Minster in 36 hours – and the surrounding retailers also reported their best shopping day in 3 years. Within the past two months we’ve hosted Sanctuary – a weekend festival showcasing local bands, beers, and food; Messy Minster – a holiday club in the last week of the summer holidays; a very successful Wedding Fayre; and the African Festival to coincide with the arrival of The Lion King at the Sunderland Empire.

But alongside the events, when the building is full of noise and movement, we note another very different trend: the people who come into the space when the building is empty, precisely because they need to find a quiet space, a still space, a breathing-space in the midst of the movement going on all around. Daily. Not quite a stream – that might undermine the purpose - but a constant trickle.

And the request for us to host conversations between different groups who live and work in the city, because this is a space where people of different views can be heard because they are listened to. This is not unique to our Minster by any means, but would increasingly appear to be a characteristic of larger city-centre churches: that part of their distinctive calling, and gift to the wider community, is what I heard the CEO of a (different) northern city describe to a conference of such churches yesterday as our ‘convening power’. Places where, as someone put it, the ‘unspeakable things that need to be spoken, can be’ – given time, and space.

We want to play our part in the flourishing of our city, in every sense – including economic or financial capital (as over the African Festival weekend), physical capital (space for gathering), intellectual capital (learning from those with a different experience of life), relational capital (building partnerships to work together for the common good), and spiritual capital (the resources to navigate the deeper seas of our common life). [link to my most frequently visited post, written in a previous context.]

It matters to me that there is a diversity of things going on here, that there is life in all its fullness, including its mess and noise and celebration. Some find it incomprehensible, that we should permit such ‘secular’ activity in a ‘sacred’ space. Others would like to see ‘visitors’ translated into ‘congregation members’, to attendance at our weekly services. We do see some of that. But for me, that people discover this gift in the heart of the city and return for the stillness, the sense of God’s presence, a connection with those they have loved and lost, a connection with the history of this city that transcends the pre-occupied present … this is a significant metric.

That they might find a breathing-space, where the Spirit broods over the waters, waiting for the moment to call out what will become - light out of darkness, and life out of chaos – that is the first gift in order for life to flourish.

After all, unless the Spirit breathes life into us, we are but dust, billowing in the endless rubble of a city being dismantled and re-routed. When we stop rising to receive that breath, we return to the earth from which we came: for if we will not tend it with our hands, we can at least nourish it for a moment with our marrow.

And yet, where can we find such breathing-spaces?

Some, at least, are finding one such space here.

Friday, October 03, 2014


It is around a year now since we knew that we would be moving to Sunderland, although we didn’t actually move until November and I didn’t start in my current post until December. So it is not yet quite a year that we have lived here, but getting there.

A year is no time at all to get to know a place. But already we have moved beyond first impressions – which were largely positive, but necessarily superficial – into a growing sense of attachment to a place in which we are still getting our bearings.

It happens by imperceptible degree, sneaking up on you, catching you by surprise.

And in this instance, it is different. The Church of England is first-and-foremost parochial, rooted to a place that – in an urban context, at any rate – you can walk around. And while the church exists for the benefit of those beyond the church, the church as a congregation inhabits that place, comes across herself and her shared neighbours on a daily basis. Her ties go deep, not wide. But Sunderland Minster is what we call an Extra-Parochial Place. That is, it is not grounded in a circumscribed locality, but grounded in (the heart of) the city - an amorphous living organism. I cannot walk around my parish, and I do not obviously come across the church as congregation as I go about the business of my days. Our parishioners are not a particular public but the general public. Our map is the network of connections and intersections between the business community and city council and emergency services and National Health Service and university and voluntary sector and … which is to say that the map is both real and invisible.

The glass artist Tom Denny created three windows for the Bede Chapel at Sunderland Minster. The one on the left depicts Benedict Biscop, polymath and patron saint of Sunderland; the man of action. The one on the right depicts Bede, first historian of the English people, another polymath; the man of prayer. But the central window depicts the city of Sunderland today, the top part being a bird’s eye view of the river Wear emptying into the North Sea. This out-of-body experience, detached and looking down, perfectly illustrates my extra-parochial entrance to the city.

I did not think that I would miss the narrow grounded-ness of the parish, knowing – in as much as we know anything – that we were being called out from such a fixing. But I have had to pass through a sense of loss, and recognise it as such, before I can be free. Before the gull’s view is not so much detached as visionary; the Minster a grounding-place to rest, for those who take in the city centre as a whole, who note its landmarks shift like sea-cliffs.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

New Season

It is a new season of life in our household. On Monday, Jo returned to full-time employment after thirteen years. She is now senior secretary to the Bishop of Durham (4 days/week). Today the schools went back. Elijah has added Breakfast- and After-School Club to the school day, en route to Jo’s commute to/from Bishop Auckland. Noah has joined Susannah at high school. (And just to make a big day that little bit crazier I had a meeting in Lancaster, on the other side of the country.)

Tuesday, September 02, 2014


I’ve been digging dandelions out of the narrow strip between our front wall and the pavement. At some point in the past, someone has laid down a membrane and covered it with stone chipping in an attempt to suppress weeds. Given the ability of these plants to push through concrete, it seems a wasted effort to me. As a malfunctioning Dalek – that race of soulless destroyers of worlds – realises in the latest episode of Dr Who [Series 8:2 Into the Dalek], ‘Resistance [To Life] Is Futile.’

Weeds, of course, are simply plants that are growing somewhere where we don’t want them to grow.

Jesus told a parable of a man who had a field planted for a crop, only for someone else to maliciously sow weeds. The man’s servants ask whether he wants them to weed-out these plants, but are instructed not to, due to the likelihood of accidentally uprooting the intended plants along with them. Jesus’ point is that there are some judgements that we aren’t equipped, or called, to make. (Those who think that the harvest and the weeds represent righteous and unrighteous people should note that both are destined for the furnace, the latter to be consumed by fire and the former to be consumed as bread.)

Weeds, of course, are simply plants that are growing somewhere where we don’t want them to grow. They can be beautiful and brilliant, and remarkably resourceful. They might even possess the cure to some malaise, healing properties known to mediaeval monks but since forgotten.

When it comes to shaping communities, whether congregations or neighbourhoods, decisions need to be taken and resources focused on agreed objectives. Increasing investment in one area will mean reducing investment in another. Certain things will be nurtured and others neglected. That is not only inevitable but in fact right and proper: to keep with the gardening analogy, gardeners shape the garden in order to create something beautiful and productive and appropriate to their setting, and no two gardens will be the same. But though we are called to shape environments for life to flourish, more life will grow than we intend, because resistance to life is futile.

In any community, there is more going on than is planned, organised, given structure by some official decree. There are flowers flourishing that we did not plant. They might even grow more vigorously than those we are trying to develop or train. And we might want to uproot them. But we might want to think twice before we do, and let them be.

To see people – whether individuals or groups – as weeds is to pass a judgement on them that is not ours to make. To declare that they are not wanted in this place. That they are of less worth than others. That we are better than them. Which, over time, will result in the atrophy of our soul.

At the very least, when shaping environments for life to flourish, we ought to let the life that grows there without our active encouragement grow. We might even come to value people enough to see them in a new light, to drop the derogatory label, to make room, even to be changed ourselves by the gift they bring.

But I’m not yet happy about having dandelions in my front yard.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Adventures In Time And Space

‘If we are to plan sustainable communities, then, we have to have a good nose for what depletes human capital. And I want to suggest that one major threat to human capital is the sense of living without landmarks in time or space…Human beings from their earliest days work out their identity by learning to cope with a specific set of triggers and stimuli, the geography of a room, the rhythms of feeding and sleeping, a face that becomes familiar. As their awareness expands, they still work out and define who they are in relation to patterns of activity in time and to a differentiated space; their mental world is in pat a set of routes between familiar points. We inhabit a map. It is most dramatically expressed in the Australian aboriginal idea of the ‘song lines’ that give structure to the world: the aborigine knows the landscape as a series of songs to be sung as you move from this point to that. Geography is a set of instructions for responding with this or that song to the visual triggers you encounter.

‘Now of course any landscape, any physical environment, has such triggers. But it seems fairly clear that a physical environment that is repetitive, undifferentiated, can fail to give adequate material for a person to develop. A varied environment with marked features, that perhaps have narratives and memories attached to them, offers multiple stimuli to respond to. There is a local geography that is more than just an abstract plan of the ground: it invests places with shared significance. A landscape which proclaims its sameness with countless others, in its layout, building materials, retail outlets and so on, is a seedbed for problems. If it’s true that I can’t answer the question ‘Who am I?’ without at some level being able to answer the question ‘Where am I?’, the character of built space becomes hugely important. There will always be small scale domestic answers to ‘Where am I?’ because we all imprint distinctiveness on our homes and are ‘imprinted’ by them; but when this is restricted to the domestic, we should not be surprised if there is little sense of investment in the local environment outside the home.’

‘And last, planning should, then, look seriously at how the reality of faith becomes part of the landscape – how religious buildings figure among the landmarks of a community. But this is not only a question of attending to the pragmatic needs of religious groups. Like it or not, there are unsought experiences that communities share, trauma and celebration which call out for the kind of space that carries no political or sectional agenda, that is not for anything but the expression of certain serious and complex emotions…And whether we are thinking about personal trauma or collective…it is emphatically true that a very large number of people, far larger than the statistics of regular worshippers, urgently need a place for certain things to be voiced. What is offered by a space dedicated to worship is essential – somewhere where events may occur that belong to a whole locality, where solidarities of a mysterious but very important kind can be reinforced.’

Rowan Williams, essay on ‘Sustainable communities’ in Faith in the Public Square.

Last weekend saw the second ‘Sanctuary’ event – a three-day festival showcasing local bands, ale, and street food, organised by local business-men and -women and held at Sunderland Minster - and I am struck afresh by the thoughts offered by Rowan Williams above. I’m struck by the response, over and over again, of people coming into this space for the first time, and finding somewhere to which they are drawn back. I’m struck by the requests to host conversations between different groups – the recognition that this is a safe space in which difficult but greatly-needed communication can take place. I’m struck by the gift that we have been given, by those who have gone before us and by God, for the people of Sunderland; and by the great honour it is to be here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


There has been a lot of blood shed this summer. It is hard to know how to respond to the information – unconfirmed, confirmed, falsified, justified, ignored, flaunted, demanding action or reaction – that has bombarded us.

The nature of our information age is to over-saturate our attention with the now, promoting the idea that this moment is of all-consuming importance.

I live in England, one of three countries – at this point in history; in past times there have been several more, smaller, kingdoms – on Great Britain, the largest of the British Isles, a group of islands off the coast of mainland Europe. This island has been invaded many times: by Britons, by the varied peoples of the Roman Empire, by Angles, by Saxons, by Vikings, by Normans. People-groups have swept across the land, bringing different ideas, different values, different gods, different languages. At times, different communities have co-existed in unstable peace; at times, one has put another to the sword, destroying everything in their path; and at times, they have inter-mixed.

There has been a lot of bloodshed on this island. The second-half of the fifteenth-century saw the Wars of the Roses, dynastic wars for the throne of England. The mid-seventeenth-century saw the Civil Wars. As Scotland considers independence after some 300 years of union, we are reminded of bloody battles, some won by Scottish armies and those of their allies, some by English armies and those of their allies.

Then there are the wars this country has taken part in beyond our shores, whether building an Empire or opposing empire-building on the part of others. Our history is soaked in blood. Had we lived in any of those moments, our own personal experience would have been much closer to that of men, women and children in Iraq or Gaza or many other parts of the world this summer.

And this history has made us who we are as a nation. This history has shaped us, for good and for ill. There have been a great many atrocities, and a greater still number of tragedies. And there has also been a great deal of good in the unfolding of our history, our culture, our discoveries, our inventions…

I would suggest that the great deal of good that has come out of our folly and mis-directed passion is evidence of a God who loves human beings; who gives us great freedom but also sets limits on our triumphs (so we do not utterly destroy others) and on our tragedies (so we are not utterly destroyed by others); and who is at work in all things to bring good out of even the most evil of situations. Good that is testified-to in former enemies becoming friends.

This does not mean that it does not matter that, all over the world, one tribe is putting another to the sword – literally and metaphorically. It does not mean that we should not speak out, or act.

It does mean that we should be very careful in our choice of words, and actions. There is no people on earth who occupies the moral high-ground; nor any low-point that cannot be transformed by love. The longer we hold on to our commitment to violence towards one another, the longer it will take to see enemies become friends. And yet this, and not our present troubles, is the ultimate reality, because in and through Christ, God is reconciling all things.