Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The A Word

As part of their Autism Season, the BBC are currently showing the drama ‘The A Word’, which focuses on a family trying to come to terms with their five-year-old son’s diagnosis of being on the Autism Spectrum. It is challenging viewing, but so far looks to be very well-written. The mother is not a very nice person, and I like that – parents of children with specific needs are not necessarily saints. The second episode, which aired yesterday, ended on an explosive confrontation between Joe’s parents, in which dad Paul accurately calls out his wife Alison’s actions as being to do with shame:

Paul: “…you are ashamed…”
Alison: “You think I am ashamed of my own son?”
Paul: “Of Joe. Of yourself, for not spotting it sooner. Of us, for having him. Of me. And finally, just to round things off, you’re ashamed for being ashamed in the first place.”
Alison: “Oh right, ’cos you’re so f***ing okay with it…”
Paul: “No, I’m not! Not one bit! And that’s why I can see it in you. [sighs] It’s not much fun, is it? It’s not what you want to be, is it?”

The A word of the series title is Autism; but even more so, Ashamed is the A word that must not be spoken. While we pretend to live in a shameless society, shame is rife. Whereas guilt is outward looking – that is, it has to do with a sense of failure in relation to another, whether letting people down by not doing something we ought to have done, or breaking a moral or legal code – shame turns us in on ourselves, making us feel polluted, dirty, unworthy. In the example above, Joe’s mother does not feel guilt over having done wrong, but shame over the condition in which she finds herself, powerless. And this is a very accurate observation. A parent can know that their child’s condition is not a consequence of their own actions – and therefore be guilt-free – but can nonetheless feel acute shame in the face of life. All the more so in our so very judgemental society.

I believe that the Bible addresses shame just as fully as it addresses guilt. In the Old Testament we see a pattern of sacrifices established. Sacrifices are, essentially, an expression of community: primarily a meal, shared symbolically with God and physically with others. Some sacrifices are given as an expression of thankfulness. Others are given as a way of marking the restoration of relationship after it has been impaired by sin. The sacrifice itself does not deal with sin – repentance, likely including some form of restitution, and forgiveness deals with the sin. But in eating together again the sacrifice breaks the power of guilt. Yet another category of sacrifice deals with shame. These mark restoration to community after separation through pollution, such as the stain left by menstruation or seminal fluid. The point is not that blood or semen are unclean in themselves, but that the stain they leave – so hard to wash out – symbolise the stain of shame that pollutes us when something deeply intimate and personal is exposed to the gaze of others whose response is not sympathetic, or which we anticipate will not be sympathetic.

This, by the way, is why we continue to offer our sacrifice at every Eucharist, or Communion service: not at all to secure something from God, but to enjoy what has already been restored to us through participating in a shared meal.

In this season of Eastertide, the Church proclaims that through the shameful death – a very public humiliation – and glorious resurrection of Jesus, God has dealt decisively with our shame just as much as with our guilt. The Gospel is good news for those who are weighed down with shame, for in union with Christ the stain is washed away, cleaner and brighter than we could ever achieve. This does not mean that we no longer experience shame, but rather, that we can be freed from its hold over us and restored to community, again and again.

The false consolation of shame is defiance, which further isolates us from the very community we long to reconnect with. The true consolation is acceptance, of ourselves – our real selves, in our giftedness and impairments, and not some ideal self against which we can never match up – and of others – in their real giftedness and impairment, too. We don’t yet know how Paul and Alison’s story will continue to unfold. But I hope for a hope-full outcome…

Sunday, March 27, 2016


Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
O Universe, dance around God’s throne!
Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!
Sound the victorious trumpet of salvation!

Rejoice, O earth, in glory, revealing the splendour of your creation,
radiant in the brightness of your triumphant King!
Christ has conquered! Now his life and glory fill you!
Darkness vanishes for ever!

Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory!
The risen Saviour, our Lord of life, shines upon you!
Let all God’s people sing and shout for joy.

Saturday, March 26, 2016


Everywhere we go, we leave behind traces of our having been there:

forensic evidence;



Whenever an injustice is committed, such as a murder, the DNA of both victim and perpetrator leave their trace as a wound in the fabric of the place.

Likewise, a memorial – such as the initials of lovers carved into a tree, or those of a choir boy scratched into his stall – leaves a lasting scar, in place of a fleeting moment that has been passed through.

Memories live on, in the minds of those who remain and those who return, and, some say, held in the place, in safekeeping, in case they should be required in some future time not yet come to. Indeed, memories find the deepest recesses in which to lodge, from which to return at unbidden moments. It is a quarter of a century since I left my parents’ home…

Today is Holy Saturday. Today we must attend to the news that Jesus spent time in hell, preaching – what? Why, the same message he had been anointed to bear from the beginning: ‘to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

And this means that even though we will proclaim that Christ has risen, there are traces of Christ in hell, traces that cannot be obliterated however hard it might be tried. Fingerprints in blood stains. His name carved in a long-ago now broken gate. The haunting memory that cannot be dislodged, that whispers even here we are not ever fully beyond the bounds of God’s boundless love

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The dark- and hidden-ness of God

“Why is it black?” a number of people have asked, standing in front of the figure representing God in the latest artwork to be installed in the Minster, Yahweh and the Seraphim.

“It isn’t” is the simple reply. Not black, but the natural colour of the clay Nicholas Pope used. The Seraphim are made of the same stuff, but adorned with a coat of white, blue, and gold paint. Not black, but nonetheless very dark, absorbing light.

Why might we think of God as an absorbent presence, at the centre?

Right now we are deep into Holy Week, standing on the edge of Jesus’ betrayal, by a friend, at night; his illegal trial, by night; his execution – by day, but, so we are told, the sky turned black; and his lying in death in the sealed tomb…and the story we tell is that in the person of Jesus, and in these events, God absorbs all that is wrong, every pain common to human experience, taking it into himself, neutralising it, before redeeming it all in new beginning.

Another observation: although Yahweh is inscribed with the encircling letters I AM YHWH, visitors are prevented by the altar rail from walking around – come no closer, for this is holy ground – and so can only see the letters (if they can make out letters at all) W H I A.

If you know that I AM is the answer God gives to Moses’ enquiry as to his identity, and if you know that YHWH (notionally pronounced Yahweh – the vowels are not written – though Judaism considers the Name so holy that it is not uttered but substituted) is the name of this God, then I AM YHWH makes some sense. But what sense might we possibly make of W H I A?

One might suggest that W H I A is as much as we get to see of God. Even for those who believe that God is made visible in Jesus, we live with the paradox that the God who makes himself known is beyond our knowing, that the God who draws close is unapproachable, that the God who takes upon himself the limitations of a human body is boundless…

Of all times, Holy Week is the point where God is darkest and most hidden: where we cry, with Jesus, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” Why are you so far from saving me?

And it is in these moments that God is closer than we are able to bear, absorbing all that would hurt or harm us, whether our body or our soul – even should it succeed in killing us – and bringing about all things made new.

God is, at least in part, both dark and hidden. This is mystery, beyond our understanding. But the darkness of God, and his hiddenness, are very good – every bit as good as the light of God, and his given-ness.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


Yesterday evening we welcomed Nicholas Pope back to the Minster for the opening of the Baldock Pope Zahle exhibition running across the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art and Sunderland Minster, 19 March – 18 June 2016. He is a most gracious man, living with increasing frailty with great dignity, and it has been a joy to work with him in showing Yahweh and the Seraphim, which reflects Pope’s theological focus in the light of his own mortality.

I don’t think there is any particular reason why it should be so, but the conversations I’ve had concerning the installation seem to take on a daily theme. Yesterday’s conversations revolved around how different the sculpture looks, not only against changing light, but against the changing backdrop of an altar frontal that has been purple for Lent, is now red for Holy Week, will be stripped on Maundy Thursday and bare on Good Friday, and gold and white for Eastertide. This in turn led into conversations about the foundational stories of the Christian faith and the ways in which we tell and enter-into them together, which raises questions such as:

How is our corporate life coloured by the changing seasons of the Church year, the changing acts of our story?

How might the particular emphases of the seasons highlight different aspects of our own particular personal life, enabling us to live more freely, more fully?

Reaction to the work has been varied, as might be imagined. We wouldn’t want it any other way: art needs to provoke a reaction in us, for us to explore, and taking offence is as valid as taking delight or even being unsure, so long as we own our responses. As it happens, viewers have been overwhelmingly positive so far; but even the negative views give rise to significant reflection. A very few feel it unfortunate or inappropriate to locate the work in the chancel, in front of the high altar. While I do not share that view, it is helpful to me in as much as it raises questions such as:

Is there anything in my manner of living that is incongruous for someone who asserts the lordship of Jesus?

Anything that is an affront to his self-giving, or which displaces him from his rightful place?

Is there anything of which the Holy Spirit might want to convict me, which Jesus would wish to confront?

And if so, where ought I to bring it, if not to his feet?

Friday, March 18, 2016


In her highly acclaimed book An Altar in the World: finding the sacred beneath our feet, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about twelve practices that help us do just that. Among them is reverence, or the practice of paying attention. I have been paying attention to the artwork currently installed in the Minster, in the belief that even though it is not an explicitly Christian vehicle for contemplation, nonetheless I might encounter God as I do so.

Below are details of each of the letters from the central pillar, I AM YHWH – I am struck by how deeply they resonate with my having been in the Judean wilderness, to wadis carved into the rock face, and the very many biblical stories to which that landscape forms the backdrop for experiencing God as our refuge...

And the work interacted creatively for me with these verses from the reading from Hebrews chapter 12 at Morning Prayer yesterday:

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


Since the installation of Yahweh and the Seraphim at the Minster (here for the next three months), I’ve had at least four conversations about God and faith every day, with visitors to the building or members of our congregation.

As it happened, today’s conversations were all about angels. More than one visitor said, “I know who Yahweh is – that’s God…” [God, as revealed in the Old Testament] “…but what are seraphim?” – followed by lots of questions as to what we might know about angels.

And of course, while angels appear in the Bible, and in various Jewish, Christian, and Muslim writings, ‘angelology’ tends to build more weight than our sources can fully bear. As it happens, I can speak of personal experience of seeing – or, at least, of being aware of – angels; but I can claim no expert knowledge.

When it comes to speaking of angels, we are grasping for familiar words to describe the unfamiliar; vaguely-close images with which to convey what we see only at the very edge of our vision, half-visible, but cannot look directly upon – for when we try to, they vanish.

This indirect language is all we have, to speak of things such as the monsters that lurk beneath our beds, or the love that vanquishes them. No one believes that the one they love is really comparable to a summer’s day; but then again, “I notice, with appreciation, that you still put up with me despite the fact that I must annoy you at times” doesn’t quite do love justice.

What are the things that can only be seen out of the corner of our eye; that can only be described by visionaries?

And why would they even matter?

What disciplines reveal

This week I was struck by something a friend, Scott, wrote on Facebook. It has stayed with me ever since, has really got under my skin. He wrote:

“Your disciplines reveal to whom/what you are a disciple.

Your disciplines reveal to whom/what you are a disciple.

If it is my discipline – my prioritised, habitual, life-shaping practice – to go out every pay day and buy something that I do not need just because it is new – I am not speaking here of the very real need of many to shop for necessities or pay bills on pay day – then I am a disciple of the advertising industry.

If it is my discipline to replace my iPhone – and again, this is a hypothetical example – every time a new version is released, then I am a disciple of Apple.

If it is my discipline to read only one particular newspaper, of whatever persuasion, and to accept everything I read in it to be true, then I am a disciple of the media mogul who owns that paper.

If it is my discipline to watch a particular tv soap, religiously, then I am a disciple of the script-writer.

Disciplines are not necessarily unpleasant at the time – though they demand something, of time or money or effort. Disciplines can be comforting, providing structure within which life can be enjoyed; can be enjoyable.

What are the disciplines of your life?

Whom/what do they reveal you to be a disciple of?

Hospitality from the margins

Throughout Lent, we’ve been exploring hospitality at the Minster, through our sermon series and accompanying discussion group, and through the unexpected opportunity that arose when the people who were running a café in our building decided to move on to other things – we’re filling the gap with friends and volunteers until we can appoint a new manager, to be an integral part of our staff team.

This past Sunday I introduced the idea of hospitality from the margins, or how the opportunity to extend hospitality can empower people who lack power in society.

At our Tuesday evening conversation, we reflected on the story, told in 1 Kings 17, of Elijah receiving hospitality from a widow. Our reflections included:

[1] the possibility that she is a widow because her husband had died as a result of the drought, which would make Elijah complicit in her situation – and even if not, we find ourselves complicit in the issues of in/justice in our society.

[2] Elijah addresses the widow in very direct terms – not tentatively, and without (our) cultural niceties. Is he guilty of a sense of entitlement; or is he, by being so direct, demonstrating a confidence in the widow’s ability to provide that she herself lacks? And are we aware of the ways in which our words, spoken with a particular intent, can be taken as having a very different value-judgement?

[3] Elijah’s presence results in the widow being painfully reminded of her failings; indeed, she labours under the belief that God might be punishing her. Despite the miraculous provision she has seen, and participated in as someone with agency, she falls back on a lack of confidence in herself and in God when presented with a new crisis. Are we aware that our best intentions to empower others can also result in disempowerment? Not that this is reason to do nothing, but rather invitation and opportunity lead on to further challenges to be addressed.

We also reflected on our own personal experiences of receiving hospitality from the hands of someone with fewer resources than us – my experience of staying in the home of a Zambian widow; my conversation partner’s experience of working alongside a homeless man in a soup kitchen.

Have you experienced hospitality from the margins? (Where? When? Who? How? Why?)

Can you describe the impact, both intended and unintended?

Monday, March 14, 2016

Commonwealth Day

Today is Commonwealth Day.

The British Empire was built on the two pillars of piracy (stealing what belongs to others, just because we can) and paternalism (believing that we know better than others what is best for them) (both enjoying a late revival in Westminster at present). Nonetheless, as the Commonwealth of Nations shows us, however imperfectly, by the grace and mercy of God these things can be transformed into partnership. Oppressed and oppressor can be freed together (an ongoing process), enemies can become friends (and this gives hope for other contexts).

Today I give thanks for all my friends from Commonwealth nations, both colonial and indigenous - and, indeed, mixed - in heritage.

May the sun continue to set on an empire on which it once never set. And may the sun continue to rise on commonwealth friendship.

At Morning Prayer, reading from Hebrews 11: a list of people whose faith enabled them to endure, subvert, and stand against their circumstances, in hope that their descendants would have a better future.

Feels appropriate today.

In the square overlooking the Houses of Parliament, alongside statues of British politicians including Winston Churchill, are statues of South African colonial and post-colonial leaders, Jan Smuts and Nelson Mandela; and the father of India, Mahatma Gandhi.

Smuts and Gandhi disagreed strongly, but had a deep mutual respect for one another. Churchill treated Gandhi with contempt.

Days like this

I recently wrote a post about a day in the life of Sunderland Minster. This one is, by way of a follow-up, a day in the life of the Minster Priest…

Contrary to popular belief, vicars don’t work only one day a week. Nonetheless, Sundays are a ‘high-stakes game’, as so many people come together with such an emotionally-charged investment in what they are participating in. I always wake up earlier on Sundays than any other day of the week, always experience butterflies in my stomach.

This Sunday was no different than any other, in that regard. It turned out like this:

8.00am Holy Communion (Book of Common Prayer – a monthly service, only 3 of us present today), in the Bede Chapel. The Commandments, and the set readings, lend themselves to engagement with the latest art installation in the Minster…

9.45am Sung Eucharist (Common Worship – contemporary Anglican liturgy, formal setting – our ‘main’ weekly service, with an attendance of around 100). I’m preaching a series on hospitality through Lent, and not following the Lectionary. Today we’re thinking about hospitality from the margins, or the art of empowering. Before Christmas I have chosen readings – Elijah receiving hospitality from (first carrion birds and then) a widow preparing to die; the imprisoned Paul receiving hospitality from a runaway slave. As I listen to the first reading, to Elijah hiding in a wadi, I am struck by how the sculpture, with I AM YAHWEH cut into it in elongated letters, looks like wadis cut into the cliff face.

Between the readings, the choir sings a setting of the opening verses of Psalm 129 –

‘Many a time have they fought against me from my youth,’
may Israel now say;
‘Many a time have they fought against me from my youth,
but they have not prevailed against me.’
The ploughers ploughed upon my back
and made their furrows long.
But the righteous Lord
has cut the cords of the wicked in pieces. –

and I am struck that the marks in the sculpture might also be those furrows, of which the Lord is deeply aware. And I am also struck, in the light of the sermon I have prepared, by the next word, But

These creative interactions are not planned. They are serendipities. And I am not alone in noticing them. Someone else finds me immediately after the service to ask whether I had noticed, too…

During the distribution of communion, I offer prayer and anointing with oil in the Bede Chapel. Today, only one person takes up the offer; yet it is precious, a God-appointed meeting, in which healing flows.

11.00am today we had an opportunity to hear from George Vasey, the curator of the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, with whom we have partnered in bringing Nicholas Pope’s Yahweh and the Seraphim to Sunderland – a major contribution to Sunderland’s bid to be City of Culture 2021, and an exciting opportunity to engage in a public conversation about the nature of God and of faith.

11.15am (ish) while Feast (informal service, currently incorporating Bible study discussions in English and Farsi, alongside contemplative and creative/making response opportunities; attendance around 30; I am not usually involved) is going on, I’m in the café with members of the 9.45am congregation, hearing about their week, listening to what is going on in their lives.

12.00 Throughout Lent, we’ve been having soup lunches and donating money to Christian Aid. I get to meet three delightful Dutch Royal Navy sailors, docked in Sunderland for three days on their way home from Norway, who have just attended Feast. Our conversation is gift to me, as much as our hospitality is gift to them.

2.00pm Holy Baptism, in the Bede Chapel. I have the privilege of baptising a baby boy, whose older sister I had baptised when she was the age he is now; a lovely Nigerian family; a small gathering, in flowing festival robes – including mine.

Sundays are a pressure-point, and I’m very aware that is so for many others, not just me (my clergy colleagues, and many other members of the church have been as busy as I have been, and I'm grateful to and thankful for them). But, by the time I get home in the mid-afternoon, with a bit of admin to attend to but no evening service ahead, I think to myself on days like today my job is the best job in the world.

And it is done for the day, so all that remains is to toast muffins for tea, open a bottle of wine, and, once the boys are in bed and the girl is curled up in a chair listening to music in another room, to settle down in front of the tv with Jo and watch The Night Manager

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Yahweh and the Seraphim

The latest artwork to be installed in Sunderland Minster, and the most ambitious project to date, is Yahweh and the Seraphim, by Nicholas Pope (ceramics, 1995). Pope is an internationally acclaimed sculptor, and this is the first time that this work has been shown in the UK. The work comprises of a central figure, Yahweh – the name of God in the Bible – surrounded by six figures representing seraphim – angelic beings of the heavenly court. Together – especially in their current setting – they invite us to reflect on our own image of God, of the nature of God and angels and, indeed, of faith, our own faith, whatever that might be in.

‘Yahweh’ is rock-like. The rock of the Judean wilderness is a significant image for God, in particular in the experience of the psalmist king David. Carved into the monolith, as water erosion carves into the cliff faces of the wilderness, are the encircling letters ‘I AM YHWH’ – I AM being the name by which Yahweh made himself known to Moses. From the back of the nave – the main space of the Minster – it is striking how closely the ribs of the carvings mirror the ribs of the stone columns supporting the vault of the roof overhead. Although not visible, the piece is hollow, and that connects this rock to Masada and the great defensive structures of the Judean wilderness, with their cavernous water cisterns, as large as cathedrals, carved out by hand to enable life to exist through the hardest drought or siege. And these attributes invite us to contemplate God as shelter, and the faith community as a place of work for the protection of life in an otherwise inhospitable context. What is the place of faith in our often dehumanising society today?

This ‘Yahweh’ may also be considered phallic. Indeed, the fiery tops of the seraphim might bring to mind eggs surrounded by sperm. Here, if one chooses, is an image of fertilisation, of the moment of life. And this might be offensive if taken literally, for God is not male, and God does not create by reproduction with angels but through his creative Word – which, in the fullness of time, as the Gospel According to John puts it, became flesh (including a circumcised penis) and dwelt among us. But here too is an opportunity to reflect on the nature of God; on the ways in which certain representations have been problematic for some viewers, including women and Muslims; indeed, on the ways in which any understanding of God is potentially false and enslaving, even if it might be true and liberating.

‘Yahweh’ is surrounded by ‘the Seraphim’, tall and beautiful figures whose form and colour, in this setting, reference the white anti/space of the walls between the exposed stonework. These are beings that are for the most part invisible to our eyes, though on occasion some, permitted to look upon God and live, have seen the glorious beings that attend his throne. But what are angels? From time to time on the Minster prayer board, where anyone can write a prayer or prayer request, someone writes of a child tragically lost to death in terms of God having needed them for an angel. And while I believe that God holds such children in safekeeping for us, I can’t believe in a monster God who tears children from their parents for such a ‘higher purpose’ than to be a human being and know and share in human love.

Within the span of their touching ‘wings’, as they call out to one another, ‘the Seraphim’ speak of both the beginning and the end of life, of the seen and unseen. Moreover, their irregular spokes speak of the (precarious? or simply joyful?) connecting ladder between the heavens and the earth, on which Jacob, asleep on a stone pillow in the wilderness, saw angels ascending and descending. When he awoke, Jacob recognised the place where he had slept as the very gate of heaven – and he had known it not. And so, in hope that he would know it again, he set his pillow stone upright, a finger pointing those who passed to God.

The installation will be in the Minster for several months, through what remains of Lent, through Eastertide, and Pentecost. A rock – or a stone marker – in the wilderness. A disfigured representation of I AM, before whom we must stand and wonder at the sight. A band of flame-headed witnesses standing round. Pope’s artwork forms a fitting backdrop to each of these seasons of the Church year. And I am looking forward to welcoming regulars and visitors alike, and having conversations about the things that matter deeply to our hearts.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016


What do you do when you become aware that people are spreading a story about you that you know to be untrue?

That’s the question I asked today, from the (alternative set of) readings for Holy Communion, Exodus 17:1-7 and John 4:5-42.

Moses has led his people out from the cruellest of slavery, but now they claim he brought them out to kill them with thirst, and are set to turn from an angry crowd to a lynch mob.

What do you do when people are spreading a story about you that you know to be untrue?

A woman of Sychar comes to draw water from the well at noon, deliberately avoiding the other women of her town. It turns out that she has had five husbands, and the man she now lives with will not take her as his wife. It is most unlikely that this is an immoral woman. Had she been found guilty of adultery, she may well have paid with her life. Even if spared, in a close-knit community it is much more likely that six men would visit a prostitute than marry ‘spoilt goods’. No, it is most likely that her experience has been Levirate marriage: the expectation – given for the protection of women – that the brother of a man who died childless marry his brother’s widow, if necessary through a line of brothers; and that the sixth brother was prepared to give her a degree of protection but not risk the fate of his brothers.

The word on the street concerning this woman was not, ‘Stay away from her, or she might steal your husband too’ - it was, ‘Stay away from her, or death might steal your husband too’.

What do you do when people are spreading a story about you that you know to be untrue?

Moses cries out to God. And God responds by drawing water from a rock. A miraculous sign; a two-fold symbol of divine stability and lively movement towards humanity. And a very public vindication of Moses as God’s servant.

The woman cries out to God. And God responds by sending Jesus to her, to fulfil her longing for cleansing, life-giving water; for living water. A very public vindication of a woman not cursed but cherished.

What do you do when people are spreading a story about you that you know to be untrue?

Moses and the woman of Sychar model a good response:
we cry out to God for vindication, and trust that we will encounter him – perhaps in a way that we could never have imagined.