Thursday, June 29, 2017


Today is the Feast of St Peter, or of Saints Peter and Paul.

Outside the colony town of Caesarea Philippi there is an enormous cave, held throughout the Greco-Roman world to be one of the entrances to the underworld. The stories of what went on here—allegedly involving sexual acts performed with goats in honour of Pan—would make a feisty fisherman blush. But this is the location Jesus chose to take his disciples—don’t believe everything you hear, boys—to ask them who, exactly, they thought he was. Who would be so brazen?

And there, standing in front of the gate of Hades, Jesus declared:

‘… I tell you, you are Peter [Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it …’

Matthew 16:18

Fast-forward several years to the anniversary of Jesus’ death and resurrection:

‘About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.

‘The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” He did so. Then he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”’

Acts 12:1-11 (italics added)

According to the gospel, the world in which we live is passing away, and a new world is being brought to birth even as it does so. A passing out from death into life. The kingdom of heaven colonising this world, even as the Greek and Roman Empires had colonised it—except that this kingdom would have no end.

The gates of Hades represent the power and authority—the ultimate end—of the powers of this passing world. They might look impressive, but they are a shadow existence, lacking the substance of life in its fullness.

The gates of Hades stand for the prison gates behind which Herod, a puppet monarch installed and propped-up by the Romans, attempted to hold Peter captive.

But Jesus had promised that the gates would not prevail. The church prays fervently, and the gates swing open, apparently of their own accord.

Fast-forward again, to today. As I read these passages, a friend of mine comes before a magistrate who will hear his appeal to be granted leave to remain, permission to stay in this country, to work and make a new life here because it is not safe for him, as a known and active member of the church that Jesus has been building, to be sent back to Iran.

My friend finds himself at the gates of Hades, on the inside. His life as an asylum-seeker is a shadow existence, caught in limbo.

Today, the church is praying fervently to God for him.

This story is our story.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Thorns : part 2

In my previous post, I wrote about the imagery of thorns in our sides, and what that might have to say to us about extremism within our communities, and neighbourliness that can embrace difference.

But extremism is not the only aspect of community that causes us pain. Indeed, it is impossible to live with others without being hurt, intentionally and unintentionally.

At Sunderland Minster we regularly host art installations. The current work includes two large-scale hands carved from wood, by local artist David Gross. One is held up in the sign of blessing. The other is pierced by a nail, driven into the fold between thumb and fore-finger. The hand of blessing is worn smooth to the touch; its cracks and fissures part of its beauty. The impaled hand is fresh and raw, unfinished; it reeks of wood butchered—however skilfully—by a chainsaw.

It is possible to be pierced by others, and withhold blessing from them—or, indeed, turning in on ourselves as wronged victim, to withhold blessing from anyone at all.

But it is not possible to extend blessing with anything other than a pieced hand, a pierced side.

The choice is not, how can we cut ourselves off from those whose difference disturbs us, from those with whom we disagree—in pursuit of greater purity; in pursuit of being more acceptable, more effective—but, will we continue to be a community that chooses to bless others, even though thorns grow up alongside the fruitful harvest?

The thing about an impaled hand is that it opens.

It lets go of whatever it has sought to hold on to for itself, or control for others.

It recognises its need for the ‘other’.

In this way, God works to transform something meant for evil, so as to bring forth good.

As someone who wanders around town in a vicar’s collar, I am regularly stopped by people who ask me to bless them. By people who have reason to hate the Church for its thorns, but nonetheless long for God to bring good out of their lives. It is not possible to bless without recognising something of their wounded nature, and my own.

The hand stretched out to bless is the impaled hand stretched out in hope of blessing.
You cannot know the one without the other.

Gross’ wooden hands point to another sculptor. They have been a disruptive gift to us.

Thorns : part 1

There is a great deal of talk these days about rooting out extremism within our communities—both ‘owned’ communities (whether “British Muslims should do more to combat radical Islamisation among their community” or, “The tabloid press preaches hate to their readership”) and those ‘other’ communities living alongside us (“We should deport xxx).

There’s an image in the Bible that feels pertinent to this. When the Israelites, rescued from slavery in Egypt, were in the process of colonising the land God had promised to their ancestor Abraham for his descendants, they were warned that if they failed to expel the other populations already settled there, those people would be ‘a thorn in their flesh’—a lifelong irritation, perpetuated down the generations. God’s warning even hints that the Israelites will experience the humbling of being exiled from their homeland.

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.’ Numbers 33:55, 56

For if you turn back, and join the survivors of these nations left here among you, and intermarry with them, so that you marry their women and they yours, know assuredly that the Lord your God will not continue to drive out these nations before you; but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a scourge on your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land that the Lord your God has given you.’ Joshua 23:12, 13

This begs the question, was God advocating ethnic cleansing? Or—and bearing in mind that no such cleansing took place—was God instructing the Israelites about living with such a thorn?

Millennia later, St Paul, steeped in the Jewish scriptures from birth, picked up on this image of the thorn in the flesh, in a way that might help answer the question.

‘Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”’ 2 Corinthians 12:7-9

Paul uses the term not to refer to a community living alongside him, but to describe a minority element within the Church: those who followed him wherever he carried the good news that the Gentiles were now welcomed into the people of God, telling those converts that they must also be circumcised and follow the Jewish law.

Through a process of struggling with this thorny issue, Paul discovers that it is not simply going to go away. God is not going to sanction their expulsion from the Church. The community of love to which Paul is wholeheartedly committed [1] will include within it a deeply problematic minority element.

People are complex, and such complexity is inevitable. But this element will serve a purpose, within God’s plan to reconcile all things [2]. They will stop Paul and the wider Christian community from being elated, from complacent self-congratulation. And they will provide opportunity for Paul and those with him to learn what it looks like to operate out of the grace of the Lord Jesus, and not their own strength.

It is easy to point to extremism within other groups, and judge them for it [3]. But if we are honest, there are extremists within every faith and ideology, among theists and atheists, religious and irreligious alike. There always will be. That doesn’t mean we ought to ignore it. But it does mean that we should be neither surprised nor dismayed. Instead, we should be honest about ourselves, and others—their struggles are our struggles; we have much in common—and embrace the grace held out to us, empowering us to be a community of good news.

[1] See the thirteenth chapter of his earlier surviving letter to this community, for example. And note that the whole Christian community needs to be challenged for their failure to be loving.

[2] This is a major theme Paul expands on in his second surviving letter to the church in Corinth.

[3] Of course, the ancient inhabitants of Israel were not extremists. They were civilians. Yet there is the perennial temptation to view difference as a danger to our way of life, the crowd that hides within it dangerous individuals.

Sunday, June 25, 2017


Bishop Paul confirmed Jo, Susannah, and Noah at the Minster.

Alan Ward came up from Sheffield, representing Susannah and Noah’s godparents.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

On believing in transformation

What’s that strange whirring sound?

That’ll be Mo Mowlam spinning in her grave at the Prime Minister’s willingness to sacrifice peace in Northern Ireland in order to stay in power.

The last thing Theresa May needs is 10 members of the DUP to lend her government a majority.

On the other hand, perhaps the thing Theresa May needs most of all is for 10 members of the DUP to teach her how Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness found a way to work together for the common good—and even became close personal friends in the process.

If the DUP and Sinn Fein could find a way—however hard—to share power, just imagine how politics in the wider UK could be transformed...

Hanging in the balance

A hung parliament reflects the diverse nature of our population, and the complexity of our interactions. We should neither expect nor demand that a would-be Prime Minister should command a majority. The best hope for the common good is to be found not in persuading a majority of the electorate to share a common ideology; or in securing enough opposition to curb ideological excess; but, rather, in the hard work of recognising those whose hopes, fears, and working-solutions differ from our own, and seeking to create room for one another.

The theological term for this deep recognition of the other is ‘communion’. The term for its absence is ‘impaired communion’. While the Church acknowledges the reality of impaired communion, we see it as a grievous scandal. We are, it seems, unable to recognise every other; but our failure to do so also inflicts violence on our own selves.

‘Strong and stable’ government is not good for democracies, and especially in uncertain times.

Instead, we need governments who will listen;
who will reach out to the other;
who will give-and-take [not simple asking, what part of my agenda am I prepared to surrender, but, what resources can I offer in support of someone else’s priorities?];
who will cooperate rather than compete—
in short, who have the skills to negotiate, nationally and internationally.

However imperfectly, and despite some arguing for a more ‘worldly’ political model, the Church has considerable experience of the joy and sorrow of communion/impaired communion. So, to, do the people of Northern Ireland, where a constructive peace was painstakingly brokered between former enemies, enabling and enabled-by ‘power sharing’ (communion was embodied in Ian Paisley of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein). However, communion tends to break down into impaired communion, and continually needs to be renewed. This is the case in Northern Ireland at present; and to best facilitate communion, the government in Westminster has always remained impartial—until now.

Much of the political chatter and gossip—and posturing—in the aftermath of the General Election—including the Prime Minister’s willingness to sacrifice peace in Northern Ireland in order to prop up oppositional power—shows just how addicted we are to dominance over others. There is a better way.

In the context of 2017, I commit myself to seek communion.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Casting votes

Today is General Election day in the UK.

If you are a Christian, your primary identity is within the kingdom of God, your primary allegiance is to the kingdom of God. This must inform how you vote, as a citizen of the United Kingdom.

Jesus’ manifesto is this:
to bring good news to the poor.*

*this will look like:
bringing release to those who’s experience of life is best described as being held in captivity, to, or by, others;
the recovery of sight to those who are blinded, who can see no hope or no way forward;
letting those who are oppressed by others go free, to experience the same freedom everyone else enjoys;
the writing-off of debt.
(Luke 4:18, 19)

moreover, it will look like:
feeding the hungry;
giving the thirsty something to drink;
welcoming the stranger;
clothing the naked;
taking care of the sick;
visiting [and, implied, meeting the needs of] prisoners.
(Matthew 25:31-46)

These things can be interpreted, and sought to be implemented, in different ways. No political party does so perfectly. Your responsibility is simply to give due consideration to the ways in which political manifestos would address these things, and then to contribute to society by allocating your vote as you see best.**

**and to remain personally and communally invested in these things, regardless of the outcome of the election.