Thursday, April 04, 2024

World Autism Acceptance Week


2-8 April 2024 is World Autism Acceptance Week.

We hear more today than we used to about Autism Awareness. But the idea of Autism Awareness is somewhat problematic. The diagnostic conditions for Autism are based on how autistic people respond to stressful situations (and diagnostic interviews are incredibly stressful). These might include situational mutism, where someone finds themselves so overwhelmed that they are unable to speak, that their voice is stolen from them.

But if we take the time to reflect on it, we will recognise that for all of us, for anyone, how we operate when we are under stress is not the same as how we operate in environments where we are relaxed, where we feel well-supported. Imagine how you would feel if I were to define neurotypical people by how you operate under extreme stress! Neurotypicals dont sleep, lack focus, have short tempers, and may be prone to violence.

And so, the unwelcome result of growing Autism Awareness is more people saying, You dont come across as autistic. Or even, We know that you arent meant to say You dont look autistic”—see how autism-aware we are!but you just dont come across as autistic.

Perhaps my autistic engagement with rest and joy doesnt match your stress-based expectations. Perhaps I am not autistic enough for you when I am running alongside someone (who I can talk to without having to look at).

Acceptance goes beyond Awareness because acceptance opens us to the lived experience of the other. It is marked by taking a genuine interest in another person, rather than prejudice based on stereotype. It does not mean (in any context) that we must fully agree or fully affirm everything about one another; but it does require of us a commitment to everyone having what they need for their wellbeing, their wholeness, which the Bible calls shalom.

Awareness is unlikely to lead to acceptance. But Acceptance might just result in a more rounded awareness.

What will you do to take part in World Autism Acceptance Week?


Sunday, March 31, 2024

Easter Day


‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ Mark 16.8

God is the author of Life, and death is an affront, a direct challenge to, the goodness and good rule of God.

The Christian faith stands or falls on the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. And in their Gospels, Matthew, Luke, and John record multiple accounts of people encountering the risen Jesus. But Mark tells a different side to the story. Mark does not present us with Jesus, come forth from the tomb. Mark presents us with a group of women, disciples of Jesus, come forth from the tomb. And these women have a problem.

If we are to understand the problem they have, we need to understand how God has ordered the world.

First, the world is divided into things that are holy and things that are common. This is not a moral distinction. Most things are common, but some things, and some people, are set apart by and to and for the Lord God. Six days are common, but the Sabbath is holy. Mount Horeb, where God instructed Moses, is holy; as is Mount Zion, and the Temple in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem itself. We understand this. We have an island, off our coast in the northeast of England, known as Holy Island. We consider our churches holy.

Second, the world is divided into things that are ritually clean and things that are ritually unclean. Again, this is not a moral distinction. Most things are clean, most of the time. But things that convey something of death—that affront to God—are unclean. So, those who have a skin condition that makes them look like a corpse are unclean. Anything related to reproduction and childbirth makes someone unclean, not because these natural things are bad, but because of the high mortality rate for babies and mothers (not only in the ancient world). And contact with a corpse, or a tomb, makes one unclean. Again, this is not a moral failing: indeed, there was a moral obligation to bury the dead.

Ritually clean things in either holy or common places pose no problem. Ritually unclean things in common places pose no problem in themselves, as long as the person involved follows the God-given instruction for purifying themselves from death in all its forms, usually through a combination of time and washing. But ritually unclean things coming into even unwitting contact with holy places is a problem because death is an affront to God, and the mortal who carries death into the presence of God may die as a result. When death comes into the presence of God, God kicks it out; and when God kicks out death, any mortal who gets caught in the moment is in trouble. (Alternatively, when people persist in bringing unclean things into holy space, God may choose to withdraw, which is also bad for humans.)

[Matthew Thiessen’s Jesus and the Forces of Death is really good on the holy/common clean/unclean matrix—he uses the terms holy & profane, purity & impurity—but, somewhat strangely to my mind, does not deal with the immediate implications of Jesus’ death for his disciples.]

The women have a problem. They have gone to the tomb to anoint the corpse. This is, indeed, a moral obligation, but one that will make them ritually unclean for seven days, and anyone else they come into contact with ritually unclean for a day. They go to the tomb—which is outside the city boundary because the dead cannot be within the holy perimeter—but this isn’t a problem in itself. It just means that they cannot enter holy space. Second Temple Jews held a range of interpretations: all were of the view that someone made ritually unclean by contact with a corpse or tomb could not enter the temple; some were of the opinion that such a person could not enter the city around the temple. Jesus’ mother and her relatives were devout temple-based Jews. As such, they would want to ensure maximum distance between uncleanliness and the temple. They were already ritually unclean, having assisted Joseph and Nicodemus in taking Jesus’ corpse down from the cross and preparing it for its hasty burial; and—unlike the male disciples, who kept their distance at the cross, and who were staying in an upper room in the city—they were likely already keeping outside the city, perhaps with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in nearby Bethany.

None of this poses a problem, until the angel instructs them to go and tell Peter and the other disciples with him that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead of them to Galilee.

The women have a problem. Our English translation tells us that they are gripped by terror and amazement. The word translated ‘terror’ conveys the anxiety of having a religious duty and not knowing how one will be able to discharge it. The word translated ‘amazement’ has a universal meaning of being displaced from one’s usual place: it can refer to the displaced mind, but also conveys the sense of being displaced outside the city, as those who were ritually unclean on account of contact with a corpse were required to do.

How can they bring a message to Peter when they cannot return to Jerusalem for seven days? Remember, Jesus’ mother and her relatives are devout, temple-focused Jews; and, moreover, Jesus insisted that he had not come to abolish the law but to bring it to completion or fulfilment. So, they tell no one, in the immediate; though they will find a way to get the message to Peter. (And, having gone to the tomb himself, Peter will return to the upper room. On the matter of whether tomb contact excluded you from all Jerusalem or only the temple itself, it is likely that the Galilean disciples had a different view from Jesus’ relatives; though even Peter hesitates to enter the tomb and thus make himself ritually unclean.)

Indeed, Jesus does not abolish the law, but breaks the power of death that required the law to be put in place for our protection. And though we still experience death, this has real implications. The presence of death in our lives no longer separates us from God, even temporarily. So, whereas the Jews buried their dead outside the city wall, away from the holy, Christians came to bury their dead immediately surrounding their churches, as close as possible to—and even within—their holy places. More than this, the bereaved draw close to God. Jesus did not die instead of us, but ahead of us, so that we might follow, unafraid, held every step of the way by God.

Jesus is so infectiously holy that, through his death and resurrection, he makes even death—the thing that separates us from God, albeit temporarily—holy. So now, rather than separating us from God, death—our own, or any death that we must face—is an open door into God’s presence. Into the presence of Love, the author of Life. A door no one wants to go through, but that all can go through, if they trust that God, revealed to us in Jesus, is good.

And that, in my opinion, is good news.


Thursday, March 28, 2024

Maundy Thursday


Each spring, one of the toughest endurance races in the world is held in the Frozen Head State Park in Tennessee. Participants attempt to complete a five-lap route—or, as our American cousins pronounce it, rout—which is, in total, between 100 and 130 miles. The exact route changes each year, but roughly one third is on forest trails, the other two-thirds off-trail. The total ascent and descent are equivalent to going from sea-level to the summit of Mount Everest and back. Twice. The five loops must be completed within a strict 60-hour cut-off. And the American pronunciation rout is fitting: each year, 35-40 of the world's best endurance runners take part. To date, since 1989, a total of 20 people have finished (three more than once). If you aren’t a runner, it is possible that you heard of the Barkley Marathons for the first time this year, as British runner Jasmin Paris became the first woman ever to finish.

The race is legendary, with its own mythic lore. Jo and I have watched two documentaries on it, and we are in awe. Two things stand out. The first is that it simply isn’t possible to know what it is like to take part in the Barkley Marathons unless you have taken part. Even if you are a seasoned ultramarathon runner. Which I am not. The second is that as participants drop out of the race, they become the most amazing support team for those who remain. No assistance is permitted except in camp, between loops, and there, the most experienced ultra runners in the world are willing one another on. They are on hand with advice, to wash legs shredded by briars, to pierce blisters so the other can carry on.

Both these things speak to me of the Christian life.

On the Thursday of Holy Week, the Church gathers to hear again the old, old story of the Israelites eating a hurried meal before heading out into the wilderness at night, walking pole in hand, in their escape from Egypt (this, too, is mirrored by the Barkley Marathons, where, between loops, runners take on hurried food for energy) and the less old story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

As Jesus moves from disciple to disciple—those who have been with him on the Way—Peter is aghast that his greatest hero might stoop to serve him. But Jesus responds: You don’t understand, don’t perceive what I am doing, in this precise moment; but then [somewhat ambiguously and unhelpfully translated as ‘later’ in some English translations] you will.

What is it that Jesus wants Peter and the others to understand? That they were to delight in one another and prefer one another to themselves. That is to say, when we look out for ourselves, we are alone; but when we look out for one another, we have a tribe on our side. As the saying goes, if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

And Jesus says, it isn’t possible to know, to perceive, to ‘get’ what it means to love one another through observing others—let alone by reading about it or watching a documentary. You only get to understand this by doing it. Only those who have attempted to run the Barkley Marathons know what the Barkley Marathons are about.

The only way to know what it is to follow Jesus, with others who are following Jesus, is by following Jesus together. Not as an idea or a philosophy, not as head-knowledge. You discover it in your hands and feet, in aching limbs.

I am never going to run 130 miles around the mountainous forests of Tennessee inside 60 hours. I wouldn’t even try. But I have been walking with Jesus for over fifty years, and I have no intention of dropping out now. I have yet to reach the cut-off point. Let’s go again.


Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Ash Wednesday


A poem written for Ash Wednesday 2024:

You have heard it said that you are too little, or too much, to be accepted;
and, taking those words to heart, you have been consumed by their flames.

You have heard it said that you are more deserving than others;
and, internalising that mantra, you have been razed by its fire.

But I say to you, rise up:
by the grace of God
arise from the ashes,
O Phoenix,
dust stirred to life by the kiss of love,
by the breath of God
that gives life to the dead.

You are the phoenix of Christ,
given new beginning in his name.
Neither too little nor too much,
nor deserving nor undeserving,
simply loved to life,
again and again.

Do not fear returning to dust.
Receive this mark upon your head,
a sign of hope, and trust.
And by the grace of God,


Tuesday, February 13, 2024



There have always been autistic people among us, we simply haven’t always understood or valued them. I love Ann Memmott’s take on Nicodemus, a friend of Jesus who displays autistic traits:

He is an expert in the scriptures – they are his specialist subject – and offers expert advice to his peers.

He first comes to Jesus at night when there would be less sensory stimulation and crowds of people to overwhelm him. In their conversation, Jesus offers him a metaphor, which he takes literally and therefore as impossible, so that Jesus needs to unpack the idea in a different way.

After Jesus has died, Nicodemus brings spices to embalm him, but he brings an excessive amount – wanting to help, but totally over the top.

All these things are common autistic traits, within the spectrum of lived experiences of autistic people.

I also love that as a neurodivergent, autistic vicar, who recognises myself in Nicodemus, I am Priest in Charge of St Nicholas Church. For Nicodemus and Nicholas are the same name - Victory of the Common People - in two different forms [nike demos, nike laos].


Thursday, February 08, 2024



In the Gospel reading set for Holy Communion today, Mark 7.24-30, Jesus visits Tyre.

Tyre is one of the world’s oldest cities, her ancient walls rising out of the Mediterranean, a jewel of the sea, a drop of human creativity in the ocean.

It was famous for two things: firstly, purple dye. The story goes that Tyre was founded by the god Melqart for his lover Tyrus. One day they were taking a romantic stroll along the beach with her dog, when it bit into a shell and its fangs dripped purple. Tyrus requested that Melqart make her a dress in the same colour: he gathered up every sea snail he could find, boiled them to extract the dye, and presented her with her prize. From then, it became the choice of kings and queens and emperors: Mark (and John) will report that at Jesus’ coronation as King of the Jews, the Romans will put a crown on his head and a purple cloak on his shoulders, a Tyrian robe.

The other thing Tyre was famous for was high quality wood from the cedar forests of Lebanon, that part of the mainland they controlled. This wood made the best ships – Tyre had two harbours, one facing north and the other south, and a fine merchant navy, crossing the Mediterranean, founding colonies on her shores, including Carthage and Cadiz, through trade not conquest, and even venturing out into the Atlantic – and the best temples.

David, king of Jerusalem, was friends with Hiram, king of Tyre. When David made the arrangements for the temple his son Solomon would build, he contracted Hiram to supply wood and purple yarn and cloth – including the great curtain that hung in front of the Holy of Holies – in exchange for wheat, Tyre possessing no arable land of its own.

Such alliances were often cemented by marriage, including Solomon, and the later king Ahab, who married Jezebel, daughter of a king of Tyre. Jezebel championed the worship of the gods and goddesses of the Canaanite pantheon, reigning in tumult and eventually being thrown to her death from a window, her blood licked up by dogs, reminiscent of the dripping fangs of Tyrus’ dog.

No one could capture the island, though many tried. Nebuchadnezzar besieged and captured Jerusalem but besieged and failed to take Tyre. Again and again, they withstood enemy armies, until Alexander the Great. They held out against his siege, too, until in frustration he had his army throw great stones into the sea, building a causeway they could march along, all the while the Tyrians throwing boulders and flaming arrows back at them. Eventually, causeway complete and a mercenary navy recruited from Tyre’s treacherous neighbours in Sidon, Alexander’s forces captured the city. The women and children had already been evacuated by sea to Carthage, but the men were struck down, including 2,000 who were crucified – the Romans weren’t the first or only ones to use crucifixion to make a point.

The Greeks settled the city, the Romans following, though all the while Tyre managed to emerge, Phoenix-like, from its own ashes – the word Phoenician, meaning worker-of-purple-red-dye, and phoenix, or purple-red bird, share the same root.

To this city, now connected to the mainland, Jesus came. Trying to lie low, the word gets out. A Hellenised woman of Syrophoenician origin (that is, the Phoenicians of this coast, rather than the Phoenicians of their daughter colonies around the Mediterranean) comes to see him. Her young daughter has been taken captive by an unclean spirit, and she begs him to cast it out.

The following exchange is enigmatic, a weaving of several threads of yarn. In saying that it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs, Jesus may well be making the point (his own, or the view of his disciples) that he must attend to his own people before the neighbouring peoples. But the relationship between them has always been more dynamic than that. Perhaps we might hear, in his words about throwing down and dogs, in this Tyrian context, a concern about violence. He makes the point that young children should be fattened up first. Perhaps he is implying that the casting out of demons is a violent business – later, in Mark 9.14-29, we see Jesus cast such a spirit out of a boy, who is convulsed terribly, such that, at first, he appears left dead – and it would be better to wait until the young girl was bigger, stronger.

But the mother responds by pointing out that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the table. Crumbs falling is far gentler than bread thrown or cast out. Perhaps she is indicating her trust that Jesus can cast out the occupying spirit without causing further violence to her little daughter.

And Jesus says, It is done, as you understood it could be when you came to me.

Jesus comes, not as an invading conqueror – not making a way, where there was no way, for control over another's autonomy and dignity – but hidden; proclaimed by a whisper on the wind; to restore us to our own self, and to one another, and to the God who made us in and for love: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. He treats all with gentleness and compassion, with concern for their dignity and choice and partnership.

He comes that we might all be Phoenicians, phoenixes, rising to new life from the ashes.


Sunday, January 28, 2024



Accompanied by her husband, a young mother brings her firstborn son to public worship for the first time, at forty days old. As they come into the space and look around, an older man approaches, takes the child in his arms (always ask for, and be given, permission before doing this; and don’t take offence if permission is not forthcoming) and sings a song of praise. First, he honours God; then, he blesses the father and mother, and their child. As he does so, an older woman joins them, takes up the theme, and extends it to include others who had gathered in that place.

Simeon was not a priest, not the public face of the faith. Anna was recognised as a prophet, an oracle who spoke words of godly wisdom; but she had no official role or office. They were simply human beings who were well-soaked in the ways of God. And uttering blessings is central to such a life—not something reserved for vicars. You don’t even need to be Christian.

To bless something—whether a person, or some other part of creation, or a place, or a tool, or a circumstance—is to affirm its essential goodness. From our faith perspective, that essential goodness is God-given.

Jewish blessings always begin, ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe …’

Christian blessings, which derive from Jewish blessings, are similarly framed, ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation …’

If we are to bless, we first need to meet what we find, where we find it, and then pay it attention. Simeon meets Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in the temple court, takes the child in his arms, and pays close attention. Then, he speaks out what he sees.

My back door faces east, and I can stand there a while and watch the sunrise. ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, giver of light and love. And blessed be you, O dawn, that paints the sky in pink and orange to welcome the day.’

Then, as I stand there, I become aware of the dawn chorus. ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, who feeds the birds of the air. And blessed be you, garden bird, who fills the sky with your song.’

Or perhaps this morning it is raining, and I can choose to be grumpy about that or I can choose to bless the rain. ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, who gives the water of life. And blessed be you, rain, that refreshes the earth.’

If we can get into the habit of blessing, it will form us over time, so that we meet all things open to the goodness hidden within them—even if that goodness is not immediately apparent. So, for example, if you fall and break your leg, ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, who has fashioned our flesh and bone. And blessed be you, O femur, who have borne my weight all these years, and who now calls me to rest and to heal.’

So, let us have a go, and together learn how to bless. Who, or what, might you bless today?