Thursday, March 15, 2018


It would appear that much of the Hebrew Bible—and Christian Old Testament—finds the form in which it comes down to us late-on in its own story: during the years of Exile under the Babylonian empire; or even the Reconstruction of a Jewish state centred on Jerusalem following the fall of Babylon to the Persian empire. This means that in as much as God is in(volved in) these stories, it is as a collector and editor and interpreter of stories (and not least over the centuries many Christians describe as the years during which ‘God was silent,’ between the Old and New Testaments) and not just as their inspiration or source.

Not entirely dissimilar to writing a good prequel.

It reminds us that these stories are told not so much ‘for the record’ of history, as they are told to help us make sense of our own times—which are often turbulent. And that gives us hope that this same God is actively involved in the process when we bring the biblical texts into dialogue with the stories of our own lives, the cultural scripts and personal journals (written, or—more likely—not) and local histories of the community of which we find ourselves a part.

Not entirely dissimilar to writing a good sequel.


Holy Communion: Exodus 32:7-14 and John 5:31-47.

Moses has led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and brought them to the mountain where he encountered the god who sent him. But it is now forty days and nights since Moses went up the mountain, alone; and the people are getting twitchy. So they melt down the gold jewellery they had taken as plunder from Egypt, and make a golden calf.

Why a calf? In Egypt, the sacred bull gave flesh to Apis, the intermediary between the most powerful gods and humans. When the sacred bull died, a calf was chosen as its successor. Moses, the intermediary between YHWH and his people, was missing, presumed dead. The obvious course of action was to establish a successor. Not a representation of their god, as such, but of the mediator (and one that implies that their god is part of the family of the gods of Egypt, who, in fact, YHWH had overthrown in liberating them).

YHWH is not impressed. YHWH reserves the right to appoint the mediator, who is, as it happens, alive and well—and, precisely, mediating on behalf of the people before YHWH.

The role of mediator is a significant one. YHWH is free to do as YHWH sees fit, but is open to a change of heart (a matter of repentance) on the basis of a well-made case, an appeal to fresh evidence (a matter of re-framed belief). Moreover, it is a reciprocal relationship: at times, God is angry with people, and the mediator pleads on their behalf; at other times, the mediator is angry with people, and it is God who counsels mercy (and there is, I think, something of this behind John 5:45).

Some millennia later, Jesus is questioned over what makes him YHWH’s appointed mediator, the one to represent YHWH before the people and the people before YHWH. It is a question of authority. Like Moses before him, he points to the signs he has performed in YHWH’s name. Like Moses’ generation, the people of Jesus’ day prefer to create their own image of the mediator. We do the same in our own day, two millennia on again.

According to the New Testament, the Church is the body of Christ, the flesh-and-blood of the flesh-and-blood mediator between humanity and God. The works we are given to do are meant to testify to this.

But perhaps we are missing, presumed dead by the people we are sent to?

And perhaps it is time to take intercession more seriously?


I much prefer small-screen drama to the big-screen. Television series lend themselves to a longer narrative arc than movies. Moreover, they rely on story-telling. They cannot hide a thin plot behind overwhelming special effects.

My favourite genre is detective fiction. It tells us so much of what we need to know of the human condition. And one of my favourites is Endeavour, the very fine prequel to Inspector Morse. Shaun Evans is a delight to watch in the title role. I reckon there is another twenty years between where we are ‘now’ in 1968 and when we first met John Thaw in the role; and I hope they will keep commissioning more series: they just keep getting stronger.

One of the things that makes Endeavour so poignant is that we know what becomes of Morse (though not how). We know that, though he will fall in love many times, he will never take the risk, seize the moment, to marry. That the women he loves remain to him a—completely unsolvable—puzzle to be solved, rather than a mystery to enter deeper into. We know that in the end, many years from now, his dying moments will be filled with a regret that spills over to grasp, too, at his colleagues with its chill fingers. And every time one of those colleagues urges the younger man to change before it is too late, we simultaneously long for him to do so, and know that he cannot.

I do not believe in a deity who has a fixed plan for our lives, a plan we can only fail to live up to. I believe in a God who, fixedly, longs for good for us, while leaving generous possibilities as to what that might look like. The sadness of Morse is perhaps not that he did not live the life he could have done, but that in a sense he remained a detached onlooker on the life he had.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Not alone

Last Sunday was Mothers’ Day here in the UK. For the second year running, we set up stall in the shopping centre next door to the Minster in the run-up. Over a day, our volunteers invited passers-by to write a message or a prayer, an expression of gratitude for a mother or grandmother, living or dead, with the messages to be displayed for several days in the Minster—a space that is open daily to the public, as a place of sanctuary in the city centre. We also invited them to hold a tea-light as they brought their mother to mind, and then to leave it with us, to be lit at our service on Sunday morning. We lit over 200. See pictures, below.

Today I found myself re-reading all the Mothers’ Day messages on display this week at Sunderland Minster. There were plenty of expressions of love for the living, but many more expressing how the writers miss mothers or grandmothers who have died.

I know that Mothers’ Day is complicated; a difficult day for many, including (though not limited to) those who have lost their mother; and needs to be handled with sensitivity.

But I am struck by the value of being able to express the grief we carry. Again and again, the messages say, miss you every single day. But on almost all of those days, and on their birthdays or other significant anniversaries, that grief is carried on our own. Mothers’ Day is one day in the year when we get to say “I miss my mum” in the safety of doing so collectively with others. Ritual, that enables us to see that we are not alone. And to lift one another up to God.

And that is the gift of such a day, albeit perhaps quite unintended by the sellers of greetings cards.

To see beyond

Farewell to Stephen Hawking. Given two years to live in 1963, he failed quite brilliantly to grasp the concept of time.

It just so happens that, alongside the readings set for today in the Lectionary, there is another set of readings that ‘may replace those provided for Holy Communion any day during the Fourth Week of Lent’—and that the Gospel in that set is John 9, the account of Jesus giving sight to a blind man.

Confronting the view that disability is a punitive consequence of sin, Jesus declares that “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

In this instance, those works are revealed by his being given sight, miraculously. But God’s works are also revealed through the ways in which people responded to him in his disability—his life revealing the compassionate hearts of some, and the hard-heartedness of others. And, most of all, God’s works are revealed in him through his enquiring mind, that joyfully reaches beyond the already-known, challenging conventional wisdom in a quest for greater understanding of deeper reality.

A fitting Gospel for the morning the world learns of the death of Stephen Hawking, a man whose living with disability—and vulnerability—revealed God’s work through medical and scientific miracle; through exposing the hearts of others; and through one of the most enquiring minds of all.

Rest in peace, Stephen Hawking, and rise in glory.

Blessed are you, Lord God,
our light and our salvation;
to you be glory and praise for ever.
From the beginning you have created all things
and all your works echo the silent music of your praise.
In the fullness of time you made us in your image,
the crown of all creation.
You give us breath and speech,
that with angels and archangels
and all the powers of heaven
we may find a voice to sing your praise:

from Eucharistic Prayer G

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


[Spoilers Alert: Call The Midwife series 7 episode 8]

From next week, I’ll be co-leading a module on ‘Christian Theology, Ritual, and Pastoral Care.’ In that context, I am thinking about a beautiful scene from the most recent episode of Call The Midwife

Clip: 01:15-02:39. Avuncular Fred Buckle [Cliff Parisi] pays his neighbour, curate Tom Hereward [Jack Ashton], a visit on the morning of the funeral of Tom’s young wife, Barbara.

Fred: “Now what I said to you when we arrived in South Africa still holds good. There are three things you need when you arrive in a foreign country: a scrub-up [wash], a shave, and a visit to the khazi [toilet].”
Tom: “I’m not in a foreign country, Fred. I’m in my own home. In a place where I’ve lived for years. It just, uh—”
Fred: “It feels like somewhere you’ve never been before. [Pause] Now, you’re big enough and ugly enough to make your own khazi and scrub-up arrangements; the shave, you need to leave to me.”

Voice-over narrator [Vanessa Redgrave], while Fred proceeds to shave Tom:
“We recount old beats of other stories; we retrace our steps; take refuge in echoes of that which is familiar. We follow custom, and ritual, because we have no map. We reach out, blindly; we cannot see the past; and, far from home, we cling to the way these things are always done.”

Monday, March 12, 2018

Girl power

Morning Prayer: Exodus 2:11-22

Yesterday I preached on what we need to learn from women about how to exercise transformative power (Exodus 2:1-10). Today the story continues, with a litany of male power play:

a man beating another man;

a man addressing that problem by killing the first man;

two more men fighting;

another man seeking to kill a man;

a group of men using physical aggression to prevent a group of women going about their lives;

and a man giving his daughter in marriage to another man.

This is contrasted with seven sisters working together, daily, to draw water for their father’s flock (albeit that they are, on at least one occasion, both prevented by men, and helped by a man). That is power at work: the power of collaboration, in order to secure an on-going future for the community.

Praying today for women and girls transforming their communities, often in the face of prejudice.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday (the Fourth Sunday of Lent) has to do with the local church community in which you were baptised being your ‘mother church’—not in a gendered sense, as a community displaying attributes traditionally considered feminine; but, rather, in the sense that we use ‘mother tongue’ to refer to our first, childhood, language.

Our mother church is where we learnt our mother tongue of Christian faith.

I have been a Christian all my life. One interesting observation of those who have identified as Christian for any such length of time is that they have become bilingual or even multilingual. That is to say, our mother church can only take us so far, at which point we either look for and find the resources with which to make sense of the world beyond the Church—leaving church behind, though it remains part of our history—or, by necessity, looking for these things within a different part of the Church. For example, growing up Evangelical but later gravitating towards Anglo-Catholic; or Baptist, but becoming Anglican.

However fluent we may become in the subsequent language or languages by which we express our faith; however many years we may live, very happily, in a foreign land; we will appreciate the community that first enabled us to articulate faith. Returning for a visit, we will feel that we have come home—even if doing so has mixed emotions; even if doing so reminds us why we left home in the first place.

That, then, conveys something of the sense of Mothering Sunday. A day to give thanks for a community we may have left behind years ago.

I never worshipped in the church where I was baptised, when my parents were home on furlough from the mission-field of Asia. But that mother church had sent them out, supported us financially, and prayed for us. Members of that church prayed for me every day of their lives, long after we returned from the Philippines, long after I had left home. My dialect will sound very different from theirs; my language, even. But this day I give thanks for them.

Thursday, March 08, 2018


Today is International Women’s Day, and I was due to take the lunchtime service. It just so happens that, alongside the readings set for today in the Lectionary, there is another set of readings that ‘may replace those provided for Holy Communion any day during the Third Week of Lent’—and that the Gospel in that set is John 4:5-42.

The Samaritan woman at the well is largely disregarded in the Western Church (Roman Catholic, Anglican Lutheran, Baptist, and other Protestant traditions). Moreover, she is generally misrepresented, as an adulteress, on the grounds that she had had five husbands and currently lived with a man who was not her husband. However, at no point in the account is she described as an adulteress or as a ‘a sinful woman’. Indeed, it is highly unlikely. We know that the Law required those guilty of adultery to be stoned to death. [We even have just such a story only a few chapters further on in John’s Gospel.] If we think it unlikely that this happened in practice, perhaps we have forgotten how popular a lynch-mob has been across times and cultures—especially against women. Consider the witch trials.

We also know that the Law decreed that if a man should die without leaving an heir, his brother was to marry his widow and provide both for the deceased man’s legacy and the surviving woman’s security. It is possible that the woman at the well had had the misfortune to have married into a family which carried a genetic life-limiting condition [and again, we have a story of just such a woman presented to Jesus as a test-case]. It is also possible that not all her husbands were brothers, but they had died of unrelated tragic reasons: life was far more precarious then than now. It is perfectly likely that this woman went to the well in the heat of the day to avoid the other women because she could not bear their blessings. She may also have been shunned as one cursed by God. These things are all more likely than that she was an adulteress. Nonetheless, she—presumably in agreement with her latest man—had taken matters into her own hands in an attempt to cheat death.

While the Samaritan woman is overlooked by the Western Church, the Eastern Church (Russian-, Greek-, and other Orthodox traditions) have honoured and preserved her memory. While we don’t know her actual name, she is known to the Eastern Church as Photini—which means, Enlightened One: or, rather, as Saint Photini, Great Martyr, Equal to the Apostles.

Whereas John records that she introduced Jesus to her native city, with the result that many put their faith in him, Church tradition recounts What Happened Next: how she and her children (for at some point she did have children) travelled far-and-wide telling others of Jesus; of how she eventually reached Rome, where her testimony resulted in the conversion of the Emperor Nero’s daughter and all her attendants—much to the disgust of daddy, on whose orders Photini was tortured and martyred.

On so many levels, I can’t think of a more fitting Gospel reading, and a more fitting story to tell, for International Women’s Day.

Alongside her story, I have chosen to use Eucharistic Prayer G, a Communion prayer that originates in the Eastern Church that honours Photini, and that explicitly employs the female imagery of mother to describe what God is like.