Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Our duty and our joy, at all times and in all places


Something quite marvellous is happening across the UK this spring. At nine o’clock on Sunday evenings, an estimated nine million of us are sitting down in front of LineOf Duty—and revisiting it at the water cooler on Monday morning.

Not literally, of course. Anyone who is employed in the kind of workplace that has a water cooler is still working from home. But Line Of Duty is a prime example of the water cooler phenomenon, that shared experience so powerful it spills over into our everyday lives. Thanks to social media we don’t need to wait until Monday morning, we don’t need to wait at all. On the other hand, we are made to wait a full week for the story to be carried on. This feels almost counter-intuitive at a time when so many of us have turned to streaming on demand to get through lockdown (Jo and I watched all eight series of French drama Spiral between Christmas and Easter). And yet that water cooler phenomenon relies on it, on a necessary mass of us watching this together in time, even if others will be catching up later.

In a world of engaging at our own convenience, we are reminded of our need for a collective experience—and one with drama, and a good measure of confounding mystery, and a cliff-hanger to boot.

There is much to reflect on here, as one called to curate the things, the good news, of God—to present the gospel afresh in each generation, within and beyond the Church:

the joy of shared familiar liturgy (in the case of LOD, technical policing terms in general, and Ted Hastings’ Ted-isms in particular);

an appreciation that not knowing what is going on, indeed not having a clue, is not necessarily a barrier but can in fact be a positive, where we are drawn deeper into mystery;

the central importance to our wellbeing of experience shared in time with other people;

a forensic attention to our motivations and behaviour, with brutal honesty and some wisdom as to how much to share with whom;

the kind of conclusion to our shared hour that propels us back out into the world wondering how things will unfold, and buzzing with our thoughts, our personal investment, to share.

It is not that church (or, more significantly, the gospel) is, or ought to be, like watching Line Of Duty. It is not that those who like LOD might like church. It is simply that those who believe in something greater than the welcome distraction of a good tv drama might have more questions to ponder than easy answers. Something quite marvellous is happening across the UK this spring. Those with eyes to see, take note.


Thursday, April 01, 2021

Five crosses

That piece of church furniture we call the altar—the table at which we make our memorial of Jesus’ offering up of himself once for all, and, in response, offer up our own sacrifice of thanks and praise—is marked by five crosses, one in each of the four corners and one at the centre-point, recalling the five wounds of Christ on the cross: the nail-piercing of his wrists and ankles, and the spear thrust up through his ribs to burst open his heart.

For most of the year, these crosses are covered by a fine linen cloth, but on Maundy Thursday we strip the altars bare, exposing them until the altar is made ready again to celebrate on Easter Sunday.

This photo is of the stripped altar in the Lady Chapel at St Nicholas’. I love its elegant, elongated form.

These crosses, beautifully tactile, usually hidden from view, are just about my favourite piece of symbolism in the symbol-rich Christ-shaped imagination of the Church. Our hands, our feet, our heart, none of which escape wounding, are to be conformed to his likeness. What we do, where we go, and what motivates us, not for our glory but, for the most part hidden, one with him. Our mandate, to love one another, as he has loved.


Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Drops of blood


I’m always interested in cultural-creative references to the Bible—my PhD focused on such uses in popular music from the 1960s-90s—and this is no exception. An artistic adaption of Nike trainers emblazoned with the reference Luke 10:18, ‘He [that is, Jesus] said to them [his disciples], “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning…”’

The trainers also contain a drop of human blood, and I want to juxtapose that against the Gospel reading for Morning Prayer today, Luke 22:24-53. This passage includes the account of Jesus praying immediately prior to his arrest, wrestling with what he knows is to come and pouring out his heart to the Father. It includes verses 43 & 44, which read, [[Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]]

The double editorial brackets [[ ]] indicate that these are disputed verses. They are present in some of the ‘ancient authorities’ (earliest surviving copies of the text, and commentaries on the texts) but not in others. They have either been added, adorning the text; or censored, an attempted removal from circulation. Drops of human blood are controversial.

The linked article also notes the ‘Christian nationalism’ backlash, of which Nike is an innocent victim. The call to fight, hard, for the very soul of the youth of the nation is as predictable as it is disappointing. The way of Jesus is that blood voluntarily shed, without resistance, (somehow, ultimately) brings about reconciliation. Indeed, at his arrest, one of his disciples attacks with a sword, cutting off the ear of one of the crowd sent to take Jesus into custody; but Jesus categorically rejects this course of action, touches the severed ear and heals the wounded slave.

Nike have every right to seek to protect their reputation, against a powerful political lobby. But the idea that these shoes are a threat to souls, rather than the opening up of a conversation about the kingdom of God breaking in—to the kingdoms of the USA, or free-market economics, or culture wars, or insert your own—is reactionary, defensive, and misses out on grace. Rather than praying, “Father, if you are willing, remove these shoes from us…” we might better pray, “…yet, not my will but yours be done.”


Monday, March 29, 2021



“Blessed are you, Lord God of our salvation,

to you be praise and glory for ever.

As a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief

your only Son was lifted up

that he might draw the whole world to himself.

May we walk this day in the way of the cross

and always be ready to share its weight,

declaring your love for all the world.

Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Blessed be God for ever.”


This is a prayer that is said at the start of the time of Morning Prayer in Holy Week, the days leading up to Easter. It is a blessing directed to God—that is, a recognition of the ‘fit-ness’ or fit-for-purpose of God’s nature—that invites us to notice that God is not indifferent to human sorrows and grief, but that it is in God’s very coming alongside us in the experience of suffering that we may be drawn into that place of reconciliation, of wholeness, that is found in Jesus Christ.

And walking in this way, we may discover that an acquaintance with sorrow is our blessing also, that only the person who identifies with sorrow and grief is truly a person at all, one who is formed by and for compassion.

We expend so much energy trying to shield ourselves, and those whom we love, from the sorrows and grief of life—I weep every time I hear a parent say, “I just want my children to be happy”—and our efforts contribute to the pushing-apart of the whole world, to its destruction. We have never needed Holy Week more than we do now. Lord, have mercy.


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Pr├ęc├ędemment d’Engrenages


The eighth and final series of Spiral has recently aired in the UK, and we are working our way through the back catalogue of this French (original, French, title Engrenages) police and legal procedural drama on BBC iplayer. It is described as ‘disturbing,’ on account of the behaviour of the police and lawyers often being indistinguishable from that of the criminals—all interlocked in a ‘spiral of violence’—but this is the very thing that makes it so interesting. Justice is not black and white, but includes many shades of grey.

It might surprise you to hear a vicar make such a claim, but it should not. Any honest reading of the Bible must recognise that even the most fundamental of laws require interpretation. Take, for example, the command not to bear false witness against your neighbour. To uphold this command, there are times when one is surely compelled to lie, to perjure oneself, to subvert the course of in/justice in order to protect another’s life.

In the centuries between the history recounted by the Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament and the New Testament, the Jewish community developed a complex legal system built on the Law given through Moses, including different and at times competing schools of interpretation. Christians are often quick to dismiss all this out of hand as legalism, but such a response verges on and may trespass into anti-Semitism. It is foolish, because English law (among others) is to a significant extent built on biblical law. It is foolish, also, because every community involves different schools of interpretation. Jesus himself does not dismiss the Law of Moses, or even the Oral Tradition per se, but stands in a long line of prophetic voices that call out those who confuse legal application with legal principle; those who overly worry about legal procedure; and those who hide behind the law to exploit others. And the apostle Paul does not so much concern himself with opposing Jewish self-understandings of the law, as addressing tensions between members of the Christian sect of Jewish and of Gentile background, as to the grounds on which Gentiles are included. Law, including moral law, is not static but dynamic.

To return to Spiral/Engrenages: if actions do not distinguish those operating ‘on the side of the law’ from those operating ‘outside the law,’ what does? In part, motive, and conscience, however murky; and in part the key theme of (the possibility of) being redeemed, of being freed from compulsive or addictive behaviour, to step into a freer life. The characters on the side of the law are painfully aware of their weakness, but—even if they cannot bear to admit to their (ironically, clearly visible) vulnerability before others—long for redemption, for themselves…and for the redemption of those who struggle alongside them, often wrestling, in a spiral not so much of violence as of hope. Even as character after character pre-emptively presses the self-destruct button, hope nonetheless endures, defiant.

At the end of the day, redemption cannot be found in ‘righteousness according to the law’ (nor in any other honour code) but is found in acceptance—acceptance within an adoptive family of others, and acceptance of ourselves. Redemption is the bloodied labour of self-sacrificial love.


Tuesday, March 09, 2021

On throwing stones


The Gospel reading set for Morning Prayer today is John 7:53-8:11. A consortium of powerful men are seeking to bring down Jesus, to put him in his place, to end his career. They set a trap, and show that they are entirely prepared to destroy an ‘expendable’ woman for their purposes, to the point of literal death if needs be. They bring before Jesus a woman whom they claim has been caught in the very act of committing adultery, to see if Jesus will defy the Jewish law, which they argued called for a death penalty in such circumstances, or defy the Roman law, which did not permit the occupied Jewish people to exercise the death penalty: will Jesus be a traitor to his heritage, or an insurrectionist threat? Of course, despite the fact that it is not possible to commit adultery on your own—this woman is not accused of masturbating—no man is brought to this trial-by-mob.

Jesus takes his time, refusing to respond, allowing the full weight of the injustice to settle on the scene, before standing up to them, looking them in the eye, and saying, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ This is not a general observation. There are clear sins being embraced here, including the intent to bring false testimony against Jesus, the act of bearing false witness against the woman, the intent to kill. One by one, the accusers are shamed into backing down.

What disturbs me is how often, these days, I hear people take Jesus’ words—let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at [insert name here]—to silence any voice that exposes the hypocrisy and power-games of those in positions of power, usually men. “We’re all sinners, who are you to judge another?” And this is bullshit, the absolute anti-Christ position. Jesus’ response in this episode is a devastating critique, one that ultimately contributes to his own extra-judicial trial and execution. We all live with the consequences of an unwelcome gap that exists between us and others, coming between even our closest relationships—we are all sinners, whose lives are as much shaped by sin as by love and goodness—but we do not all seek to manipulate others for their destruction and our gain in some zero-sum gain. Jesus throws his stones, not at the woman—whom he refuses to condemn, and releases into a new life—but with the precision of David flooring the giant Goliath.

There is no neutral position.


Monday, March 01, 2021

The sun and the mist


The sun rose this morning; but then the sea mist rolled in, turning the disc of the sun from gold to silver before obscuring it completely, scattering and diffusing its light.

I am reminded of Ecclesiastes, one of my favourite books of the Bible, which speaks of life in terms of what is enduring, and ephemeral. The sun rises and sets; winter gives way to spring, gives way to summer, gives way to autumn, gives way to winter again; rain feeds rivers, which run to the sea, from where clouds rise, to fall as rain; we are born, live, and die, giving birth to and burying others along the way, and so life goes on. We live in, and as part of, a fundamentally dependable, ordered creation; and everything is beautiful in its time, wearisome when we try to hold it back or hold on to it—for we can no more do so than grasp the mist in our closed fist. Life endures; life is fleeting. Receive the moment, for what it is, and the next, for what it will be.


Thursday, February 11, 2021


‘Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

‘As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.’

Mark 9:2-9

If I may be honest, I have been finding recent weeks hard going. I know that I am not alone in this. There may be light at the end of the tunnel, but in the meantime, to press that analogy, the railway carriage is claustrophobic. I am not taking in the mountain air. I cannot even watch the mountains drawing ever nearer through the window: only the ghost of the carriage reflected back at me. How do I meet with God, in this airless box?

The gospel reading for this Sunday is truly astonishing. It takes the seemingly ordinary, and reveals something extraordinary, as we shall see. And that might be exactly what is needed, today.

Our passage is set in a time when nothing has happened for six days. ‘Six days’ echoes the six ‘days,’ or epochs, of creation; and so, six days is more than the inside of a week: these days, in which nothing creative is recorded, sprawl on and on, outside of time. These days could just as well describe the insubstantial days I have ghost-walked through since last Sunday. And six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John.

In recent days, various combinations of our household have gone out for a walk around the block. But this phrase Mark chooses, took with him, is more than a record of who came along. It is the same word Matthew uses when he recounts an angel telling Joseph do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. It means to actively, intentionally, join another person or persons to yourself. In this action, Jesus brings Peter and James and John into covenant relationship with himself, to the effect that from here-on in you can read ‘Jesus and Peter and James and John’ as ‘Jesus-Peter-James-John,’ or ‘Jesus = Jesus + Peter + James + John.’ An ordinary little phrase, took with him, that transforms all their identities.

Next, Jesus led them up a high mountain. Again, the phrase ‘led them up’ means more than simply that they were out for a ramble with Jesus out in front. These words are used to describe offering something up a sacrifice, and also to bring something through a sequence of stages to a consummation or goal. In other words, Jesus joins his friends to himself as one common identity—later described as the Body of Christ—and presents that new being to his heavenly Father, in order that it might reach its ultimate purpose.

And this is revealed in what happens next. Jesus was transfigured before them. Now, unlike ‘took with’ or ‘led them up,’ ‘transfigured’ is not exactly an everyday word to us. And yet, it describes something absolutely familiar. It is the same word from which we get ‘metamorphosis,’ where something changes form in keeping with its inner reality. It describes the process by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly; or an acorn, an oak tree. Acorns don’t look anything like oak trees; but they are one in substance. We can confidently say that acorns don’t become butterflies. We can also observe that oak trees produce new acorns, and so the lifecycle carries on.

When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, what we are seeing is the Church, embryonic in Peter and James and John, as it will be in maturity, once the Son of Man (a communal term Jesus borrows from the prophet Daniel to refer to himself as representative of his followers) had risen from the dead. We are beholding the acorn and seeing the oak tree. We are observing the caterpillar and imagining the butterfly on the other side of the traumatic death-and-rebirth of the cocoon tomb. And there to witness this vision are Elijah and Moses, both of whom had solid credentials in witnessing God pass by them on a mountaintop, neither of whom had directly seen that divine glory revealed in this life.

Despite being terrified, the three friends grasp the significance of this fairly well. In suggesting that they build three tabernacles, for Jesus and Moses and Elijah—no mention of themselves—they have understood that they are now one with Jesus. But—nod to Moses and Elijah—the mountain itself, with its clefts and caves and cloud covering, is the place of meeting with God on the mountain; the tabernacle is the place of meeting with God in the valley. Go down, Moses, Elijah. Go down, Jesus-plus. Go down, press on to death and the tomb, trusting in love that is stronger than death and in the new life that springs from that love.

And what of us, in our confinement, acorn buried in the hard winter ground awaiting the spring? What about us in the shabby reality of our present circumstances, a Church that is so far from all that God would have us be, her clothes stained by scandals and injustices so ingrained that no launderer on earth could bleach them clean?

Even here, Jesus takes the initiative; comes and takes us to himself, not to a place but into the closest imaginable lifelong relationship; lifts us up, presenting us before the Father, into their shared delight; and brings us through to maturity, not back to how things once were but to where they are heading, to an altogether greater glory. That is where we are going, together. To be honest, some days I identify more with Elijah, with Moses, with seeing only in my minds eye what others will experience in their bones. And yet, Jesus. And yet, Jesus.

Perhaps we might make three dwellings after all, not on the mountaintop but in the valley of the shadow of death; and learn to embrace the now-and-not-yet—the kingdom at hand, breaking-in, and the kingdom yet-to-come—as Jesus brings us through the sequence of stages that end in the consummation we long for? Before we get to Eastertide, we must journey through Lent. May God grant us a vision of that glory, to strengthen us to endure these days.

Reading between the lines

No perfect sheet of snow on our drive this morning. By the time I had got up, the milkman had already trudged his way up to our door, and back.

I love a blank page. But what is perfection? A fresh sheet, waiting, ready to receive a million possible stories? Or the page on which a story has already been written down, one in a million, started out at least?

The memory of the milkman’s boots.

I can find opening the door to the cold air and stooping down to lift up the crate—six bottles, one with snow crystals on its neck—deeply satisfying AND savour the exquisite disappointment of spoiled snow, right? Or am I wanting to have my breakfast cereal, and keep it?


A tiny scalene triangle, goldenrod orange, catches my eye as it bobs and jerks in the hedge across the lawn. The ivy that creeps along the fence and climbs through the for-now bare branches is too dark a backdrop for me to make out the blackbird itself—to which the wagging beak surely belongs—but I watch anyway, until he breaks cover at the hedge-top and pins me with his rimmed eye. Good morning to you!


Wednesday, February 10, 2021


A troupe of primary school children are crocodiled past our house by their teachers. I hear them coming before I see them through my study window. They marvel at the expanse of virgin snow covering our driveway, and one is brave enough to dare a small detour—a tiny trespass—describing an arc of boot prints between the pillars, the beautiful blank canvas gone in a heartbeat. The other children are thrilled by the audacity, but this child will go far


The ground is more-or-less white, not deep, but freshly falling snow is already filling the prints left by my cat when she reluctantly ventured outside to toilet earlier on. Cold out.

I sit by the window and watch people pass by along the main road. A couple walking a Spaniel, who is clearly far more excited by the snow than my cat is. Mind you, is there anything that doesn’t excite a Spaniel?

Sitting in the same place yesterday, I watched a blackbird eye to eye through the glass, plucking red berries from the shrub growing along the front wall of the vicarage. Beneath the hedge beyond the lawn, a regular robin, a fleeting wren. Snow crystals settle on the tiny shrubbery leaves, shivering in the breeze. There are no birds out today.

Another dog walker. This time a West Highland terrier, white hair and dark pink coat, straining at its lead, shaking its beard at a tree.

We might run later, after work. Or maybe not.

Whatever your response to snow—or, indeed, whatever the circumstances you face this day—may you be blessed with whatever grace you need to grasp hold of life.




God our Father,

you create us from the dust of the earth:

grant that these ashes may be for us

a sign of our penitence

and a symbol of our mortality;

for it is by your grace alone

that we receive eternal life

in Jesus Christ our Saviour.



This year, Ash Wednesday is on 17th February*. This year, due to coronavirus restrictions, I am unable to impose ashes upon foreheads. This year, some question whether a reminder of our mortality is what is needed. And this year, I approach this day against the backdrop of watching Russell T Davies’ incredible It’s a Sin.

To be clear, this five-part series depicting the lives of a group of (mostly) gay young men living (and far too often tragically dying) through the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s won’t be suitable for everyone. There are a lot of explicit sex scenes, though these are in no way gratuitous, but integral and essential to the story being told, the lives being honoured. There are painful scenes of the void between parents and sons, the gulf between the necessary institutions of society and a compassionate society. You’d need to make your own decision on whether to watch or not. My wife and I are watching with our teenage sons (and the only reason we aren’t watching with our teenage daughter is that she has already left home).

Ash Wednesday is about truth and grace: about acknowledging our mortality in its heart-bursting joy and heart-breaking pain; about recognising our failures and the complex ways in which we wound one another—through weakness, through negligence, through our own deliberate fault—and receiving forgiveness for guilt and cleansing for shame. It’s a Sin is a touching exploration of all of these things. (It also sits well with the life-lessons of Ecclesiastes, the Old Testament book the lectionary for Morning Prayer is working its way through at the moment.)

I do not believe that HIV/AIDS was God’s judgement on homosexuality. I am more inclined to believe that it was God’s judgement on wider society for our refusal to embrace gay sons, though I am not convinced even of that. In any case, there are times when our hearts must be broken and made new. I’m not sure how far we have come in British culture, in terms of sons (in particular) talking openly and honestly to their parents about, well, anything of importance to them. I’m not sure how far we have come in how we face up to a mysterious and terrifying epidemic that is spreading through the community, either.

There are times when there is nothing that we can do to change the circumstances, and we must choose between daring to love fiercely or pushing away unbearable pain. The pain is real, and beyond bearing in our own strength, whichever way we decide. We are but dust, and to dust we shall return; but, for now at least, we are animated dust—dust that, as an eloquent friend of mine puts it, sings. Oh, the songs!

There are times when we can, and must, change circumstances, at least to a mitigating extent; where we must reckon with both our responsibility towards our neighbour, and our limits. 100,000 deaths with Covid since last Ash Wednesday would suggest that we need a different approach to bravado. That we need this moment this year as much as any other.

If you have not already watched It’s a Sin, and if you can bear it, it might be something to consider as we contemplate our lives in the shadow of an ashen cross.

Lord, have mercy.


*The date of Ash Wednesday moves around, tied, as it is, to the date of Easter Sunday, which is, in turn, tied to the lunar cycle; in contrast to, say, Christmas Day, which is always the same date, and instead wanders around the days of the week.