Chaplain’s Page

Revd Canon Tony Dickinson

The Gospel reading for 9th April – Friday in Easter Week (John 21:1-14)

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.


One of the things about the last Savoy Operas is the way in which Gilbert (and to a lesser degree Sullivan) kept dropping in reminiscences of their earlier work. It’s particularly obvious in “Utopia Limited”, where the hero is a military man (though “First Life Guards” rather than “Heavy Dragoons”), the comedian is an executioner (though he uses dynamite rather than “a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block”), the heroine (a princess) has been through a university-level education at an all-female college, and one of the “Flowers of Progress”, tasked with introducing British ways into the languorous South Sea paradise, is a certain Captain Corcoran, resurrected from their first major success, “HMS Pinafore”.

There’s something of that feel about the final chapter of John’s Gospel where the “intertextuality”, to use the critics’ jargon, lies fairly heavy on the ground. The unsuccessful all-night fishing expedition points us to St Luke (chapter 5), as does the instruction to try again and the resultant huge catch. Peter jumping into the water might be a reminiscence, albeit a rather less fraught one, of Matthew 14. The lakeside meal of bread and fish certainly recalls the miraculous feeding earlier in John’s gospel and the feedings in chapters 6 and 8 of Mark’s with their parallels in Matthew and Luke. The charcoal fire, too, has associations, but rather less happy ones (particularly for Peter) of that recent, uncomfortable night dodging awkward questions in the High Priest’s courtyard.

So why? Well, for starters, most scholars agree that chapter 21 isn’t part of John’s original gospel, which ends very nicely at the end of chapter 20. Some think that it was written to say something about the relationship between Peter and the beloved disciple which perhaps couldn’t be said while the beloved disciple was still alive – especially not if the beloved disciple was the author of the gospel. Others have pointed out the way in which it begins in Galilee, with the disciples working again at their old trade of fishing. It’s as if Jesus had never been. So perhaps, on this account, the whole thrust of this appearance is as a reminder of their, and especially Peter’s, first call (with the miraculous catch), of their shared experience as disciples (the leap into the sea and the shared meal of loaves and fishes), and of their, and especially Peter’s, failure (the charcoal fire). But the ending is not rejection and judgement, but the renewal of fellowship in that shared breakfast by the lake and, although it comes after the end of the passage set for today, the commissioning of Peter to feed the Lord’s sheep.

And there, perhaps, is this passage’s message for us: that whenever we are tempted to go back to “the way things were”, before our first encounter with Christ, the risen Lord recalls us to fellowship with him and renews our commission to share by word and action in his work of healing the world.

The Gospel reading for 8th April – Thursday in Easter Week (Luke 24:35-48)

The two disciples told what had happened on the road to Emmaus, and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’


Today’s gospel offers probably the most “physical” description of any of the resurrection appearances, with Jesus encouraging the disciples to “Touch and see”, then asking for something to eat – and eating what he is given “in their presence”. The other gospels are rather more reticent. Mark’s Gospel, until later editors got hold of it, had no description of a resurrection appearance. Matthew, in passing, mentions the women taking hold of Jesus’ feet. In John’s Gospel Mary Magdalen, as we heard on Tuesday, was warned off physical contact and Thomas in the end never does put his finger into the holes made by the nails. Paul, too, whose account of the resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15 is the earliest of them all, makes it very clear that when he writes about the resurrection he is writing about a spiritual and not a physical body.

So why does Luke go down this particular route? Some have suggested that it was to combat the “docetic” heresy, which claimed that Christ only “appeared” to have a human body, More likely, perhaps, is the suggestion that Luke stresses the physicality of the resurrection for the benefit of the people for whom he was writing. Most scholars think that his intended readership was people like himself, native Greek-speakers who lived in the great cities of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, people whose thought-world didn’t include “spiritual bodies” but did include all kinds of “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night.” So they would naturally have assumed that if a dead person appeared among the living, it would be as a ghost – and that is an assumption which Luke is very keen to knock on the head. His message is that Christ is not a spook. Christ is risen, and risen indeed – “Touch and see”!

And then, as he did to the two on the road to Emmaus, the risen Lord spells out why it was inevitable that he should suffer and die. “Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” And again, as he had on the way to Emmaus, he “opened their mind to understand the scriptures”, equipping his disciples for the task that lies ahead, two thousand years ago for them, here and now for us. That task is to ensure that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is… proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”. The primary task is to enable people to reframe the way they see the world (that is what repentance means) and to reevaluate their place in it (which is what the forgiveness of sins is all about), recognising the damage done by human fear and arrogance and greed, and breaking out of the cycles of failure, guilt and self-loathing which fuel so much that is wrong in this world.

The task of the Church is not to deliver judgement. Not is it to act as an agent of social control. Though sadly both of those negative approaches have loomed large in the Church’s self-understanding down the ages. The task of the Church is to bear witness. “You are witnesses of these things” are Jesus’ last words in today’s passage, to the little crowd gathered in the upper room, and also to us. We bear witness not only by what we say, but by how we behave, by lives which reflect (or not) the presence of the risen Christ.

The Gospel reading for 7th April – Wednesday in Easter Week (Luke 24:13-35)

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.


There’s an old Latin tag, sometimes attributed to St Augustine of Hippo, “solvitur ambulando” (it is solved by walking). Has it ever, I wonder, been applied as powerfully as here in St Luke’s account of the journey to Emmaus? It begins with Cleopas and his companion (Mrs Cleopas, perhaps?) as they walk home going over the grim events of the previous few days in Jerusalem and trying desperately to work out what they meant – or whether, indeed, they had any meaning. It continues with the arrival of a mysterious stranger who comes alongside and, despite the rather rude welcome he receives, walks with them, listening to the story that they have to tell and reflecting it back to them with an interpretation drawn from the holy writings of Israel. They reach their home. The stranger makes as if to go on, but it’s late afternoon, maybe early evening, and the other two pressure him into staying the night with them. Then, when they sit down for an early supper, or possibly a very late lunch, their guest takes upon himself the role of the host and says grace as he breaks the bread – and at that moment they suddenly realise that their guest is the risen Jesus! And at that moment, just as suddenly, he disappears.

Now Cleopas and his companion could have simply settled down for the night with a warm glow, but what they had seen and heard was much too important for that. Instead, they got up and hurried back, in the gathering darkness, to Jerusalem. That’s about as far as from here to Nervi, or maybe Bolzaneto – or Sestri if you take the scenic route via Granarolo and Forte Tenaglia. Anyone fancy doing that in the dark with no torch and no street lights? But they can’t help themselves. What they have seen and heard is something so important that it must be shared with the others – and the others have news to share with them! “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”

Now that, you may be thinking, is all very interesting, but what’s the take-away, the application as preachers used to call it? First: we need to remember that the journey is important. We mustn’t expect to have everything laid out neatly for us in advance. Stepping out in faith isn’t always easy. Sometimes we set out, like those two disciples, with many more questions than answers. Sometimes we stagger under burdens of sorrow, anger, fear. Either way it’s a case of “solvitur ambulando”. Second: don’t ignore those you encounter on the journey. The risen Christ comes to us in many guises and we don’t always recognise him. We nonetheless learn wisdom from the most unlikely people. Third: pay attention to the scriptures. For us that means Paul and the Gospels as well as the law and the prophets. Read your Bible regularly – and be prepared to be startled. And finally: be aware of the Christ who still makes himself known in the breaking of bread – and don’t panic if you can’t hold on to a vivid sense of his presence. Remember that Cleopas and his companion couldn’t either; but that didn’t stop them sharing their experience with their fellow-disciples and finding mutual strengthening, mutual encouragement, as they exchanged the news of their encounter with the risen Christ and how it had impacted their lives.

The Gospel reading for 6th April – Tuesday in Easter Week (John 20:11-18)

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.’


This passage from John’s Gospel was the inspiration for two remarkable British works of art, one from the last century, the other from the reign of James VI/I. The twentieth-century work is a painting by Graham Sutherland. It hangs in the Mary Magdalene Chapel in Chichester Cathedral, the place for which it was commissioned by the then Dean, Walter Hussey, in 1961. It shows Mary, half-kneeling in the garden, reaching out to touch the figure of the risen Christ, who is wearing a gardener’s straw hat and climbing a somewhat enigmatic stairway. He extends his right hand towards her, with palm open, half blessing, half warding off, while his left arm is stretched out along the handrail of the staircase with the index finger pointing upward. It is both ‘Do not hold on to me,’ and ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ It is a picture of great human tenderness and profound symbolism.

The Jacobean work of art is a masterpiece of painting with words, a sermon by Lancelot Andrewes, who also has connections with Chichester, having been bishop of that diocese from 1605 to 1609. This sermon, though, is from the last decade of his life, when he was Bishop of Winchester, and it was preached not in Winchester but at Whitehall, before King James and his court on Easter Day 1620.

Andrewes, as was his custom, takes the text to pieces, verse by verse, and shows how it fits together both internally and in relationship to the rest of Scripture, ranging through the law, the prophets and the psalms as well as plundering the rest of the New Testament. Like Graham Sutherland, he is not afraid to employ some strikingly vivid imagery, pointing out, for example, that Mary Magdalen’s role announcing Christ’s resurrection to the Apostles is like that of the angel who had announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds. “As he, to the shepherds; so she, to the Apostles, the Pastors of Christ’s flock; by them to be spread abroad to the ends of the world.” He also offers some profound insights, as when he reminds us that “To stay while others do so, while company stays, that is the world’s love: but Peter is gone, and John too: all are gone, and we are left alone; then to stay, is love, and constant love, Love that when others shrink and give over, holds out still.” And he notes in his comment on the angels’ question that “If she find an angel, if she find not her Lord, it will not serve. She had rather find his dead body, than them in all their glory.”

But perhaps the most striking passages in the sermon come in the extended riff on Christ as the gardener, “who made such an herb grow out of the ground this day, as the like was never seen before, a dead body, to shoot forth alive out of the grave” and who will one day “turn land and sea and all into a great garden, and so husband them, as they shall in due time bring forth live bodies, even all our bodies alive again.” As Andrewes says at the climax of this sermon, “You thought you should have come to Christ’s resurrection today, and so you do. But, not to his alone, but even to Mary Magdalen’s resurrection, too. For, in very deed, a kind of resurrection it was, was wrought in her, revived, as it were, and raised from a dead and drooping, to a lively and cheerful state. The Gardener had done his part, made her all green, on the sudden.”

The Gospel reading for 5th April – Monday in Easter Week (Matthew 28:8-15)

The women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.’


Mark’s Gospel, as we heard yesterday, ends with the women running in terror and amazement from the empty tomb. Matthew, like Luke and John, offers an account of what happened next. Unlike Luke and John, he tells the story from the side of the Jewish authorities and the Roman governor, as well as from the side of those who followed Jesus. And on both sides he brings the story full circle.

For the priests and the elders, it’s a small circle. The morning after Jesus’ crucifixion they had asked the governor to set a guard on the tomb and so prevent the disciples from stealing the body and claiming that Jesus had risen from death. But despite their precautions God had raised Jesus, so that the Jewish authorities now had to save face by invoking the very deception that they had taken steps to prevent – and potentially getting the soldiers of the guard into serious trouble with their commanders. To fall asleep while on watch was a serious dereliction of duty, punishable, in some cases at least, by death.

For the women, their role is to bring the whole Gospel full circle. Commentators have pointed out how the end of Matthew’s Gospel, with its account of the actions of Jesus’ friends intercut with the activity of those who had brought him to the cross, is a kind of mirror-image of the structure of its beginning, where episodes involving the holy family, and particularly Joseph, alternate with episodes set in the hostile environment of King Herod’s court. The role of the women at the end of the gospel echoes that of the wise men at the beginning. They had travelled far to meet the new-born “king of the Jews”, arrived in Bethlehem “with great joy”, and worshipped the child they had come so far to see. The women, similarly go away from the tomb “with great joy” and worship the risen Jesus when he meets them. It is a reminder that from beginning to end of the gospel story Jesus of Nazareth meets opposition from the powers of this earth but that no action of theirs can thwart God’s purpose of reconciling the world through the death and resurrection of God’s Son.

Sunday, 4th April – Easter Day

Although the life of the 20th-century American poet e.e. cummings was in some ways as chaotic as the language and imagery of his poems, it was underpinned by a sense of the transcendental and the presence of “le bon Dieu”. He wrote on one occasion ‘may I be I is the only prayer—not may I be great or good or beautiful or wise or strong’. His poem “i thank you God for most this amazing day” catches an Easter sense of resurrection and renewal which bubbles off the page. This final poem in our sequence which began on Ash Wednesday with another American-born poet is read here by its author.

Saturday, 3rd April – Holy Saturday/Easter Eve

George Herbert’s poem ‘Sepulchre,’ is the last in a sequence (including Thursday’s poem, “The Agonie”) which focus on the suffering and death of Jesus and comes immediately before the two poems, “Easter” and “Easter Wings”, which celebrate the resurrection. Like many of Herbert’s poems, “Sepulchre” is built on a conceit: in this case, the contrast between the rock-cut tomb which received the body of the dead Jesus and the stony human hearts in which he can find no place.

Friday, 2nd April – Good Friday

John Donne provides our poem for today. It is, appropriately, ‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward,’ which describes a journey which the poet made into Wales on business, two years before his ordination, and contrasts the immensity of the day’s events with his own mundane concerns.

Thursday, 1st April – Maundy Thursday

George Herbert sets today’s poem, “The Agony“, in the context of the scientific discoveries of the early 17th century and relates them to Christ’s anguished prayer in Gethsemane, on the night of his arrest, and to his crucifixion, focusing on the detail, recorded in St John’s Gospel, of the spear-thrust into the side of the dead Jesus “and at once blood and water came out” (John 19:34).

Wednesday, 31st March – Wednesday in Holy Week

The final Holy Week Address about Dante’s Divine Comedy as a Spiritual Journey can be accessed here.

Today’s poem, ‘I see His Blood Upon the Rose,’ marks a return to the Irish poet, journalist and revolutionary Joseph Mary Plunkett. It reflects the poet’s vivid awareness of the presence of Christ in all creation.

Tuesday, 30th March – Tuesday in Holy week

The second Holy Week address about Dante’s Divine Comedy as a Spiritual Journey can be found here.

Although Emily Bronte is best known as the author of the novel “Wuthering Heights”, she was also, like her younger sister Anne, a gifted poet. ‘No coward soul is mine’ was written, it is thought, in the mid-1840s, a couple of years before her death , aged 30, from tuberculosis. It is a powerful affirmation of her radical trust in God, whatever disasters may strike.

Monday, 29th March – Monday in Holy Week

The Holy Week addresses in Genova this year are part of the commemoration of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. The first of three talks about “La Commedia” as a Spiritual Journey can be found here.

We continue our journey through Holy Week with a poem that brings us very close to home. It is ‘Sonnet written in Holy Week at Genoa’ by Oscar Wilde, who visited the city on his way to Greece as a young student of the Classics in 1877. Twenty-two years later, after his release from prison, he returned to visit the grave of his estranged wife Constance, who had died the previous year and who is buried in the Protestant section of the cemetery at Staglieno.

Sunday, 28th March – Palm Sunday

The Donkey’ is probably the poem by G.K. Chesterton which has been included most often in collections of 20th-century poetry. It takes a sideways look at the humble beast of burden on which the King of Peace entered the holy city on the first Palm Sunday for his decisive conflict with all the powers of evil.

Saturday, 27th March

On the eve of Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week, as the shadows deepen around Jesus and the cross looms ever larger on the horizon, we return to the poems of George Herbert. This one is called ‘Affliction‘ and is the fourth poem (out of five) to which he gave that title. It is, like many of Herbert’s poems, a record of what the poet described as “the many spiritual conflicts which have passed betwixt God and my soul”. It is read here by the Canadian poet and novelist Diane Tucker.

Friday, 26th March

What the Thunder said’ is the final section of T.S. Eliot’s early masterpiece ‘The Waste Land’, written in 1922, five years before Eliot’s baptism and reception into the Church of England. It draws on imagery from the Bible (especially the Passion and the story of the Road to Emmaus), from Arthurian legend and from the Hindu teaching crystallised in the Upanishads, all of which are interwoven with quotations from (among others) English drama from the reign of Elizabeth I and James VI/I and Dante’s “Commedia”. It is read here by the poet.

Thursday, 25th March

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the yearly remembering of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary with the message that she was to become the mother of God’s Son. This is the second of two poems with the title “The Annunciation” written by the Orkney-born poet Edwin Muir. It comes from the collection “One Foot in Eden”, which was published toward the end of his life. It is read by one of the undergraduate students of King’s College Cambridge at the Festival of Nine Lessons on Christmas Eve, 2013.

The chaplain’s reflection on the Feast of the Annunciation can be found here

The Gospel reading for 24th March – Walter Hilton, Paul Couturier and Oscar Romero (John 8:31-42)

Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’

Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.’

They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.’ They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me.’


Today’s gospel asks some searching questions about what it means to be a disciple. As so often in John’s Gospel, the key issues are truth, trust, and obedience. Today we remember three very different men, living in very different situations, two different continents and with the earliest and the latest separated in time by nearly six centuries, but each of them was energised by the truth that they found in Jesus.

The earliest in time was a fourteenth-century English priest, part of that remarkable flowering of the spiritual life of the English Church which also produced Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kemp, and the author of “The Cloud of Unknowing”. The priest’s name was Walter Hilton, first a Cambridge-trained canon lawyer, then a hermit, and finally, in his mid-forties, a member of the community of Augustinian canons at Thurgarton in Nottinghamshire. Here he gained a considerable reputation as a spiritual guide and wrote the books for which he is still remembered. Of these the longest and most important is “The Ladder of Perfection”, with its vivid image of the spiritual life as a journey to Jerusalem best undertaken with the minimum of baggage and sustained by the use of the mantra “I am nothing; I have nothing; I desire only one thing.” These, says Hilton, will help the pilgrim grow in humility and love: “Humility says, I am nothing; I have nothing. Love says, I desire only one thing, and that is Jesus.” For Walter Hilton the way of discipleship was the way of the mystic.

The second was a French priest and scientist. Paul Couturier was born in Lyon in 1871 and died there on this day in 1953. He was ordained priest in his mid-twenties as a member of a teaching order and remained a teacher of physical sciences at its college in Lyon until his retirement. Lyon was the city where, in 1274, the Christian Churches of East and West had briefly kissed and made up their centuries-old quarrel. It was also, at the time when Paul Couturier began teaching there, the home of a large community of Russian refugees and he found himself working among them, learning about the Orthodox tradition of prayer and spirituality. He became increasingly aware that divisions between the Churches were a block to the credibility of Christian faith, but took heart from the saying of a 19th-century Russian bishop that “the walls of division do not rise as far as heaven.” Couturier began to work with Christians of other traditions, Protestant as well as Orthodox. Unlike some fellow-Catholics for whom Christian unity meant a return to Rome, he realised that prayer could bring about a spiritual unity across barriers of doctrine and ritual. More than anyone else he was the person who made the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity what it is today. For Paul Couturier the way of discipleship was the way of a bridge-builder, so it’s fitting that when the city of Lyon wished to mark the 50th anniversary of his death, it renamed an elegant footbridge across the River Saône as the passerelle Paul-Couturier.

Paul Couturier was already established as a teacher when the third of our disciples was born in El Salvador. Oscar Romero was intended by his father to train as a carpenter, and he began an apprenticeship, but even as a teenager he knew that God was calling him to be a priest. He studied in Rome and was ordained there in spring 1942. For most of his ministerial career as priest and bishop he was known as conscientious, sometimes over-scrupulous, and conservative, not in sympathy with brother priests who had been caught up in the excitement of liberation theology in the 1960s. So there was no great enthusiasm when he was appointed archbishop of San Salvador. Then, less than three weeks after his appointment Oscar Romero’s life changed completely. A close friend, Rutilio Grande, was a Jesuit priest working with poor communities to build up self-reliance. On 12th March he was murdered. This brought home to the new archbishop the realities of the Church’s situation. As he said later, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’ And for the next three years he did, speaking truth fearlessly to power, even when in 1979 power took the form of a military junta supported by right-wing paramilitary death squads. And so they killed him, too. Oscar Romero was shot dead as he celebrated mass in a hospital chapel on this day 41 years ago. For him the way of discipleship was the way of a martyr. His statue stands, between Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among the 20th-century martyrs commemorated on the west front of Westminster Abbey.

Mysticism, bridge-building and martyrdom: three ways of continuing in the word of Christ, three ways in which the truth has made, and still is making, his servants free. And if the Son makes us free, we will be free indeed.

Wednesday.24th March

The raising of Lazarus, in John’s Gospel (chapter 11), is the last “sign” which Jesus performs before his entry into Jerusalem. This poem, by the Prague-born poet Rainer Maria Rilke, was written during one of his visits to Spain before the First World War. It was never published in his lifetime. The translation read here is by the American poet Edward A. Snow.

Tuesday, 23rd March

Our poem today is another of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets”, the fourteenth in the sequence, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’. As with much of Donne’s poetry there is a focus on the divided self, but here the divided self knows what it’s ultimate good and goal is. The imagery is a powerful mixture of the martial and the marital, and the poem ends with a quite astonishing play on the two meanings of the word “ravish”.

Monday, 22nd March

Today’s poem is ‘And Still I Rise” by the contemporary American poet, essayist and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou

Sunday, 21st March

On this day in 1556, Thomas Cranmer, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury, was led out to the stake in Broad Street, Oxford, and burned to death as a heretic. Two of his brother bishops, Hugh Latimer (formerly of of Worcester) and Nicholas Ridley of London, had met the same fate there the previous October. Today’s poem by Stevie Smith praises him not only for his courage in the face of the death which he had dreaded but also for his scholarship and, above all, his authorship of the 1549 and 1552 Books of Common Prayer. “Admire Cranmer” she says, and means it!

Saturday, 20th March

We end this week, as we began it, with a poem by the Welsh priest-poet, R.S. Thomas. It’s called “In Church“. As so often with Thomas, it’s a poem whose striking imagery leaves more questions than it provides answers.

The Gospel reading for 19th March – St Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25)

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


While Luke’s Gospel tells the story of the birth of Jesus largely from the point of view of Mary and her kinsfolk, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Matthew offers Joseph’s take on it all. In doing so he makes us realise just how difficult the situation would have been for all concerned in the patriarchal culture of Palestine in the closing years of King Herod’s long reign. As in many largely rural societies, ownership and inheritance mattered, and therefore parentage mattered. In addition, and particularly important in a devoutly Jewish setting, which is what Matthew’s description of Joseph as “a righteous man” implies, there are the Law’s strict prohibitions on extra-marital shenanigans, with death by stoning prescribed in cases of serious misbehaviour – including misbehaviour by one of the partners in a betrothal.

In such a setting Joseph’s plan to dismiss Mary quietly represents a sense that the Law’s demands are to be tempered with mercy and, therefore, aligns him with that strand in Jewish tradition which emphasises above all God’s compassion and loving-kindness. What it doesn’t prepare him for is the realisation that God’s compassion and loving-kindness is about to manifest itself in dramatically human terms and in a way that will have a direct impact on him – that “God is with us” indeed. That realisation is expressed, as happens at other significant points in Matthew’s Gospel, through a dream, in response to which Joseph has to move from being obedient to what his tradition has taught him to being obedient to a direct word from the Lord.

That’s what makes Joseph such an interesting and important figure in the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. He is a reminder that faithfulness to tradition does not mean shutting our ears to messages from God which appear to cut across that tradition or even run counter to it. To do that would be to turn the tradition into an idol – something for which Jesus, later in this Gospel, will frequently rebuke the scribes and Pharisees. Joseph points us toward a different approach, an openness to the compassion of God, and to that challenge of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect“. Perfect in obedience, not to the patriarchal tradition of inheritance and the preservation of ownership, but to the inner call of the God who is with us to loving-kindness and compassion.

Friday, 19th March

It is time for another poem by John Donne. His “Hymn to God the Father” reflects his own struggles against sin, marked by the play on his surname which ends each stanza, and expresses his recognition of the need for God’s forgiveness, but it applies to any Christian making a serious examination of their life. The poem is read here by the actor Simon Russell Beale

Thursday, 18th March

Today’s poem is William Blake’s “A Poison Tree“, illustrated by one of his original engravings from “Songs of Innocence and Experience”.

The Gospel reading for 17th March – St Patrick (Matthew 10:16-23)

Jesus said to the twelve: ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.’


In view of the most famous action attributed to St Patrick, it’s more than slightly ironic that in the Gospel appointed for his feast-day Jesus commends the wisdom of snakes. The rest of this extract from Jesus’ instructions to the twelve, on the other hand, fits what we know of Patrick’s life quite closely – particularly the account which he left in the document known as the “Confession”. Born into a Christian family during the turbulent years of the late fourth century as Roman rule in Britain began to crumble, kidnapped by Irish raiders as a teenager and sold as a slave, he made a dramatic escape from slavery, discovered a new depth to the faith in which he had been brought up, followed God’s calling to return to Ireland as a missionary bishop, proclaimed the gospel fearlessly in front of hostile, pagan rulers, brought women and men in every part of the island, even the most remote areas, to faith in Christ – and probably didn’t expel all the reptiles.

As the saint himself recalled, toward the end of his life, “It was the overwhelming grace of God at work in me, and no virtue of my own, which enabled all these things. I came to the Irish heathen to preach the gospel. I have had to endure insults from unbelievers; I have heard my mission ridiculed; I have experienced persecution to the point of imprisonment; I have given up my free-born status for the good of others. Should I be worthy, I am even ready to surrender my life, promptly and gladly, for his name; and it is here in Ireland that I wish to spend my remaining days, if the Lord permits me.”

As we reflect today on Patrick’s part in God’s mission, we recognise that there are parts of his experience which are, congregationally speaking, ours also. We too are far from homeland and family, as he was; some by free choice, others among us through deception, or being trafficked. Some have experienced insults and ridicule. Some have, like Patrick, discovered a deeper faith in our exile: “the wonderful and rewarding gift”, as he described it, “of knowing and loving God”. All of us are called, as he was, to offer sacrifice, “the living sacrifice of our life to Christ our Lord, who sustains us in all our difficulties”.

Wednesday, 17th March

Our choice of poems for St Patrick’s day failed to dodge the blindingly obvious. It is the ancient Irish prayer-poem, long attributed to the saint himself, and known as St Patrick’s Breastplate. Modern Gaelic scholars are inclined to date it two or three centuries after the saint’s time, and to dismiss the story which says that it was sung by Patrick to ask God’s protection from ambush as he journeyed to challenge the pagan High King Loegaire on his home territory, but it remains a powerful prayer for God’s protection against all that can harm.

Tuesday, 16th March

Today’s poem “Carrion Comfort” comes from the pen of the 19th-century Jesuit priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is one of his so-called “Terrible Sonnets”, a bleak but ultimately (just) hopeful account of the poet’s wrestling with God during a period of deep depression and anguished spiritual struggle.

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Monday, 15th March

Joseph Mary Plunkett was an Irish poet, journalist and revolutionary, executed in May 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland. His sonnet, ‘I saw the Sun at Midnight,’ reflects his deep Christian faith.

Sunday, 14th March

The English tradition of presenting posies to mothers on Mothering Sunday goes back to the days when young people were hired out as farm labourers and domestic servants at the great hiring fairs each autumn. In mid-Lent they were allowed a visit home and, on their way, many would pluck a posy of wild-flowers from the road-side to give their mother when they reached home. It was a moment of brightness in what might otherwise be a time of drudgery. R.S. Thomas’s well-known poem, “The Bright Field“, takes a similar heart-lifting moment as the starting point for a parable of God’s self-revelation.

Saturday, 13th March

Today’s poem is ‘The Snowdrop Monument (in Lichfield Cathedral)’ by the 19th-century Lincolnshire poet and novelist Jean Ingelow. It drew inspiration from the tragic story of the Robinson family, whose two daughters are commemorated in this monument which stands in the south-east corner of Lichfield Cathedral. Their father, William Robinson, had been a canon of the cathedral until his untimely death from tuberculosis in 1812. The following year his elder daughter Ellen-Jane died of the burns she received when her night-dress caught fire while on a trip to Bath with her mother, and the year after that her younger sister Marianne became ill during a visit to London and died. Their grieving mother commissioned the sculptor Francis Chantrey to create a memorial to her daughters, based on the way in which she had seen them fall asleep in each other’s arms. It is known as “The Snowdrop Monument”, because of the bunch of flowers in Marianne’s right hand. Jean Ingelow’s poem, which draws on the imagery of the monument for a meditation on grief and the Christian hope of resurrection, offers a reflection for the eve of Mothering Sunday.

Friday, 12th March

The poem “Friday’s Child” by W.H. Auden bears the dedication “In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred at Flossenburg, April 9th, 1945”. Written about ten years after his death, it deals, at times playfully, with some of the themes of Bonhoeffer’s theological writing. And the title, with its echo of the old rhyme, “Friday’s child is loving and giving”, reminds us that the radical theologian was a man who took great delight in family and friendships and a member of the anti-Nazi resistance who recognised that his activity might well lead, as it did, to his giving his life in the cause of truth and freedom.

Thursday, 11th March

Today’s poem, “One Foot in Eden” by the Orkney-born poet Edwin Muir, is the title poem of Muir’s 1956 collection, the last one published in his life-time. The first part of the collection deals mainly with religious and mythological themes. This poem picks up the parable of the weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30) and relates it to the experience of 20th-century humanity.

For Muir his childhood on Orkney was “Eden”. His family’s move to Glasgow, which was followed by the early death of both his parents, was the most traumatic event of his life.

The Gospel reading for 10th March (Matthew 5:17-19)

Jesus said: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’


Matthew rarely leaves his readers in much doubt where he is coming from. He is a Jew, probably the kind of “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven” that Jesus describes in Matthew 13:52, and he is writing for a community which is predominantly Jewish about a Jewish rabbi who just happens to be the Son of God. Matthew’s Jesus is noticeably less radical than Mark’s. In some places his teaching is, even by the standards of first-century Palestinian Judaism, quite conservative. And with good reason.

Most scholars think that Matthew’s Gospel was written in the years after the failure of the Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of the temple. It was a time when Jewish Christians, of whom there were many, were under attack by surviving nationalists as traitors to their ancestral faith. In recent years we have had many vivid examples of the way in which religious divisions within the same faith community can lead to violence and death.

So Matthew defends the Jewishness of Jesus – and this saying about the law and the prophets is part of that defence. But it is rather more than a historical curiosity. It reminds us, as St Paul reminds us in the climactic chapters of his letter to Rome, that God has not cast off what the Good Friday collects call “God’s ancient people, the Jews, the first to hear his word.” They are still part of God’s purposes, despite the continuing hostility of many Christians, and others, over twenty centuries and they will continue to be part of God’s purposes. “Until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished”. In the past Christians would take the end of that statement and claim that all had been accomplished in Jesus, but if it is taken with the opening words, it might well mean “until the end of time”.

Yesterday evening at a Zoomed meeting of CCE, my Lutheran colleague Elisabeth Kruse made a serious plea for interfaith dialogue as part of our Christian witness. Dialogue requires a respect for the position of the other person and for the traditions which guide them, not an attempt to prove that they are wrong and we are right. The enduring validity of “the law and the prophets” matters to our Jewish neighbours in this city as much as the grace and truth that come through Jesus our Lord matter to us.

Wednesday, 10th March

Charles Causley’s poem, “The Ballad of the Bread Man“, takes the life of Christ and relocates it in 20th-century England. Despite the comic and colloquial tone of much of the writing, well brought out in Tony Price’s deadpan reading, the poem’s ending has echoes of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy’s “Indifference”, which was our featured poem on the first Friday of Lent.

Tuesday, 9th March

Our poem today, “Animula” by T.S. Eliot, was inspired by a passage from the “Commedia” of Dante Alighieri (Purgatorio 16:85-90). Its opening line is a mash-up of the first part of line 85 and the first part of line 88, which returns, subtly altered, later in the poem, leading us to reflect on the failure to live life fully.

Monday, 8th March

Today’s poem is by John Betjeman and in this recording it is introduced by the poet. He calls it “The Last of her Order“. It is perhaps better known as “Felixstowe”.

Sunday, 7th March

On this Third Sunday of Lent we return to the poetry of George Herbert, and this time to his poem “Redemption”, which sets the drama of salvation in a setting that would have been only too familiar to some of his parishioners, the need to renegotiate a tenancy in the face of agricultural crisis. Here it is read by the late Dame Peggy Ashcroft.

Saturday, 6th March

We end this second full week of Lent with the poem ‘Autobiography,’ by Louis MacNeice. Born in Northern Ireland to an Anglican family (his father went on to become a bishop in the Church of Ireland), MacNeice studied at Oxford, graduating with a First-class Honours degree. He worked as a university lecturer in Birmingham and London before joining the BBC during the Second World War. Despite its title the subject of this poem is not his colourful private life but the impact of his mother’s illness and death on him as a young boy.

Friday, 5th March

George Herbert ended his days as parish priest of the village of Bemerton, now a suburb of the English cathedral city of Salisbury. The career of his older contemporary (and family friend) John Donne was rather more spectacular. Born into a “Recusant” family, he studied at Oxford and Cambridge, spent his inheritance on the 16th-century equivalent of “cigarettes and whisky and wild, wild women”, and served as a soldier in the Earl of Essex’s expedition to Cadiz, before finding a post in government service from which he could move on to higher things. Unfortunately, he lost that job when it became known that he had secretly married his employer’s niece and he and a growing family lived in extreme financial insecurity for the next few years, until he found employment with a new patron and, after the death of Elizabeth I, attracted the attention of King James VI/I. By this time Donne had gained a reputation both as a poet and as a writer on religious matters. He had moved away from the Catholicism in which he had been brought up and was a noted defender of the Church of England. King James bullied Donne into taking holy orders and appointed him to a number of significant posts, the last of which was the Deanship of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where he proved to be a great preacher. While much of his poetry, especially the poems which he wrote as a young man, deal with secular matters (satires and love poetry established his reputation), he wrote in later life a number of profoundly Christian poems, including the sequence of nineteen “Holy Sonnets”, among which today’s poem, “Death be not proud”, stands at the halfway mark.

Thursday, 4th March

Today’s poem, “Love”, is probably the best known of George Herbert’s poems with the possible exception of those which are used as hymns. It is the last poem in “The Temple”, the collection of poems which Herbert passed to his friend Nicolas Ferrar of Little Gidding shortly before his death. In placing it right at the end of that collection, after a sequence of poems which focus on three of the traditional “Four Last Things”, George Herbert is making a firm theological statement. This is what lies beyond death and doomsday. When the dusty traveller arrives at his final destination, he discovers that this is the essence of heaven.

The Gospel reading for 3rd March (Matthew 20:17-28):

While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’

When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’


When Matthew changes the storyline he inherited from Mark, it is usually to make a point, as we saw earlier today, but it’s hard to see what point Matthew was making in the change he made to the storyline in this morning’s Gospel reading. Mark reports that it was the two sons of Zebedee themselves who asked Jesus that favour – a favour which makes you wonder how carefully they had been listening to anything that Jesus had said during the time that they had been with him. It’s not as if it was the first time that Jesus had warned the twelve that “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.” In fact, today’s warning is the third.

Luke’s Gospel also skates over this episode, but Luke does it by separating Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death from the argument about greatness, setting the argument in the context of the Last Supper, and leaving out any specific mention of James and John. He doesn’t try to reassign the blame for the brothers’ question as Matthew does. So why does Matthew do that? Some commentators think that it’s an attempt to tone down Mark’s criticism of the sons of Zebedee in the light of what happened later. By the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, James had died a martyr’s death and direct criticism of him might not have been well received in some quarters: but, at least to 21st-century eyes, it isn’t a good look to try to shift the responsibility for such an ill-conceived request from the brothers to their old mum.

But that, as they say, is history; as is the other disciples’ anger at James and John. They clearly recognised where the request had come from, as did Jesus. His answer is directed to the two sons of Zebedee, not their mother – although the lack of a distinct second person plural in modern English rather muddies the waters at that point – and that answer must have made uncomfortable listening: first, because it showed that the brothers had been, as we used to say, rumbled; second, because where they had asked for glory, Jesus promises them suffering. As a motif in the Hebrew Scriptures, “the cup” sometimes contains something good. More usually, though, it contains something very unpleasant, especially in the writings of the prophets: “shame”, says Habakkuk: “horror and desolation” says Ezekiel – and he adds “scorn and derision” for good measure: “wrath”, say Jeremiah and Isaiah: “punishment” says the Psalmist.

What matters in this passage, and matters for us two thousand years later just as much as it did for the disciples, is what Jesus says to cool their anger against the brothers. He warns those who follow him against reflecting in his community the patterns of authority modelled by Gentile rulers – a coded way of naming the Roman Empire. He reminds them that the true way up is the way down, the way of humility and self-forgetting, the way which he will reveal to them after their arrival in Jerusalem, the way which he reveals to us as we follow him along the way of the cross.

Wednesday, 3rd March

Robert Frost was an American poet of the first half of the 20th century, although he first achieved recognition during the time he and his family spent in Britain in the years immediately before the First World War. His poem, ‘Desert Places,’ is typical of much of his output, developing profound insights from his observation of the New England countryside.

Tuesday, 2nd March

John Betjeman had the reputation of being the poet of a certain kind of middle-class Englishness, jaunty, observant, obsessed with life’s little niceties, the chronicler of a particular age and sub-culture. That reputation ignores the depth of melancholy and sense of loss which underlies many of his poems. In “Before the Anaesthetic” it breaks out into the open.

Monday, 1st March

On St David’s Day it’s appropriate that we should hear the voice of a Welsh poet, the Anglican priest RS Thomas. Thomas’s relationship with God was complex. It would be too easy to make the comparison with his namesake among the apostles and call him a poet of doubt. Archbishop Barry Morgan, preaching the sermon at a service of thanksgiving for Thomas’s life, said that “… he stood in a long tradition of those who had wrestled with God back to Jacob, Isaiah, St John of the Cross, Master Eckhart and Luther who, echoing Isaiah, said ‘Truly thou art a God that hidest thyself’’. RS knew that God is ultimately unknowable in himself – He is a mystery to which our human words point only by analogy.” So in Thomas’s poetry we find hints and inklings and moments of insight, but no blazing theophanies. As in this poem, “Kneeling“.

Sunday, 28th February

Charles Causley lived almost the whole of his life, apart from wartime service in the Royal Navy, in Cornwall. For much of that time he was a teacher in Launceston, at the school where he had been a pupil, taking early retirement in 1976 to devote more time to writing. His poems deal with faith, folklore, memory, his wartime experience and its later impact, landscape, travel, friends and family. He has been described in Cornwall as “the greatest Poet Laureate we never had” and fellow-poets such as Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, and Seamus Heaney held him in high regard. This poem “I am the Great Sun” was inspired by the inscription on a 17th-century crucifix in Normandy.

Saturday, 27th February

Our final poem in this first full week of Lent is “The Collar” by the priest and poet George Herbert, who is remembered in the Church of England’s calendar on this day. It comes from “The Temple”, the collection of his poems which was published after Herbert’s death by his friend Nicolas Ferrar of the Little Gidding community. The title plays on the similarity between the word “collar”, meaning a restraint, and “choler”, meaning anger. It is, until the final line, a very angry poem.

Friday, 26th February

Today’s poem is “Musée des Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden, a reflection on the way in which everyday life goes on around events which shake the world and shatter lives. It takes its inspiration from the painting “The Fall of Icarus”, attributed to Pieter Breughel the Elder.

Thursday, 25th February

Like Robert Graves, Philip Larkin was an avowed unbeliever, but there are moments at which his poetry seems to push him closer to faith. Today’s poem, “An Arundel Tomb“, provides one of those moments.

The Gospel reading for 24th February (Luke 11:29-32):

When the crowds were increasing, Jesus began to say, ‘This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgement with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!’


The eleventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel is, to be honest, a bit of a rag-bag. It begins with Jesus teaching about prayer and includes St Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. It continues with an exorcism – and a controversy, because some of the crowd say that Jesus is casting out demons by the ruler of the demons. Then Jesus sets out the danger of an exorcism which is not followed by a change of direction on the part of the one who has been exorcised and he replies to a woman in the crowd who goes over the top with her praises.

That’s the point at which we come in – except we don’t, because Jesus actually goes back to something that was said during the row about the exorcism. “Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven.” And here they get their response, which, effectively, tells them that if they can’t see what Jesus is doing as a “sign from heaven”, then there is no point in asking for anything else. In a sense, what lies behind the crowd’s demand for a sign is the same attitude that Jesus faced in the wilderness. “If you are the Son of God…” do something spectacular. And Jesus says “No” to them, as he had said “No” to the tempter.

In the parallel passage in Mark’s Gospel Jesus simply leaves it at that, gets into the boat, and sails off across the lake with the disciples. In Luke’s Gospel, though, as in Matthew’s, he offers what sounds like a kind of get-out clause. Jesus tells those who are questioning him that “no sign will be given” – but then he adds, “except the sign of Jonah”.

Now what that “sign of Jonah” may be has been a puzzle for nearly two thousand years. Matthew, who uses this incident twice, links it, at the first time of telling, to Jesus’ death and resurrection. “For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” Luke doesn’t offer any explanation, but there is perhaps a clue to what he means in the way he rounds off his version of the story, with Jesus telling his listeners “The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!”

So, perhaps the “sign of Jonah” is that prophet’s proclamation of God’s judgement on a political system which had grown great on violence and oppression. Perhaps it is a sign that a political system which is based on self-seeking and party advantage, rather than on fulfilling God’s requirement of peace with justice, is under God’s judgement. That would make sense of the sudden appearance of “the queen of the South”, who “came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon”, the king who built his power not on his skill as a warrior, like his father David, but on the wisdom which avoided war and sought prosperity for his kingdom.

And what we have here is greater than Solomon’s wisdom, for he was seduced by the success of his diplomacy into turning aside from worshipping the God of Israel. And what we have here is greater than Jonah’s preaching, for he was offended by God’s refusal to destroy the people of Nineveh. What we have here is Jesus, who is Son of Man and Son of God.

Wednesday 24th February

Today’s poem is “To Keep a True Lent” by Robert Herrick, the 17th-century poet-parson of Dean Prior in Devon. Herrick is sometimes, though wrongly, associated with the “Cavalier Poets” of the early 17th century. Although his earlier poems, with their delight in human sensuality, share some of the themes of the “Cavaliers”, he looks backward to the Elizabethans, and especially to Ben Jonson, and his direct style makes him different from the “metaphysical poets” when he deals, as he does here, with what used to be called “sacred subjects”.

Tuesday 23rd February

Robert Graves was a poet, novelist, critic and classical scholar, best known for his two historical novels about the Roman emperor, Claudius. He was also the last survivor of the poets of the 1914-1918 War and had known both Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. For much of his life he renounced any religious belief, but some of his early poems strike a different note, among them “In the Wilderness“, which was written in 1915 and published three years later in the collection “Fairies and Fusiliers”.

Monday 22nd February

The first full week of Lent continues with this poem by the 17th-century Welsh metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughan, known as “the Silurist”. ‘The Retreat’, which was published in his 1650 collection of sacred poems “Silex Scintillans”, is a meditation on loss, inspired, it is thought, by the death of a younger brother.

Lent 1, Sunday 21st February

To begin the first full week of Lent, we have a Shakespeare Sonnet, number 146. It stands out from the other poems in the sequence because of its turn away from the complicated human relationships which they describe and its turning toward a renewal of the soul’s relationship with God.

Saturday, 20th February

“Norfolk”, today’s “Poem for Lent”, was written, and is here read, by John Betjeman. Like many of his poems, it is a meditation on childhood and the loss of innocence.

Friday, 19th February

The third day of our “Poems for Lent” project brings us back into the 20th century, with a poem by Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, the pioneering military chaplain known to thousands of British soldiers during the First World War as “Woodbine Willie”, because of his habit of handing out that particular brand of cigarette to the men among whom he ministered. This short poem is not, however, about his wartime experiences. It is called “Indifference“.

Thursday, 18th February

A couple of technical problems delayed upload of today’s poem. It’s “Lent” by Christina Rossetti.

Ash Wednesday, 17th February

Our series of “Poems in Lent” begins, appropriately, with T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday“, read by the poet himself. It was one of the first poems he published after the decisive move away from his family’s Unitarian faith and his own unbelief which led to his baptism as a Christian in June 1927 at the age of 38.

A short trailer for our “Poems in Lent” project which will, we hope, produce a recorded poem for each of the forty days. It’s Christina Rossetti’s poem “Shrove Tuesday” (and, by the way, we do not recommend using the bare hands to catch a pancake. The pan is much safer!).

The Gospel reading for 10th February – St Scholastica (Mark 7:14-23)

Jesus called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’


These words of Jesus are part of his response to an accusation from leading Pharisees that he and his disciples were sitting far too light to the Law of Moses, in particular the regulations about ritual cleanliness, where the Pharisees wanted to introduce into everyday living the strict rules which applied to the temple.

That could be seen as slightly ironic in our present circumstances, where handwashing is up there with mask-wearing and social distancing as central elements in our efforts to bring the virus under some sort of control. There is, however, the difference that our concern in these days is not so much for our own ritual purity as for the well-being of our neighbour. Maintaining good hygiene is a manifestation of sisterly or brotherly love. In our situation, a failure to do so could be seen not so much as an expression of “freedom in the Spirit”, but as a sign of those “evil intentions” that come from within the human heart, a “menefreghismo” putting personal convenience or political propaganda ahead of wider public safety. The wisest spiritual teachers encourage the following of rules – and the development of an awareness of when it is appropriate to bend or even break them.

Today the Church remembers St Scholastica, the sister of St Benedict, who is revered by many as the model for Western monasticism. Scholastica, like her brother, also lived a life dedicated to prayer and they would meet, we are told, once a year to talk about the spiritual life and to sing the praises of God. Now, because Benedict lived in a men-only community, they couldn’t meet inside the monastery, so they would spend the day together in a building nearby. One day in particular they had spent a really happy time together and, over their evening meal they carried on talking about the things of God until it was quite late. At that point Benedict realised that he would have to go back to his community, but Scholastica was very reluctant to let him go. “Please do not leave me tonight”, she said; “let us keep on talking about the joys of heaven until morning.”

Benedict was quite shocked by this and reminded his sister that according to the rule that he had drawn up he had to be back inside the monastery. At which point Scholastica stopped arguing and started praying.

As she came to the end of her prayer, there was a sudden flash of lightning followed by a huge peal of thunder. And it began to rain. Not just a shower, but a storm even heavier than the one we had here on Sunday morning. It was such a downpour that Benedict and those who had come with him from the monastery couldn’t set foot outside the door. Realising that he was stuck, Benedict turned accusingly on his sister. “What have you done?” he asked. Scholastica replied “When I appealed to you, you would not listen to me. So I turned to God and he heard my prayer.” So, rather grumpily, Benedict had to stay. And they talked together about the interior life until the sun came up next morning and Benedict and his companions were able to return to the monastery and Scholastica returned to her own place a few miles away.

Three days later Scholastica was dead. Benedict, we are told, had a vision of her entering heaven and sent men from his community to bring her body for burial in the tomb he had prepared for himself. When he died, some years later, his body was laid beside hers. But the events of those 24 hours that they spent in one another’s company, talking about the life of the spirit, is a reminder that, while rules are important, they do not override every other consideration, especially not when keeping them over-scrupulously prevents us from acting in brotherly (or sisterly) love, sharing, from the abundance of a good heart, the blessings of God.

The Gospel reading for 3rd February – St Anskar (Mark 6:1-6a)

Jesus left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.


It was an aristocratic Frenchwoman in the reign of Louis XIV who made the memorable observation that “No man is a hero to his valet.” And it’s a sad fact that those who know us best often have the lowest opinion of us. So, in this passage, Jesus is written off by the people among whom he had grown up. They know him, they think, and they clearly think that he ought to know his place: and that place is working with his hands, not teaching in the local synagogue. No man is a hero to the people who know his old mum – and his brothers and sisters. Because they “knew” the messenger, they were not open to his message. They could not look beyond horizons that were limited by home-town, trade and kinship.

Today, by contrast, we remember a man who looked a long way beyond horizons of the world that he knew. Anskar was born in what is now northern France at the beginning of the 9th century, a time when the people who lived in that region were Franks rather than Frenchmen. Which accounts for his very un-French name.

Anskar was orphaned in early childhood and handed over to the care of the great abbey of Corbie, near Amiens, where, in due time, he became a monk. He was in his mid-twenties when the exciting news came that the king of Denmark had become a Christian during a period of exile in Germany and Anskar was sent north with the king to evangelise the Danish people and teach them the way of Christ. When Anskar arrived, however, he discovered that, while the king might have become a Christian, his people very definitely hadn’t and Anskar was driven out.

Now at this point Anskar might have returned south, but he didn’t. He took ship across the Skagerrak and started preaching the Gospel in southern Sweden, building, it is said, the first Christian church on Swedish soil. After about five years, his work was recognised and he was consecrated as bishop of Hamburg, on the understanding that he would continue to develop missionary work in Scandinavia. Again, the Scandinavians had other ideas. Hamburg was destroyed in a Viking raid about fifteen years after Anskar’s arrival, and he had to move to Bremen, in less than ideal circumstances. So he returned to Sweden, where he had more success than in his earlier visit, and to Denmark, again with rather greater success than at his first attempt.

But then in 865, nearly forty years after his first arrival in the north, Anskar died and the work of evangelising Scandinavia died with him. It was nearly two centuries before the evangelisation of Denmark and Sweden came to fruition. Despite that long gap, the faithfulness and fortitude of Anskar provided a model for missionaries in Northern Europe, and he was declared a saint within a few years of his death – a move which might have surprised him. When Anskar was confronted with claims which others were making on his behalf as a miracle-worker, he is said to have replied: “Were God to choose me to do such things, I would ask him for one miracle only – that by his grace he would make me a good human being.” To which I think all of us might happily say “Amen.”

The Gospel reading for 27th January (Mark 4:1-20)

Again Jesus began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” ’

And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’


When I was young I was taught that a parable was “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning”. You just had to squeeze the text, like an orange, and the juice of that heavenly meaning would come trickling out. Happily, New Testament scholarship has moved on a bit since then. Archaeology and a greater awareness of the world in which the Gospels, and the letters of Paul and others, were written have broadened and deepened our understanding of what is going on in and underneath the texts that we study. The world in which Jesus lived and taught and healed and suffered has become much more vivid, thanks to the insights of modern scholarship and the parable of the sower is no exception.

We’ve begun to realise, for example, how important parables were as a way of teaching those who were part of Jesus’ circle and as a way of keeping the message hidden from those who were hostile to him and his followers. Hence that quotation from the prophecies of Isaiah about looking but not perceiving which Jesus uses when the disciples ask him to explain.

We’ve also begun to realise just how radical the teaching of Jesus was in the circumstances of first-century Palestine. To quote from a controversial Church publicity campaign a few years ago, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild? As if!” The parable of the sower was told to peasant farmers, most of whom were deeply in hock to wealthy land-owners, and whose land was doing well if the grain harvest produced seven-fold and exceptionally well if it produced tenfold. For such listeners the possibility of a harvest producing thirty-fold – never mind 60- or 100-fold – such a possibility would have meant freedom from the burden of their landlords’ demands for a share of the crop. It would even have offered them the chance of buying the land on which they worked. “The word” for them is a message of hope and liberation.

“The word” is also a warning to those who are already part of the Jesus movement. It’s a reminder how many blocks there are to becoming a true disciple. The powers of this world, lumped together here as “Satan”, the adversary, do their best to stop anyone hearing the message of Jesus. Those who do hear, fall into three categories. “The rocky ground” stands for those who drop out when being a follower of Jesus attracts hostility. “The thorns” – they’re the ambitious, the go-getters, the ones who make a mark in this world, who focus on status, financial success, and other distractions. And finally “The good soil”: those who receive and hear the word and bear the fruit that is liberation from the oppressive relationships which deafen people to the voice of God.

A.W.D. 24.1.2021

The Gospel reading for The conversion of St Paul: 25th January (Matthew 19.27-30)

Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’


The call of Jesus is always a summons to leave our comfort zone behind, and with it any form of human security. That security is described here by Jesus in terms of property, kinship and land; three things which then, as now, were the basis of a stable, safe existence and whose lack, or removal, can still send people over the precipice into poverty and destitution. But there are other bases for security: racial, cultural, educational, religious. St Paul had all of these, as he was to acknowledge to the Christians of Philippi, who had their own basis for security in the shape of Roman citizenship. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh [remembering that for Paul “the flesh” means every aspect of his unredeemed humanity], I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

That is a solid basis, you might have thought, for a sense of security – not to say superiority – as indeed it was until that dramatic experience on the Damascus road which turned Paul’s life upside down and sent him far beyond the comfort zone of Pharisaic piety. Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi continues: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ….For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” That “faith” of which Paul writes is not, as is sometimes assumed, the mind’s assent to a set of statements about Jesus and about God. The faith of which Paul writes is the same attitude of total – if sometimes bewildered – trust which led Peter and the rest of the Twelve to leave their comfort zone in Galilee and follow Jesus of Nazareth into a strange and sometimes hostile world.

Today, for many people of faith, the world is just as strange and hostile as it was for the first followers of Jesus. Migration, pandemic, conflict are pretty well universal factors, and in many places government is viewed as an enemy – sometimes rightly. Being a Christian (or a Muslim) in Narendra Modi’s India or Xi Jinping’s China can be as dangerous as being a Christian was in Nero’s Rome. But, as Paul came to understand from the depths of his being, the God who called him on the Damascus road, the God who has called us into relationship with his Son – God is utterly trustworthy, whatever happens.

As we realise that, and as we sit more and more lightly to the security on which we have relied, we find ourselves discovering, with Paul, “the power of Christ’s resurrection” and we look forward with Paul, and with Peter and the others, to “the renewal of all things” and the gift of the fullness of eternal life as we share in the resurrection of Jesus our Lord.

This was the Anglican “message” at the service of Prayer for Unity in the Co-Cathedral of San Siro in San Remo on 23rd January, 2021. It draws on the three readings at the service (John 15:1-17, 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, Revelation 7:9-12). The English translation can be found after the Italian original.

Sorelle e fratelli, abbiamo ascoltato le parole dell’Apocalisse, che descrivono “una grande folla di persone di ogni nazione, popolo, tribù e lingua” che stavano di fronte al trono e all’Agnello. Questa folla è sicuramente il popolo di Dio finalmente unito. Come dice uno degli anziani, “Sono quelli che vengono dalla grande tribolazione”.

Questo pone la questione: Dovremo dunque aspettare l’unità di tutti cristiani fino alla fine del mondo presente?

No di certo! Però nel mondo presente noi cristiani siamo impigliati ancora negli stessi problemi che San Paolo riconosce quando scrive ai Corinzi “alcuni della famiglia di Cloe mi hanno fatto sapere che vi sono litigi tra voi.” Ma invece de Paolo e Apollo, uno di noi potrebbe dire: “Io sono di Martino”, un altro “Io sono di Giovanni (sia Crisostomo, sia Calvino, sia Wesley)”, mentre un terzo sostiene: “Io sono di Pietro” (o dei suoi successori) e un quarto afferma: “Io sono di Tommaso”. E questi litigi si sono radicati nel corso dei secoli.

Comunque, possiamo rallegrarci in questi giorni che non vediamo più le differenze tra le tradizioni come fonte di tribolazioni e litigi, ma come manifestazione della ricchezza dei frutti abbondanti che Cristo la vera vite dà ai tralci che rimangono uniti a lui. Pertanto preghiamo che ciascuno di noi sia più radicato, più radicata, in Cristo che ama tutti i suoi amici, ortodossi ed anglicani, cattolici, luterani e valdesi, con lo stesso amore, amore infinito ed incondizionato, e che dice anche a noi: “Questo io vi comando: amatevi gli uni gli altri”.

English translation:

Sisters and brothers, we have heard the words of the Apocalypse, describing ′′a large crowd of people from every nation, people, tribes and language′′ standing before the throne and the Lamb. This crowd is surely God’s people finally united. As one of the elders says, ′′They are the ones who come from the great tribulation”.

This raises the question: will we have to wait for the unity of all Christians until the end of the present world?

By no means! But in the present world we Christians are still caught up in the same problems that Saint Paul recognizes when he writes to the Corinthians ′′some of Chloe’s people have told me that there are quarrels among you.” But instead of Paul and Apollos, one of us might say: ′′ I belong to Martin”, another ′′ I belong to John (whether Chrysostom, Calvin, or Wesley)”, while a third says: ′′ I belong to Peter ′′ (or his successors) and a fourth says: ′′ I belong to Thomas*”. And these quarrels have become rooted over the centuries.

However, we can rejoice in these days that we no longer see the differences between traditions as a source of tribulations and quarrels, but as a manifestation of the richness of abundant fruits that Christ, the true vine, gives to the branches that remain united with him. Therefore let us pray that each of us will be more rooted in Christ who loves all his friends, Orthodox and Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans and Waldensians, with the same love, infinite and unconditional love, and who also says to us: ′′ This I command you: love one another “.

*Cranmer, if you hadn’t guessed!

The Gospel reading for Richard Rolle: 20th January (Mark 3:1-6)

Jesus entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.


The questions which are raised by Jesus’ action in healing the man with the withered hand are still very much alive. Maybe not the question about the Sabbath law, but the “hardness of heart” displayed by those with authority or influence, their willingness to sacrifice the well-being of others rather than move out of their own libertarian comfort zone. The whole “anti-mask” and “anti-vaccination” movement in the current pandemic is a reflection of this. Some would argue that the preference of the Churches for remaining open for public worship also falls into this category – and Bishop Robert and Bishop David have taken that on board by asking every congregation in this diocese to consider what its policy ought to be given the situation in which it finds itself, as the church council here did at its meeting on Sunday. We decided to stay open – at least for the present.

What is striking about the story that Mark tells is the anger of Jesus at the silence of the people in the synagogue, their unwillingness to speak up for justice and compassion and against “the system”. What is also striking is the immediate reaction of the dominant religious and political groups, normally at odds with each other, who come together in a plot to kill him. They recognise Jesus as a threat to their own power. Such a threat that he must be done away with.

Today, as we reflect on the healing work of Jesus and the role of the Churches in a time of pandemic, we remember a man who lived in the time of the great pandemic of the 14th century, the Black Death and who may perhaps have died from it. Richard Rolle, a Yorkshireman from a farming family, was born around the turn of the 13th/14th century. He was a bright lad and came to the attention of a senior churchman, who sent him off to study at Oxford. While he was there, Richard had a profound experience of God’s presence, a warming of the heart like John Wesley four centuries later, and found himself drawn to a deeper relationship with Christ. He dropped out of university to become a hermit, first on the estate of a family friend, then, after a series of wanderings which may possibly have included study at the Sorbonne in Paris, he settled back in Yorkshire, in a hermitage near the Cistercian Convent at Hampole, where he became a spiritual adviser to the nuns – and where he wrote. He wrote in English for his friends and in Latin for the learned. He wrote poems of devotion and serious essays on the spiritual life. He is, I think, the only writer to have work in both the Oxford Book of Mediaeval Latin Verse and the Cambridge Book of Lesser [English] Poets.

He wrote about what is sometimes called “affective piety”, about the fire of love, about the amendment of life. He wrote commentaries on the Bible, especially the Psalms and the book of Job. He gained a great reputation – and not only in Yorkshire – although some of his contemporaries in that great flowering of spiritual writing in 14th-century England were inclined to criticise as “superficial”, his stress on the physical manifestation of God’s presence, as warmth, sweetness and song. Nevertheless, he spoke to many and after his death on Michaelmas Day, 1349, there was a strong movement to have him declared a saint, and his books were being copied and read not only in England, but across Europe three hundred years after his death.

So today, as we remember the life and writings of Richard Rolle, and as we reflect on the healing work of Jesus in the synagogue, we remember that God’s love and compassion take priority over human rules and regulations, even in a time of pandemic, and we entrust ourselves to God in faith and hope.

The Psalm which the Daily Eucharistic Lectionary provides for the Wednesday after the Third Sunday of Epiphany is Psalm 110, which has inspired composers as different in time and place as Tomás Luis de Victoria at the court of King Philip II of Spain, Heinrich Schütz in 17th-century Dresden and his Venetian contemporary Claudio Monteverdi, Antonio Vivaldi (who set it three times), Mozart (who set it twice), Michael Haydn (brother of Josef), and Richard Rodgers (who set verses from Psalm 110 at the beginning of “The Sound of Music”). Perhaps the best -known setting is the monumental version which the young Georg Friedrich Händel wrote in 1707 during his time studying music in Rome. With a performance time of 30-40 minutes it is around ten times the length of the versions by Victoria and Schütz.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity runs from 18th-25th January. The prayer this year has been prepared by the sisters of the Grandchamp Community, which has long-established links with Taizé. If you would like to join the daily prayer, please follow the link here and choose which of the resources you wish to download. There is a full-colour brochure and a plain text version of the material as well as a simplified form of the service held in the Cathedral of San Lorenzo on 18th January which can be used at home.

The Gospel reading for St Hilary of Poitiers: 13th January (John 8:25-32)

The Pharisees said to Jesus, ‘Who are you?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Why do I speak to you at all? I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.’ They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’ As he was saying these things, many believed in him.

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’


Questions about truth and reality have been prominent in recent months, particularly in North American politics but also in other countries, in debates about the pandemic. So the closing words of today’s passage from John’s Gospel could hardly be more relevant. They are also very appropriate for the three very different men whom the Church of England remembers today. Each of those we commemorate was, like Jesus, engaged in debates about the truth – and about the God, who is truth. Each of them experienced opposition and rejection for the sake of truth. And each of them found that the truth did indeed make them free.

Hilary of Poitiers, one of the greatest teachers of the Western Church, was born a few years after the Emperor Constantine’s ending the persecution of Christians. Hilary came from a pagan family, but study convinced him of the truth of Christian faith and he was baptised. A few years later Hilary was elected Bishop of Poitiers, and immediately found himself involved in the arguments about the person of Jesus associated with the Egyptian priest Arius, who taught that the Christ was not fully God but some kind of semi-divine being. Hilary threw himself into the controversy on the side of Orthodox belief and was such an effective preacher and teacher that the authorities, who supported Arius, sent him into exile at the other end of the Mediterranean. That didn’t stop him. Hilary knew that in Christ he had discovered the truth, and that truth had made him free. He used his time in exile to study what Greek-speaking defenders of orthodox Christian faith were saying and writing. As a result, he was very soon sent back to Gaul as a “mischief-maker”.

Two centuries or so after Hilary, and a long way from Poitiers, another bishop was striving to proclaim the truth that is in Jesus. Kentigern was a third-generation Christian from Lothian, the region around Edinburgh, who was sent as a missionary bishop to the neighbouring kingdom of Strathclyde. He is said to have made many converts, but he also made enemies, including a pagan chief who drove him out into Cumbria and from there to North Wales. The next king, however, was a Christian, who sent for Kentigern and asked him to continue his work. Kentigern evangelised much of what is now south-west Scotland, including Glasgow, where he is buried.

Our third valiant seeker after truth would, I think, be amused to find himself remembered in the company of two bishops. Growing up amid the religious turmoil of England in the 1630s and 40s, George Fox felt himself called in early adulthood to commit himself to a search for the truth that would make him free. In 1646 he had an experience of enlightenment which led him to reject the conflicting interpretations of Scripture which were fuelling the English Civil War and to seek truth in the Inner Light of the living Christ. He gave up on the Church of his day and began to preach about the voice of God speaking directly to the soul. This put him at odds with both Royalist Anglicans and Parliamentary Presbyterians and he suffered at the hands of both, but the power of his preaching and his example drew increasing numbers, and he set about organising them into a society of “Friends of the Truth”, guided by that light of Christ which Fox had discovered within himself. Despite the abuse and the sometimes vicious persecution which he and his followers endured, Fox’s “Friends” survived the restoration of the monarchy and, out of all the radical religious groups which sprang up in England in the 1640s and 50s, they alone survive and thrive, not as an English sect, but as a worldwide movement with a heroic track record in promoting justice and peace, and still affirming that the truth to be found in that experience of the Inner Light will make all people truly free.

Picking up on the last of those three seekers after truth, here is a song which Sydney Carter wrote in 1964. It is inspired by the life and teaching of George Fox. In his introduction to the song in the collection “In the Present Tense”, Carter wrote that it “[needs] a chorus to give it variety, shout insults, hurl carrots. George sings on steadily… Give it a dancing sound, or even dance it.” The tune, incidentally, is based on a morris dance, “Monck’s March”. The title refers to one of Oliver Cromwell’s generals, who smoothed the way for the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 and was rewarded with the Dukedom of Albemarle.

10th January 2021

Here is a statement about the events in Washington on 6th January from our dear friend Fr Douglas Greenaway of St Paul’s, Rock Creek, in his professional capacity as CEO of the National WIC Association (used by permission).

Statement of the Rev. Fr. Douglas A. Greenaway President & CEO of the National WIC Association On the Invasion of the US Capitol Building

Yesterday, we witnessed a shocking act of domestic terrorism that should shake every one of us to our core.

At this moment, we can be nothing less than honest about what we saw. A conspiracy-crazed mob, incited by lies championed by the 45th President of the United States — at a rally organized to disrupt the solemn last step in the constitutional process of validating the federal election — invaded our sacred seat of American democracy, the People’s House – the United States Capitol building.

They smashed windows, rummaged through desks on the Senate floor, climbed over the Senate balcony to occupy the seat of the Senate’s presiding officer, vandalized offices, smashed glass in the doors to the House of Representatives to break into a furniture-blockaded chamber. They violated, with swagger and arrogant pride, the sanctity and the heart of our democratic institutions. The irony in their actions is that they view themselves as patriots.

Their insurrection was fanned by the President’s enablers — senators, senators-elect, and members of the House of Representatives — all set to protest lawful election results certified by election officials, governors, and judges in every state in the nation — on the floor of the House and the Senate.

Many of us in our WIC family know the corridors of the Capitol intimately. We have walked them headed to meetings with our representatives and senators – the very corridors that were violently occupied yesterday. We walked them proud of the opportunity to give voice, to speak up and speak out, in an empowering act of democracy on behalf of WIC and the millions of mothers, babies, and young children we serve. And our gift in those demonstrations of democracy was that we acted in peace and with respect, honored to be in those hallowed spaces.

While yesterday’s violent acts were acts of domestic terrorism, make no mistake my friends, the world was watching us. Our shame was dismaying to all who revere this nation as a beacon of freedom and stability in a broken world. Our reputation as the citadel of democracy is now sullied. The hope of millions has been shattered.

The internationally acclaimed journalist and writer, Fintan O’Toole, writing in the Irish Times offered this critique, “this is his [President Trump’s] legacy: he has successfully led a vast number of voters along the path from hatred of government to contempt for rational deliberation to the inevitable endpoint: disdain for the electoral process itself. In this end is his new beginning. Stripped of direct power, he will face enormous legal and financial jeopardy. He will have every reason to keep drawing on his greatest asset: his ability to unleash the demons that have always haunted the American experiment – racism, nativism, fear of ‘the government.'”

To put a finer point on this, for those of us who have been othered by the President and the mob that he inspires, we find it hard to believe otherwise, that were these invaders Black, or Muslim, or Queer, or another visible minority, they would have been met with carnage. Rather than being peacefully dispersed, their bodies would have littered the Capitol grounds. If you have doubts, think back a few months to Washington’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations when peaceful demonstrators were gassed, beaten, arrested, and shackled to accommodate a media moment for the President in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Our nation’s Capital was under a mandated 6 pm Wednesday – 6 am Thursday curfew. We wonder if what we have witnessed is the end — the last gasps of an administration that has violated every norm of decent governance — or if this is the beginning of yet more violence, as promised by many of the President’s marauding fanatics, not only in Washington, DC, but across the nation.

Our elected leaders are professing that what we witnessed is not America. That we are better than this. At the same time, some are still wedded to overthrowing the election outcome and the will of the American people.

But to get to that place — of being better than what we witnessed — requires that we own and take responsibility for our all too obvious shortcomings. We must confess our brokenness. We must repent of our willful misrepresentations, our thirst for power, our rewriting of history, our extraordinary greed and selfishness, our disavowal of the needs of our neighbors near and far, our blaming and shaming of those who are denied the pathways and access to success, and our keenness for othering. We must make amends for decades of systemic and institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia; our abuse of sacred land, water, and air; for the extraordinary income disparities that leave all to many living hand to mouth and paycheck to paycheck; and the designed inequities built into our healthcare, education, financial, and housing systems.

Despite the weight of this moment, there is hope in the witness of thousands of our neighbors who are appalled by what we witnessed.

There is hope in their selfless commitment to caring for and serving their neighbors and the needs of others.

There is hope in the apparent willingness of communities, institutions, corporations, and faith communities to wrestle with the scourge of our original sin — enslavement — and its continued consequences for the lives of Black Americans and for our nation.

There was hope in the clearing of the Capitol Grounds and the return of the Senate and House to their respective chambers to finish their Constitutional duty to certify the election of our 46th President. There is hope that despite the denials and delays, that with vaccines we will overcome the fear of COVID and restore much of our civic life.

There is hope that in Georgia, two Senators were elected without incident. There is hope that in 13 days we will witness the peaceful transition of power from one administration to another.

For us in WIC, there is hope witnessed every day in the eyes and hearts of the mothers, babies, and young children we serve.

And there is hope in the words of the prophet Amos, spoken more than 2,900 years ago, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

The Gospel reading for 6th January (Mark 6:45-52)

Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.


Why did Jesus force the disciples to get into the boat and cross the sea while he went up the mountain to pray? One suggestion is that they were still shaken by their earlier experience of nearly being sunk in a storm on the lake. Another suggestion is that we need to read this story, which takes place immediately after Mark’s account of the feeding of the five thousand, in the light of John’s version of that feeding, which also links with Jesus walking on the water. John doesn’t mention Jesus forcing the disciples to get in the boat, but he does say that Jesus realised that the crowd was planning to seize him and proclaim him king. Was Jesus, perhaps, concerned that the disciples might get caught up in the crowd’s enthusiasm and decided to remove them from that situation?

So why doesn’t Mark mention that detail? Possibly it wasn’t in the version of the story that he knew. Possibly he edited it out for what we might call reasons of security. If Mark’s Gospel was, as most people think, written some time in the late sixties AD, that was not a good time to acknowledge that some of the people who followed Jesus wanted to put him on the throne of Israel. The Roman authorities had already turned the city’s Christian communities into scapegoats for the devastating fire in AD 64 – and at the end of the decade there was a war going on in Judea as Jewish nationalist groups like the Zealots tried to push the Romans into the sea. So any thought that Jesus might have been linked to a possible Jewish revolt would have been, as they say, unhelpful. John, on the other hand, was probably writing some years after the revolt had been ruthlessly crushed and Jewish independence was no longer an issue.

However we understand this episode and the way in which the stories interlock, it reminds us that the disciples, like later generations of Christians, had to navigate some very stormy political waters – not always happily – and that their only security was the presence of Jesus in their midst. So perhaps we might leave the last word to Julian of Norwich, writing from the stormy waters of England in the years after the great pandemic we call the Black Death. As her “showings” were drawing to an end Julian had a vivid experience of being under attack by the forces of evil. When they vanished she received a final vision of Jesus who told her, “You will not be overcome”. These words she took to apply to every Christian and she interpreted them in this words which echo the thrust of this passage from Mark’s Gospel: “He did not say, ‘You will never have a rough passage, you will never be over-strained, you will never feel uncomfortable,’ but he did say, ‘You will never be overcome.’… For God loves us, and delights in us; so he wills that we should love and delight in him in return, and trust him with all our strength.”

Note: The above gospel is the one provided for use when the Epiphany of Our Lord is celebrated on the preceding Sunday. It is one of a series, taken from each of the four gospels in turn, describing incidents in which the glory of Jesus is revealed.

The Gospel reading for 30th December (Luke 2:36-40)

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.


Last Friday we heard St Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. We have now moved forward six weeks in as many days, to Mary’s ritual purification after the birth of a male child in accordance with the regulations laid down in Leviticus 12, and to her first-born son’s sanctification in accordance with the various rules set out in Exodus. We’ve missed their encounter with Simeon, and his prophecy of mingled power and pain, and catch up with them as they are accosted by Anna, about whose life, in contrast with Simeon, Luke provides a great deal of detail, but about whose words, again in contrast with Simeon, he says very little.

In fact there is not much for her to say – not to the Holy Family. Simeon has said it all. Anna’s role, like the shepherds, is to be a super-spreader, not of a virus, but of the news of this child’s existence “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” She also, like Simeon, represents the faithful remnant of Israel, greeting the one in whom God’s promises to his people, “the redemption of Jerusalem”, are fulfilled. And she is a reminder that it is often those who are disregarded, on the grounds of age, gender or infirmity, who have the greatest awareness of God’s presence.

When it comes to Anna’s great age, Luke’s Greek is ambiguous about the details. Was she 84 years old, having lived in perpetual widowhood after her short marriage? Or had she lived for 84 years since the end of her marriage, which would make her around 105? The Greek could mean either. There’s also the matter of Anna’s name. It’s the Greek version of the Hebrew name Hannah (meaning “grace” or “favour”) which might trigger in those who are scripturally aware the memory of another prayerful Anna/Hannah who came to Israel’s holy place in search of a longed-for child who would be a fulfilment of God’s promise.

So as we continue to watch and wait for the redemption, not of Jerusalem but of the world, from its captivity by Covid-19, we offer our prayers for a deeper awareness of God’s presence among us to bring healing and hope and we pray that, like Anna, we may see that hope fulfilled.

The Gospel reading for The Holy Innocents (Matthew 2.13-18)

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’


The three feasts that follow Christmas each provide a different insight into the meaning of the incarnation. Stephen’s story speaks to us of the cost of discipleship. John draws us into a contemplation of the life which is ours through Christ’s coming. And the Holy Innocents remind us that the kingdoms of this world see God’s kingdom as a threat to their power and prestige, a threat to be resisted ruthlessly and brutally.

Scholars in the last century sometimes doubted the reality of the story which Matthew tells in this passage, on the grounds that no other source mentions it, while the Jewish historian Josephus and others are only too keen to list Herod’s other crimes against humanity, his elimination of potential successors, including members of his closest family, his deathbed order for the murder of several of Jerusalem’s leading rabbis – to ensure that there was weeping and lamentation at his passing. But we know from the way news is covered today that stories are reported only if those who control the news agenda are interested.

My colleague Jean ministers in a war zone. He reports regularly on the killings carried out by militias in the towns and villages of his diocese, killings which have been described by observers as “genocide” – but because he and the people to whom he ministers are members of a minority tribe in the eastern Congo, very few people are interested. So, in first-century Judea, the slaughter of a few dozen children – Bethlehem was never a big place, despite its royal connections – would be of no interest to anyone but their distraught families.

In our own day, too, people are happy to look the other way when children are suffering. Millions were moved by the pictures of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s corpse in the arms of a Turkish policeman, but in his short lifetime borders were closed against him and his family – that’s why they risked their lives in an overcrowded inflatable – and they still are closed. Grooming gangs in English towns and cities were allowed to operate unhindered for a long time because their victims were children – and usually children whose lives were fairly chaotic. Internationally, the perpetrators of sexual abuse in the Churches have been given greater protection than the young people they abused. Some were even advanced up the ladder of promotion, despite clearly expressed anxieties about their behaviour. Maintaining the reputation of the institution took precedence over the suffering of innocents – in direct contradiction to Jesus’ words later in Matthew’s Gospel (and in Mark’s and Luke’s).

So the story which Matthew tells here is a lament, a warning and a reminder. It’s a lament that echoes Rachel’s for the suffering of her children. It’s a warning that what power cares about above all is maintaining itself. The suffering of the innocents, the “little ones”, is (to use the weaselly euphemism) “collateral damage” to that project. And it’s a reminder that the incarnation did not take place in a Disneyfied Christmas-card world, but in a world very like our own, scarred by power politics and murderous violence. As we hear again the story of the massacre of the innocents, let us commit ourselves to the protection of today’s innocents, whoever and wherever they may be, remembering that they are a model for all who are seeking the kingdom of God.

Today’s musical reflection is the “Coventry Carol”, from the Shearmen and Tailors’ contribution to the city’s cycle of mystery plays. It is sung here by Collegium Vocale of Ghent.

The Gospel reading for St Stephen (Matthew 10:17-22)

Jesus warned the disciples: “Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”


In one of her detective stories Dorothy L. Sayers has her hero say: “The first thing a principle does – if it really is a principle – is to kill somebody”. The feast of St Stephen, which we keep today, is a reminder of that. Yesterday we celebrated the principle that God loves all human beings without distinction and without conditions– loves them so much that he enters their messy world, lives among them, and dies for them. Today, in blood red, we commemorate the first life to be claimed by that principle – apart, of course, for the One in whom that principle was given human flesh and blood and who prayed, from his gallows, that his killers might be forgiven.

Stephen is the first among “the noble army of martyrs”, who have, in the course of twenty centuries, borne witness that Jesus is the Christ, at the cost of their life. But why is such suffering necessary? Why was such a death demanded – and with such anger and hatred?

Stephen was one of the Church’s first deacons – and deacons are dangerous. They are ordained to the ministry which is, above all, the ministry of Jesus Christ.

That ministry has two aspects. It is about meeting people at their point of need and it is about proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom, by actions as well as by words. Stephen, apparently, was good at that. He showed people, as Jesus had shown them, the kingdom of God breaking into the kingdoms of this world. People who had a vested interest in those kingdoms found themselves threatened by him and so he was dragged before the religious authorities in Jerusalem, tried by a kangaroo court and done to death by a lynch-mob.

Such things still happen. It has been reckoned that more people have suffered and died in the last century for the sake of Jesus than in all the previous nineteen. And many who have suffered have been those who have cared for people in trouble, who have preached the word of God, proclaiming his love and his justice in places where both are denied. So today, as we remember Stephen, let us pray for all whose faithfulness to Christ leads them into situations of danger. And let us pray for ourselves, that our faith may not fail in the time of trial and that we, like Stephen, may endure to the end.

St Stephen’s Day provides the setting for J.M. Neale’s carol of “Good King Wenceslas”, otherwise known as Duke Vaclav the Good of Bohemia, the patron saint of the Czech Republic. The carol was set to the tune of “Tempus adest floridum” a spring song in the 16th-century collection, “Piae Cantiones”, which should be taken at a bit of a lick, as it is here by The Irish Rovers. Collectors of carols, among them the editors of the Oxford Book of Carols, tend to love the tune but to be extremely sniffy about Neale’s words. “One of his weakest compositions” is about the kindest comment. Others find the elliptical treatment, which calls for a semi-dramatised presentation with different voices, confusing. However, I think that they miss the theological subtlety of Neale’s story, which appears to be his own invention, rather than based on any recorded episode in the saint’s short life (he was in his early 20s when he was murdered by pagan followers of his brother Boheslav).

The manner of Vaclav’s death, and his widespread veneration as a martyr, suggests that Neale chose “the Feast of Stephen”, the first martyr, as the setting for his story very deliberately. The content of the story also fits the day: Stephen was one of “the Seven”, the first deacons of the Jerusalem church, whose responsibility it was to ensure that the poorest members of the community received the support they needed in order to live. In taking food and firewood to a poor man who lived out on the edge, where cultivated land gave way to the forest, Vaclav and his page are performing the primary function of the deacon down the centuries.

The Gospel reading for 23rd December (Luke 1:57-66)

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.


When evangelicals in the USA offer unswerving support for Donald Trump, or when Matteo Salvini describes himself as “the last real Christian”, or when conservative-leaning friends in the UK deplore the present state of the Church of England and blame it all on “woke” clergy – and no, I don’t know what “woke” means either, except that it seems to have replaced “politically correct” as a term of abuse for anyone who doesn’t believe that God is just like them, then I find myself echoing the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “I wonder what Bible they are reading”.

It seems very unlike the one from which today’s Gospel reading came with its ever-so-subtle take-down of tradition and patriarchy. The friends-and-relations all assume that the new baby’s name ought to be one that is already used in their networks of kinship. When Elizabeth disagrees with them, they appeal to her husband to overrule her. But to their astonishment, he doesn’t. In fact, he puts it in writing. “His name is John”. So not “The Lord has remembered” (which is what Zechariah means) but “The Lord has shown favour” (Yeho-hanan in Hebrew), a highly significant name – both for the baby’s parents, especially Elizabeth, and for the whole people.

The Lord has shown favour to this elderly couple in a village in the hill country of Judea. As the opening section of this passage makes clear, “the Lord had shown his great mercy” to Elizabeth, by freeing her so spectacularly from the shame of childlessness. The Lord has shown favour to Zechariah, by freeing him from the silence which Gabriel imposed on him as punishment for his failure to trust. Equally, as the closing words of this passage make clear, the Lord has shown favour to his people through the birth of this child, “For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.”

Once again, God is overturning human expectations, as God will throughout Luke’s Gospel, and with the birth we celebrate on Friday, “bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly”, not confirming us in our privilege and prejudices, but making us reframe the way we look at the world, at one another, and at God.

The Gospel reading for 16th December (Luke 7:18b-23)
John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” ’ Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’


In an age and a culture when very few people could read and write the skill of the story-teller was vitally important in shaping people’s memory of important things that had happened, and in highlighting the important elements in the story, while sitting more lightly to its setting.

There is something of that in this morning’s Gospel. The story of how John the Baptist sent disciples to Jesus to ask “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” is recorded by St Matthew as well as by St Luke, but in a slightly different form in each Gospel. Matthew sets it in the time between John’s imprisonment and his execution. Luke links it to a series of significant miracles, as a result of which people in Galilee were saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favourably on his people!’ Luke adds that “This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.” And Judea was where John the Baptist had been preaching and baptising.

Now what is important is not the setting, but the question and the response, which are pretty much identical in both versions of this encounter. You can tell that the question is important because Luke repeats it: first when John sends his disciples on their errand; and again when those disciples reach Jesus. It is a question which people have been asking ever since. Is Jesus of Nazareth “the one who is to come”? Is he the one who brings judgement and salvation? And both in Luke’s telling and in Matthew’s Jesus gives, almost word for word,the same reply: ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

Jesus, in other words, makes no claims for himself. He lets his actions speak for him – and those actions are the actions which the prophets, and especially Isaiah, had seen as the signs of God’s presence among his people, to bring healing and wholeness and renewal – even life out of death. Jesus lets his actions speak for themselves: but he also offers a warning, that not everyone will interpret them in a good light. ‘Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me’ suggests that there are many who will, because Jesus doesn’t fit their idea of a holy man, and because the God who acts through Jesus, the God who comes as good news to the poor and the unrespectable, doesn’t fit their idea of God. But the heart of our ministry here is to reflect the love of the God who comes as good news to the poor and the unrespectable, the people with no status and no power, and to tell in our words and, just as importantly,our actions, the story of Jesus who sat light to the world of status and kinship, the world of patron and client, and who lived in its generous fullness the life of the kingdom of God.

A piece of music to accompany this Gospel reading. It’s Sir David Willcocks’s adaptation of a Magnificat by Palestrina, sung here by the choir of St David’s Church, Exeter.

During Advent in some churches the Taizé chant “Wait for the Lord” replaces the “Alleluia” before the gospel reading. Here it is sung by the choir of St Francis de Sales Church, Ajax, Ontario.

One of the finest pieces of Advent music for choirs is the verse anthem “This is the Record of John” which Orlando Gibbons wrote at the request of William Laud (later Charles I’s ill-fated Archbishop of Canterbury) for St John’s College, Oxford, where Laud was President. The words are taken from the Gospel for the 4th Sunday in Advent in the Book of Common Prayer, which is also the Gospel for Advent 3 in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary. It is sung here in a vintage recording from 1966 by the tenor Gerald English and the choir of Hampstead Parish Church, accompanied by the Jaye Consort of Viols.

13th December is an important day in Sweden and in Sicily. It is on this day that the people of Syracuse remember Lucia, the teenage girl who died there as a martyr in the last great persecution of Christians in the Roman empire which began in 304 on the orders of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. As Christianity spread into the far north of Europe, where the weeks around Christmas are the darkest time of the year, a saint whose name is closely connected with the Latin word for “light” and whose feast day fell on what was then the shortest day of the year became hugely popular and special customs grew to mark this day, many of which survived the Reformation and still persist in secular modern Sweden (and wherever Swedes live around the world). In Sweden the feast of St Lucy marks the beginning of the final days of preparation for the coming of the Child of Bethlehem, marked by the first appearance of traditional Christmas hymns and carols. It is a day of celebration both in families and at church. This video shows the celebration in Växjö Cathedral in 2006. It begins with an explanation (in Swedish) by a member of the cathedral staff, Leif Adolfsson, of how a Sicilian saint came to be so popular in Sweden. The actual “Luciafirande”, which is performed by students from the city’s secondary schools, begins at 3:19

Here is a short video shared by a Swedish colleague on the Baltic island of Öland to illustrate how different Lucia celebrations are this year. The introduction says “In the dark time of winter Lucia makes the season bright with light and music, even during a pandemic like the corona-virus. This year Ellen Johansson is Lucia in Högby church with Marie Alvhäll and Gunilla Sundström who look after the singing, and Mats Alvhäll on the piano. This year it is not possible to come to church and experience Lucia processions and services on the spot but fortunately there is a digital alternative.”

The invitation at the end is to send a gift to “act Svenska kyrkan”, the Church of Sweden’s disaster relief and development agency. Alternatively, you can send a gift to the Church of the Holy Ghost by using this link and specifying that your gift is for the chaplaincy in Genoa.

6th December is, this year, the 2nd Sunday in Advent. It is also (every year) the day on which the Church remembers St Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra, a city on what is now the south coast of Turkey. Even before his transformation by the Dutch into the genial, gift-giving Sinterklaas (or “Santa Claus”), he was a popular saint across the Christian world. Nothing much is known about his life, but many stories were told about him which reflected popular ideas of what a bishop ought to be, in an age when bishops were often remote figures, more like government ministers or senior civil servants than shepherds of God’s people, defending the poor and powerless and providing a voice for the voiceless, or even, as the bishop who ordained me memorably described himself, “a vicar to vicars”. Benjamin Britten’s Cantata “St Nicholas” tells a few of the stories about Nicholas.

A reflection for St Nicholas’ Day

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford contains one of my all-time favourite pictures. It shows a storm at sea. The clouds are heavy and threatening. The water is heaving violently. In the middle of this chaos there is a sailing ship in serious trouble. The wind has split its mainsail. The sailors are throwing the cargo overboard to lighten ship and preparing to take to the lifeboat. Surely all is lost…

But wait! What’s this, zooming in from the top left-hand corner of the picture? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s super-bishop! It is, too. There is a figure, in cope and mitre, flying into the storm with his right hand raised in blessing over the ship. And behind him, the clouds are simply rolling away. There’s clear blue sky above, and the surging waves below are smoothing out until they are barely ripples.

Today is the day when boys and girls in many parts of Europe get up to greet that “super-bishop” with the same eagerness and excitement that children in England feel on Christmas Day, because that bishop is Nicholas of Myra, Saint Nicholas: and St Nicholas is the one who brings presents. Actually, even in England he brings presents, but he has somehow been shifted off his own feast day and given a name that is barely recognisable. English people use the name that Dutch colonists took across the Atlantic and which later generations mangled and brought back to Europe. He went to America as Sint Nicolaas, or “Sinterklaas”. He came back as Santa Claus.

Now all of this is very strange. Why should St Nicholas be linked with the giving of presents? Who is St Nicholas, anyway? And what’s all this about him flying around like Superman?

Well, the bit about flying is “poetic licence”, exaggeration to show what a special person Nicholas was – and he has been a special person for hundreds of thousands of people all over the world for one and a half millennia: which is amazing when you realise how little we know about him.

All we know about Nicholas is that he was the Bishop of Myra, a town on what is now the south coast of Turkey and that he lived in the first half of the fourth century of our era. And that’s it. He didn’t write any massive theological books. He wasn’t a bishop whose sermons made emperors tremble. He didn’t found an important religious movement. He wasn’t a great teacher or preacher or writer – and yet for over a thousand years he was one of the most popular saints in both the Eastern Church and the Western. Why?

We get a sort of answer in the stories that are told about him, and in the language of the prayers and hymns which the Eastern Church in particular provides for his feast day. One word that turns up again and again in those prayers and hymns is “warm-hearted”. And it’s that quality of warm-heartedness, of love and compassion for the unfortunate – for people facing disaster, like those sailors in the picture –that’s what stuck in people’s memories and made him such a popular saint. He was everyone’s ideal of what a bishop ought to be. He helped people in trouble. He was a champion of the poor and the powerless. He stood up for those who were exploited in any way. And that’s where his connection with present-giving comes in.

The story is told how Bishop Nicholas came to hear of a family in trouble, part of his flock in Myra. A poor man had three daughters, as good as they were beautiful, who were at the age when they ought to be thinking of marriage. But their father could not afford to provide them with a dowry, and in those days that meant that no one would think of marrying them. Young men might be smitten by their beauty, but their parents wanted hard cash as a bride-price. That faced the family with a huge problem and they had no easy way to solve it.

This was deeply distressing for everyone who knew the family. Bishop Nicholas decided that something must be done. He gathered together some money and one moonless night he went to their house and threw a bag of gold through the window. The poor man was amazed and delighted. Now he could arrange his eldest daughter’s marriage.

But that still left the other two girls. What would happen to them? Well, the next dark night Bishop Nicholas paid a visit and another bag of gold came hurtling through the window. Daughter number two was duly married off. That left daughter number three all alone and – well, you can probably guess what happened.

That’s right. One night a third bag of gold thudded onto the floor of that poor man’s house. A third wedding was set up and although the old stories don’t tell us it’s very likely that, with Bishop Nicholas’s blessing and prayers, the three couples lived “happily ever after.”

St Nicholas’s gifts provided help for that family in his city. During this Advent season, we have opportunities to provide help for families, and individuals, in our town, people who are going through times just as dark and difficult as those faced by those that Nicholas helped. By taking part in the church’s “Reverse Advent Calendar” project (details under the entry for 29th November here) you can make the bags given out by the church food bank this Christmas something out of the ordinary for those who receive them. They may not be bags of gold, but they can make possible for those who receive them something like a normal Christmas, a time of fun and laughter and present-giving, even in the midst of pandemic restrictions.

Our music for the Second Sunday in Advent is not “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry Announces that the Lord is nigh”, but it announces in no uncertain terms that “Freedom is coming” because “Jesus is coming”. Downsview Youth Choir from Toronto sing a classic freedom song from apartheid-era South Africa.

The Gospel reading for 2nd December (Matthew 15:29-37)

After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?’ Jesus asked them, ‘How many loaves have you?’ They said, ‘Seven, and a few small fish.’ Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.


Jesus has left the territory of Tyre and Sidon and is heading back home, but from a couple of hints that Matthew drops in telling what happens next, it seems that he is still in Gentile territory. But even among these foreigners word has gone round, and there is a crowd of people bringing their need, helplessness, disability of every kind, so that Jesus can restore them to wholeness.

Jesus meets their expressed needs, for healing and wholeness, but he also recognises another, hidden, need: their hunger. They have come out in a hurry, with no food for the journey, and probably no sense of how long it would take Jesus to deal with all their requests. The excitement has sustained them for three days, but it’s time for them to go. What are they to do? The disciples point out that they are a long way from the nearest Ekom (or first-century Palestinian equivalent). “OK”, says Jesus “How many loaves have you?” The answer is not many. Just over half a loaf per person (assuming that he is travelling only with the twelve).

Jesus tells the disciples to look to their resources and let him use them, however limited they may appear to be. And, as a French colleague, Henri Persoz, has written in discussing the feeding miracles, to emphasise that it is up to the disciples to stir themselves, after blessing the loaves, Jesus gives them to the disciples so that they can offer them to the crowd. It is the disciples who were worried and who in the end give in abundance.

But how have they done it when they had only seven loaves and a few small fish to feed this crowd (four thousand men, so Matthew tells us later, “besides women and children”)? That isn’t the issue. The text says nothing about the mechanics. The issue is that the people are hungry. The truth of this Gospel passage is that we need to start from the needs of men and women and not from what we have (or don’t have). The disciples couldn’t see anywhere for the crowds to buy food. Jesus turns the question around: How many loaves have you?

The disciples, with Jesus’ blessing, discover that they have the resources to meet the needs of all these foreigners; and at the end of the day the foreigners leave them with abundantly more than they had to start with.

As Henri Persoz points out, the Bible is full of men and women who make the impossible happen at God’s request. Because they have the faith which gives them the power to dare, to launch themselves toward the impossible. Faith allows us to leave what is reasonable, what is properly thought through, to propel ourselves toward what is risky, imprudent, out of the ordinary, toward the unexpected, toward adventure, toward what is barely imaginable, towards what men and women need. Two chapters on from today’s Gospel Jesus tells the disciples that even minimal faith (“the size of a mustard seed”) can move a mountain. And if we can’t move the whole mountain at one go, we can move it one stone at a time. And each stone that is moved increases our faith and gives us the strength to move the rest. 4000 men is a large number. But If we start by taking bread to a few we push back the limits of the possible and increase our own faith in the one in whom all our hungers are satisfied.

The Gospel reading for St Andrew (Matthew 4:18-24)

As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.


The way St Matthew tells this story seems designed to bring home to us the power of Jesus’ personality and his immediate attractiveness. Andrew and Simon are working at their trade, just as, a little further on, are the two sons of Zebedee. Jesus calls them and they literally drop everything and follow him. That, as preachers down the centuries have emphasised, just shows the magnetic attraction of Jesus.

The tradition of Andrew’s calling (and Peter’s, for that matter) which St John records in his Gospel is slightly more complicated, and to 21st-century minds, perhaps, more psychologically compelling. According to the fourth gospel, Andrew was already a disciple of John the Baptist and heard him bear witness that Jesus was “the Lamb of God”. He and another, unnamed, disciple of the Baptist followed Jesus and they spent several hours with him – and then Andrew went and found Simon and brought him to Jesus, who looked at him and immediately gave him the nickname, Peter. So there is, as the saying is, “previous”. The call of Jesus to leave everything and follow him does not come as a bolt from the blue.

Nor does it, necessarily, if you read around St Matthew’s account. By the time we reach the midpoint of chapter 4, Jesus has been baptised by John, been tested in the wilderness, and returned to Galilee after John’s arrest. He has moved from Nazareth to Capernaum and begun his own preaching mission. The verse immediately before the beginning of today’s Gospel tells us that “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’“ So it’s a reasonable assumption that Andrew and his brother had heard that preaching and were, in a sense, ready for Jesus’ invitation.

Now, the important thing about these two accounts is where they overlap, and where they overlap is in the invitation and response. Whether the invitation is Matthew’s peremptory command to “follow me” or John’s gentler “come and see”, the response is the same. Those who are called go with Jesus and they spend time with him. And those who spend time with Jesus do not simply hug that experience to themselves. John the Evangelist tells us that “[Andrew] first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’”. Jesus, in Matthew’s account, tells the brothers “I will make you fish for people.” A genuine encounter with Jesus, then or now, leaves us with the desire, sometimes even the compulsion, to share that experience with others. Andrew wanted his brother to know “We have found the Messiah”. The truest motive behind Christian evangelism is not the need to put bums on seats, nor to restore depleted finances. The truest motive is that of “one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.” Quite literally in St Andrew’s case. In the encounter with the hungry five thousand, as John tells it, it is Andrew who finds the boy with five barley loaves and two fish, which Jesus takes and blesses and breaks and shares to satisfy their hunger. As Jesus satisfies our deepest hunger by feeding us with himself in the Eucharist.

29th November (Advent 1)

On each of the Sundays of Advent we shall be posting a piece of music appropriate to the season. Here, to begin, is a performance of J.S. Bach’s Cantata “Wachet auf! ruft uns die Stimme” (probably best known in English translation as “Wake, O wake”) . It is given by the choir and orchestra of the J.S. Bach Foundation under the direction of Rudolf Lutz.

22nd November, 2020

Today is the Feast of Christ the King. It is also St Cecilia’s Day, special to all musicians. Here to mark that is a performance of Benjamin Britten’s ” Hymn to St Cecilia” (words by W.H. Auden). The singers are the British group “Tenebrae”, directed by Nigel Short.

11th November: The Gospel reading for St Martin (Matthew 25:34-40)

The king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”


In England, when a hospital is named after a saint, it’s usually because it was endowed after the dissolution of the monasteries, to replace the infirmary of an abbey or a priory as with St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas’s in London, or else to honour a founder, like St James’s in Leeds, which was brought into being in the 19th-century through the combined efforts of Dr James Allan on the medical side and Sir James Ford, who oversaw the transformation of a workhouse into a place of healing. Our own Ospedale San Martino owes its name to the parish in which it was built, San Martino d’Albaro.

However, for a hospital in Genova, that connection with St Martin runs rather deeper than simple geography. This part of Italy provided the backdrop for one of the key episodes in the saint’s life, though one that’s less well-known than his life-changing encounter with a beggar at the gates of Amiens, or his activity as a missionary bishop what is now France: less well-known, too, perhaps, than some of the many legends which attached themselves to Martin’s name in the centuries after his death. In the mid-fourth century, after Martin had resigned his commission as an officer in the Roman army, he travelled widely across Europe, spreading the good news of Jesus and taking part in the great theological arguments of the day. That got him into serious hot water and he withdrew with one companion to a place of safety and reflection – Isola Gallinara, off Albenga. There he lived rough – and nearly killed himself when he dined on hellebore by mistake.

There’s another reason, too, why it is appropriate to link Martin’s name to a hospital. He was renowned as a healer. The earliest life of Martin, written by Sulpicius Severus, who had known him personally, tells the story of that encounter at the gates of Amiens and the dream that followed, repeating those words which ended today’s Gospel: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these…, you did it to me.” He goes on to describe the saint’s resignation from the army, his connection with St Hilary, and his foundation of the first monastic community in north-western Europe at Ligugé, a few miles outside Hilary’s city of Poitiers: but almost all the other stories that Sulpicius tells are stories about healings, stories that echo the Gospel accounts of Jesus healing the sick and restoring the dead to life and, beyond Jesus, the stories of Elijah and Elisha.

Martin brought healing to those who were sick in body and to those who were disturbed in mind. A biography of the saint published some years ago depicted Martin’s community at Marmoutier, his bolt-hole when he wanted to stand back from the busy activity of his life as bishop of Tours and spend time with God, as what we might call a “therapeutic community”, a place where the infirm in mind and body, and other people on the margins, shared the life of Martin’s monks and found with them acceptance – and a measure of healing.

So today, as we give thanks to God for St Martin, we remember not only the man who told his furious emperor, “I am the soldier of Christ: it is not lawful for me to fight.” We also give thanks for the man who brought peace of heart and health of body to so many people as he shared the good news of Jesus Christ across what is now northern and central France that he became one of the first to be recognised as a saint without having given up his life in martyrdom. And as we remember how the guns fell silent after four years of slaughter on this day 102 years ago, we pray for peace and healing not only in individual lives but among the nations of the world.

The Gospel reading for 4th November (Luke 14:25-33)

Now large crowds were travelling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.’


Everybody knows about the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Not so many know about the Leaning Towers of Bologna. There are two of them, in the centre of the mediaeval city not far from the Cathedral, classic mediaeval Italian town-houses built for men with influence and authority early in the 12th century. One is complete, and you can climb it right to the top as my family and I did on a holiday in north-eastern Italy five years ago. The other one isn’t. It was taken down in the 14th century by order of the city authorities because, like the tower in Pisa, its foundations had not been dug sufficiently deeply and the earth beneath it was giving way. So, it’s not quite a perfect illustration of the situation described by Jesus, but the results are the same: an incomplete building which looks faintly ridiculous and shows up the pretensions of those who embark on a project without sufficient thought about what it requires, whether in depth of foundations or depth of funding.

In the Gospels Jesus is always upfront about what following him requires in depth of commitment. To work for God’s kingdom, to strive for justice, for peace and for the integrity of God’s creation, is demanding. It requires a depth of faith and hope which not all possess. It also requires a commitment which may bring us from time to time into conflict with the values of our culture. Jesus points out more than once that concern for what is right and good can lead us into conflict with those closest to us, as many people in the UK and the USA have been discovering during the past four years – and the decision to follow Jesus is a much more life-changing decision than voting in a referendum or an election.

The conflict is daunting. It can require us to cut free from our earliest and strongest human attachments – our oldest and dearest possessions, if you like. Moreover the forces ranged against us are formidable, so that we feel very much like the king agonising whether his force of 10,000 can face the onslaught of an army of 20,000. But we do not give up hope, however much we may fear that our project will fail or that our resources will be insufficient. We do not give up because its foundations are firmly laid on God our rock.

2nd November, 2020

Some music for All Souls’ Day: the Russian Orthodox Kontakion for the Departed, sung here by the Liturgical Choir of St Martin’s Church in Roath, Cardiff.

The Gospel reading for 21st October (Luke 12:39-48)

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’

Peter said, ‘Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?’ And the Lord said, ‘Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that slave says to himself, “My master is delayed in coming”, and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.’


Last week it was the Pharisees and the lawyers who were in the firing line. This week it’s those who follow Jesus. However, this isn’t criticism so much as a friendly warning – or three.

First of all, it’s a fairly general warning against falling asleep on the job, so to speak, against not being ready in all circumstances for God’s decisive intervention in history. I can’t remember who it was said that Christians should always “expect the unexpected”, but that’s very much the message of the first part of today’s Gospel. It’s also, indirectly, a warning against those who think they have the whole business of “the end times” wrapped up and will tell you the day and the hour of the Lord’s return.

Next, in response to Peter’s question, that general warning is focused more sharply on those who lead the Church. “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” asks Peter, speaking, most likely, on behalf of the twelve. Jesus doesn’t reply to him directly. Instead, as he often does, Jesus answers one question with another. “Who… is the faithful and prudent manager?” Well, in the context of the Church of the Holy Ghost Genova, I am, the wardens are, church council members are. It’s our responsibility to keep the show on the road, to nurture and encourage the rest of the congregation – but to do that always with an eye to eternity, not with an eye to the main chance. As we were reminded last Wednesday, religious leaders who use their position to boost their own ego or satisfy their own desires, whether for pleasure or money or power, are a danger to themselves and to others. The very strong language that Jesus uses here is a warning to those who follow him not to fall into the same trap – which, of course, Church leaders have done down the centuries, and still are doing.

And in third place, a word of what looks like almost like consolation. All of us are responsible for our actions, but people who acted in ignorance will be let off more lightly than people who ought to have known better – which leads Jesus to express another general rule: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” God gives us gifts, in other words, not so that we can inflate our own bank account or our own egos but so that we can used them in the service of others – and of God.

The Gospel reading for 14th October (Luke 11:42-46):

Jesus said: ‘Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practised, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.’

One of the lawyers answered him, ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.’ And he said, ‘Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them.‘


Jesus’ words are a sharp reminder that being “religious” can be a very effective way of avoiding a real encounter with God. The Pharisees, who prided themselves on applying the Law of Moses, and the lawyers, who interpreted the Law, both come under severe criticism from Jesus.

Luke’s report of Jesus’s words here is very compressed, and some of the details are not always clear, but the general drift of his charges against the Pharisees is plain enough. Too many are concentrating on minor details of religious practice (tithing pot-herbs) and neglecting the fundamental demands of God for right relationships (justice and love). Too many are focused on outward show and on gaining the respect that came in first-century Palestine from having a reputation for holiness. As a result the Pharisees are contaminating those around them, in the same way that a person who walks over an unmarked grave becomes ritually impure through their unwitting contact with a corpse. They lead people to think that true holiness is to be found in religious nit-picking rather than in being open to God.

The charge against the lawyers, who provide the rules for the Pharisees, is similar. They limit people’s freedom. They take no account of individual circumstances. They encourage the same obsessive attention to detail, making the service of God a burden rather than a joy.

But that, you are probably thinking, was a long time ago, and it couldn’t happen now. Well, a quick visit to “Christian Twitter” should put you right on that. Precise rules are still being laid down. Nit-picking is still very much in evidence among those who regard themselves as religious. So is neglect of justice and the love of God, even in the Church of England – and at the highest level.

We have been painfully reminded of that by the recent publication of the report of the Independent Investigation into Child Sexual Abuse in the Church of England. “Reputational management”, the modern equivalent of “[loving] to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places”, has taken precedence over justice and compassion for the abused. Expressions of regret are offered by bishops and archbishops, promises are made that “lessons will be learned”, but perpetrators of abuse are still being shielded by powerful networks of protection while victims are still made to feel as if somehow they are the ones who are guilty. Woe to us, as well as to Pharisees and lawyers! The Church (and not only the Church of England) has become one of those “unmarked graves” spreading contamination among the unwary.

As Pope Francis has reminded us in his new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, “if the music of the Gospel ceases to resonate in our very being, we will lose the joy born of compassion, the tender love born of trust, the capacity for reconciliation that has its source in our knowledge that we have been forgiven and sent forth. If the music of the Gospel ceases to sound in our homes, our public squares, our workplaces, our political and financial life, then we will no longer hear the strains that challenge us to defend the dignity of every man and woman.” So let us allow that music to resonate in us, to drown out those siren calls to a life that is shaped by an outward observance of religion and an inward avoidance of the God who is justice and love.

The Gospel for the commemoration of St Jerome on 30th September (Luke 9:57-end):

As they were going along the road, someone said to Jesus, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’


In today’s Gospel Jesus sets out the cost of discipleship for three would-be followers. He warns them that the urgency of the task and its supreme importance override even the closest and most solemn ties and obligations. The last one echoes Elijah’s call to Elisha. The first two remind us that on earth we have no true home and that only those who are in touch with the kingdom of heaven are fully alive.

Today the Church remembers a man who wrestled with the question of what it means to be a disciple throughout this life. Eusebius Hieronymus, better known to English speakers as St Jerome, was born in Dalmatia (probably present-day Croatia) about thirty years after the emperor Constantine brought Christians out of the catacombs and into the public square (rather than the arena). He was brought up in a Christian household but was not baptised until he was a young adult. He was very bright, with a gift for languages and a love of literature – which he found increasingly hard to reconcile with his deepening Christian faith. The story is told of him waking in terror from a nightmare in which he saw an angry Christ accusing him, “Non Christianus es, sed Ciceronianus” (“You are not a Christian but a Ciceronian”), which would certainly be true of some of his theological writings in which Christian charity is conspicuous by its absence.

In his early thirties Jerome tried his vocation to a solitary life, spending some years with the hermits in the Syrian desert east of Antioch, where, among other things, he learned Hebrew and was ordained priest – much against his will, because he recognised that it was not his true calling. He then returned to Rome, where he had studied in his youth, as secretary to Pope Damasus. Here he acquired a fan club, but made several enemies through his prickly personality, and when the pope died, he returned to the Middle East, followed by a number of the fans, including some very wealthy Roman ladies who funded what became his great project, a community in Bethlehem where women and men could lead a life devoted to study and prayer, where hospitality was offered to pilgrims and where a free education was offered to local children.

At the same time, Jerome was working on his other great project, producing a new translation into Latin of the whole Bible. He had been asked by Pope Damasus to revise the Old Latin version of the New Testament, and this project expanded after the pope’s death. Jerome’s skill in languages and his knowledge of the Middle East made him one of the greatest biblical scholars, unmatched in the early Church. And his translation, completed in around 404, became the standard version used in the Western Church for a thousand years – until the time of the Reformation.

But that prickliness which showed itself in Rome became more pronounced. As a leading Christian intellectual, Jerome was drawn into the great controversies of his day and he was merciless to those whose views differed from his own. His treatment of an old school-friend, Rufinus, who was himself no mean scholar but who took a different view from Jerome about the controversial third-century theologian Origen, is by any standard appalling – and Jerome’s venom pursued Rufinus long after his death in the most elegant and vitriolic Latin. “Non Christianus sed Ciceronianus”? The charge sticks.

But alongside this Jerome had a huge capacity for friendship. He was caring and considerate to the weak and the poor. He was a man of some courage. In the turmoil which accompanied the barbarian incursions into the Roman empire, some of which impacted directly on Jerome’s foundation in Bethlehem, he wrote “Now we have to translate the words of Scripture into deeds: instead of talking of holy things we must enact them.”

So today, as we remember Jerome, we remember a complex and sometimes difficult man, a brilliant scholar, an idealist and a deeply flawed human being. And, maybe, a sign of hope to us all that God’s mercy embraces the most unlikely people.

Some music to go with the gospel passage above. A song by John Bell of the Iona Community, sung in Glasgow Cathedral.

The Gospel for St Michael and All Angels (John 1:47-end):

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’


Towards the end of her long life, my mother-in-law would punctuate her daily routine with little bursts of singing more or less appropriate to what she had done or was doing. Sometimes they were snatches of a hymn. Success in the increasingly laborious business of getting out of a chair usually produced “She arose! She arose! Alleluia, Joan arose!” Sometimes they were fragments from the popular songs of her younger days, in the years around the Second World War. One which always came up if any of the family showed her a kindness or ran an errand for her was “Bless you for being an angel.” And that really was appropriate, because the angels whom we celebrate today are almost always bringing messages of God’s kindness to human beings or running errands for the Almighty.

Angels, by the way – or at least the genderless winged beings who populate much of Christian art – are relative late-comers. They are usually thought to have come into Jewish thought with the exiles returning from Babylon. The earlier “angels”, those who appear to Abraham, to Jacob, to Balaam, to Manoah and his wife, among others, are described as if they are human beings, with no special attributes. But whether winged or not, they are messengers, usually bringing good, if sometimes challenging, news; heralds, we might say, of God’s mercy – and sometimes, as in the Book of Revelation, of God’s judgement.

Angels are also, according to the rabbis, the beings who bring the needs of humankind before God or, in the case of Satan, “the accuser”, their sins. That is how many of them interpreted the story of Jacob’s ladder, with “the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” The same image seems to underlie the words of Jesus to Nathanael. But in that encounter there is no ladder, bearing suffering and sin up to heaven and bringing mercy and grace down to earth. Instead the angels of God ascend and descend on Jesus, the Son of Man, the one in whom sin and suffering are taken into the Godhead and transformed, and the one through whom God’s grace and mercy are revealed in their fullness on earth.

The song mentioned in the reflection on the Gospel is sung here by the Ink Spots, for whom it was a huge hit in 1939.

On 23rd September, Bishop David gave a talk to the Archdeaconry Synod which was both encouraging and thought-provoking. We have now received the link to the recording of his talk which has been published on YouTube. It is well worth watching – especially for those who are planning to be at the Annual Church Meeting on Sunday.

The Gospel for 23rd September (Luke 9:1-6):

Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.


The Ember Days are three days of fasting and prayer (always a Wednesday, a Friday and a Saturday) held traditionally at four times in the year: at the beginning of Lent, after Pentecost, after Holy Cross Day and in mid-Advent. It’s thought that they were originally linked with the desire to sanctify each season of the year, but for centuries they have been linked with prayer for those newly ordained, for those about to be ordained, and (more recently) for those wondering whether God might be calling them to some kind of ministry in his church.

So, to have this passage from Luke as our gospel for the Wednesday of the autumnal sequence of Ember Days, right in the middle of the ordinations that were either scheduled for or deferred until this season of this strange year, might be seen as something of a gift. Isn’t it the function of those set apart by the laying on of hands “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal”, to be part of Christ’s costly work of reconciliation?

Well, yes. But those who are ordained, in any Christian tradition twenty centuries down the line, might be thrown by what comes next in the Lord’s instructions: “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.” Those of us with wives and families to worry about might retort that it takes a St Anthony or a St Francis to live by those counsels—and Anthony was never ordained and Francis was, so far as we know, in deacon’s orders. They could live lightly on the earth and, in Francis’ case, travel lightly across it. He could leave the institutional baggage to others in a way that is not possible for those who are officially “office holders” in that institution, however junior they may be.

So perhaps our prayer for those who were ordained last week-end, and for those to be ordained in the coming days, should be that they never lose sight of that vision of God’s kingdom which drew them to offer themselves for ordained ministry in the church and that they may continue to proclaim the good news of Christ’s healing presence—not, as someone remarked recently, “as salespeople for the Gospel” but as free samples of a life lived in Christ’s love.

The Psalm for today is Psalm 119, verses 105-112, the section which, in the King James Version, begins with the words “Thy word is a lantern unto my feet and a light unto my path”. Here it is in contrasting versions, (1) freely adapted as a modern worship song by Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant (sung by the Maranatha Singers), and (2) a 17th-century verse anthem by Henry Purcell, sung by the choir of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland (Ohio).

Gospel for St Matthew’s Day (Matthew 9:135-38)

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’


Matthew’s party brings together many of the groups who interact with one another all the way through the Gospel. There are Jesus and his disciples. There are a lot of Matthew’s fellow tax-collectors – always hated by the people of first-century Palestine, partly because they collaborated with the occupying Romans and partly because they kept part of the tax they collected (and whose level they set) for themselves. That was how they made a living – no civil service salaries in ancient Rome! Then alongside the tax-collectors we have some sinners. They hadn’t sinned more than others, but they weren’t Jewish, or they were on the margins, not particularly devout and not following the Law strictly, assuming they followed it at all. The action, furthermore, is set in Galilee, where there were not only Jews but also pagans from across the border. And everyone who was not Jewish, or not sufficiently Jewish in their keeping of the Law, was a sinner, lumped together with the tax collectors. Finally, to complete the picture we have the Pharisees. All the way through the Gospel Matthew describes them as harassing Jesus. They were people who did keep the law; and they reproached Jesus for eating with sinners in the house of a tax collector. They weren’t guests at the meal – God forbid! – but were simply looking on from outside.

Now, at this sort of gathering you never knew for certain who was going to come. The doors were open for anyone to walk in. This explains why many invited themselves, including those strangers, the sinners, attracted by Jesus’ reputation. Just as today meals, small or great, were the moment for sharing among friends. Sharing not only bread, but also words, friendship, mutual support. Sharing creates community. It’s a foretaste of the great banquet in God’s kingdom. That’s a good reason, said the Pharisees, for not eating with sinners who certainly won’t be invited to that meal, strangers who come from no one knows where and who don’t live in the way handed down from our ancestors. Why are they here? Who has invited them?

Jesus turns these arguments completely upside down and tells the Pharisees: “It isn’t the healthy who are in need of doctors, but sick people.” The most important thing in these meals is to welcome the others, too, the people who aren’t well integrated into Jewishness, the sinners, and those dreadful tax-collectors. You Pharisees don’t need looking after. But the outsiders, who don’t necessarily believe what you believe, people who are stigmatised, ill, vulnerable because they do not fit easily into a traditional understanding of Jewishness, they are the ones who need to be welcomed, to be allowed into the community. And Jesus sums up: “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

A great deal of Matthew’s Gospel is taken up with the question of where, and indeed whether, the Church should set boundaries. Jesus’ teaching about discipline and forgiveness, the parables of the weeds among the wheat and the catch of fish, and the parable of the wedding banquet all point to a rejection of the path taken by the Pharisees. Those words from the prophecies of Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”, which Jesus uses here and in chapter 12, during another controversy with the Pharisees over keeping the law, are a reminder that God’s chief characteristic in relation to mortals is “mercy”, often understood as “steadfast love”.

[I am indebted to Henri Persoz of the Église protestante unie de France for several of the insights in this reflection]

The music for St Matthew’s Day comes, as you might expect, from the St Matthew Passion, but not, as you might have expected, from the familiar masterpiece by J.S. Bach. Here is the closing chorus of the 1666 setting by Heinrich Schütz, “Ehre sei dir, Christe” (Glory to you, O Christ). It is sung here by the Hilliard Ensemble.

Gospel for 16th September (Ninian, Edward Bouverie Pusey): Matthew 9:35-38

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’


Today marks one of the odder pairings in the Church of England’s calendar. What on earth might the fourth-century son of a Lakeland chieftain have in common with a Victorian professor of Hebrew? And why on earth should a man who spent almost his entire life in Oxford be linked with a gospel reading which is about journeys and mission and preaching? That fits our Cumbrian chief’s son, definitely, But where’s the point of contact with our Oxford professor?

It certainly does fit our Cumbrian chief’s son. Ninian was the son of one of those men who in later centuries would have been called “marcher barons”. His father was a Christian and in early adulthood Ninian is said to have made the long journey to Rome where he was trained as a priest, before returning to Britain as a missionary bishop in 394, when he would have been in his mid to late thirties. He made his base across the Solway Firth in Galloway at Candida Casa, meaning “white house”, in Old English “hwit ærn”, hence the modern name “Whithorn”. From there he is said to have travelled widely in what is now southern Scotland for nearly forty years, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and founding Christian communities as far afield as Perth and Stirling. So clearly, Jesus’ words are applicable to him, a powerful labourer in the Lord’s harvest.

They are less obviously applicable to Edward Bouverie Pusey, whose life, apart from two years’ study in Germany, was defined by Eton and Oxford – and more particularly Christ Church, the college which also houses Oxford’s cathedral, of which he was a canon for more than half a century. He entered the college in 1819, took a first-class honours degree and was elected to a fellowship at Oriel college, a year after John Henry Newman. Five years after that (and his time studying in Germany) he was ordained, married and was appointed, at the age of 28, to the Regius Professorship of Hebrew – and that canonry in Christ Church. In his early thirties he became attached to the Oxford Movement, contributing to the “Tracts for the Times”, and becoming a key contributor to the series of translations of patristic texts “The Library of the Fathers”. He also preached, not elegantly and eloquently like Newman, but practically and powerfully, forming the ways in which undergraduates and others understood their Christian faith and put it into practice.

After Newman left the Church of England for Rome in the 1840s, Pusey, recently widowed, became the acknowledged leader of the Oxford Movement, which is why its followers were sometimes called “Puseyites”. He continued to teach and preach and write, and became one of the leaders of the movement to re-establish religious communities as a living part of the English Church as well as an advocate of Christian unity. His simplicity of life became more marked after the death of his wife in 1839, reflected in an increasing, and to many inspiring, austerity. But what makes those words of Jesus applicable to Pusey was the influence he had on generations of Oxford men who offered themselves for ordination and went out to serve in the toughest parishes in England, men like Charles Lowder whom we remembered last Wednesday. Pusey’s message of a radical sacramental and doctrinal renewal in the Church, based on his study of the early Church fathers, coupled with the example of personal holiness, revealed in the simplicity and austerity of his life, provided resources on which many of the succeeding generations of Anglo-Catholic clergy could, and did, draw in their own, very different ministries, and equipped them for the service of the Lord of the harvest.

The Psalm for St Ninian is Psalm 67. Here is a setting by William Mathias of the King James words – sung, appropriately, by the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford where E.B. Pusey was a Canon for half a century.

The gospel for Holy Cross Day John 3:13-17

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’


In his daily meditation yesterday Fr Richard Rohr wrote: “If there is one consistent and clear revelation in the Bible, it is that the God of Israel is the one who turns death into life.” Today is one of those days when the Church is sharply focused on that “consistent and clear revelation”, which is at one and the same time a warning and an encouragement.

It’s a warning, because none of us likes the idea of suffering and death, particularly not a death which involves as much suffering as death by crucifixion. Perhaps that’s why so many churches have what the poet R.S. Thomas described as “an untenanted cross”. The figure of Christ, nailed to the cross, is disturbing whether he is passively accepting or writhing in agony. He reminds us of our own mortality, as he reminds us of the pain and misery and wickedness of the world which brought him to that place.

It’s encouraging because, as Jesus told Nicodemus,”God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The upright of the cross becomes the pole on which Moses erected the bronze serpent which brought healing to the Israelites when they looked at it. That is a point made very powerfully in the ancient basilica of St Ambrose in Milan, where a stone column bearing a crucifix faces across the nave of the church another column bearing a coiled serpent.

There is, though, a difference. When the Israelites looked at the bronze serpent they were looking at the image of the creature that had made them ill. When we look on the crucified Jesus we are confronting not the past, but the future, the necessity of that pain and death which we so fear. To quote Richard Rohr again: “By avoiding this legitimate pain of being human, we sadly bring on ourselves much longer lasting and, often, fruitless pain.” But by facing the pain of the world which God so loves, the pain soaked up and transformed by the unmerited suffering inflicted on Jesus – by facing that pain we are enabled to recognise its necessity and to lay hold of the firm hope that beyond the pain lies healing and that beyond death lies eternal life in the risen Christ.

The music to accompany this reflection chose itself. It is John Stainer’s setting of words from today’s Gospel which was written for his oratorio “The Crucifixion”, but is often performed as a stand-alone anthem. Here it is sung by the Chapel Choir of Exeter University in England as they prepared for a complete performance of “The Crucifixion” in Exeter Cathedral in spring 2016.

Gospel Reading for 9th September (Charles Fuge Lowder): Luke 6:20-26

Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

‘Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

‘Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.


Luke may have the most elevated literary style among the Evangelists, but that doesn’t mean that he tells the story of Jesus from an “elevated” perspective. Throughout his gospel there are moments, as in today’s reading, where Luke gets “down and dirty”. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is, we might say, earthy, unlike Matthew’s which is rather more safely “spiritual”. Jesus in Luke’s gospel is speaking not to “the poor in spirit” but to the poor, people outside every structure of power and influence. He is speaking not to “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” but to the physically hungry. He promises those who weep not consolation, but laughter. And he encourages those who face hostility, exclusion, and insult to rejoice and leap for joy, because their experience reflects that of the holy ones of God.

Luke’s church is a church “of the poor”, not just “for the poor”, as he makes clear when he sets out what Matthew doesn’t: a set of matching “woes” for the rich and the comfortable.

Today the Church of England remembers a man who lived and ministered in the spirit of Luke’s Beatitudes. Charles Lowder had a comfortable background. His father was a banker with a fine house in the fashionable spa town of Bath. Charles was sent to the recently established King’s College School in Wimbledon, from which he went on to Oxford. During his time there he fell, like many of his era, under the influence of John Henry Newman at the University Church and became part of the “Oxford Movement”.

Lowder was ordained in the early 1840s, serving initially in parishes in Salisbury and Gloucester Dioceses, but in 1851, looking for a more “catholic” style of worship, he moved to London. He became assistant curate at St Barnabas, Pimlico, then a newly built as a base for ministry to the poor. This was where Charles Lowder found his true vocation. After five years in Pimlico, he accepted an invitation from St George’s in the East to become head of its mission in the heart of Dockland. There, and later at St Peter’s, London Docks, Lowder and a team of helpers, both men and women, brought Christian faith, embodied in practical help (which included schools, a refuge for prostitutes, a hostel for homeless girls, night classes and parish clubs, an insurance scheme for dockers, coal for the poor and general poor relief) and expressed in powerful liturgy, to one of the most deprived areas of London, despite the sometimes violent opposition of those who accused Lowder and his co-workers of “Romanism” – an unfair charge against a devoted Anglican, although several friends and colleagues “crossed the Tiber”, to his great distress. His reputation as a holy and hard-working priest was sealed shortly after the consecration of St Peter’s, when a cholera outbreak was discovered in the parish. The selfless work of Lowder and his team during the epidemic earned them the love of his parishioners. From that time on he was known as “the Father of Wapping”, “the Father” or “Fr Lowder”. After he died, suddenly on holiday 140 years ago today, his requiem was attended by hundreds of clergy and by thousands of the poorest people of Dockland whom his work had brought a living faith in the Christ who had declared them blessed.

The linked music comes from Taizé. It’s a setting of the first Beatitude, in Luke’s version.

The Gospel for the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Matthew 1:1-16,18-23):

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,which means, ‘God is with us.’


Eighty-something years ago, when my parents married, one of the wedding presents they received was a copy of the King James Bible. My mother, being a dutiful soul, decided that she ought to start reading it seriously, taking a chapter each night. Unfortunately she started, as you would, at the beginning of Genesis, which meant that after the stories of Adam and Eve and the tragic tale of their first-born sons she ran into all the genealogies and her grand project got lost amid a forest of “begats”. It wasn’t until many years later that she resumed her plan of reading the Bible seriously – this time with the help of notes provided by the Bible Reading Fellowship, and in a modern translation.

I mention that because there is something of the feel of Genesis 4 and 5 about today’s gospel reading, the opening of St Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. One “begat” after another! But if you look carefully at that list of “X was the father of Y, and Y was the father of Z”, you discover that there are five mothers hidden among the branches of the family tree: Tamar, who takes the lead in one of the racier stories in the Old Testament; Rahab, the original “tart with a heart”; Ruth, the foreign economic migrant; the wife of Uriah, whose extramarital fling with King David led to the death of her husband: and Mary the mother of Jesus, whose birth we celebrate today.

None of those women behaved in the way you would expect of a nice Jewish girl. Indeed, two of them, Rahab and Ruth, weren’t even Jewish. But all of them became part of the purposes of God, through their openness, their courage, or their obedience which went beyond the boundaries of “respectable” behaviour. All of them became part of the process of fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham, that in his seed all the nations of the world should be blessed, and in Mary we find that promise coming to its fruition, as she gives birth to the one who is God with us.

It was difficult to find a linked piece of music for this celebration partly because there is such a huge range of choices of Marian music. In the end, though, it has to be Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to the Virgin”, sung here (quite beautifully) by Voces8.

The Gospel for 26th August 2020 (Matthew 23:27-32):
Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors.’

The 23rd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel makes challenging reading for anyone who is professionally religious. It begins with Jesus taking a scalpel to the religious professionals of his day, the scribes, and their amateur counterparts, the Pharisees. It continues with a warning against setting them on pedestals. Then it gets down to the main business of comparing appearance with reality, launching into a series of “Woes” of which today’s Gospel is the climax.
Sadly, many commentators, and many readers of this chapter, have seen these words of Jesus purely in terms of his criticism of the provincial religious “establishment” of his day, the people who set the rules in Galilee’s Jewish communities. But it has a much wider application, as continuing scandals about abuse in the Churches make clear. The late Bishop Peter Ball is only the most high-profile example of those who “on the outside look righteous to others, but inside… are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” And most of us clergy, if we are honest with ourselves, are only too aware of what a poet called “funny little murders and fornications, trotting up and down in three-four time, afraid to come out.” That’s why we have, and need, confessors and spiritual directors.
But that isn’t where Jesus is really laying his charge. As Fr Richard Rohr has pointed out in his recent book about the interpretation of the Bible, Jesus isn’t normally in the business of punishing or shaming wrong-doers. He gives them their life back and tells them to take responsibility for their own actions. “The only sinners” say Fr Richard, “The only sinners with whom [Jesus] is publicly upset are those who insist that they are not sinners… Jesus only excludes excluders and condemns condemners!” Which makes me wonder what Jesus would have to say about a great deal of social media and especially “Christian twitter”, which produces some gems but is too often “full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth”. So instead of murdering (or simply trolling or otherwise silencing) the prophets, let us be alert to God’s justice and mercy, offering hope to a diseased and distracted world.

Today’s Psalm is Psalm 128. Here is a modern responsorial version from the Philippines by Mike Bulaong.

The Gospel for St Bartholomew’s day (Luke 22:24-30)

A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.‘You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’


That “also” at the beginning of the Gospel reminds us that, while the Last Supper may have been, as many scholars claim, a “fellowship meal”, fellowship at the meal was in fairly short supply. In Luke’s account of the Last Supper this little spat about which of them was the greatest comes immediately after Jesus’ announcement that one of the twelve would betray him – and an immediate inquest as to who this might be. Self-promotion and blame-assignment are not, as we might be tempted to think, modern products of the age of social media. They have been around for a very long time, and they can happen in the most inappropriate settings, as they do here, within minutes, so Luke tells us, of Jesus’ sharing the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s rebuke is thoroughly deserved.

But paradoxically the rebuke comes with a promise: that those who have continued with Jesus in his trials will have a role to play in the coming kingdom. In a Christian context, judgement is (or should be) always tempered with mercy, just as authority is (or should be) always founded on service.

So what, you may be wondering, has all this to do with Bartholomew? Presumably he was caught up in the disciples’ squabbling, although it’s difficult to imagine him laying a claim to one of the top jobs in the kingdom. Bartholomew seems to have been one of the most self-effacing of men. We don’t even know his given name, only that he was the son of Tolmai, which is what his name “Bar-tolmai” (in Greek “Bartholomaios”) actually means. There is a strong tradition which says that his given name was Nathanael, and that he was the disciple brought to Jesus by Philip at the beginning of John’s gospel. The Gospels and Acts mention him only in lists of the Twelve. An early tradition has him travelling as a missionary to India and leaving behind there a copy of Matthew’s Gospel in Hebrew. Another tradition says that he evangelised Armenia and died there as a martyr, flayed alive for the name of Christ. That is why, when a community of Armenian monks fleeing invasion thirteen centuries later settled in Genova, they were given a church dedicated to San Bartolommeo.

So today, as we give thanks for the son of Tolmai, we give thanks for all those self-effacing Christians who have served God faithfully in their generation and now share in the heavenly banquet of which this Eucharist is a foretaste. And we remember especially those who have given their lives in the service of Christ, the servant king.

The music for St Bartholomew is Peter Maxwell Davies’ setting of “St Bartholomew’s Prayer” sung by the (socially distanced) choir of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield.

The Gospel for 19th August (Matthew 20:1-16)

Jesus taught the disciples, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’

Reflection from the chaplain:

I have just returned from the UK where the whole country, it seems, is in turmoil over the results of the computer process designed to replace national public examinations (“A” Levels, B-Tecs and GCSEs) this year and the consequences of that process as they affected young people’s options for education and employment. As usual in the UK these days, a complex situation has been made even more complicated by government intransigence and bluster followed by a last-minute U-turn dumping all the difficulties in someone else’s lap—the “someone else” in this case being university admissions offices which had turned down some students on the basis of the grades allotted by the computer and offered their places to others.

At the heart of the problem lie two decisions. One was taken several years ago, when the then education minister decided to scrap the course work element of pupils’ assessment and stake everything on an end-of-year examination—which, of course, couldn’t take place this year because of the pandemic. The other was taken when it was clear that the end-of-year exams wouldn’t be happening. This decision was to use each school’s evaluation of their pupils, based on the work they had done before lock-down, but to “moderate” those grades by a computer algorithm which took account of each school’s performance in each subject in previous years. Unfortunately, the design of the algorithm seems to have been influenced by the same motive which provoked the first batch of workers in today’s gospel: the fear that some people might be getting more than they “deserved”. Here a school’s past record took precedence over any individual pupil’s intelligence and hard work. There a decision to pay everyone the same, however long or short a time they had worked, gave rise to complaints from those who had worked the longest—even though they had received the “the usual daily wage”.

It’s at this point that my comparison with what is going on in the UK (and particularly England) breaks down. Because, however the results pan out in the end, there will always be some sort of ranking in education. But in the Kingdom of Heaven (which is the subject of today’s parable) all are equal before God and only one prize can be awarded, the vision of God which is union with God.

Here is this week’s midweek music. It is a setting of the Prayer Book collect for the tenth Sunday after Trinity, usually attributed to Thomas Mudd, one of a clan of church musicians who flourished in England during the 16th and 17th centuries. It is sung by the choir of Somerville College, Oxford, in St Catherine’s church, Brandenburg an der Havel (about 75 Km west of Berlin).

The Gospel for St Swithun’s Day (Matthew 5:43-48)

Jesus told the disciples: ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’


Poor Swithun, even in the Gospel reading for his feast he can’t escape a nod to that horrid little rhyme about forty days of rain (or sunshine), depending on what the weather is doing on this day. “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

However, it’s actually the rest of that reading which makes it so appropriate for today. We don’t know much about Swithun. He’s too late for Bede, who would, I think, have loved him, and too early for a detailed account of his life to appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – the mid-9th century was not the easiest time to be an English bishop, what with Danish raiders increasingly active and the sons of King Æthelwulf busy divvying up their father’s kingdom. But what we do know of Swithun suggests that he was a worthy member of the line of humble and holy English bishops which runs from the brothers Chad and Cedd in the 7th century to Wulfstan at the time of the Norman conquest. Certainly his dying instructions about the place of his burial, outside the north wall of his cathedral where passers-by should walk over his grave and raindrops from the eaves drop upon it, fits with the later accounts of his life which stress his concern for poor and marginalised people, a style of being a bishop which rather got lost in later centuries when bishops became, effectively, senior government ministers.

So what Jesus has to say in that passage for the Sermon on the Mount about loving enemies and praying for persecutors is important in our understanding of Swithun. Despite the best efforts of Swithun’s successor in Winchester a hundred years later, the reforming bishop Æthelwold, to raise Swithun’s profile by translating his remains from that anonymous burial place in the churchyard to a purpose-built shrine in Æthelwold’s new cathedral, rededicated in his honour, Swithun remains a model of humility and love, a faithful follower of the Lord who told him, as he tells us, that loving our own and greeting our own is not enough. God’s love is poured out on all – and so must ours be.

Here is a double link with Swithun. The music is Anton Bruckner’s “Ecce Sacerdos Magnus” (“Behold the great priest”) sung by the choir of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The video is a tour of Winchester Cathedral in the 21st century. This isn’t the building Swithun knew, nor even Æthelwold’s grander 10th-century basilica, but the Norman building, remodelled in the latest 14th-century style by Bishop William of Edington. Unfortunately the Black Death arrived just down the road in Southampton before the work could be finished, which is why so many round Norman arches survive alongside the pointed gothic – and why the west front of the building is so plain. It was intended as a temporary measure, but it serves as a reminder of the wisdom of the late Bishop Simon Burrows (a Hampshire lad), one of whose favourite sayings was “Nothing endures like the provisional.” The video tour spends some time at the rebuilt shrine of St Swithun and stops off at the chantry tombs of four of Swithun’s successors, Cardinal Henry Beaufort (a son of John of Gaunt), and the three bishops who founded Oxford colleges, William Wayneflete (founder of Magdalen College), Richard Fox (founder of Corpus Christi) and, right at the end, William of Wykeham (founder of New College).

The Gospel for Wednesday 8th July (Matthew 10:1-7)

Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”’


The first part of St Matthew’s account of the commissioning of the twelve as “apostles”, in other words as people sent with a message or special commission, is taken almost word for word from Mark’s Gospel, although Mark inserts a whole lot of other material, including the parable of the sower, the stilling of the storm, the healing of the Gerasene demoniac and the woman with the twelve-year haemorrhage, and the raising of Jairus’s daughter, between the naming of the twelve and their authorization to cast out demons and to proclaim the good news. Here the calling and the commissioning are closely linked together. As in Mark’s account, there is a two-fold commission. First (and we get this right at the beginning of the passage) the twelve are given “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness”. Then (right at the end of it) comes the instruction, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’.” Those who proclaim “The kingdom of heaven has come near” are expected to accompany their words with action. The interesting thing is the scope of their proclamation. ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ In other words: “Go to the people who have a chance of understanding the ideas behind what you are saying. Don’t waste your energy on those who will need to have them explained. Share the good news for now with people who speak your language. The rest of the world will come later.” The most effective evangelist is the person who can speak to a group, whether it’s a family, a workplace, even a group of taxi-drivers on the same rank, simply and unaffectedly from the heart of that group, with an awareness of their deepest concerns and a longing that they too should know that the kingdom of heaven has come near.

The psalm for today is part of Psalm 115, which begins with the words “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory” – in Latin “Non nobis Domine non nobis sed nomini tuo da gloriam”. The video clip shows it being sung (in Patrick Doyle’s setting) at the end of the battle of Agincourt in Kenneth Branagh’s film of “Henry V”. Holinshed’s “Chronicles”, one of Shakespeare’s chief sources for the play, described how this happened: “About four of the clock in the afternoon, the king, when he saw no appearance of enemies, caused the retreat to be blown, and gathering his army together, gave thanks to almighty God for so happy a victory, causing his prelates and chaplains to sing this psalm: In exitu Israel de Aegypto, and commanded every man to kneel down on the ground at this verse: Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam. Which done, he caused Te Deum, with certain anthems to be sung, giving laud and praise to God without boasting of his own force or any human power.” [NB in the Latin Psalter in use in the 15th century, what are now known as Psalms 114 and 115 were regarded as a single Psalm, beginning with the words “In exitu Israel de Aegypto/When Israel came out of Egypt”].

The Gospel for the feast of St Thomas (John 20.24-29)

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’


It is interesting how the different Gospels give prominence to different disciples. Mark, Matthew and Luke tend to focus on the inner circle of Peter and the sons of Zebedee, with Andrew occasionally getting a walk-on role. John largely ignores the sons of Zebedee – unless John son of Zebedee is, as tradition suggests, the disciple whom Jesus loved. Peter, of course, can’t be ignored, but his brother Andrew has a bigger part to play in the unfolding story, often patrolling the boundaries in partnership with Philip. And there’s Thomas.

Thomas is barely mentioned in the other three Gospels and only ever in the list of the Twelve. In John’s he takes centre stage on three occasions (not counting his appearance in the list at the beginning of John 21) – and on each occasion his readiness to say what none of the other disciples dares to leads to a fuller and deeper revelation of who Jesus is.

In chapter 11, when the news of Lazarus’ death reaches Jesus the others are all for Jesus staying safely in the north, where he is. Thomas intervenes with the fatalistic suggestion, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ That is followed by the raising of Lazarus and the revelation that Jesus has power over death, that he is the one who is “the resurrection and the life”, and by Martha’s confession ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

In chapter 14, at the supper-table, Thomas asks the blunt question, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ That leads to Jesus affirmation, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’.

Then, finally, in chapter 20, it is Thomas’s absence when the risen Jesus appears to the others in the upper room and his refusal to believe what they are telling him without the evidence of his own eyes (and hands) which gives rise to the fullest confession of Christian faith in the New Testament, when Thomas sees the risen Christ and, rather than do all of the things on which he had insisted as evidence, simply says to him ‘My Lord and my God.’

The “Thomas” connection to today’s music comes not from a text but from a place and people. The place is Leipzig and the people are the young men and boys of the choir of St Thomas’s Church, where J.S. Bach was in charge of the music from 1723 until his death in 1750. The music is his motet “Furchte dich nicht” (do not be afraid”) BWV228. The choir is directed by Georg Christoph Biller.

The Gospel for Wednesday 1st July (Matthew 8:28-end):

When Jesus came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, ‘What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?’ Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, ‘If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.’ And he said to them, ‘Go!’ So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and perished in the water. The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighbourhood.


Today we really need a Venn Diagram, that set of overlapping circles which was devised to test propositions in logic and then developed to show all possible logical relations between a finite collection of different sets. More particularly we need the three-circle version, because we are dealing not with three overlapping sets but with three overlapping Venns, Henry (who lived from 1725 to 1797), his son John (who lived from 1759 to 1813), and John’s son, another Henry (who lived from 1796 to 1873).

Henry Venn the elder was born in Barnes, which makes him unique in this family. He studied at Cambridge, as they all did. He was ordained in the Church of England, as they all were. He served in a parish near Cambridge for three years and then moved to London, where he held various junior posts, including the curacy of Clapham, before moving to Yorkshire to be Vicar of Huddersfield. Henry had been much affected by the movement centred on John and Charles Wesley and was known as a “Methodist” during this time in London. In Yorkshire he encountered other clergy who shared his views, including William Grimshaw of Haworth. He stayed in Yorkshire for twelve years, gaining a reputation for holiness and energy, untill his health gave way and he moved to the less demanding parish of Yelling, near Cambridge, where he remained for the rest of his life, influencing a younger generation of Church leaders, among whom was Charles Simeon.

John Venn was born in Clapham, shortly before his father’s move to Yorkshire. He too studied at Cambridge and took holy orders, becoming rector of a Norfolk parish before moving back to Clapham as rector of the parish church there and becoming one of the key figures in a group of influential Christians (among them William Wilberforce) who saw that following Jesus Christ demanded not only personal holiness but what John Wesley called “social holiness”. Like Wilberforce, John Venn became active in the campaign to abolish the slave trade. He was also one of the founders of what is now the Church Mission Society.

Henry Venn the younger was also born in Clapham, also studied at Cambridge, and was also ordained in the Church of England. His family’s Wilberforce connections saw him appointed to a living in Hull, where he stayed for eight years before returning to London. Like his father, he was a firm opponent of slavery, which still existed – not least in the US. He was also, like his father, a firm supporter of CMS, becoming the Society’s general secretary in 1841 and becoming one of the most effective and far-sighted thinkers about mission. He was one of the first to recognise the vital importance of developing indigenous leadership in the new churches and of equipping the communities which they served with the skills needed to develop self-sufficiency. Henry’s son, another John, also studied at Cambridge and also took holy orders, but his path was rather different into mathematics and logic – and the creation of the diagram which bears the family name!

Looking at that diagram, it’s possible to see so much overlap: Yorkshire for the two Henrys; poor health for the older Henry and his son; CMS and anti-slavery for John and Henry the younger. But at the heart of it all are the things they all shared: not only Clapham, Cambridge and the Church of England, but that shared conviction of the power of Christ to change lives in the present – even as dramatically as he did 2,000 years ago in Gadara.

Our music today (posted rather belatedly, alas) is the classic missionary hymn “God is working his purpose out”, written by A.C. Ainger in 1894, and sung to the tune which was originally written for it.

The Gospel for St Peter and St Paul (Matthew 16.13-19):

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’


It’s slightly odd that Peter has to share his feast day with St Paul: first of all because Paul already has a day of his own, commemorating that life-changing encounter with the risen, ascended Christ while he was on his way to Damascus to make havoc among the disciples there as he had in Jerusalem; and secondly because they don’t seem to have got on that well. Paul harrumphs fitfully about Peter (and other senior members of the Jerusalem Church) in his letters to Corinth and he criticises Peter severely in his letter to the churches of Galatia for “back-sliding” over the question of table-fellowship with Christians who were not Jewish.

But from the earliest times the names of Peter and Paul have been linked closely together. There are many churches which bear this joint dedication. In England they are scattered from Tyneside to South Devon and are found in places as diverse as rural Suffolk and the urban West Midlands. Most of them are traditional parish churches, ranging from the grand to the redundant. One or two are major churches; Sheffield Cathedral, for example, and Bath Abbey. Others are curiosities like the parish church of Ormskirk which is, so far as I know, the only church anywhere to have been made the subject of a limerick.

What is it that links Peter and Paul so inextricably? First of all, there’s the timing and the manner of their dying. According to tradition, both were executed in Rome in the aftermath of the great fire in Nero’s reign. Then there’s their relationship to Jesus. Peter, as we are reminded in today’s gospel, was the first to grasp that Jesus wasn’t the reincarnation of one of the heroes of Israel, or another in the succession of the prophets, but it is in Paul’s letters that we see the meaning of Peter’s declaration first given universal content. Peter was the first to utter the words, but Paul was the pioneer who explores what it might mean to say that Jesus is ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God” in a cultural setting which isn’t shaped by Judaism. As St Augustine of Hippo remarked in a sermon preached on this day sixteen centuries ago, both of them “realised what they taught: they followed the path of integrity, they confessed the truth, and they died for it.”

Today’s music more or less chose itself. Benjamin Britten’s 1955 “Hymn to St Peter”, sung here by the choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, directed by John Harper.

The Gospel for the Birth of St John the Baptist (Luke 1:57-66,80)
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
It was in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that Mary received her angelic visitor. That was in March, just after the spring equinox. Now, a few days on from the summer solstice, Elizabeth has reached full term and we have moved from the sense that the Lord has “taken away the disgrace” she had endured among her people to a recognition by those same people that “the Lord had shown his great mercy to her.”
Once again, God’s mercy is revealed through a pregnancy which goes against the grain of nature. Elizabeth follows in the footsteps of other significant unlikely mothers in the story of God’s people, beginning with Sarah and carrying on through Manoah’s unnamed wife – the mother of Samson – and Hannah, who gave birth to the prophet Samuel. In a sense, Elizabeth rounds off that story, bringing it full circle as her son grows up to proclaim the coming of the one who will open up the ranks of God’s people beyond those who are genetically descended from Abraham.
She is also revealed as the one who knows more about God’s purposes than the people who surround her. The neighbours and relatives are all ready to do the conventional thing, naming Elizabeth’s child after his father. Elizabeth knows the her son is not going to be a conventional child – has known ever since Mary’s visit when he leapt for joy in her womb. She also knows his name, though Luke never quite explains how – given that Zechariah was presumably mute at the time when the boy was conceived. And John, Yohanan, “The Lord is gracious”, is a significant name, both in terms of the past and the mercy that God has shown this holy, childless couple, and in terms of the future and the coming of the one for whom the adult John’s preaching will prepare the way.

Here, rather belatedly, is today’s music: a late 20th-century setting by Fr J. Roel Lungay of the office hymn for the Birth of John the Baptist “The great fore-runner of the morn”. The Latin original, “Praecursor altus luminis”, was written by the Venerable Bede (673-735) and translated into English by John Mason Neale nearly 200 years ago.

The Gospel for Wednesday, 17th June (Matthew 6:1-6,16-18)

Jesus said, ‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’


The motto of the school my sister attended after my family moved from Liverpool to Southampton fifty-something years ago was, and probably probably still is, “Esse quam videri” (“to be rather than to seem”). It’s a Latin tag, taken from an essay “On Friendship”, written by the Roman politician and amateur philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero, about forty years before the birth of Jesus.

It’s a pretty good summary of what Jesus has to say in today’s Gospel, as he has a go at those who would rather have a reputation for godliness than a genuine relationship with God, the people who “[practise their] piety before others in order to be seen by them.” They are after the “videri” with their almsgiving, their prayers and their fasting, and missing out on the “esse”. They are, he tells the disciples, just play-actors – which is the original meaning of “hypocrite”.

Today the church remembers a husband and wife who definitely went for the “esse”. Samuel Barnett was a twenty-something curate in London when he met Henrietta Rowland, seven years his junior, through the social reformer Octavia Hill, a founder of the National Trust, among other claims to fame.

London in the 1870s was not that different from London today. There were a few insanely rich and well-connected people, some comfortably off people, and a huge number of very poor people who scraped by as best they could – or went under. There was no social safety net other than privately- or Church-run charities. Samuel and Henrietta discovered that they both shared Octavia Hill’s passion for opening up opportunities for the poorest, providing access to open space (that’s where the National Trust came in), providing decent housing, providing educational opportunities. They married toward the end of Samuel’s curacy and prepared for life in a parish of their own.

Samuel had been offered a living near Oxford, and had turned it down. He had his eyes on somewhere much more to his and Henrietta’s liking, St Jude’s, Whitechapel, one of the poorest and grottiest parishes in the Diocese of London. They stayed there for twenty years and, by the combination of what one writer has called “Samuel’s spiritual gifts” and “Henrietta’s robust energy and assertive personality” they made a huge impact. They organised evening classes. They put on entertainments in church. They ran art exhibitions. They started an evening service which was led by clergy in street clothes, not their ecclesiastical robes, and with the lighting turned down so that people whose own clothes were shabby and worn wouldn’t be put off coming. And they persuaded young men from Oxford University, where Samuel had been a student, to come down and spend time working with the people of the East End. Their innovations weren’t always appreciated, but Samuel was recognised as a faithful priest and Henrietta – well, she seems to have been something of a force of nature! “A fine, noble bright-eyed, vigorous woman,” said someone who knew her, “and one that will have her own way and not be sparing of her own opinion.”

Eventually they moved on, to a canonry in Bristol Cathedral and then to Westminster Abbey, where Samuel played a part in the coronation of King George V in 1911. But the Barnetts still kept their links with the East End, chiefly through Toynbee Hall, the house which they had founded to accommodate the young men from Oxford. Sadly, Samuel’s health was by then beginning to give way and he died on this day in 1913. Henrietta survived him by nearly a quarter of a century, still “dreaming and doing” as she put her Christian faith into practical action – not least in the creation of Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Sadly, St Jude’s where the Barnetts ministered so effectively no longer exists. Like this building it suffered severe bomb damage during the Second World War, damage so bad that it had to be demolished. Also like this building, it had a mosaic by Antonio Salviati, a copy of G.F. Watts’ picture “Time, Death and Judgement”, which was given by friends of the Barnetts after they had been a dozen years in Whitechapel. It was fixed to the west front of the church, above a street drinking fountain and, like our “Good Shepherd”, it survived the wartime bombing and now hangs in the church of St Giles in the Fields, just round the corner from Tottenham Court Road tube station.

While today’s Gospel continues our exploration of the Sermon on the Mount, the Old Testament reading reaches the final climax of the Elijah saga, with the prophet’s spectacular separation from his disciple and successor, Elisha. To accompany the biblical account of the chariot of fire which divided them and Elijah’s ascent into heaven, here is the 1909 recording of the Fisk Jubilee Singers (a choir which originated in the 1860s with a group of former slaves) as they perform the classic Spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”

The Gospel for the Feast of St Barnabas (John 15:12-17):

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’


The fifteenth chapter of St John’s Gospel is a bit of a “go-to” text for the feasts of Apostles. Barnabas shares it not only with Matthias, but also with Simon and Jude. Which is slightly odd, because Barnabas wasn’t, by Luke’s definition, an apostle. He doesn’t appear until after Pentecost, and when he does (in Acts chapter 4) he is clearly distinguished from “the apostles”, to whom he gives a massive contribution to the Jerusalem church’s equivalent of our “Neighbours in Need” fund.

But Barnabas – that’s a nickname, by the way. His real name was Joseph – Barnabas was very soon recognised as a key figure in that first community. In fact, he becomes something of a recognised trouble-shooter for the apostles and the elders in Jerusalem. As Luke tells the story, Barnabas is the person who brings the newly baptised Saul to meet the understandably nervous apostles when Saul returned to Jerusalem after his experience in Damascus. Barnabas is also the person sent out from Jerusalem to find out what on earth is going on in Antioch. He seems to be very much the early Church’s “safe pair of hands”.

But he is rather more than that. When Barnabas needs back-up in Antioch to help the local church cope with the “great many people” who were “brought to the Lord”, he doesn’t send to Jerusalem as we might have expected. Instead “Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul”. He seems to have been richly endowed with the gift of recognising and nurturing other people’s gifts – hence that nickname. Barnabas, Luke tells us, means “Son of Encouragement”. He also didn’t give up on people. When Barnabas and Saul took ship to what is now southern Turkey, they were accompanied by Barnabas’s kinsman John Mark. He, however, decided that that was a sea voyage too far for a good Jewish boy, and went back home to mum in Jerusalem (his mother Mary, you may remember, provided the “safe house” which was Peter’s first port of call after his miraculous gaol-break in Acts 12).

For Paul that ruled John Mark out of any future missionary ventures, but Barnabas was willing to give him another chance and there was such a sharp disagreement over this (even Luke admits that, so it must have been a humdinger of a row) that Barnabas and Paul ended their partnership and, while Paul set out for Syria and Cilicia, Barnabas and Mark headed back to Cyprus, which was home territory for Barnabas. Paul’s letters suggest that Barnabas continued to travel quite widely. He is mentioned without any explanation in the letters to Corinth, Galatia and Colossae, which implies that he was known to those congregations by reputation, if not face-to-face. One strand of tradition has Barnabas travelling as far as Italy and founding the church in Milan, but the consensus (certainly among Cypriot Christians) is that Barnabas was lynched at Salamis in Cyprus a couple of years before Paul was executed in Rome.

So today as we give thanks for “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith”, as St Luke describes him, we give thanks for the lasting fruit which Barnabas bore, through his role in Jerusalem and Antioch, through his partnership with Saul of Tarsus and through his part in God’s mission after they split up; and we praise God for Barnabas’s ability to discern “what the master is doing” in the most unlikely lives.

The Psalm for St Barnabas’ day is Psalm 112, “Blessed is the one who fears the Lord”. In Latin that’s “Beatus vir qui timet Dominum”, words that have inspired settings by several composers, including Antonio Vivaldi and Michael Haydn. Here is the version by Claudio Monteverdi from his collection “Selva Morale e Spirituale”, recorded in November 2015 as part of a concert given in Harvard Memorial Church to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra. At this point the chaplain declares an interest: in his second year at university he shared a set of rooms with the man playing organ continuo. They are still speaking.

The Gospel for Wednesday 10th June (Matthew 5:17-19)

Jesus told his disciples: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’


As we approach what Jesus is saying about the Law in this short passage from the Sermon on the Mount, it is important to bear two things in mind: first, that Jesus was speaking to an entirely Jewish audience; second, that Matthew was writing for a community of mainly Jewish Christians at a time of tension, a time of rising national and religious feeling among Jews. It was important in that situation to affirm the Jewishness of those who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the one anointed by God so that in him the divine purposes for Israel might be fulfilled.

That doesn’t mean that everyone who believed in Jesus had to sign up to obey the whole Torah, including circumcision, although it is clear from other New Testament writings that there was a significant body of Jewish Christians who believed that you did. Nor does it mean that the Torah was made null and void by the coming of Jesus, although many Christian scholars down the centuries have taught that, following in effect the second century heretic Marcion, who argued that the text at this point had been tampered with and that what Jesus actually said was “Do you think that I have come to fulfil the law or the prophets? I have come not to fulfil but to abolish.”

But that won’t do. Jesus has indeed fulfilled the Law. Jesus is the one whose perfect faithfulness in relation to Torah, seen in Tom Wright’s striking phrase as “an extraordinary blue-print of what a genuinely human life is like”, renews God’s covenant and takes it beyond what St Paul calls “Israel according to the flesh” to draw in people of every race and nation and share with them that “genuinely human life” which is ours through the death of the Messiah Jesus.

Today’s piece of music is linked to the first reading at the Eucharist, the account of Elijah’s contest with 200 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-39). It is the prayer “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel” from Mendelssohn’s oratorio, “Elijah” and is sung here by the great German bass-baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

The Gospel for Wednesday, 3rd June (Mark 12:18-27)

Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.’


In modern terms the Sadducees were the conservative establishment, not least theologically. They believed that if a teaching was not spelled out in the Torah, it should not be believed. The idea of resurrection came onto the Jewish scene quite late and was, for that reason, suspect. That it was a key doctrine of those jumped-up Pharisees probably also encouraged the Sadducees to dig their heels in.

There is, it must be said, no clear reference to resurrection in any of the books attributed to Moses. When people in ancient Israel thought of “life after death”, assuming that they thought of it at all, they tended to think of that life in terms of a dim and ghostly half-existence in the the abode of the dead, Sheol. It seems to have been a vision of the after-life very similar to Homer’s picture of Hades, the Greek equivalent, in Book 11 of the Odyssey. Or else they thought of “living on” in terms of a person’s descendants, carrying on the family name (and by extension their name) down the generations.

Bodily resurrection was a no-no for the Sadducees. Not least because they could not conceive of life beyond death in any other way than as a rerun of this life. Hence, in part, the attempted trick question about the much-married but ultimately childless woman: “In the resurrection whose wife will she be?” Each of the brothers had a claim on her. Jesus points out their category error. The risen life is not a simple re-run of this life. The resurrection transcends and transforms what was before. It does not repeat. It transcends and transforms as God transcends and transforms, because all ages and all generations are eternally present to the One who is “God not of the dead, but of the living”.

That makes this passage from Mark’s Gospel, and the other reading for the day (2 Timothy 1:1-3,6-12), very appropriate reading for this day on which we remember the Martyrs of Uganda. It was the confident hope of resurrection which in 1886 strengthened the Christian pages of the kabaka Mwanga of Buganda, empowering them to resist the sexual advances of that predatory and promiscuous tyrant and to go to their death singing hymns of praise to the Lord. It was the same hope that strengthened Archbishop Janani Luwum and other Christian leaders in Uganda nine decades later to speak out against the tyranny of Idi Amin – a boldness which cost some of them their lives.

In our own day people in many countries are facing yet another generation of rulers who appear to have no care for anything except their own pleasure and profit, even in the context of global pandemic. At such a time we need to affirm the Christian hope of resurrection and the eternal destiny – and dignity – of all human beings. When so many people are feeling frustrated and powerless, it’s time to reconnect with “the scriptures and the power of God.”

In memory of the Martyrs of Uganda, today’s music is a hymn from that country, “Come and let us worship God”, whose words and music were written by Bishop Cranmer Mugisha of the Anglican Diocese of Muhabura. The translation into English is by John Bell of the Iona Community.

The Gospel for the Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-49)

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.’


Among the rather splendid Romanesque carvings flanking the great west door of the cathedral in Genova, on the left as you look at if from the piazza, there is a sort of 3-D cartoon-strip of the Christmas story, starting at the bottom with Gabriel’s message and ending with the flight into Egypt. It takes in pretty well all the Christmas cycle of festivals: the Nativity itself, the coming of the Wise Men, the Presentation and the massacre of the Holy Innocents. The second frame up, so to speak, is the one that relates to Mary’s three-month visit to Elizabeth, which we celebrate today. It shows two women, their faces sadly damaged by a combination of weathering, vandalism and war-time bombardment, in an advanced stage of pregnancy.

Obviously, the pregnancy of the younger woman is somewhat overstated. Luke’s text suggests that Mary headed south to check on Elizabeth’s pregnancy fairly soon after the departure of her angelic visitor. His phrase “In those days” indicates a fairly immediate departure, so there would have been no visible “bump”, barely a cluster of cells multiplying in Mary’s womb. But I imagine that the sculptor, whoever that was, would have been more concerned with theological reality than with gynaecological accuracy. And the theological reality is that both these extraordinary pregnancies are huge, both in their consequences for the two women and in their impact on the world.

Mary faces shame and humiliation, and possibly deadly violence, as a result of her pregnancy. Elizabeth, by contrast, has had her shame, the shame of being childless, taken away. But again, as Luke tells the story, it’s the deeper meaning, rather than the social consequences, that is brought out. That deeper meaning is summed up in the reaction of the child Elizabeth carries, leaping for joy in her womb at Mary’s greeting. Even before his birth, Elizabeth’s son is making known the coming of the Lord. And that coming, as Mary recognises in the song which she sings in response, is going to turn the world upside down.

The music to mark the Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth is a hymn written by the 19th-century Bishop of Calcutta, Reginald Heber and set by Ralph Vaughan Williams, eighty years after Heber’s death, to the French Reformed hymn-tune “Mon Dieu, prête-moi l’oreille”. The text focuses on the repeated word “Blessèd” in Elizabeth’s greeting.

The Gospel for Wednesday 27th May, 2020 (John 17:11-19)

Jesus continued his prayer to the Father: “Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”


In the section of what scholars call the “High-priestly Prayer” of Jesus which forms today’s Gospel reading, the Lord prays twice that his disciples may be protected. It’s a reminder that following Jesus can be dangerous. It was then. It is now. It has been calculated that more Christians have been killed because of their faith in Jesus during the past hundred years than in all the previous nineteen centuries added together.

Most of those deaths have taken place in far distant parts of the world: in Latin America, for example, or more recently in the Middle East and South or South-East Asia – although there is an honourable list of clergy and lay Christians in this country who have died because they stood up to the power of organised crime. Today we might add another group of potential victims. Four bishops of the Church of England (two of them women) have received death threats because of their measured and thoughtful responses to the latest pandemic-related crisis in the UK and its handling by the British government.

Nor is it only high-profile Christians who suffer. Nigerians know what is happening in parts of their own country. Further south, in the eastern Congo Christians from a minority tribe, the Banyamulenge, have been driven from their land and are under daily attack from armed militias. They are facing genocide but their appeals for help, whether for protection against their attackers or simply for food, are drowned out by the background din of Covid-19

Yesterday evening in a special service for churchwardens across the diocese Bishop David spoke about the need, both during and after the present pandemic, for congregations to affirm and to work for the values of God’s kingdom. As we do that, it will inevitably bring us into conflict with those whose values belong to the world – and sometimes, sadly, into conflict with those who profess Christian faith but whose words and actions appear to be guided more by the hatred which is the reaction of a world alienated from God. In such situations it is vital that we hold firmly to the truth of God as it is revealed in Jesus, the eternal Word of truth, in whom we are sanctified.

Another piece of Seasonal music by Orlando Gibbons, his setting of the collect for the Sunday after Ascension Day, “O God, the King of Glory”, sung by the Choir of New College, Oxford, directed by Edward Higginbottom.

A reflection for Ascension Day (21.5.2020)

The air raids on Genova in 1942 left this church with an 80-year headache over the building and an aching sense of loss.  Musicians bemoan the loss of the fine pipe-organ given by Crown Princess Victoria of Germany.  Others bewail the destruction of the stained glass – although some of the finest mediaeval churches in this city have glass that is just as plain as ours, and it has to be admitted that some of the stained or painted glass in older buildings is not always what it might be. 

Take the church of St Thomas, in Dudley in the English West Midlands, for instance.  Like Holy Ghost, Genoa, it lost much of its stained glass in the Second World War, but there remains the east window, older painted glass from the early 19th century.  This is how a great lover of English parish churches described it: “The subject is the Ascension.  In the upper part of the window Our Lord executes an elegant pas seul to the admiration of two buxom winged figures in the base, who look like celestial barmaids but must have been thought by the painter to represent angels.”   He lays into these poor lasses (“the bright young things of Dudley”, as he describes them) before concluding that “it is as well, perhaps, that this window does remain, as an example of the work and outlook of its own age and a warning to this.”

It’s also a warning against the over-literal interpretation of scripture that we need to hear on Ascension Day above all days. A great New Testament scholar of the last century used to drum into his students the question: “What must the truth have been if people who thought as they thought expressed it as they did?”  Why does St Luke find it necessary to end the first part of his version of “the things about Jesus of Nazareth” – and begin the second half – with the two accounts (Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11) that are the readings set for the Eucharist today? 

At one level we might put it down to what has been called Luke’s “pathologically tidy mind”.  Where Mark ends his gospel with a cliff-hanger, Matthew with a proclamation, and John with an untidy appendix which suggests (as St Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15) that people kept seeing the risen Jesus for quite a while after the resurrection, Luke seems to need to explain more precisely when and how the resurrection appearances ended. On the other hand, it has to be said in Luke’s defence that it is the Church that has made him appear such an obsessive-compulsive by locating the Feast of the Ascension precisely on the fortieth day after Easter.  For Luke, as for the writers of the Hebrew scriptures, “forty days” was not a precise figure but a traditional expression for “a significant length of time” – long enough for the risen Lord to open his disciples’ minds to understand the scriptures, long enough to teach them more about the kingdom of God.

But, as usual, there’s more to it than that.  Luke’s story, as always, carries his theology.  The Lord’s “withdrawal” from his disciples is not accompanied by grief, but by wonder and joy and worship.  Luke’s Gospel leaves his readers with a sense of expectation.  He heightens that sense in the opening verses of Acts.  The disciples are full of questions.  How are they to be answered?  Clearly not by gazing up into heaven.  The rebuke of the men in white robes reminds them (and us) that there is a job to be done.  We have a life (even after these three months of lockdown).  We are to get on with it, as we wait for the fulfilment of the Father’s promise.  And we are to get on with it as disciples of a Jesus who is no longer to be seen as merely human.  Jesus of Nazareth is revealed as the cosmic Christ.

The “withdrawal” of Jesus from the circle of his closest followers paradoxically makes him more available.  Because he is no longer physically among his disciples he can be with them always, wherever they are.  No longer with them “when they had come together”, he can be present to them as they scatter to bear witness “in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”.  In the words of a fine modern hymn “No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time”.  As we read Luke’s account of the ascension, we are reading a parable both of Christ’s presence and of our eternal destiny.  For us, as for the first disciples, that is a cause not for grief, but for wonder and joy and worship of the Lord who carries our threadbare humanity up into the Godhead.  

One of the Psalms traditionally linked to the Ascension is Psalm 47, “O clap your hands together all you people”, and particularly its second part which proclaims that “God is gone up with a merry noise”. It has been set by many composers from the Renaissance to the present, among them John Rutter, Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here is a magnificently joyful performance by Voces 8 in the cathedral at Vaison-la-Romaine of the setting by the 16th-century English composer, Orlando Gibbons.

The Gospel (John 4:19-24) for Wednesday, 20th May (Alcuin of York):

The Samaritan woman at the well said to Jesus, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’


Today the English Church remembers the second greatest Englishman you’ve never heard of, a Yorkshireman, born and bred in the great city of York in the days before the Vikings took it over and renamed it Jorvik. He was a teacher, an administrator, a liturgical scholar, a lover of good books and good wine, a letter-writer, a poet, the man who taught an emperor, and many of his subjects, to read – and he ended his days as Abbot of St Martin’s Abbey in Tours. The school at which he was a pupil, then a teacher, and eventually the Master still exists. My sister’s daughter was a pupil there in the 1990s.

His name was Alcuin and he was Charlemagne’s minister for education, headhunted for the king’s new Palace School in Aachen in 781 when he was in his mid-forties and becoming Charlemagne’s “go-to” man for anything to do with education or theology. He stayed in Aachen for fifteen years, making it one of the great centres of Christian learning in Europe and establishing there one of Europe’s finest libraries, repeating one of the achievements of his time in York, where the Minster library was his passion. His pupils at Aachen included some of the finest minds and spiritual leaders of the ninth century – and Charlemagne himself, who decided that a ruler needed to be able to handle a pen as well as a sword.

Alcuin was also a significant Christian thinker in his day and a keen student of liturgy – which is why our Gospel today focuses on the debate about worship between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar. “Worship in spirit and in truth” was another passion of Alcuin’s. One of his great projects was to standardise the way in which Charlemagne’s subjects worshipped, from Bavaria to Barcelona. What, I wonder, would he have made of the myriad experiments in online worship which have been taking place around the world in these last months? He would certainly, I think, have engaged in the debate that has been going on, but I suspect that he would have been much more charitable than some of those who have been taking part.

Alcuin retired from the school and the royal service in 796, to become Abbot of Tours. In 801, a year after Charlemagne’s coronation as Emperor and three years before his own death, Alcuin wrote to an old friend who had become Archbishop of York, “I have laid aside the pastoral care, and now sit quietly at St Martin’s waiting for the knocking at the gate.” Helen Waddell, who included several of Alcuin’s poems in her collection of Mediaeval Latin Lyrics, commented that “Not many could rise up to answer it with a more confident heart, but his epitaph has the wistful diffidence of all good men.” That epitaph, which Alcuin composed himself, ends with these words (in Helen Waddell’s translation from the original Latin):
“Alcuin was my name: learning I loved,
O thou that readest this, pray for my soul.”
So we remember him and we thank God for the gifts of scholarship, friendship, and holiness so richly bestowed and so faithfully used in God’s service.

The Gospel for the Feast of St Matthias (John 15:9-17):

Jesus said to the disciples, ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’


By pure coincidence, today’s Gospel reading picks up from where yesterday’s left off. In it Jesus develops further what it means to “abide in him”. What Jesus says is, it must be admitted, challenging reading. “Abiding in love” isn’t about what a former colleague memorably called “warm fuzzies”, the spiritual equivalent of a nice hot bath. “Abiding in love” for another person is about putting that other person’s interests ahead of your own – even to the extent of “[laying] down one’s life for one’s friends”. That’s a point which Jesus emphasises as he explains, that “abiding in love” means keeping his commandments: and his commandment is simply “that you love one another as I have loved you.”

For me that little two-letter word “as” is probably the most terrifying word in the Bible. To love as Jesus loves means being prepared to be crucified for the sake of the unlovely and unloving human race. But then, as Fr Richard Rohr is fond of saying, “your life is not about you: you are about life.”

Today we give thanks to God for St Matthias, chosen by lot, which in the ancient world meant – as it still does in some cultures – chosen by God, to make up the number of the Twelve in the place of Judas. So as we remember the timing and the manner of his calling, those words “You did not choose me but I chose you” seem particularly appropriate. And to be chosen by Christ as his friends, to be “appointed… to go and bear fruit”, is an immense privilege which we share with Matthias and with all who have sought to abide in the Father’s love, loving as Jesus has loved us.

Today’s music for St Matthias was written by his almost namesake the 20th-century Welsh composer William Mathias (1934-1992). It is his anthem “Make a joyful noise”, sung by the choir of Somerville College, Oxford, in the Basilica of San Marco, Milan.

The Gospel for Wednesday 13th May (John 15:1-8):

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’


Supper has ended. Judas son of Simon Iscariot has gone out into the darkness. Jesus gives his last teaching to his disciples, preparing them for what will happen during the coming hours (chapter 14) – and beyond (chapter 16). In the opening and closing sections of this “farewell discourse” there are interventions from individual disciples – Thomas, Philip and the other Judas – and from the wider group, but in the central section (chapter 15) Jesus alone speaks. All that he has to say is about the disciples’ relationships, with him, with one another, and with the Father and the Spirit.

The chapter begins with one of Jesus’ “I am” sayings. “I am the true vine.” As usual with John, this operates on many levels, but anyone knowing the sacred writings of Israel would be aware that “the vine” is a recurring symbol of Israel in the Psalms (especially Psalm 80) and the prophets (especially the “Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah 5, but also in Jeremiah and Ezekiel). In saying that he is “the true vine”, Jesus is affirming that he is the one who truly embodies God’s Israel and affirming the status of the disciples as part of that Israel if they “abide in him”. What that “abiding” might mean is, for the moment, left in the air, but as the image of the vine and the vine-grower is developed in the next few verses it becomes clear that it involves some level of reflection on the words of Jesus (“If you abide in me and my words abide in you”) and some development spiritually. “Bearing fruit” is an image which occurs in both the Testaments, from the Psalms to the Revelation of John, and is developed by St Paul in his letter to the Galatians (chapter 5:22-end). But there is a cost. Vines produce woody stems rather than grapes unless they are cut back severely before the new year’s growth begins. So, says Jesus, his disciples can expect to be “pruned” or “cleansed” (the same Greek word can mean either), in order that they may bear more fruit.

That, perhaps, is of relevance to us in this time of pandemic. We are being “cut back” in terms of not being able to do the things that we are used to doing, whether in church or in our daily life. In that process we are also being “pruned” of the illusion that we are in control of our own destiny. What fruit will that produce for God, I wonder?

The Psalm for today is Psalm 122, one of the “Songs of Ascents” sung by pilgrims going up to the temple in Jerusalem. It is probably best known in the grand “imperial” setting, written by Sir Hubert Parry for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. This setting was written by Henry Purcell for the coronation of an earlier king, James II, in 1685. It is sung here by the choir of New College, Oxford, directed by Edward Higginbottom.

Julian of Norwich

Most saints are remembered on the anniversary of their passage from this life to the life of the world to come. One of the exceptions to this rule is Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century English mystic and theologian. We know roughly when Julian was born, about six years before the great plague known as the Black Death swept through England, but we don’t know when she died. She is mentioned in legal documents from the first two decades of the 15th century, but this trail peters out around the time of the Battle of Agincourt (1415) and it is generally assumed that she died in about 1417.

What we do know about Julian is that during 8th May, 1373, when she was thirty years old, at the climax of an illness sufficiently serious for her to have been given the last rites by a local priest, she received a series of sixteen visions, most of them focused on the figure of the crucified Christ which the priest had left propped up by her bedside. For the next twenty years Julian pondered the meaning of what she had seen and eventually, after one false start, produced the remarkable book known as “Revelations of Divine Love”, the first book written in English by a woman. It is a tremendously hope-filled book, which has inspired poets and song-writers, as well as Christians of every tradition. The most widely-known quotation from the book is probably her repeated assertion that “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well”, but the heart of Julian’s message is perhaps best summed up in these words from the book’s final chapter:

“From the time these things were first revealed I had often wanted to know what was our Lord’s meaning. It was more than fifteen years after that I was answered in my spirit’s understanding. ‘You would know our Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? for love. Hold on to this and you will know and understand love more and more. But you will not know or learn anything else – ever!'”

That central importance of God’s love revealed in the suffering and death of Jesus, and Julian’s insistence that “All shall be well” are drawn together by Sydney Carter in his song, “The Bells of Norwich”, sung here by Ed Trickett, Gordon Bok and Ann Mayo Muir.

A prayer for a time of pandemic

We are not people of fear:
We are people of courage.
We are not people who protect our own safety:
We are people who protect our neighbours’ safety.
We are not people of greed:
we are people of generosity.
We are your people God,
giving and loving,
wherever we are,
whatever it costs
For as long as it takes
wherever you call us.

Barbara Glasson (President of the Methodist Conference of Great Britain)

The Gospel for Wednesday 6th May (John 12:44-end):

Then Jesus cried aloud: ‘Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.’


The themes of light and darkness run like a thread through the first thirteen chapters of St John’s Gospel, from the Prologue to the point at which Judas goes out from the Last Supper “and it was night”. Light is one of the most powerful symbols of God. It is there in all the great faiths: the candles on the altar at every Eucharist, the lamps in a mosque, the ranks of lights before the statues in a Hindu temple, the Sabbath candle in a Jewish home. For Christians, though, the divine light has entered the world in a human life, clarifyng our vision of what it means to be human – and showing up the shabbiness of the world, and of our own lives.

But the coming of Jesus is not intended to drive us back into the shadows. If we believe in him we will not, cannot, “remain in the darkness”. Nor should we fear approaching his light, because the purpose of his coming is “not to judge the world, but to save the world.” The light is what enables us to see clearly. Trusting in Jesus our light enables us to find our way round obstacles and to avoid pitfalls. In the words of C.S. Lewis “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.”

For once the music has no direct link to either the reading or the Psalm for the day. It is, however, very appropriate to the season: S.S. Wesley’s anthem, “Blessed be the God and Father” , written to be sung at Choral Evensong in Hereford Cathedral on Easter Day 1834. It is sung here by the choir of Hereford Cathedral, in its 1980 incarnation, under the direction of the great Roy Massey.

The Gospel for the feast of St Philip and St James (John 14:1-14):

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’


Philip and James are one of the Christian calendar’s odd couples. About James we know only that he is the son of Alphaeus and (assuming that it is the same James) that Mark calls him “the younger”, or “the less”, presumably to distinguish him from James son of Zebedee, one of the inner circle of disciples around Jesus. Philip we know well from John’s Gospel, where he is to be found patrolling the boundaries, usually with his fellow-townsman, Simon Peter’s brother Andrew, bringing people to meet Jesus (John 1:43-48), dealing with enquiries (John 12:20-22), coping with a major supply problem (John 6:5-9).

He and James would appear to have very little in common. Even their names suggest that they came from very different worlds. Philip comes from cosmopolitan Bethsaida,, just beyond the borders of Jewish Galilee, an origin reflected in the fact that he, like Andrew, has a gentile name, one made famous by the kings of Macedon who had borne it four centuries earlier. James’s name could hardly be more Jewish. It is the standard English form of the name Jacob, and Jacob, in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the father of the men who gave their names to the twelve tribes of Israel. In fact, the only reason that he and Philip are remembered together is that on 1st May, 560 a new church was dedicated in Rome to house their relics.

Despite all that, it is appropriate to remember them together, and for this reason: James, by his name linking back to the patriarchs, represents tradition. Philip, by his origins on the borders of Jewish territory and by his role in John’s Gospel, represents those who patrol the boundaries and bring people in. The Church needs both. As a tree needs to be rooted in fertile soil, so the Church needs its roots in tradition and Scripture. Equally, to maintain the life which is nourished by those roots, a tree needs leaves and fresh growth, as the Church needs to be renewed in each generation. So today, as we give thanks for Philip and James, we give thanks both for those who hand on the tradition of faith and for those who patrol the boundaries, expressing that faith afresh for each new generation.

This song was written for the Iona Community thirty years ago by John Bell and the late Graham Maule. It is a setting of the opening words of the gospel for St Philip and St James to the traditional Irish melody “The Lark in the Clear Air”.

The Gospel for the feast of St Catherine of Siena (John 17:12-26):

Jesus, looking up to heaven, said to the Father, ‘While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’


Caterina Benincasa (St Catherine of Siena) died on this day in 1380. She was, according to the most widely accepted chronology of her life, in her early thirties and had suffered a stroke eight days earlier. Caterina was the second youngest child of what was, even by 14th-century Tuscan standards, a large family and from an early age she had an extraordinarily close relationship with God. Despite opposition from her family, at the age of 16 she became a member of the Third Order (the “lay” branch) of the Order of Preachers, founded by St Dominic a century or so before, devoting herself to a life marked by contemplative prayer and practical care for the poor and the sick. Even as a teenager her holiness was recognised and attracted many followers, who sought her advice on both spiritual and practical (including political) matters.

As a result, when the cities of Tuscany, and especially Florence, found themselves in conflict with the Pope, Caterina was asked to accompany a mission to Avignon, where the Popes had been based since 1309. The mission was successful and had the significant side-effect that Caterina’s influence led Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome. Sadly, Gregory died a year later and the election of his successor provoked such turbulence that the Church found itself with two Popes, one in Rome and another back in Avignon. Caterina’s energetic attempts to heal this new division were among the factors which led to her untimely death.

It is Caterina’s combination of a close relationship with God, skill in spiritual direction, and active concern for the unity of all Christian people which makes today’s gospel reading particularly appropriate.

An older contemporary of St Catherine of Siena was the blind Florentine poet and musician, Francesco Landini (c.1325-1397). Landini was organist of the church of San Lorenzo in Florence, and is known to have composed music for church use, but unfortunately none of it has survived. What has survived is a large number of secular compositions, of which this is probably the best-known. “Ecco la primavera” might not be appropriate for the saint, but it fits the time of year. “It’s spring!”

The Gospel for St Mark’s Day (Mark 13:5-13):

Then Jesus began to say to Peter, James, John and Andrew, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.’


The rediscovery of Mark’s Gospel during the 20th century, after centuries of neglect, is one of the triumphs of modern biblical scholarship. From the 4th century onward Mark had been thought of as, in St Augustine’s dismissive phrase, “St Matthew’s abbreviator and running footman”. That is understandable, because Augustine lived in the great age of the “epitomators”, writers who turned out slimmed-down versions of much longer works from earlier times – the ancient equivalent of Readers Digest “condensed books”, but it led to a long failure to listen to Mark’s distinctive voice. Matthew was much more useful for practical teaching, John for theological reflection, and Luke for stories – and setting the way-marks of the Christian year. Mark, being shorter than the other three, had none of these attractions. Only the “bare”, challenging story of the public career, trial and death of Jesus of Nazareth. How low Mark’s Gospel had sunk can be measured by the fact that in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer the Gospel for this day, Mark’s own feast day, is taken not from his own Gospel but from the Gospel according to St John. In fact Mark’s Gospel provides the Gospel for the Day on only five of the ninety occasions for which the Prayer Book provides a collect, epistle and gospel. Matthew’s, by contrast, is used on 33 occasions, Luke’s on 27 and John’s on 25. In a culture which was, nominally at least, Christian Mark’s Gospel seemed superfluous.

The recognition that Mark’s is actually the first of the gospels to be written down gives us a greater understanding not only of his work, but also of Matthew’s and Luke’s (and, to a lesser extent, John’s). It also reinforces the tradition, going back to the early years of the 2nd century, that links Mark to St Peter, and suggests a reason for inventing this new class of writing, the “gospel”. The earliest leaders of the Christian communities were dying, sometimes at the hands of the people who had killed their Lord, and Jesus had not returned. It was therefore vital to provide a way of passing on “the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God” to future generations. It was also important to enable those future generations to cope with the reality of hostility and persecution, as this passage seeks to do.

That might be regarded as providential, given that the 20th and 21st centuries have seen the resurgence of hostility to Christians on a level greater than that of the worst persecutions of the past. The two totalitarian systems of the 1930s and 1940s, the proxy wars of the super-powers, the systematic attempts by the rich and powerful to eliminate “the Church of the poor” in many parts of Latin America all contributed to creating a greater number of martyrs in the last century than in the previous eighteen added together. That sad trend has continued into the present century, with renewed persecution in China, Islamist and Hindutva fundamentalism in South Asia, Jihadi violence across the Middle East (including the destruction of Christian communities which have existed in the Holy Land since the time of Jesus – some of it with the collusion of recent Israeli governments) and in several regions of Africa, from Tunisia to Kenya.

So today, as we give thanks for St Mark’s witness and the challenge of the good news which he records, let us remember Christian sisters and brothers in many parts of the world who are living the situation which Jesus describes in today’s Gospel reading and pray that they (and we) may endure to the end and be saved.

The music for St Mark’s Day comes from the Basilica of St Mark in St Mark’s adopted city of Venice. It is the Vespers of 1610 by Claudio Monteverdi, who was in charge of the music at St Mark’s from 1613 until his death in 1643. The performance, which dates from 1990, is conducted by John Eliot Gardiner

The Gospel for St George’s Day (John 15:18-21):

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.’


St George is the saint shared by England and Genova, but he belongs to neither. We know nothing about his life, and little about his death, except that it took place at Lydda in Palestine (today the Israeli city of Lod) in about AD304, during the last great persecution of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian. He was probably a soldier, though not a knight in shining armour, and the only dragon which he killed was the dragon of fear which could have led him to deny his Lord. From early on he was known to Eastern Christians as “the great martyr”, and the church in Lydda dedicated in his honour became a place of pilgrimage. A member of the congregation of Terriers Church (now dead), who served in the Middle East during the Second World War, remembered visiting the church during a short period of leave in the 1940s.

How George came to England is not known. There were churches dedicated in his honour before the Norman Conquest in 1066 but he became a popular saint in Western Europe at the time of the crusades and his status as England’s patron saint was cemented when he was named by King Edward III as patron of his new order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter.

George remains, though, for people of many nations an ideal of the saint who put the service of God ahead of his service of an earthly ruler. Many years ago in Iran, I heard an Armenian bishop preach in the church of St George in New Julfa (Isfahan), urging his people to follow the example of St George in giving loyal service to the state in which they lived but to remember that their first loyalty, like George’s, was to Jesus Christ, who had, in the words of today’s Gospel, “chosen [him] out of the world”.

The piece of music today is not about St George, but was written by St-George, the name by which Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de St-Georges, is most commonly known. He is the first notable composer known to be of African ancestry. His father was George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy planter in Guadeloupe, and his mother was Nanon, an African slave. A gifted violinist, an accomplished horseman and expert fencer, a soldier and anti-slavery campaigner, he was known in 18th-century musical circles as “the Black Mozart”, and as we listen to this violin concerto it’s easy to understand why.

Praying through a Time of Pandemic

I recently posted on the church Facebook page the “Beatitudes for a Global Pandemic” by Dave Walker and Jayne Manfredi.  As I did so, it struck me that they would provide a good framework for anyone who would welcome the opportunity to pray systematically through the current crisis, either praying for one group of people each day in a fortnightly cycle, or name-checking each group daily*. So, in your prayers during lock-down, please remember:

1.       those who stay indoors.

2.       those who are unemployed and self-employed

3.       corner shopkeepers

4.       delivery drivers and postal workers

5.       hospital workers; ambulance crews, doctors, nurses, care assistants, and cleaners.

6.       checkout workers.

7.       refuse collectors.

8.       teachers.

9.       church workers; deacons, priests and bishops.

10      single parents.

11.     those who are alone.

12.     the bereaved.

13.     those who are isolated with their abusers.

14.     all who have pure hearts; all who still hunger and thirst for justice; all who work for peace and who model mercy.

And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all. Amen.

*If you would welcome guidance about specific things to pray for, please see the post on the Facebook page “Church and Friends of the Holy Ghost” (Wednesday 22nd April) or visit Jayne Manfredi’s blog p?post=674&action=edit

The Gospel for Wednesday, 22nd April (John 3:16-21):

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’


These words come from the final section of St John’s account of the night-time meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus. There is some doubt whether they are part of what Jesus said or whether they are the Evangelist’s summing-up. Eminent New Testament scholars have taken different views when commenting on this passage. Whether or not they are the words of Jesus, they proclaim a truth which is central to the Gospel: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The first letter of John affirms that “God is love”. Here John (or Jesus) sets out what that means. God so loved… that he gave… It’s equally important to note the object of God’s love. It isn’t a chosen race. It isn’t a particular community. It is the world. Now, in the Bible “the world” is understood in two ways: first as the totality created by God out of love and for love; but also as what a modern American saint, Dorothy Day, described as “this lousy, rotten system”, in which people give priority to what are, at best, secondary goods and ignore the demands of God’s love and God’s justice, preferring the accumulation of wealth, blessing usury and (in modern times) industrial capitalism and the wars that support it – and, one is tempted to add in the present crisis, the governments following pandemic policies which place corporate profit ahead of the lives of human beings. This aspect of the world comes under God’s judgement, even though “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” In Jesus God calls all people to turn to the light and find their salvation not in possessions and power but in radical trust and love.

The Psalm for this day is Psalm 34. Here is the classic 17th-century metrical version by Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady, sung in the setting of Coventry Cathedral

The Gospel for Saturday in Easter Week (Mark 16:9-15):

Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.

Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.’


There’s an old saying that nature abhors a vacuuum. So too, it would appear, did the early Christians – or at least some of them. How else are we to explain the various “infancy Gospels” which came into being on the fringes of the Church, desperately trying to fill those “missing years” between the stories about Jesus’ birth which appear in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and his arrival at the river Jordan to be baptised by John? And how else are we to explain the “longer ending of Mark”?

The oldest and best manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel end at 16:8, with the women running away from the empty tomb “for they were afraid”. That ending leaves the reader, as Mark often leaves the reader, challenged and questioning. The longer ending, which includes the passage set as today’s gospel and half a dozen verses beyond that, seems to have been added some time in the second century of our era by someone for whom Mark’s abrupt closure was unbearable.

Whoever it was accordingly added a section patched together from the resurrection appearances described by Luke and John, rounding off the story and turning Mark’s open-ended challenge into a test of faith – but faith in the sense of “believing that” rather than “believing in”. In doing that whoever wrote the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel does serious violence to the sense, shared by all four Gospels, that the story of Jesus does not, and cannot, have a “happy ending”, because the story continues in the lives of those who have responded to the call of Jesus and who have committed themselves to follow his way. That is to say in your life and in mine.

To end our selection of music for Eastertide here is the chant “Surrexit Christus”, sung by brothers of the Taizé community and some of the thousands of young people from around the world who visit this little village in Burgundy each year. The words, which are taken from Psalm 118, are sung in several languages.

Richard Rohr sums up (and takes forward) the teaching of the past week:

The larger-than-life, spiritually transformed people I have met have all died before they died. (Sunday)

Life is hard, and yet Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” –Matthew 11:28 (Monday)

You are not important, and yet Jesus says, “Rejoice because your name is written in heaven.” —Luke 10:20 (Tuesday)

It is true that your life is not about you; rather “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” –Colossians 3:4 (Wednesday)

It is true that you are not in control, for “can any of you, for all your worrying, add a single moment to your span of life?” –Luke 12:26 (Thursday)

It is true that you are going to die, and yet “neither death nor life . . . nothing can ever come between us and the love of God.” —Romans 8:38-39 (Friday)

Practice: Prayer Ties

Before we share our practice, we invite you to join us in prayer for all those who are suffering as a result of COVID-19, those who have already lost their lives, and those who are healthcare workers attending to the sick. You can also dedicate your contemplative practice as a prayer for the benefit of all.

God, we ask that all who are affected by this virus be held in your loving care. In this time of uncertainty, help us to know what is ours to do. We know you did not cause this suffering but that you are with us in it and through it. Help us to recognize your presence in acts of kindness, in moments of silence, and in the beauty of the created world. Grant peace and protection to all of humanity for their well-being and for the benefit of the earth.

In a teaching from the desert fathers, “an old Desert Father was asked what was necessary to do to be saved. He was sitting making rope. Without glancing up, he said, “You’re looking at it.” [1] Just as so many of the mystics have taught us, doing what we are doing with presence and intention is itself prayer.

At this time of social distancing, I want to emphasize contemplative insights and practices that help us heal our sense of separation and isolation, promote connection and awaken a sense of creativity and responsibility for all beings.

People in almost every faith tradition across the world have ways of hanging simple objects as expressions of prayer, sending forth love, courage and healing into the world. Many churches celebrate Advent and Lent by tying ribbons, banners or cloth around trees to enrich the celebration. As Easter approaches, perhaps this practice will help you in your embrace of new life and resurrection. The Lakota and Cherokee people use prayer ties (tobacco or cornmeal wrapped in cloth) as offerings of prayers, intentions, and gratitude, tying them to trees or leaving them in sacred places. All who come in contact with the prayer ties are blessed by the intentions and prayers. In Ireland, Scotland and Wales people tie strips of colored cloth called “clooties,” to ask for blessings. Buddhist prayer flags hold prayers blown by the wind to promote peace, compassion and wisdom.

For this week’s practice, we invite you to create a version of prayer ties. The prayer ties can be tied to a favorite tree, bush, plant or other element. Although many indigenous traditions use tobacco and cloth representing the four directions, for your prayerful intentions you can use any fabric at hand and add offerings of seeds, special stones, written prayerful words, etc. We have permission to share this particular version with you from the First Nations website Dances for All People. We thank them and Sister Joan Brown for introducing us to this beautiful practice.

To make prayer ties:

Gather alone or with family/community in a contemplative, devotional manner. 
Cut cloth into small squares about 4 x 4 inches. 
Place prayer intentions of gratitude, healing, wisdom, for those suffering, etc. in center of cloth. 
Take string, yarn or strips of cloth to tie into a bundle. 
With prayer, song and gratitude attach the prayer bundles to a tree or sacred place outdoors 
Visit this place with prayer and gratitude often. [2]

[1] As quoted in Gross, Rita M. and Terry C. Muck, ed. Christians Talk about Buddhist Meditation, Buddhists Talk about Christian Prayer, (Continuum: 2003), 76.

[2] Adapted from Dance For All People: About Prayer Ties:

The Gospel for Friday in Easter Week (John 21:1-14):

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.


John, like Matthew, ends his Gospel in Galilee, but in a very different setting. Matthew leaves Jesus on the mountain, commissioning the surviving members of the Twelve to “Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” John shows him gathering seven of the Twelve for a meal on the shore of the lake.

It is a strange episode in many ways. There is no sense that Peter and his companions are expecting Jesus. In fact they seem almost to have forgotten his existence. They are back home and doing the things they used to do before Jesus called them to follow him. But the presence of Jesus at the lakeside (when they finally recognise him) nudges them, as the small details in the story nudge us, into an awareness that things cannot be “just as they were”. There is too much history, which takes in that other miraculous catch of fish recorded by Luke, that other time when Peter plunged into the water from his boat, rather further than 100 yards from the shore, in order to come to the Lord, and that other lakeside meal of bread and fish. And there’s that other charcoal fire, the one in Jerusalem where Peter had stood warming himself and telling those who questioned him that he didn’t know Jesus of Nazareth. Too much has happened. They can’t just go back.

Nor can we when the present restrictions on our life eventually end. Like Peter and his companions, we will have learned too much about ourselves, and about others, just to slip back into the places which we used to occupy. But by God’s grace there will be new opportunities for service, new reasons for hope, and new beginnings in the love and mercy of God.

This song sets out to Emmaus with Wednesday’s Gospel but it quickly detours via the lake of Tiberias. A song of encouragement.

The last of Richard Rohr’s “consoling messages” for this Easter Week:

It is true that you are going to die, and yet “I am certain of this, neither death nor life, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, not any height nor depth, nor any created thing can ever come between us and the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39).

On Good Friday, we lament Jesus’ death while living in hope that death does not have the last word on our destiny. We are born with a longing, desire, and deep hope that this thing called life could somehow last forever. It is a premonition from something eternal that is already within us. Some would call it the soul. Christians would call it the indwelling presence of God. It is God within us that makes us desire and seek God.

Yes, we are going to die, but we have already been given a kind of inner guarantee and promise right now that death is not final—and it takes the form of love. Deep in the heart and psyche, love, both human and divine, connotes something eternal and gratuitous, and it does so in a deeply mysterious and compelling way. We are seeing this now in simple acts of love in this time of crisis, such as people volunteering to make masks and deliver food, or people cheering hospital workers arriving for their shift. Isn’t it amazing how a small act of love or gratitude can imprint a deeper knowing on our soul?

The crucifixion of Jesus is the preeminent example of God’s love reaching out to us. It is at the same moment the worst and best thing in human history. The Franciscans, led by John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), even claimed that instead of a “necessary sacrifice,” the cross was a freely chosen revelation of Total Love on God’s part.

In so doing, they reversed the engines of almost all world religion up to that point, which assumed that we had to spill blood to get to a distant and demanding God. On the cross, the Franciscans believed, God was “spilling blood” to reach out to us! This is a sea change in consciousness. The cross, instead of being a transaction, was seen as a dramatic demonstration of God’s outpouring love, meant to utterly shock the heart and turn it back toward trust and love of the Creator.

I believe that the cross is an image for our own time, and every time: we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified Jesus to soften our hearts toward all suffering. Amidst the devastating spread of COVID-19, the cross beckons us to what we would call “grief work,” holding the mystery of pain, looking right at it, and learning from it. With softened hearts, God leads us to an uncanny and newfound compassion and understanding.

The Gospel for Thursday in Easter Week (Luke 24:35-48):

The two disciples told what had happened on the road, and how Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’


One of the strange consolations of keeping Easter during this period of extreme restriction is the realisation just how many of the events surrounding the resurrection took place behind locked doors. Apart from the story of what happened on the road to Emmaus, which was our gospel passage yesterday, and the final break-out to Galilee at the end of both Matthew’s Gospel and John’s, most of the Easter story takes place when the disciples are in self-isolation – though for fear of the Jewish authorities rather than the corona-virus.

That is the case in today’s reading, set late in the evening of the first Easter Day after the two disciples had come panting back from Emmaus, hurrying down the road in order to reach Jerusalem before darkness fell and the city gates were shut. Jesus reveals himself to the group of disciples. Again he does so, as he had at Emmaus, in the setting of a meal. This time there are no Eucharistic overtones. St Luke tells this story in order to make a point about the physical reality of Jesus’ resurrection. In a culture in which belief in the existence of ghosts and spirits of many kinds was widespread, the first Christians had to affirm that they had seen Jesus do things which no ghost or spirit could do, offering his wounds for them to inspect by touch as well as sight and eating a piece of broiled fish.

Again, the risen Jesus repeats the lesson in understanding the scriptures which he had given to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus. But this time he adds to it. When the time is right, they will go out to be his witnesses, not only in the city where they are but “to all nations”. So for us, the hope remains that in God’s good time we too shall be released from lock-down, to play our part in sharing the good news of the Kingdom. But until then, like the first disciples, we will have to remain in the city, praying for its people – and praying for the world.

Another piece of Easter music, “The Lord is risen indeed”, by the 18th-century American composer William Billings.

The fourth “consoling message” for a time of pandemic:

It is true that you are not in control, for “can any of you, for all your worrying, add a single moment to your span of life?” (Luke 12:25-26).

If we cannot control life and death, why do we spend so much time trying to control smaller outcomes? Call it destiny, providence, guidance, synchronicity, or coincidence, but people who are connected to the Source do not need to steer their own life and agenda. They know that it is being done for them in a much better way than they ever could. Those who hand themselves over are received, and the flow happens through them. Those who don’t relinquish control are still received, but they significantly slow down the natural flow of Spirit.

When we set ourselves up to think we deserve, expect, or need certain things to happen, we are setting ourselves up for constant unhappiness and a final inability to enjoy or at least allow what is going to happen anyway. After a while, we find ourselves resisting almost everything at some level. It is a terrible way to live. Giving up control is a school to learn union, compassion, and understanding. It is ultimately a school for the final letting go that we call death. Right now, as we face social restrictions, economic fragility, and the vulnerability of our own bodies, is there something deeper that you can surrender to, that can ground you in disruption?

Surrendering to the divine flow is not about giving in, capitulating, becoming a puppet, being naïve, irresponsible, or stopping all planning and thinking. Surrender is about a peaceful inner opening that keeps the conduit of living water flowing to love. But do know this: every time we surrender to love, we have also just chosen to die. Every time we let love orient us, we are letting go of ourselves as an autonomous unit and have given a bit of ourselves away to something or someone else, and it is not easily retrieved—unless we choose to stop loving—which many do. But even then, when that expanded Self wants to retreat back into itself, it realizes it is trapped in a much larger truth now. And Love wins again.

Jesus surely had a dozen good reasons why he should not have had to die so young, so unsuccessful at that point, and the Son of God besides! By becoming the Passover Lamb, plus the foot-washing servant, Jesus makes God’s revelation human, personal, clear and quite concrete. Jesus is handed over to the religious and political powers-that-be, and we must be handed over to God from our power, privilege, and need for control. Otherwise, we will never grow up, or participate in the Mystery of God and Love. It really is about “passing over” to a deeper faith and life.

The Gospel for Wednesday in Easter Week (Luke 24:13-35)

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.


In these days of severe restrictions on how far we can travel and with whom, a seven-mile journey with another person might seem like a dream. It probably didn’t to Cleopas and his companion. They were too busy reliving the nightmare of the previous seven days. Which accounts for their rude response when the stranger asks draws alongside and them what they are talking about.

However, it is in the course of their shared journey that the couple on their way to Emmaus begin to understand the meaning of what has happened during the past few days, as the stranger takes them into parts of their faith tradition which they might not have visited before.

That possibility remains open to us, even if the possibilities for movement outside the place where we live are severely limited – and it is one of the reasons why these posts are appearing each day in Easter Week. They remind us that the risen Christ often comes to us in the guise of the stranger, as he does to Cleopas and his companion. They remind us that the Christian journey can take us into the depths of pain and sorrow and that it is the way down into those depths which is actually the way up into the reality of God’s presence. They remind us, too, that it is not necessarily in a great vision of glory that the presence of Christ is made known. It can happen in our daily living, in the offer of a bed for the night, in the sharing of a meal, in the breaking of bread outside the setting of the Sunday Eucharist. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, Christ is with us bringing hope and the possibility of joy if our eyes are opened to see him.

Our music accompanying Wednesday’s gospel is a song by the American hymn-writer Marty Haugen. “On the Journey to Emmaus”

The third message from Richard Rohr’s list of five:

It is true that your life is not about you; rather, “your life is hidden with Christ in God. He is your life, and when he is revealed, you will be revealed in all your glory with him” (Colossians 3:4).

Once our soul comes to its True Self, it can amazingly let go and be almost anything except selfish or separate. The True Self does not cling or grasp. It has already achieved its purpose by being more than by any specific doing of this or that. Finally, we have become a human being instead of a human doing. This is what we are practicing when we sit in contemplative prayer: we are practicing under-doing and assured failure, which radically rearranges our inner hardware after a while. And yet even in our pursuit of the True Self, we must be careful not to reject the parts of ourselves that are not there yet. The most courageous thing we will ever do is probably to accept that we are who we are. As Henri Nouwen once shared with me personally, he believed that original sin could only be described as “humanity’s endless capacity for self-rejection.”

All the truly transformed people I have ever met are characterized by what I would call radical humility. They are deeply convinced that they are drawing from another source; they are simply an instrument. Their genius is not their own; it is borrowed. They end up doing generative and expansive things precisely because they do not take first or final responsibility for their gift; they don’t worry too much about their failures, nor do they need to promote themselves. Their life is not their own, yet at some level they know that it has been given to them as a sacred trust. Such people just live in gratitude and confidence and try to let the flow continue through them. They know that love can be repaid by love alone.

In this time of crisis, we must commit to a posture of prayer and heart that opens us to deep trust and connection with God. Only then can we hold the reality of what is happening—both the tragic and the transformative. I am finding myself turning more often in these days to the simple Christian prayer of “Lord, have mercy.” From our place of humility, God can work through us to help our loved ones, neighbors and the most vulnerable. As Francis of Assisi said to us right before he died in 1226, “I have done what was mine to do. Now you must do what is yours to do.” [1]

In the spiritual life, what we think we are doing is actually being done to us. All we can do is say yes to it. This True Self is ironically much more glorious, grounded, original, and free than any self-manufactured person could be. We are interrelated with being, participating with the life of God, while living out one little part of that life in our own exquisite form. The True Self neither postures nor pretends. It comes down to this: the soul and the True Self know that “my life is not about me, but I am about life.”

The Gospel for Tuesday in Easter Week (John 20:11-18)

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.


One thought and one image for today. The thought is from Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, preaching on this passage before King James I and his court on Easter Day 400 years ago:

“You thought you should have come to Christ’s resurrection to-day, and so you do. But not to His alone, but even to Mary Magdalene’s resurrection too. For in very deed a kind of resurrection it was wrought in her; revived as it were, and raised from a dead and drooping, to a lively and cheerful estate. The gardener had done His part, made her all green on the sudden.”

The picture is Graham Sutherland’s “Noli me Tangere”, which hangs in one of the side chapels of Chichester Cathedral in England. It shows the risen Christ telling Mary Magdalene, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ But Christ’s ascending to the Father is hinted at in the stairway and the outstretched arm. Death has not had the last word, and Mary’s grief is turned to overwhelming joy, like a dying plant brought back to life and blossom by the care of a skilled gardener, but things cannot go back to being the way they were. The risen Christ moves on, and so must those who follow him. So it will be when we eventually move on from the present restrictions. Things will not be as they were before mid-February 2020, but Christ will be with us, calling us by name, as he called Mary in the midst of her grief, commissioning us, as he commissioned her, to share the good news of his living presence.,P27s-Noli-m.jpg,qitok=0zd-6TF7.pagespeed.ic.-ipxIGssHh.webp

Music to go with the gospel reading: Nigel Walsh’s setting of the hymn “Walking in a Garden”, sung by the choir of St David’s church, Exeter (UK).

On Tuesday in Easter Week Richard Rohr offers the second “consoling message”:

You are not important, and yet Jesus says, “Rejoice because your name is written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).

We need a still point in this twirling world of images and feelings, especially in a time such as ours. If we are tethered at some center point, it is amazing how far out we can fly and not get lost. The True Self, “our name in heaven,” is our participation in the great “I Am.” It is what Peter daringly calls the “ability to share the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This True Self is characterized by contentment, an abiding low-level peace and happiness. Every now and then it even becomes pure joy.

If there is no list of names in eternity, no confidence that we are known and chosen by God, we are burdened with making a name for ourselves every day. We must be self-made, every person out for themselves in a dog-eat-dog world, vying with one another for zero-sum dignity and importance. Instead of comparison, envy, competition, and scarcity, authentic spirituality is an experience of abundance and mutual flourishing. We are tempted to count only our material and ego gifts which decrease with usage, whereas spiritual gifts actually increase with each use, in ourselves and in those around us.

If we have no foundational significance, we must constantly attempt to self-signify and self-validate. Everyone is then a competitor and rival. We cannot help but be pushed around by our neediness and judgments, and we will push others around too. If we have no unshakable experience of divine approval, we will be lost in fragile momentary experiences of “victory” that cannot be sustained or really enjoyed.

We must find our North Star outside our own little comparative systems or we will be lost in rivalry and daily defeat. It is a whole different way of looking at what we mean by “God saving us.” God first of all saves us from ourselves, our emotional neediness and hurt, and our obsessive mind games. Then the truth of being is obvious and all around us.

Our importance is given and bestowed in this universe as part of the unbreakable covenant between us and our Creator. We are declared important “from the beginning” (Ephesians 1:4, 9), and when we really know it, we have no need to prove it. We are reminded who we really are in God when Jesus tells us that our “name is written in heaven.” Surely God holds medical workers and first responders close to God’s heart right now, as they put their lives on the line to support us all. The courage they are showing is the kind of courage that comes from knowing the value of life. I pray we might all operate from that place as we struggle through the coming days.

The Gospel for Easter Monday (Matthew 28:8-15):

The women left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.


Matthew’s account of the resurrection is, in some ways, the most “domesticated”. Despite the supernatural accompaniment of the angel and the earthquake, his telling of the story has none of the stark drama of Mark’s and little of the strangeness of Luke’s or John’s. What it does have is a degree of political realism in its description of the the chief priests’ dealings with the guard, and their promise to see the soldiers all right if the governor got to hear of what he would have seen as a gross dereliction of duty – and punished accordingly.

But Matthew’s version of what happened on the third day does have one important characteristic which is less prominent in the other accounts. They focus on doubt and disbelief – even within the community of the disciples – and on the anxiety natural to those who had disowned and deserted Jesus only a few days earlier. Matthew does mention doubt, but not in the context of today’s gospel reading. The note here is simply trust (in the angel’s message) and joy. Even if that joy is, at first, mixed with fear, the fear vanishes in the Maries’ encounter with the risen Christ. In that, it reflects his greeting. No English translation of Matthew’s Greek can capture the range of meaning which that contains. The word which our Bible translates as “Greetings” and the King James Bible translates as “All hail” has the primary meaning of “rejoice” and comes from the same root as the word for “joy”. Matthew, it has been said, reads back into the women’s experience the joy which was characteristic of the earliest Christian communities. But the joy is there, even two thousand years on, as we celebrate Easter and not even corona-virus can banish it. Suffering and death are not God’s last word to his creation. Christ is risen. Therefore we can hope. Alleluia!

Here, picking up themes from the gospel reading, is the “lock-down” version of Edmond Budry’s hymn “Thine be the Glory”, performed by the musicians of St Andrew the Great Church, Cambridge, UK.

The first of the “consoling messages” from Fr Richard Rohr:

Life is hard, and yet Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28).

It is hard to bear God—but it is even harder not to bear God. The pain one brings upon oneself by living outside of evident reality is a greater and longer-lasting pain than the brief pain of facing it head on. Enlightened people invariably describe the spiritual experience of God as resting, peace, delight, and even ecstasy.

If our religion has no deep joy and no inherent contentment about it, then it is not the real thing. If our religion is primarily fear of self, the world, and God; if it is primarily focused on meeting religious duties and obligations, then it is indeed a hard yoke and heavy burden. I’d go so far as to say that it’s hardly worthwhile. I think the promise from Jesus that his burden is easy and light seeks to reassure us that rigid and humorless religion is not his way and certainly not the only way.

It is God within us that loves God, so seek joy in God and peace within; seek to rest in the good, the true, and the beautiful. It is the only resting place that also allows us to bear the darkness. Hard and soft, difficult and easy, pain and ecstasy do not eliminate one another, but actually allow each other. They bow back and forth like dancers, although it is harder to bow to pain and to failure. If you look deeply inside every success, there are already seeds and signs of limits; if you look inside every failure, there are also seeds and signs of opportunity.

Who among us has not been able to eventually recognize the silver lining in the darkest of life’s clouds? You would think the universal pattern of death and life, the lesson of the Gospel and Jesus’ life would be utterly clear to me by now, yet I still fight and repress my would-be resurrections, even if just in my own mind. For some reason, we give and get our energy from dark clouds much more than silver linings. True joy is harder to access and even harder to hold onto than anger or fear. When I walk my dog Opie and look at the beautiful cottonwood trees in my yard, God helps me experience rest and peace.

If our soul is at rest in the comforting sweetness and softness of God, we can bear the hardness of life and see through failure. That’s why people in love—and often people at the end of life—have such an excess of energy for others. If our truth does not set us free, it is not truth at all. If God cannot be rested in, God must not be much of a God. If God is not joy, then what has created the sunrise and sunset?

Following last week’s five “hard lessons” or “uncomfortable truths”, Fr Richard offers their counterparts, five “consoling messages”, based on the Bible. Here is his introduction to the week:

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory. —Colossians 3:3-4

In the larger-than-life, spiritually transformed people I have met, I always find one common denominator: in some sense, they have all died before they died. They have followed in the self-emptying steps of Jesus, a path from death to life that Christians from all over the world celebrate this week.
At some point, such people were led to the edge of their private resources, and that breakdown, which surely felt like dying, led them into a larger life. They broke through in what felt like breaking down. Instead of avoiding a personal death or raging at it, they went through a death of their old, small self and came out the other side knowing that death could no longer hurt them. This process of transformation is known in many cultures as initiation. For many Christians, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the preeminent example of this pattern. Following Jesus, we need to trust the down, and God will take care of the up. Although even there, we still must offer our yes.

If the five truths of initiation from last week seemed demanding or negative, I want to also name the energizing source that makes them possible and that becomes their long-term effect. I call these consolations the “common wonderful,” the collective beauty and security that healthy people live within, no matter what words they use for it. Some have called the lessons “the five positive messages”; I am calling them the “five consoling messages.” The “common wonderful” is a cosmic egg of meaning that holds us, helps us grow, and gives us ongoing new birth and beginnings. It is our matrix for life, our underlying worldview, and the energy field that keeps us motivated each day. In some sense it must be held by at least a few people around you, or it is very difficult to sustain absolutely alone. Perhaps such people are “the two or three” gathered in Jesus’ name (Matthew 18:20).

The five consoling messages must be a part of our inner experience, something we know to be true for ourselves, not something we believe because others have told us to. These five messages, which will form the basis of the Daily Meditations this week, can be described using New Testament quotes (although there are similar messages in all the great religious traditions):
It is true that life is hard, and yet my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28). 
It is true that you are not important, and yet do you not know that your name is written in heaven? (Luke 10:20). 
It is true that your life is not about you, and yet I live now not my own life, but the life of Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20). 
It is true that you are not in control, and yet can any of you, for all of your worrying, add a single moment to your span of life? (Luke 12:26). 
It is true that you are going to die, and yet neither death nor life. . . can ever come between us and the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).

On Holy Saturday, the day on which all the action of Holy Week has reached its end and Jesus’ corpse rests in the still silence of the tomb, Richard Rohr invites us to reflect on what we have learned.

Before we share our practice, we invite you to join us in prayer for all those who are suffering as a result of COVID-19, those who have already lost their lives, and those who are healthcare workers attending to the sick. You can also dedicate your contemplative practice as a prayer for the benefit of all.

God, we ask that all who are affected by this virus be held in your loving care. In this time of uncertainty, help us to know what is ours to do. We know you did not cause this suffering but that you are with us in it and through it. Help us to recognize your presence in acts of kindness, in moments of silence, and in the beauty of the created world. Grant peace and protection to all of humanity for their well-being and for the benefit of the earth.

Death and life are two sides of the same coin; you cannot have one without the other.

Christianity—as well as Buddhism and other religions—suggests that the pattern of transformation is not death avoided, but death transformed. . . Christians submit to trials and learn that the only trustworthy pattern of spiritual transformation is death and resurrection because Jesus told us that we must “carry the cross” with him. Buddhists do it because the Buddha very directly said that “life is suffering.” Buddhism teaches us to skillfully discern the source of suffering, detach from our expectations and resentments, and end all suffering. Today’s practice, from writer Gesshin Claire Greenwood, comes from the Buddhist tradition and asks us to practice releasing the thought that “things should not be this way.” Greenwood writes:

Buddhist wisdom points to the reality that suffering is an enduring and continual part of being alive. . . We are often sheltered in our own kind of psychological palace where we are shielded from things like illness. Yet this kind of suffering can ultimately not be avoided. We will all, everyone one of us, face old age, sickness, and death. . . .

Personally, one of the most distressing things to me about the COVID-19 outbreak has been a feeling that “things should not be this way.” In reality, though, things are and always have been this way. . . . The suffering caused by illness and death is nothing new. 
. . . 
According to [a Buddhist] legend, there once was a woman who sought out the Buddha after losing her baby to illness. Crazy with grief, she asked him for medicine to bring her son back from the dead. He replied that he would give her this medicine if she brought him back a white mustard seed from the house of a family that had never experienced death. The woman went door to door, searching for a family untouched by the loss of a loved one. Of course, she could never find such a family. She realized that death touches everyone. And in realizing the universality of grief and death, her suffering lessened.

This story shows us that the feeling of “things should not be this way” is an additional and unnecessary pain on top of our inevitable suffering. We cannot avoid old age, sickness, and death, but we can remove the unnecessary assumption that things should be otherwise, and the psychic pain this assumption causes us. [1]

[1] Gesshin Claire Greenwood, “Spiritual Advice for Fears of Pandemic,” from “Practicing in a Pandemic,” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (March 13, 2020).

The last and, for most people, most difficult of Fr Richard’s lessons is the ultimate one, which Jesus spells out on Good Friday for all who believe in him: You are going to die.

The surprise of surprises is that although everybody who has ever lived in this world has died, for some reason, we think we won’t. —Hindu aphorism

Jesus did not once tell us to worship him; he only told us to follow him on the necessary three-day journey that Christians celebrate during Holy Week. And “three days” did not necessarily mean Friday to Sunday. It is a classic initiatory phrase for going the distance or the full cycle. The transformational journey of death and resurrection is the only—and always denied—message. It really is the way we are saved.

However, death, in any form, is perceived as the great human enemy. We construct much of our lives to avoid it, delay it, and deny it. It seems that we are not ready to die, until we have truly lived. Ironically, people who touch upon real life are the ones who can also let go of it. It is the people who have not yet begun to live who fear death the most. True insight has not happened to them yet, which leaves them without a center, foundation, or even primal desire. Their core has not been touched and so they have nothing to harken back to or look forward to or anything to trust deeply within. They are afraid. And we must be honest that this is much of humanity.

In initiation rites, some ritual of death and resurrection was the centerpiece. This is probably why Jesus sought out and submitted to the death and rebirth ritual of John the Baptist at the Jordan River. It is probably why he kept talking to his disciples, three times in Mark’s Gospel, about the necessity of this death journey, and why three times they changed the subject (8:31–10:45). It is undoubtedly why he finally stopped talking about it, and just did it, not ritually but for real.

The genius of ancestors who practiced initiation ceremonies is that they exposed and revealed the truth about pain in a sacred space, which makes all the difference in the world. Now pain is no longer a scary unknown, an unfortunate mistake, something we must change, but maybe an entranceway! As Eckhart Tolle says, “You do not need to be a Christian to understand the deep universal truth that is contained in symbolic form in the image of the cross.” [1] Before such transformative images, the worst things can become the best things.

The initiation instinct realized that facing one’s death was the ultimate encounter with the sacred. Walking through one’s fear of the last thing becomes an encounter with the first thing. A person is then free to live, often for the first time outside of their head or their fear. Death encounters seem to be the primary way to build or rebuild a real life. Then life itself, in all its depth and beauty, becomes the unquestionable gift.

On Maundy Thursday Jesus was arrested in the garden and taken away to suffer abuse, torture and death at the hands of others. It is a stark reminder that the fourth lesson we have to learn this Holy Week is “You are not in control

At some moment I did answer Yes to Someone—or Something—and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life in self-surrender had a goal. —Dag Hammarskjöld

To be in control of one’s destiny, job, or finances is nearly an unquestionable moral value in Western society. The popular phrase “take control of your life” even sounds mature and spiritual. It is the fundamental message of nearly every self-help book. On a practical level, it is true, but not on the big level. Our bodies, our souls, and especially our failures teach us this as we get older. We are clearly not in control, as this pandemic is now teaching the whole planet. It is amazing that we need to assert the obvious.

Learning that we are not in control situates us correctly in the universe. If we are to feel at home in this world, we have to come to know that we are not steering this ship. That teaching is found in the mystical writings of all religions. Mystics know they are being guided, and their reliance upon that guidance is precisely what allows their journey to happen. We cannot understand that joy and release unless we’ve have been there and experienced the freedom for ourselves.

In my life I have found the mystic teachings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) helpful for living into this truth. She was a master teacher who was never afraid of presenting humiliating evidence about herself. She called this her “little way.” As she so brilliantly put it, “If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, you will be for [Jesus] a pleasant place of shelter.” [2] What gives religion such a bad name is that most religious people are eager to be pleasing to themselves, and want to be a part of a “big way.”

Being willing to be “displeasing to ourselves,” or to allow our autonomous ego’s needs to take a back seat to the larger field of love, is part of what it means to not be in willful control.

Gerald May (1940–2005), one of my own teachers, very helpfully contrasts willingness with willfulness:

Willingness implies a surrendering of one’s self-separateness, an entering-into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself. It is a realization that one already is a part of some ultimate cosmic process and it is a commitment to participation in that process. In contrast, willfulness is a setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control, or otherwise manipulate existence. [1]

For many of us, this may be the first time in our lives that we have felt so little control over our own destiny and the destiny of those we love. This lack of control initially feels like a loss, a humiliation, a stepping backward, an undesired vulnerability. However, recognizing our lack of control is a universal starting point for a serious spiritual walk towards wisdom and truth.

Please join me in trying to be faithful to that walk, even as we pray for God’s mercy for those who suffer, and especially the most marginalized.

Richard Rohr

On Wednesday in Holy Week the focus of the Gospel (John 13:21-32) is on Judas’s betrayal

After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit, and declared, ‘Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.’ The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he was speaking. One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him; Simon Peter therefore motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So while reclining next to Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot. After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’ Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the festival’; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

When he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.


“And it was night”. Four words heavy with meaning and heavy with symbolism. Judas has, for whatever reason, turned his back on the light and gone out into the darkness. It is a sharp reminder of those words from the prologue to John’s Gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

But Judas goes out. I suggested a possible reason last week in my talk on the passion story in John’s Gospel (available on the Church website at In yesterday’s Gospel John expressed the firm view that Judas, who “had the common purse”, was over-fond of money. Either way, he allies himself with the forces of darkness in order to attain his goal. And, as William Temple pointed out eighty years ago in his “Readings in St John’s Gospel”, he goes out “under the Lord’s protecting silence.” In the gift of the piece of bread (a mark of honour at a fellowship meal) Jesus has shown that he knows what Judas means to do. He could have stopped him there and then. Peter and the others would surely have prevented Judas from leaving if they had known where he was going. But in that case, to quote William Temple again, Jesus “would have saved his life; and so he would have lost his Kingdom.” Jesus will see this through to the bitter end.

Tony Dickinson

In their different ways both Judas and Peter betray Jesus on the night of his arrest, but the outcome for each of them is very different. Sydney Carter explored that difference in his song “Bitter was the Night”, performed here by John Kirkpatrick, Robert Johnson and Vince Cross

Fr Richard Rohr’s third lesson offers the uncomfortable truth that “Your life is not about you“.

After any true initiating experience, we know that we are a part of a much bigger whole. Life is not about us, but we are about life. We are not our own. We are an instance of a universal and even eternal pattern. Life is living itself in us. We have been substituting the part for the whole! This message is an earthquake in the brain, a hurricane in the heart.

Accepting that our lives are not about us is a Copernican revolution of the mind, and it is just as hard for each individual today as it was for earthbound humans when they discovered that our planet was not the center of the universe. It takes a major and monumental shift in consciousness, and it is always given and received with major difficulty. It comes as an epiphany, as pure grace and deliverance, and never as logic or necessary conclusion. 
Understanding that our lives are not about us is the connection point with everything else. It lowers the mountains and fills in the valleys that we have created, as we gradually recognize that the myriad forms of life in the universe are merely parts of the one life that most of us call God. After such a discovery, we are grateful to be a part—and only a part! We do not have to figure it all out, straighten it all out, or even do it perfectly by ourselves. We do not have to be God. It is an enormous weight off our backs. All we have to do is participate!

After this epiphany, things like praise, gratitude, and compassion come naturally—like breath. True spirituality is not taught; it is caught once our sails have been unfurled to the Spirit. Henceforth our very motivation and momentum for the journey toward holiness and wholeness is immense gratitude for already having it!

I am convinced that the reason Christians have misunderstood many of Jesus’ teachings is because we did not understand his pedagogy. Jesus’ way of education was intended to situate his followers to a larger life, which he called his “Father,” or what we might call today God, the Real, or Life. When we could not make clear dogma or moral codes out of Jesus’ teaching, many Christians simply abandoned it in any meaningful sense. For this reason, the Sermon on the Mount—the essence of Jesus’ teaching—seems to be the least quoted by Christians. We sought a prize of later salvation, instead of the freedom of present simplicity.

My life is not about me. It is about God. It is about a willing participation in a larger mystery. At this time, we do this by not rejecting or running from what is happening but by accepting our current situation and asking God to be with us in it. Paul of Tarsus said it well: “The only thing that finally counts is not what human beings want or try to do, but the mercy of God” (Romans 9:16). Our lives are about allowing life to “be done unto us,” which is Mary’s prayer at the beginning and Jesus’ prayer at the end.

Richard Rohr

The Gospel for Tuesday in Holy Week (John 12:20-36):

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people* to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Messiah* remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’

After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.


There’s a certain amount of “drawing the threads together” in today’s Gospel. In bringing on-stage the Greeks who want to see Jesus John hints at the way in which belief in the Son of Man will pass beyond the borders of the Jewish world after Jesus’ resurrection. Philip and Andrew perform for the last time their missionary double act. Jesus’ words hint at themes from the other Gospels which emphasise the cost of discipleship at the same time as they revisit themes from earlier in John’s. Here, briefly, is John’s “Gethsemane moment” (this Gospel has no “agony in the garden”), as Jesus says ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ And here, as Jesus ends his public ministry, is the voice from heaven affirming that ministry. From now on the teaching will be for the disciples, while “the world”, in the shape of Jerusalem’s religious leadership and the Roman governor, will receive its judgement as the Son of Man is lifted up on the gallows which is his throne.

Tony Dickinson

This well-known hymn picks up Jesus’ words at the end of today’s Gospel reading: “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.” It is sung here by the choir of our Lady of Peace church in Burnham, Slough, UK.

Here is the second of Fr Richard’s reflections. This takes us through the lesson You are not important:
O God, if I worship you in fear of hell, burn me in hell. If I worship you in hope of paradise, shut me out from paradise. But if I worship you for your own sake, do not withhold from me your everlasting beauty. —Rábi‘a (717–801), Islamic mystic and poet
When we are willing to be transformed, we stop wasting time theorizing, projecting, denying, or avoiding our own ego resistance. The true spiritual teacher is not afraid to give us a dose of humiliation. If we immediately balk at some minor blow to our ego, the teacher knows that no basic transformation into our True Self has taken place yet. It takes a masterful teacher or mentor to teach us that we are not important. Otherwise, reality itself teaches us: painful life situations have to dismantle us brick by brick, decade by decade.
Jesus knew that he needed to destabilize a person’s false, separate self before they could understand that they had a True Self, but destabilizing our security systems and our ego is always a hard sell. He says, “What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world and lose their soul?” (Luke 9:25). Typically, it is the prophets who deconstruct the ego and the group, while priests and pastors are supposed to reconstruct them into divine union. As God said in the inaugural vision to Jeremiah: “Your job is to take apart and demolish, and then start over building and planting anew” (Jeremiah 1:10).
True master teachers, like Jeremiah and Jesus, are both prophets and pastors, which is why their teaching is almost too much for us. They both deconstruct and reconstruct. But the only reason they can tell us that we are not important is because they also announce to us our infinite and unearned importance. Maybe the reason we have to be reminded of the first truth is because we no longer believe the second. We no longer allow our separate self to be humiliated because we no longer believe in the Great Self.
Our personality and self-image are all we have. Every parable or spiritual riddle, every one of Jesus’ confounding questions is intended to bring up the limitations of our own wisdom, power, or tiny self. If we have not yet touched upon our essence, we will continue to build up ego structures in defense of our momentary form. Most Westerners no longer tolerate it when our small selves are ignored, subverted, or humiliated. We appear to be lost in a whirlwind of images, all passing and changing week by week.

With all of us globally experiencing our common vulnerability to this virus we can learn the lesson that we are one in our humanity. No one is more important than anyone else. Powerlessness is the beginning of wisdom, as the Twelve-Steppers say. All we can finally do is pray that we allow the flow of the Spirit’s very presence within us. If there is no living water flowing through us, then we must pray for the desire for it to flow! Once the desire for something more is stirred and recognized, it is just a matter of time. Nothing less will every totally satisfy us again.

Richard Rohr

Owing to some scheduling problems yesterday, two more posts from Fr Richard will appear today. Here is the first of them. It deals with the first “lesson” – Life is hard.
You have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired before recovery can begin. —Twelve Step Wisdom
All great spirituality is about what we do with our pain. Creation has a pattern of wisdom; and we dare not shield ourselves from it, or we literally will lose our soul. We can obey commandments, believe doctrines, and attend church services all our lives and still daily lose our souls if we run from the necessary cycle of loss and renewal. Death and resurrection are lived out at every level of the cosmos, but only one species thinks it can avoid it—the human species. I am afraid that many of us with privilege have been able to become very naïve about pain and suffering in the United States and the Western world. We simply don’t have time for it. However, by trying to handle all suffering through willpower, denial, medication, or even therapy, we have forgotten something that should be obvious: we do not handle suffering; suffering handles us— in deep and mysterious ways that become the very matrix of life and especially new life. Only suffering and certain kinds of awe lead us into genuinely new experiences. All the rest is merely the confirmation of old experience.
It is amazing to me that the cross or crucifix became the central Christian logo, when its rather obvious message of inevitable suffering is aggressively disbelieved in most Christian countries, individuals, and churches. We are clearly into ascent, achievement, and accumulation. The cross became a mere totem, a piece of jewelry. We made the Jesus symbol into a mechanical and distant substitutionary atonement theory instead of a very personal and intense at-one-ment process, the very reality of love’s unfolding. We missed out on the positive and redemptive meaning of our own pain and suffering. It was something Jesus did for us (substitutionary), but not something that revealed and invited us into the same pattern. We are not punished for our sins, we are punished by our sins (such as blindness, egocentricity, illusions, or pride).
It seems that nothing less than some kind of pain will force us to release our grip on our small explanations and our self-serving illusions. Resurrection will always take care of itself, whenever death is trusted. It is the cross, the journey into the necessary night, of which we must be convinced, and then resurrection is offered as a gift.
In this time of suffering we have to ask ourselves, what are we going to do with our pain? Are we going to blame others for it? Are we going to try to fix it? No one lives on this earth without it. It is the great teacher, although none of us want to admit it. If we do not transform our pain, we will transmit it in some form. How can we be sure not to transmit our pain onto others?

Richard Rohr

Fr Richard Rohr OFM is a Franciscan based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His teaching and writing has inspired many people around the world, from all traditions. Although he is a Catholic, some of his greatest fans are Baptists and other Evangelical Christians. Here is his introduction to a series of reflections which will appear on this page during Holy Week.

In this time of global crisis, it may be that reality is revealing itself to us—through great suffering—universal patterns that are always true. A little over fifteen years ago, I wrote a book called Adam’s Return that focused on male initiation rites. These are the sacred rituals in indigenous cultures that marked the symbolic growth of a self-referential boy to a generative, compassionate man. While that book was written specifically for men, it seems to me that reality is “initiating” all of us to know and live by these same essential truths. This week I will be trying to present this global crisis as a global initiation into what matters and what lasts. Now women need this essential initiation just as much as men.

The work of sacred rituals like initiation was to situate life in a bigger frame, so nature, beauty, suffering, work, sexuality, and ordinary moments were seen to have transcendent significance. They gave life meaning— the one thing the soul cannot live without. Heaven and earth have to be put together or this world never becomes home. That integration is the necessary human and spiritual task, at which initiation rites succeeded, probably on a much broader scale than modern churches.

Initiation was always, in some form, an experience of the tension and harmony of opposites: of loss and renewal, darkness and light, the cycle of seasons, death and resurrection, yin and yang, the paschal mystery. Somehow initiates had to see the wide screen and, at least for a moment, find goodness and meaning in what was offered right in front of them, which is all we can love anyway. Universally, early cultures insisted on large doses of separation, silence, looking, listening, and various kinds of suffering.

In my cross-cultural research on male initiation rites, I perceived five consistent lessons or truths communicated to the initiate, meant to separate initiates from their attachment to who they think they are and reattach them to who they really are.

In this time of global disruption, these lessons can help us align to reality, our own belonging in it, and remain grounded in the infinitely trustworthy presence of God. These five essential messages of initiation are:

Life is hard.

You are not important.

Your life is not about you.

You are not in control.

You are going to die.

You may be shocked by the seemingly negative character of these five truths. Most Western postmodern people are, but there’s no way around these truths, hard as they may be. In fact, one could say much of the superficiality of our world is because we stopped growing up men. We will be exploring these five lessons in this week’s Daily Meditations and their positive spiritual counterparts the following week. None of this is easy work. We typically want to flee from our current anxiety, grief and pain, but I encourage you to stay with these messages. They are truths for your soul that can help you find meaning and a sense of God’s compassionate presence inside of the chaos.

Richard Rohr

My colleague, Helen Marshall, the Chaplain of St Ursula’s in Bern, Switzerland, has also been thinking about Julian of Norwich as someone whose life and teaching speaks to these troubled times. Here is her reflection, originally published on the “Faith in Europe” blog :

‘In this time of insecurity, confinement, widespread anxiety and illness, I have found myself often thinking of Mother Julian of Norwich and I would like to share some of my thoughts with you. 

Mother Julian lived in Norwich in the 14th century and I first came across her writing when I was a student in Norwich. She lived in a time of even greater insecurity, fear, and sickness than we face at this present time. She lived during the Hundred Years’ War, and she also lived through the Peasants’ Revolt and several bouts of the Black Death, the plague which devastated much of Europe. The Black Death was a much more deadly plague than COVID-19 and huge numbers of men, women and children died. 
She also lived in a confined situation; though her confinement was chosen. After a near death experience, she became an Anchoress, meaning she was confined to an ‘anchorage’, a small bungalow, in order to dedicate her life to prayer and the spiritual life. Although once she went in she never left her anchorage, she nevertheless provided rich spiritual support to others. She had a window in her little house which opened on to the street and people would come to talk with her for spiritual direction, guidance and wisdom.
Mother Julian lived at a time of fear, instability and violence, when sickness and death claimed the lives of so many people. Nevertheless her ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ is one of the most powerful, hopeful and theologically rich spiritual classics of all time – as well as being the first book written in English by a woman. It records sixteen ‘showings’ or visions she received from God and her subsequent theological reflection and prayer based on them. Although everything around her was insecure, some of the most frequently used words in her book are ‘seker’ (Old English for ‘secure’) and ‘sekerness’ (Old English for ‘security’). For Mother Julian, in the midst of the fragility and insecurity of this life, the only security was to be found in the love of God.
Some of her most well known words are: ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’  By these words, Mother Julian didn’t mean that things will always work out exactly as we would like them to; God does not promise to ‘fix’ everything to our liking. She knew enough of the real world and had seen enough of trouble, suffering and death to know that this was not always the case. However, she believed that ultimately all things shall be well. She was an optimist, but her optimism wasn’t based on wishful thinking, neither did she have a particularly optimistic view of human nature; her hope was based on the love of God. Indeed, at the end of her book she affirms that God’s love is the foundation and meaning of everything:
So it was that I learned that love was our Lord’s meaning. And I saw for certain, both here and elsewhere, that before ever he made us, God loved us; and that his love has never slackened, nor ever shall. In this love all his works have been done, and in this love he has made everything serve us; and in this love our life is everlasting. Our beginning was when we were made, but the love in which he made us never had beginning. In it, we have our beginning. All this we shall see in God for ever. May Jesus grant this. Amen.’May we learn from Mother Julian that same deep and ‘seker’ (secure) trust in God. Ultimately, ‘all shall be well’ because of God’s love for us. As Paul says in Romans:
‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
May these words comfort and strengthen us’.

The Gospel on Monday in Holy Week (John 12:1-11) is St John’s take on the woman who anointed Jesus.

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it* so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

This passage offer’s St John’s take on the anointing of Jesus. It is one of the few stories about Jesus which appear in all four Gospels. All except Luke set it in Bethany, at a meal shortly before the final Passover for Jesus and his disciples. All except John name the host as Simon, although Luke, again, differs from Matthew and Mark by naming him as a Pharisee – so a religious insider – rather than as a leper, and therefore an outsider. John alone names the woman, as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus – and to make sure we get the message, he “trails” her action when he introduces her in chapter 11, as he highlights Lazarus’s presence here. So this is important. It flags up the coming death of Jesus. Mark and Matthew also pick up the reference to burial in Jesus’ response to the disciples’ criticism, which John focuses in Judas Iscariot. But the presence of Lazarus also points beyond death to resurrection. In our present situation, it is a reminder that there is life beyond the limitations imposed by pandemic and beyond what many are experiencing as the living death of lock-down..

At a time when almost all of life is closed down, like the world in the depths of a northern winter, it is good to hear voices of hope. Here the German folk band “Ohrwurm” perform Sydney Carter’s song “Bells of Norwich”, inspired by the 14th-century anchoress Julian of Norwich, who lived much of her long life in self-isolation in a “cell” attached to one of the city’s churches. Julian, who also lived at a time of pandemic, was the first woman theologian to write in English. The words of the refrain “all shall be well again” pick up one of the repeated themes of Julian’s writings, that within the saving love of Christ “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

A reflection on the Gospel for Wednesday 1st April (John 8:31-42):

The Gospel reading:

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’

Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.’

They answered him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.’ They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me.


We live, it is said, in a post-truth world, a world in which politicians habitually lie for the sake of short-term political advantage, with no shame and no concern that they will be found out. It might be said that those who are arguing with Jesus in today’s Gospel are living in a pre-truth world as they push back against the uncomfortable truths that Jesus has been teaching.

A better description, however, would probably be that they live in a partial-truth world. They have grasped some important realities about their relationship to Abraham but they are failing to grasp the reality which stands before them. They are convinced that their truth is all the truth there is and they resist Jesus as he tells them “the truth that [he] heard from God”. We, too, tend to think that “our truth”, the truth that we have grasped and that has guided us through life so far, is “all the truth there is” and we resist the liberating truth that comes to us in Jesus, the way, the truth and the life. As we approach the yearly remembrance of his suffering and death, let us follow him along the way of the cross, listening to the story that each of the Evangelists tells and resisting the temptation to smooth them all into a single blend. Let the truth about Jesus in Mark’s Gospel challenge you. Let the truth about Jesus in Matthew’s judge you. Let the truth about Jesus in Luke’s Gospel wound you and heal you. And let John’s Gospel open for you that deeper understanding which will make you free indeed.

From Rev’d Dr Sam Wells (Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London)

A Prayer as Things Get Harder:

God of gentle presence,
you knew the ultimate separation
when on the cross Christ felt he was forsaken;
be with all who feel their Good Friday has come today.
Comfort those who have the virus.
Empower all who care for those in distress,
through medicine, acts of kindness or imaginative communication.
Be present to any who feel utterly alone,
without companion or health or hope.
Show us your face amid grief and bewilderment.
Inspire us to find new ways to be one with one another and with you.
And bring this time of trial to an end.
In Christ our Lord. Amen.

Clergy and Churchwardens have received a letter from Bishop Robert and Bishop David. Much of it is to do with the practicalities of being church in a time of lock-down, but the first section has a wider application, which others may find helpful:

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

We have already become ‘a different sort of church’ in unprecedented ways. The very place in which the body of Christ finds its identity, offers prayer, and receives solace in time of crisis—that is, the church building—is not available to us, and, as in the early days of our faith, public gatherings of Christians outside the home are forbidden. Nevertheless, we are finding ways to join in prayer and intention; to cry ‘Abba, Father’; and to recognise we are all buried with Christ by baptism into his death, that we might walk in newness of life. The present situation does not nullify the joy we have been granted in the resurrection, but it will be lived out this year in different ways.

This year Holy Week and Easter will give us opportunities to reflect on all of these matters. In the annual commemoration of the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we explore who we are and our relationship to the God who loves us. We are enabled to realise, quite counter-culturally, that everything that we have that is good is a gift, and not a right. We, as humans, do not always have the answers.

We can reflect that, even in the hardest of times, even in the prolonged ‘Holy Saturday’ of emptiness in which we find ourselves, there is always hope. God, whose nature is mercy, sent his Son, who experienced the fullness of our own human suffering and makes all things new. We are still called to serve those inside and outside the church, and to have care for the most vulnerable.

In these dark times, when it is not possible to recall the death and resurrection of Christ in our church buildings (whether our own or borrowed), we have the opportunity, through marking Holy Week at home, of discovering how what we are now experiencing may contribute to our own ongoing journey as God’s people. The homes to which we are primarily confined offer us a place in which our faith can be discovered afresh, where we can find ‘the Church within’.

Bishop Robert and Bishop David

The Way of the Cross in John’s Gospel

Here, rather later than planned, is the last of the four talks in the “English Voices” series exploring the way in which each Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. At last it is John’s turn.

Today (25th March) is the Feast of the Annunciation, Gabriel’s message to the Blessed Virgin Mary that she was to bear God’s Son. Here is the Gospel for the day:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.


This passage from Luke’s Gospel has been part of my life since I first arrived at university half a century ago. From my very first arrival through the mediaeval gateway in this picture ,

it was part of my mental furniture. My college was founded by the great 14th-century Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham, who had a “thing” about the Annunciation. He ordered sculptures of Mary and Gabriel (and himself, kneeling in awe and adoration) to be placed above the entrance to his new college. It’s officially “St Mary’s College of Winchester in Oxford”, but “New College” was less of a mouthful and that name has stuck for the past six and a half centuries. William also ordered a matching set of figures to be placed inside the front entrance and over the grand staircase leading to the dining hall. And if that wasn’t enough he had a miniaturised depiction of the Annunciation in gold fitted inside the crook of his official staff of office and in the m-shaped brooch known as “the Founder’s Jewel”.

William of Wykeham was a very important person in 14th-century England. He came from humble origins in the Hampshire village from which he took his surname (his family name was “Longe”), but he caught the eye of Sir Ralph Sutton, constable of Winchester Castle, who hired this bright young man as his secretary. William showed that he had a gift for organisation and administration, which took him from Winchester to Windsor, to supervise the rebuilding of King Edward III’s castle there and then several other royal projects. He became a member of the royal council and was appointed to high office in the kingdom, ultimately becoming Lord Chancellor. At the same time, he attained high office in the church, and in 1367 he was consecrated Bishop of Winchester, still one of the five most senior positions in the Church of England, with an automatic seat in the House of Lords.

William played an important part in the political life of England in the closing years of Edward III’s long reign, and well into the reign of Richard II, which were turbulent times, especially for those at the heart of government. In the periods when he was out of royal favour William devoted himself to the creation of the two educational foundations for which he is remembered, New College in Oxford and its “feeder school”, Winchester College, a few hundred yards from his cathedral church. Both of them have that same repeated motif of the Annunciation in prominent locations, so that when you “read” the two buildings you can clearly hear the great bishop, the builder of castles and adviser of kings, saying to his scholars, “You see all that I have done? Well none of it matters a rap by comparison with this. The most important thing in the world, more important than any earthly power or status, is that the Son of God took human flesh in the womb of Mary. Look to him to learn what matters. Look to her to learn how to respond to God’s calling. And remember always what I have sometimes had to learn the hard way: that God puts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.”

One of the loveliest of all the carols of the Annunciation, “Angelus ad Virginem”, composed by an Englishman (or woman?), probably in the first half 14th century and still in the top ten half a century later. Geoffrey Chaucer mentions it in “The Miller’s Tale” as one of the songs in Nicolas’s repertoire, which he sang “so sweetly that all the chamber rang”.

Here it is sung by an Italian choir (the Cathedral choir of Cremona).

The contemporary English version (language slightly modernised) is:

 Gabriel, from heaven's king
Sent to the maid sweet,
Brought her blissful tidings,
And fair he did her greet:
"Hail be thou, full of grace aright,
For God's Son, this heaven's light,
For man's love
Will man become
And take
Flesh of thee, maiden bright,
Mankind free for to make
From sin and devil's might."
 Gently him did answer
The gentle maiden then:
"In what way can I bear
A child without a man?"
The angel said, "Fear thee naught;
Through the Holy Ghost shall be wrought
This same thing
Of which tiding
I bring.
All mankind will be bought [redeemed]
Through thy sweet childing,
And out of torment brought."
 When the maiden understood
And the angel's words heard,
Gently with a gentle mind
To the angel she answered:
"Our Lord's serving maiden iwis [indeed]
I am, who here above is.
Concerning me
Fulfilled shall be
Thy saw, [your words]
That I, since his will it is,
A maiden, without law, [i.e. outside the law of nature]
Of mother will have the bliss."
 The angel went away with than [that]
All out of her sight;
Her womb to arise began
Through the Holy Ghost's might.
In her was Christ enclosed anon:
True God, true man in flesh and bone,
And of her flesh
Born he was
In time,
Whereby to us came God wone. [to dwell]
He bought us out of pain
And was for us slain.
 Maiden mother makeless, [matchless]
Of mercy full abounding,
Pray for us to him who thee ches, [chose]
With whom thou grace found,
That he forgive us sin and wrake, [injury]
And clean of every guilt us make;
And heaven's bliss
When our time is
To sterve [die];
Grant us for thy sake
Him so here for to serve
That he us to him take.

To read more about Thy Kingdom Come scroll down the pa

There has been an Anglican community in Genova for at least two centuries, meeting initially at the home of the British Consul, then, when the number of people attending became too great for the space available there, hiring rooms in nearby palazzi. This, again, became inadequate and in the 1860s the decision was taken to erect a church building. Land was bought and G.E. Street, one of the greatest English architects of the period, was commissioned to design it. It was built by a local firm and is very much in the local style of Ligurian gothic. It was dedicated by Bishop Charles Harris of Gibraltar on 4th June 1872.

Since then HGG has had an interesting history. In the 1890s members of the congregation, which was closely linked to the Anglo-Italian business community, founded the Genoa Cricket and Football Club, which, as Genoa CFC, still competes in Italy’s “Serie A”.  At this point in the 2019-2020 season the club is in the relegation zone, but it is still doing better than local rivals, Sampdoria, who are currently bottom.

In the course of Allied air raids on Genoa in autumn 1942 the church building received a direct hit from an RAF bomb. This destroyed the roof, ploughed up the floor, shattered the stained glass windows, and turned the pipe-organ, which had been donated by Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter when she was Crown Princess of Germany, into a pile of scrap metal and wood-ash. Despite initial doubts about its viability, the building was restored to use in the immediate post-war years thanks to heroic efforts by the members of the congregation who had returned to pick up the threads broken by war. “This building was refloated on a tide of alcohol,” I was told by one of the older members of our congregation, whose mother’s lavish parties in the late 1940s and early 1950s had unlocked many generous donations to the church restoration fund.

Today HGG is the only surviving Anglican place of worship in Liguria. All the other churches which were built along the Italian Riviera from Bordighera to La Spezia in the 19th and early 20th centuries to serve wealthy over-winterers have long since closed for Anglican worship and either been put to other uses or demolished. This church has survived, despite some very difficult times, because of its ministry to a much wider community. It is not just a church for “ex-pat” Brits. It welcomes people from many nations and continents who prefer to worship in English and in recent years it has established a distinctive ministry to refugees and other migrants, particularly those who have made the dangerous journey from West Africa across the Sahara to Libya, and then risked their lives in overcrowded inflatables crossing to Lampedusa.

That ministry takes a lot of energy and commitment from the core members of the congregation, who have been unstintingly generous with their time, money and pastoral care, supporting those who are going through Italy’s increasingly severe immigration process, bailing out the few who get into trouble with the law or with the institutions which offer accommodation for migrants, providing rent deposits for those who are moving on into private accommodation and are awaiting their first pay packet, guiding them round the intricacies of Italian bureaucracy, sorting out health-care, writing references for prospective employers or for immigration commissions (and, increasingly, appeals against commission decisions), running a small-scale food- and clothing-bank, keeping their eyes and ears open for any job opportunities that may be going and might be suitable for one or other of the people on our books, and encouraging them along the way of Jesus Christ. In July 2019 we presented seven adult candidates from the Nigerian community for baptism and/or confirmation.

Most of this work is down to the personal generosity of church members. Our average congregation is in the region of 30-40, about two-thirds of whom are “migrants” in the popular sense of the word. All but two or three of us (the native Italian members of the congregation) are actually migrants of one kind or another, here to work, or to study, or because they fell in love. Our weekly income in recent months has normally been between €100 and €150, but if the earners in the congregation are away on holiday and the cruise ships aren’t sending any passengers in our direction, it can be as low as half that. Although the chaplain is house-for-duty, the church’s income is supposed to cover utilities bills, the rent on the chaplain’s flat, the chaplain’s expenses, the maintenance of our worship, and our contribution to the running costs of the Diocese in Europe.

As one of our churchwardens says “God sees and provides”, and what is being done here by way of pastoral care and nurturing people in Christian faith is little short of miraculous. However, the work that was done to bring the building back into use 70 years ago is showing its age, and we are very much aware that another major storm of the ferocity of the one that hit Genova in October 2018 could lead to the church being closed as unsafe – and we couldn’t afford the cost of repairs. We have only just paid off the very patient contractor who carried out the most recent refurbishment of the building seven years ago, and to do that required us to run our scanty reserves down to a worryingly low level. We are also very much aware that we could do a great deal more if the building were brought up to scratch in terms of its facilities – but that also requires money that we haven’t got.

By this point you are probably expecting the pitch for a donation. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not telling this story in order to wring money out of you (though if anyone reading this is moved to make a donation the church certainly wouldn’t refuse it!). I am telling it in the hope that visitors to this website may be able to provide us with information about potential institutional donors, trusts, and grant-giving bodies with whom we could share our needs and our vision, or else put us in contact with others who have that information. Although we are a congregation of the Church of England, the fact that we are in Italy rules us out from applying to high-profile grant-givers such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and EIG. And, as you can imagine, an Anglican congregation in a 19th-century building comes a very long way down the queue for funding from Italian sources (which are coping with difficulty in the face of their responsibility for 55 UNESCO World Heritage sites – by far the highest of any European country and equalled globally only by China). If you can help by providing information, or would like to know more, please contact If praying is your thing, please do pray for us.

And, if you have got this far, thank you for reading all this.

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The psalm at Morning Prayer today (20th March) was Psalm 22. Many will know the opening words of the Psalm as Jesus’ cry of desolation from the cross. Others will know how the Gospels weave phrases from it into the story of Jesus’ suffering and death.  Fewer may know how it ends in hope and thanksgiving.  A Psalm for this crisis, perhaps?

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, ¨
and are so far from my salvation, from the words of my distress?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; ¨
and by night also, but I find no rest.
Yet you are the Holy One, ¨
enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
Our forebears trusted in you; ¨
they trusted, and you delivered them.
They cried out to you and were delivered; ¨
they put their trust in you and were not confounded.
But as for me, I am a worm and no man, ¨
scorned by all and despised by the people.
All who see me laugh me to scorn; ¨
they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying,
‘He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; ¨
let him deliver him, if he delights in him.’
But it is you that took me out of the womb ¨
and laid me safe upon my mother’s breast.
On you was I cast ever since I was born; ¨
you are my God even from my mother’s womb.
Be not far from me, for trouble is near at hand ¨
and there is none to help.
Mighty oxen come around me; ¨
fat bulls of Bashan close me in on every side.
They gape upon me with their mouths, ¨
as it were a ramping and a roaring lion.
I am poured out like water;all my bones are out of joint; ¨
my heart has become like wax melting in the depths of my body.
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd;my tongue cleaves to my gums; ¨
you have laid me in the dust of death.
For the hounds are all about me, the pack of evildoers close in on me;¨
they pierce my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones; ¨
they stand staring and looking upon me.
They divide my garments among them; ¨
they cast lots for my clothing.
Be not far from me, O Lord; ¨
you are my strength; hasten to help me.
Deliver my soul from the sword, ¨
my poor life from the power of the dog.
Save me from the lion’s mouth, from the horns of wild oxen. ¨
You have answered me!
I will tell of your name to my people; ¨
in the midst of the congregation will I praise you.
Praise the Lord, you that fear him; ¨
O seed of Jacob, glorify him;stand in awe of him, O seed of Israel.
For he has not despised nor abhorred the suffering of the poor; neither has he hidden his face from them; ¨
but when they cried to him he heard them.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation; ¨
I will perform my vows in the presence of those that fear you.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied; ¨
those who seek the Lord shall praise him; their hearts shall live for ever.
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, ¨
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.
For the kingdom is the Lord’s ¨
and he rules over the nations.
How can those who sleep in the earth bow down in worship, ¨
or those who go down to the dust kneel before him?
He has saved my life for himself; my descendants shall serve him; ¨
this shall be told of the Lord for generations to come.
They shall come and make known his salvation, to a people yet unborn, ¨
declaring that he, the Lord, has done it.


A thought for the Feast of St Joseph of Nazareth (19th March)

I often feel that St Joseph, whose feast we would have been celebrating today in other circumstances, gets a raw deal. He’s probably quite happy about that.  He probably always thought of himself as “an ordinary Joe”, so to speak. But to take his wife after she was discovered to be pregnant with a child that wasn’t his in a culture dominated by shame and honour suggests that he was rather more than that.

It seems to me that he gets a particularly raw deal in the way that the post-Biblical tradition treats him. He was, for centuries, portrayed in art and story as an old man, much senior to Mary, and grumpy (if not downright curmudgeonly) with it, as many carols and songs, like the “Cherry Tree Carol”, remind us. But among the characteristics which he shares with his Old Testament namesake (enforced exile in Egypt being another one of them) the most important is that he is a dreamer – and dreamers tend to be young.

He also seems to have been a good father to Mary’s first-born. He is protective (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-22) and pious (Luke 2:21-24, 41ff) and probably poor (Luke 2:24. A richer man would have offered a lamb in sacrifice) . He knows when to keep silent and let Mary do the talking (Luke 2:48). Some writers have recently made the daring suggestion that Jesus’s talk of God as “Abba” is based on the way that Joseph modelled fatherhood for him.

So let’s hear it for Joseph of Nazareth, Joseph the dreamer, Joseph the craftsman, Joseph the more than “good enough” dad.  

But for those who like the traditional view, or who enjoy traditional carols, here’s a link to the “Cherry Tree Carol”, sung beautifully by the girls’ choir of Ely Cathedral.


Here is the third of our studies in the way that the four Gospels describe the suffering and death of Jesus.  This week it is “The Way of the Cross in Luke’s Gospel” that we are following.


The second of this year’s Lenten addresses focuses on “The Way of the Cross in Matthew’s Gospel”.  The text follows here.  Luke and John will follow in due course.

4 ways to the cross Matthew

During Lent the master-plan was to look in detail at the way in which each of the Gospels describes the suffering and death of Jesus. Sadly, the restrictions imposed on public gatherings by the Italian government have meant that only the first address, on “The Way of the Cross in Mark’s Gospel”, has been delivered. In compensation, that (and the other three) will be posted on this page.  Here is the text, slightly revised in the light of comments and questions on the day.

4 ways to the cross Mark

Most of the material with which we are trying to compensate for the loss of all church activities during this time of national self-isolation is appearing on the church’s Facebook page “Church and friends of the Holy Ghost”, but not everyone does social media.  I have therefore been asked to put up some Lenten material on the website to provide those who don’s use Facebook or other media with some spiritual sustenance during Lent.  Here, by way of introduction, are some words and music posted on-line on Wednesday:

The Gospel reading: Matthew 20:17-29

“While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’

“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’

“When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’”


Many years ago, before I was ordained, one of my then colleagues (who is Jewish) told me with great delight about a book he had recently been given. It was “How to be a Jewish Mother: by Dan Greenburg, who has one”. It was first published in the USA in 1964. It topped the non-fiction best-seller list the following year and although it is now, I think, out of print, it did make a second edition in the early 1990s.

The first chapter covered “The Basic Techniques of Jewish Motherhood”, which included “Basic Theory” and “Basic Philosophizing”, “Making Guilt Work” and “The Technique of Basic Suffering”; among which were listed “Seven Basic Sacrifices To Make For Your Child”. Funnily enough, it didn’t include the story which St Matthew tells in today’s Gospel, although the loss of reputation which Mrs Zebedee has endured for nearly 2000 years is a pretty big sacrifice. St Mark, who tells the same story (10:35-45), makes it clear that it was the brothers, not their old mum, who made the astonishing request ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And even Matthew can’t quite hide the fact that, even if she did make the request, it was her boys who put her up to it. Jesus replies directly to them, and they, and not their mother, are the objects of the other disciples’ understandable anger.

So why does Matthew do this? Possibly, like Dan Greenburg, he knew about Jewish mothers because he had one and because he couldn’t believe that two people who had been companions of Jesus from the beginning, and who had shared some of the most dramatic moments of Jesus’ ministry could have been guilty of such a gross misunderstanding – and especially after Jesus had just spelled out very clearly what was about to happen to him. ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’ Were they not listening?

Or did they think that when Jesus said that he didn’t really mean it? And that they could, somehow, bypass the rejection and suffering and death and go straight to resurrection? Well, they were to find out for themselves the truth of Jesus’ words. ‘You will indeed drink my cup.’ And all of the twelve were to discover, as we must also, that “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

This music comes originally from Brazil but in the 1990s it became a popular worship song in Germany. It was inspired by words from Psalm 31, the psalm for today’s Eucharist, and in particular verses 2 and 3 “Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. You are indeed my rock and my fortress”. The performance is by the young people’s rock group “Neuwerk Goslar” at the “Church Rock Open Air” event held at St Stephen’s Church in Goslar on 23rd June, 2012. They sing of hope and encouragement in difficult times, because God is
* refuge, hope and strength when blows strike us and we are helpless;
* joy, longing and sunlight when cares torment us and we are wretched;
* homeland, future and help when fears plague us and we are sad.
The refrain reminds us that everything that is passes away, but God’s love endures.

The German words are:
1. Du bist meine Zuflucht. Du bist meine Hoffnung. Du bist meine Stärke. Lass mich nicht allein! (2x)
Wenn mich Schläge treffen und wenn ich schutzlos bin,
leih mir deinen Mantel und hüll mich darin ein.

Alles, was ist, das wird vergehn,
Gott, deine Liebe wird bestehn.
A je, e-ja je, a je e-ja ja je.

2. Du bist meine Freude. Du bist meine Sehnsucht. Du bist meine Sonne. Gib mir Lebensmut! (2x)
Wenn mich Sorgen quälen und wenn ich trostlos bin,
zeig mir deine Liebe, halt mich in deiner Hut.

Alles, was ist…

3. Du bist meine Heimat. Du bist meine Zukunft. Du bist meine Hilfe. Hol mich aus der Not! (2x)
Wenn mich Ängste plagen und wenn ich traurig bin,
schenk mir langem Atem und rette mich vorm Tod.

Alles, was ist…

Saying Morning Prayer on my own in church earlier today (15th March), I was pleased to find that the Psalm for the Third Sunday in Lent is Psalm 46 – so, pleased that I actually sang it, rather than said it, to the chant based on Martin Luther’s great chorale tune “Ein Feste Burg”  (written for words inspired by this Psalm).  Here it is. I hope that it will provide encouragement and hope to others as it did to me:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble;
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
and though the mountains tremble in the heart of the sea;
Though the waters rage and swell,
and though the mountains quake at the towering seas.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place of the dwelling of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her;
therefore shall she not be removed;
God shall help her at the break of day.
The nations are in uproar and the kingdoms are shaken,
but God utters his voice and the earth shall melt away.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Come and behold the works of the Lord,
what destruction he has wrought upon the earth.
He makes wars to cease in all the world;
he shatters the bow and snaps the spear
and burns the chariots in the fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations;
I will be exalted in the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our stronghold.


Time in the Wilderness

Given that, because of governmental  measures to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, members of the congregation at the Church of the Holy Ghost cannot at present meet for worship or for any other church activity, we have been giving thought to ways in which they can be sustained spiritually during this time in the wilderness. Here are the provisional answers:
1. In Church.
Because the government order banning meetings still allows church buildings to remain open for personal prayer, we shall be taking advantage of that by opening our building for individual prayer
– on Sundays from 10:30 to 11:30.
– on Wednesdays from 12:00 to 13:00
During these times the food and clothing banks will also be available to anyone in need of help.
The “Drop-in Quiet Days” will also continue on Thursdays from 09:30 to 18:00, with a range of books and other resources to support prayer, although, sadly, for reasons of sicurezza sanitaria we are not able at present to offer the exercise “I am baptised”.
2. On-Line
On Sundays we will be repeating the experiment of a “virtual Eucharist” which visitors will be able to follow on the Church’s Facebook page
The Sunday sermon will also be appearing on the “Sermons” page here and on the Facebook page.  There will also be other material appearing on this page from time to time during the week.
We shall also be posting each day on the Facebook page a “Thought for the Day” taken from the chaplain’s Commonplace Book, and on Wednesdays (starting today) the Gospel for the day and a link to a piece of sacred music, ancient or modern.

Friday, 13th March

At Morning Prayer today one of the chaplain’s favourite Psalms was read.  It’s Psalm 40, which he has long found to be a source of reassurance and hope in times of distress.

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

Happy are those who make
the Lord their trust,
who do not turn to the proud,
to those who go astray after false gods.
You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
your wondrous deeds and your thoughts towards us;
none can compare with you.
Were I to proclaim and tell of them,
they would be more than can be counted.

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt-offering and sin-offering
you have not required.
Then I said, ‘Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.’

I have told the glad news of deliverance
in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
from the great congregation.

Do not, O Lord, withhold
your mercy from me;
let your steadfast love and your faithfulness
keep me safe for ever.
For evils have encompassed me
without number;
my iniquities have overtaken me,
until I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails me.

Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me;
O Lord, make haste to help me.
Let all those be put to shame and confusion
who seek to snatch away my life;
let those be turned back and brought to dishonour
who desire my hurt.
Let those be appalled because of their shame
who say to me, ‘Aha, Aha!’

But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
say continually, ‘Great is the Lord!’
As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God.


Remembering George Herbert

Today, 27th February, is the second day of Lent. It is also the day on which the Church of England celebrates the life and poetry of George Herbert, who swapped a promising career at the court of James I and Charles I for ordination in the Church of England and ended his short life as Rector of Bemerton, once a poor rural parish a mile or two outside Salisbury, now one of the city’s suburbs. Here, to mark both the day and the season, is his poem “Lent”:

Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority,
But is compos’d of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
To ev’ry Corporation.

The humble soul compos’d of love and fear
Begins at home, and lays the burden there,
When doctrines disagree,
He says, in things which use hath justly got,
I am a scandal to the Church, and not
The Church is so to me.

True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,
When good is seasonable;
Unless Authority, which should increase
The obligation in us, make it less,
And Power itself disable.

Besides the cleanness of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
A face not fearing light:
Whereas in fulness there are sluttish fumes,
Sour exhalations, and dishonest rheums,
Revenging the delight.

Then those same pendant profits, which the spring
And Easter intimate, enlarge the thing,
And goodness of the deed.
Neither ought other men’s abuse of Lent
Spoil the good use; lest by that argument
We forfeit all our Creed.

It’s true, we cannot reach Christ’s forti’eth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Saviour’s purity;
Yet we are bid, Be holy ev’n as he,
In both let’s do our best.

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn and take me by the hand, and more:
May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast,
As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlour; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.

Tony Dickinson

Praying for Unity

The week of Prayer for Christian Unity/Settimana di Preghiera per l’Unità dei Cristiani begins in ten days’ time on 18th January.  As a former Diocesan Ecumenical Officer I am, as you might expect, highly in favour of this.  As someone ministering in the Archdeaconry of Italy and Malta, I have a particular interest in this year’s week, because it was put together by a group of Christians which included people from our Archdeaconry. The material for the Week of Prayer for Unity in  2020 was provided by Christians of many different traditions in Malta and Gozo, including  members of the staff and congregation at the Anglican pro-Cathedral of St Paul in Valletta.

The Bible texts, reflections, and prayers for each day will appear on the church’s Facebook page “Church and Friends of the Holy Ghost, Genoa” and the list of services and other events in Genova during the week is published on the “News” pages of this website.  As preparation, however, and for those who will not be able to attend any of the services, or would not have sufficient Italian to understand them, here is the introduction prepared by the team:

“The materials for the 2020 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity have been prepared by the Christian churches in Malta and Gozo (Christians Together in Malta). On 10th February many Christians in Malta celebrate the Feast of the Shipwreck of St Paul, marking and giving thanks for the arrival of Christian faith on these islands. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles used for the feast is the text chosen for this year’s Week of Prayer.
“The story begins with Paul being taken to Rome as a prisoner (Acts 27:1ff). Paul is in chains, but even in what turns out to be a perilous journey, the mission of God continues through him.
“This narrative is a classic drama of humanity confronted by the terrifying power of the elements. The passengers on the boat are at the mercy of the forces of the seas beneath them and the powerful tempest that rages about them. These forces take them into unknown territory, where they are lost and without hope.
“The 276 people on board the ship are divided into distinct groups. The centurion and his soldiers have power and authority but are dependent on the skill and experience of the sailors. Although all are afraid and vulnerable, the prisoners in chains are the most vulnerable of all. Their lives are expendable; they are at risk of summary execution (27:42). As the story unfolds, under pressure and in fear for their lives, we see distrust and suspicion widening the divisions between the different groups.
“Remarkably, however, Paul stands out as a centre of peace in the turmoil. He knows that his life is not governed by forces indifferent to his fate, but rather is held in the hands of the God to whom he belongs and whom he worships (see 27:23). Because of this faith, he is confident that he will stand before the emperor in Rome, and in the strength of this faith he can stand before his fellow travellers and give thanks to God. All are encouraged. Following Paul’s example, they share bread together, united in a new hope and trusting in his words.
“This illustrates a major theme in the passage: divine providence. It had been the centurion’s decision to set sail in bad weather, and throughout the storm the sailors made decisions about how to handle the ship. But in the end their own plans are thwarted, and only by staying together and allowing the ship to be wrecked do they come to be saved through divine providence. The ship and its entire valuable cargo will be lost, but all lives will be saved, “for none of you will lose a hair from your heads” (27:34; see Lk 21:18). In our search for Christian unity, surrendering ourselves to divine providence will demand letting go of many things to which we are deeply attached. What matters to God is the salvation of all people.
“This diverse and conflicted group of people runs aground “on some island” (27:26).  Having been thrown together in the same boat, they arrive at the same destination, where their human unity is disclosed in the hospitality they receive from the islanders.  As they gather round the fire, surrounded by a people who neither know nor understand them, differences of power and status fall away. The 276 are no longer at the mercy of indifferent forces, but embraced by God’s loving providence made present through a people who show them “unusual kindness” (28:2). Cold and wet, they can warm and dry themselves by the fire. Hungry, they are given food. They are sheltered until it is safe for them to continue their journey.
“Today many people are facing the same terrors on the same seas. The very same places named in the reading (27:1, 28:1) also feature in the stories of modern-day migrants. In other parts of the world many others are making equally dangerous journeys by land and sea to escape natural disasters, warfare and poverty. Their lives, too, are at the mercy of immense and coldly indifferent forces – not only natural, but political, economic and human. This human indifference takes various forms: the indifference of those who sell places on unseaworthy vessels to desperate people; the indifference of the decision not to send out rescue boats; and the indifference of turning migrant ships away. This names only a few instances. As Christians together facing these crises of migration this story challenges us: do we collude with the cold forces of indifference, or do we show “unusual kindness” and become witnesses of God’s loving providence to all people?
“Hospitality is a much needed virtue in our search for Christian unity. It is a practice that calls us to a greater generosity to those in need. The people who showed unusual kindness to Paul and his companions did not yet know Christ, and yet it is through their unusual kindness that a divided people were drawn closer together. Our own Christian unity will be discovered not only through showing hospitality to one another, important though this is, but also through loving encounters with those who do not share our language, culture or faith.
“In such tempestuous journeys and chance encounters, God’s will for his Church and all people comes to fulfilment. As Paul will proclaim in Rome, this salvation of God has been sent to all peoples (see Acts 28:28).”
I look forward to sharing this thrilling journey with you, whether face to face, or through Social Media.  The full range of material for this year’s Week of Prayer for Unity can be found at
by clicking on the link to the pdf at the bottom of the page.

Tony Dickinson

“What confidence is this?”

A report from the 37th German Protestant Kirchentag

Kirchentag for website

What is a saint? A reflection for All Saints’ Day

On All Saints’ Day it’s natural to ask the question: what is a saint?  I have heard a variety definitions over the years.  One that struck me when I was young was produced, if I remember correctly, by a child who was taken to church by their parents and was fascinated by the figures in the stained-glass windows, which shone brightly as the morning sunlight streamed through them.  When the child asked who the people were the answer came that they were saints.  A few days later, a teacher at school asked if anyone knew what a saint was.  The child’s hand shot up.  “Please, miss,” came the answer, “a saint is a person the light shines through.”

“A saint is a person the light shines through.”  That’s my first definition: a saint is someone who is transparent to the light of Christ.

My second definition was given to me when I was working in Durham in the early 1970s. It was at one of those “An evening with” events – and in this case the evening was with Donald Swann, in an ancient church in North-East England.  Swann was quoting someone else on the subject, I think, of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who said that a saint was “a crack in time through which you can see eternity leaping and dancing about”.  “A Crack in Time” was, in fact, the title of the evening, which featured some of the “religious music” songs and longer pieces which he wrote or which he collected and translated in between his collaborations with Michael Flanders.

So there’s my second definition of a saint: “a crack in time through which you can see eternity leaping and dancing about”.

And the third definition that I’d like to share with you on this All Saints’ Day is one that I picked up yesterday, in a tweet from a colleague in Liverpool Diocese, although like Donald Swann’s it isn’t his own.  It’s a bit different.  The other two belong to our Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount. When we meet people who have the qualities blessed there by Jesus we can often see God’s light streaming through them or catch a glimpse of eternity “leaping and dancing about.”

Fr Richard’s definition is different. While it fits, like the previous two, with the Sermon on the Mount, it resonates equally, if not more, powerfully with today’s first reading from the Letter to the Hebrews and its reminder that there is a social dimension to holiness, so that the heavenly Jerusalem is peopled with “innumerable angels in festal gathering, and… the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,… and… the spirits of the righteous made perfect.”   Here they all are, in a short poem:

The simple
the learned,
young and old.
A throng of praise
to the glory of God;
in heroic lives is told.
Convinced of his love,
delighting in his truth,
blest in his presence!
Intercede for us,
on our pilgrim way,
fill us to overflowing
with his sacred sense!

And there’s my third definition: “A throng of praise to the glory of God”.

That throng, made up of people known and unknown, near and far, reveals God insofar as they remain “Convinced of his love, delighting in his truth, blest in his presence”, and it reaches out to us in prayer across every barrier of time and space, so that we, like they, may be filled to overflowing with love and truth which reveal the presence of God.

+ + + + + +

Thy Kingdom Come:  For the past two years we have taken part in this initiative, opening the church for prayer throughout Ascension Day and running the prayer stations on succeeding days. Want to know more? Click here: Thy Kingdom Come.

The Eldorato project

The Church of the Holy Ghost is working with other local churches which have provided venues for this project.  The Christian faith invites us to build bridges and not to erect barriers. The artistic installations displayed here and at those other churches underline the importance of the welcome which opposes every gesture of hatred and rejection.

ELDORATO is a project that talks about the illusion of this millennium: the idea of a land of gold, where there is wealth and a future. A distant land of which little is known and about which we imagine marvellous things; a land hidden from our view just over the horizon.

The project, devised and produced by the artist Giovanni De Gara (b. Florence, 1977), consists of a series of site-specific installations which use life-saving objects as their raw material: the isothermal blankets normally used for first aid in case of accidents and natural disasters which have entered the collective imagination as the “migrants’ garb”.

The aim of the project is to promote a profound reflection on the theme of hospitality toward each individual, without distinction of origin, gender or creed, and to give a sign of warmth and salvation beginning with the contemplation of a gold sheet that shines not through the value of its metal, but through the beauty and simplicity of its message.

In the week 23rd- 29th September the installations can be seen in the entrances of the Anglican Church (Piazza Marsala 3), the Evangelical Baptist Church (Via Ettore Vernazza 16), the Luther Room of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Via Assarotti 21A), the Waldensian Churches of Via Assarotti (Via Assarotti 21) and Sampierdarena (Via Urbano Rela 1 / A). There is a further installation in the entrance of the church of San Torpete (Piazza S. Giorgio).

From the series “English voices in Genoa (The Spirituality Series)” a reflection by Canon Tony Dickinson on the place of the Cross in the writings of St Paul.

Paul and the cross

Fans of the ecumenical Taizé Community (of whom I am one) may not be aware that there is a Taizé group in Genova. It meets for prayer on the second Sunday evening of each month at 2100 in the church of San Marco al Molo. To find out more about the group, visit their website at or sign up to the FB group “Preghiera Taizé a Genova”.  The next meeting is at 2100 on Sunday, 11th August.

If you’d like to learn more about the Taizé Community (in English), the site to visit is

From 19th-23rd June I will be returning to Germany for a Church gathering rather larger than last week’s Diocesan Synod in Cologne. My daughter Beatrice and I will be part of the more than 100,000 people attending the German Protestant Kirchentag, which is probably the largest Christian gathering in Europe.  It’s a festival of faith, focused through a daily Bible study on a passage linked to the Kirchentag’s theme and accompanied by music of all kinds, by lectures and workshops exploring the relationship between the faith we profess and the decisions we make, by performance art, and by interfaith encounter.  There will be contributions from internationally-known figures from the worlds of science and politics (in its widest sense), as well as Church leaders from across Europe and around the world.  This year there will be a key-note address given by each of the living holders of the office of President of Germany.  The current President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was to have been the Kirchentag’s president but had to step down when he was elected to the nation’s highest office.  His predecessors Joachim Gauck (a former Protestant pastor), Christian Wulff and Horst Köhler will also be present, as will pastor’s daughter Angela Merkel, who will be in dialogue with Liberia’s former President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa.

The Kirchentag has its roots in the anti-Nazi resistance and specifically in a group of those who survived the wholesale arrests and executions which followed the failure of the plot to assassinate Hitler on 20th July, 1944.  The leading figure was Reinold vonThadden-Trieglaff, whose sister Elisabeth was one of those who perished.  Their initiative arose from a determination that the Churches in Germany, and especially the mainstream Protestant Churches, should never again allow themselves to be hijacked by a totalitarian political group as they had been by the Nazis.

The first Kirchentag (which means “Church Assembly” ) was held in 1949 in Hannover and it was an annual event until 1954, when the growth of the Kirchentag movement (from 5,000 in 1949 to 60,000 in 1954) made it impossible to organise it on a yearly basis.  Since then it has been held every other year in a major German city, although from 1961 to 1989 the division of Germany between East and West at the height of the Cold War excluded the cities of the DDR.  The first Kirchentag in the eastern Länder of a reunited Germany was held in Leipzig in 1997.  This year the host city is Dortmund, once famous for its heavy industry, but now with the reputation of being Germany’s most sustainable city.

Lent with George Herbert (8)

We arrived at Easter with the last poem in our sequence.  It is the poem entitled “Easter”.

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.  Sing his praise
Without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or, since all musick is but three parts vied
And multiplied,
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sun arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.

Good Friday

At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Passion on Good Friday each member of the congregation was given a stone with their order of service.  Stones are significant in the Gospel story.

On more than one occasion during his ministry people picked up stones to throw at Jesus.

After his death, the body of Jesus was laid in a tomb cut out of the rock and a large stone was rolled across its entrance.

Moving further back into the story of Israel, God’s people were rebuked by the prophets for having a heart of stone.

And most human beings know the cold, hard knot of sin, sitting like a stone in the depths of the heart, blocking the flow of God’s love and compassion.

So, on Good Friday, as the members of the congregation pondered St John’s account of the suffering and death of Jesus, they were invited to lay their stone at the foot of the cross, as a token of their willingness to let God unloose the knot and take away all that blocks the flow of his love.

Lent with George Herbert (7)

George Herbert took us through the conflicts of Holy Week with his poem “The Agony”:

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love.

Who would know Sinne, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet;  there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skinne, his garments bloudie be.
Sinne is that presse and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruell food through every vein.

Who knows not love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike
Did set again abroach;  then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.

Lent with George Herbert (6)

That was followed by the last poem in Herbert’s manuscript, “Love”:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull?  Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Lent with George Herbert (6)

The series continued with the sonnet “Redemption”.

Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold,
And make a suit unto him to afford
A new small-rented lease and cancel th’old.
In Heaven at his manor I him sought.
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession,
I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts,
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts.
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,
Who straight “Your suit is granted,” said, and died.

Lent with George Herbert (5)

The next poem in our sequence or poems by George Herbert was the one entitled “Sighs and Groans”

O do not use me
After my sins! look not on my dessert,
But on thy glory! Then thou wilt reform
And not refuse me: for thou only art
The mighty God, but I a silly worm;
O do not bruise me!

O do not urge me!
For what account can thy ill steward make?
I have abus’d thy stock, destroy’d thy woods,
Suckt all thy magazines: my head did ache,
Till it found out how to consume thy goods:
O do not scourge me!

O do not blind me!
I have deserv’d that an Egyptian night
Should thicken all my powers; because my lust
Has still sew’d fig-leaves to exclude thy light:
But I am frailty, and already dust;
O do not grind me!

O do not fill me
With the turn’d vial of thy bitter wrath!
For thou hast other vessels full of blood,
A part whereof my Saviour empti’d hath,
Ev’n unto death: since he di’d for my good,
O do not kill me!

But O reprieve me!
For thou hast life and death at thy command;
Thou art both Judge and Saviour, feast and rod,
Cordial and Corrosive: put not thy hand
Into the bitter box; but O my God,
My God, relieve me!

Lent with George Herbert (4)

The third poem in this sequence which began on Ash Wednesday was the one which bears the punning title “The Collar”, punning, because it could be misheard as “Choler” (meaning anger).  It is a very angry poem.

I struck the board, and cry’d, No more.
I will abroad.
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the road,
Loose as the winde, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it: there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
All wasted?
Not so, my heart: but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit, and not. Forsake thy cage,
Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
Away; take heed:
I will abroad.
Call in thy death’s head there: tie up thy fears.
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need,
Deserves his load.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Me thoughts I heard one calling, Child:
And I replied, My Lord.

Lent with George Herbert (3)

The second poem to be explored in our sharing of Lent with George Herbert was the one entitled “Sin’s Round” :

Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am,
That my offences course it in a ring.
My thoughts are working like a busy flame,
Until their cockatrice they hatch and bring:
And when they once have perfected their draughts,
My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts.

My words take fire from my inflamed thoughts,
Which spit it forth like the Sicilian hill.
They vent their wares, and pass them with their faults,
And by their breathing ventilate the ill.
But words suffice not, where are lewd intentions:
My hands do join to finish the inventions.

My hands do join to finish the inventions:
And so my sins ascend three stories high,
As Babel grew, before there were dissensions.
Let ill deeds loiter not: for they supply
New thoughts of sinning: wherefore, to my shame,
Sorry I am, my God, sorry I am.

Ash Wednesday

(a reflection for the beginning of Lent)

Lent confronts us with what the American Franciscan, Fr Richard Rohr, has called “the five uncomfortable truths” of human existence, truths which the Christian gospel holds up before us but from which we, as human beings, try to avert our eyes.

The “five uncomfortable truths” are

  1. Life is hard.  However privileged and protected our life may be, loss and struggle are unavoidable.  Bereavement, disappointment and frustration are all part of the human situation whoever we are.
  2.  You are not that important. Despite what our “false self”  tells us, all human beings are insignificant in the great scheme of things, short-lived creatures (what are 70, 80 or even 90 years when set against the billions of years of geological time?) on a speck of cosmic dust in the western spiral arm of the galaxy. As Humphrey Bogart says to Ingrid Bergman, at the end of the film Casablanca,  “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”.
  3. Your life is not about you.  This is an uncomfortable truth for those who have a dominant “false self”, as Thomas Merton labelled it, the self which we construct, whether consciously or unconsciously, to face the world, a very different “self” from the true self, known only to God.  It is a particularly uncomfortable truth for men. Women tend to learn more quickly, often through motherhood, that their life is not centred on them, but on their children or on others for whom they care.
  4. You are not in control.  Again, facing this truth is often more difficult for men than for women.   Not being in control is seen as something to be fought against, but human beings control neither their birth nor their death;  throughout their life they are at the mercy of external events beyond their control and they are often not in control of their own thoughts and feelings.  In the poem “Aaron”  (see below), George Herbert recognises this, particularly as it affects his priestly ministry.
  5. You are going to die. The writer C.S. Lewis is said to have begun one address to a congregation in Oxford with the words. “I have never met you before, but I know one thing about each one of you.  You are all going to die.”   Benjamin Franklin, one of the USA’s founding fathers, remarked that “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”  (and gave Dorothy Parker the title for a collection of her poems).  Death has been called “the ultimate fact of life”.

Those five truths are reflected in the readings for the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday.  St Paul, writing to the Christian community in Corinth, lists the sufferings which he has experienced as a servant of God (2 Corinthians 6:4-5).  He also sets out, a couple of lines later, the ways in which he and his co-workers are seen as unimportant.  In the central section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6), Jesus takes careful aim at those whose religious observance was very definitely “about them” and not about God.  It is another “uncomfortable truth”, though not one of the five, that there are many who find religion a very useful way of avoiding God.  Both Jesus and Paul remind their hearers and their readers of the uncertainty of human life.  Rust,  moth and burglars can wreak havoc with the most careful storage.  “Stuff happens” in any life, even those of God’s obedient servants.  And at the heart of the liturgy on Ash Wednesday we are confronted with two deaths, the death of the Lord which the Church’s Eucharist proclaims “until he comes”, and our own death of which we are reminded by the words at the imposition of ashes: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” .

But the five uncomfortable truths are not God’s last word to us any more than the death of Jesus of Nazareth marks the end of the Christian story.   Every negative in Paul’s catalogue of insignificance is matched by a positive: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:8-10).  It is when we crack open the shell of our false self – or, more often, when circumstances crack it open for us – that we are able to know our true self, who we are in Christ, and in his love are able to possess everything.

Lent with George Herbert (2)

The first poem to be explored more fully in our sharing of Lent with George Herbert was, appropriately for Ash Wednesday, the one entitled “Lent” :

Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority,
But is compos’d of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
To ev’ry Corporation.

The humble soul compos’d of love and fear
Begins at home, and lays the burden there,
When doctrines disagree.
He says, in things which use hath justly got,
I am a scandal to the Church, and not
The Church is so to me.

True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,
When good is seasonable;
Unless Authority, which should increase
The obligation in us, make it less,
And Power itself disable.

Besides the cleanness of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
A face not fearing light:
Whereas in fulness there are sluttish fumes,
Sour exhalations, and dishonest rheums,
Revenging the delight.

Then those same pendant profits, which the spring
And Easter intimate, enlarge the thing,
And goodness of the deed.
Neither ought other men’s abuse of Lent
Spoil the good use; lest by that argument
We forfeit all our Creed.

It’s true, we cannot reach Christ’s forti’eth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Saviour’s purity;
Yet we are bid, ‘Be holy ev’n as he, ‘
In both let’s do our best.

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn and take me by the hand, and more:
May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast,
As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlour; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.

Lent with George Herbert (1)

On Wednesdays during Lent we are exploring the poetry of the 17th-century poet-priest George Herbert.  On Wednesday 27th February (the day when Herbert is commemorated in the Calendar of the Church of England) there was a general introduction to his life.  During each week of Lent and Passiontide there will be an exploration of one of his poems in some depth.  Unexplored was the poem by George Herbert which was read in place of a homily at the midweek Eucharist on 27th February, one which rings bells (to pick up one of the images it contains) with very many clergy.  It is entitled “Aaron”:

Holiness on the head,
Light and perfections on the breast,
Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest:
Thus are true Aarons drest.

Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest:
Poor priest, thus am I drest.

Only another head
I have, another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In him I am well drest.

Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me ev’n dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new-drest.

So, holy in my head,
Perfect and light in my dear breast,
My doctrine tun’d by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come people; Aaron’s drest.

Where do we go from here?

That question was the title of Dr Martin Luther King’s last book.  Jim Wallis of the Sojourners’ Community in Washington DC took up that question in an e-mail two days ago and pondered its application to our own time.  He suggested four ways forward, which I think are worth sharing because they apply to Christians facing the challenges of Matteo Salvini’s Italy and “Brexit Britain” just as much as they do to our sisters and brothers living in Donald Trump’s America.   Here they are:

“Going deeper into our faith.  It is critical now more than ever to cultivate spiritual practices and disciplines that keep us grounded and able to respond—not just react —to the chaotic and traumatic events happening around us and in our own lives.

“Learning how to separate prophetic truth-telling from divisive political attacks. The prophetic mission is core…, and we will continue to speak truth boldly. We must root ourselves in biblical truth, not party affiliation, and remember that Jesus told us: “Know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

“Pastoral care for each other is vital in times like these. Strategy is always important, but what is also deeply needed now is sustenance. To move forward, we must commit to taking care of each other and ourselves.

“Becoming more deeply connected in our relationships and our capacity to mobilize together during…  emergencies. We are a community of sojourners, called to create connection…  [to] find other sojourners in [our] communities across political, racial, and theological boundaries with whom [we] can reflect, pray, and act.”

If anyone would like to take any of these ideas further, please contact me.

If anyone would like to do some further reading, the following books are relevant and recommended:

  • Brian D. McLaren, “Finding our Way again” (Nashville, 2008)
  • Rowan Williams, “Being Disciples” (London, 2016)
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together” (English translation, London, 1954)

The Shepherds at the Crib

On Christmas Eve, my reflection focused on the role of the shepherds in St Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus.   Part of what I said owed a great deal to the wisdom and knowledge of Bishop-emeritus Jan-Olof Johansson of the Lutheran Church of Sweden, who has been fascinated by the Holy Land since he was studying theology at Stockholm and Uppsala more than 40 years ago. He is still actively involved in the life of the Christian community there as a governor of the Lutheran school for girls in Bethlehem.

My words on Christmas Eve were heavily indebted to the following passage from the first sermon that Bishop Jan-Olof preached in Växjö cathedral after his consecration as bishop of the Diocese:

‘Outside Bethlehem lies what people today call the Shepherds’ Field – and there are several. You can take your pick: the Catholic, the Orthodox or the Protestant! All according to inclination and disposition. But in any case, it is ancient pasture-land where, for thousands of years, shepherds have come with their sheep and goats. And it is highly likely that it was here that the shepherds had their powerful experience of what they described as an angel, and as heavenly. And the people in Bet Sahour, as the village is called, do not doubt it for a second. Quite the opposite! The present day descendants of the shepherds say: “When God’s Son was born God was, just like every father, eager to tell the news as soon as possible. And he put his mind to the question of the fastest way of getting the word out. It was then he thought of us in the shepherds’ field. Because if there is one thing we are known for, it is being good at spreading rumours and gossip. Something happens at one end of the village and people know it at the other end almost before it has happened! And thus it became known to all the people that Jesus was born!”’

Welcoming the King

A conversation on the topic of homelessness with Nancy Whitfield after the Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday of Advent reminded me of one of the finest of Christmas poems, dating to the early years of the Stuart monarchy in England.  Its source is a manuscript discovered in the library of Christ Church in Oxford.  Formerly thought to be the work of that prolific writer, composer and artist “Anonymous”, it has more recently been attributed to the poet, composer and musician, Thomas Ford.  Here it is:

Yet if his majesty our sovereign lord
Should of his own accord
Friendly himself invite,
And say “I’ll be your guest to-morrow night.”
How should we stir ourselves, call and command
All hands to work! “Let no man idle stand.
Set me fine Spanish tables in the hall,
See they be fitted all;
Let there be room to eat,
And order taken that there want no meat.
See every sconce and candlestick made bright,
That without tapers they may give a light.
Look to the presence: are the carpets spread,
The dazie o’er the head,
The cushions in the chairs,
And all the candles lighted on the stairs?
Perfume the chambers, and in any case
Let each man give attendance in his place.”
Thus if the king were coming would we do,
And ’twere good reason too;
For ’tis a duteous thing
To show all honour to an earthly king,
And after all our travail and our cost,
So he be pleas’d, to think no labour lost.
But at the coming of the King of Heaven
All’s set at six and seven:
We wallow in our sin,
Christ cannot find a chamber in the inn.
We entertain him always like a stranger,
And as at first still lodge him in the manger.

Poets of Christ’s coming (3)

R.S. Thomas

Our journey which began in northern Italy in the second half of the fourth century of our era ends in the farthest corner of North Wales and a life that spanned nearly the whole of the twentieth century.  We have travelled from the administrative heart of the late Roman Empire to its very periphery, to a land that lost its protecting eagles within two decades of St Ambrose’s death and which has lived for the best part of a millennium under foreign (by which I mean English) domination.

The last in our triad of “poets of Christ’s coming” is the Welsh priest Ronald Stuart Thomas, better known by his initials as “R.S. Thomas”.

Thomas was born in Cardiff in the spring of 1913, the son of a merchant seaman.  He died in the autumn of the millennial year at his home in Pentrefelin near Criccieth.  In the 87 years between those two dates he studied Classics at the University of Wales in Bangor, trained as a priest of the Church in Wales at St Michael’s College, Llandaff, and served (for the rest of his active ministry) in parishes across North Wales, from Chirk and Tallam Green on the English border to Aberdaron in the far north-west, on the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula.

From that potted CV, you might guess at a man in the Anglican tradition of poet-priests, a tradition which includes Robert Herrick, John Donne, Thomas Traherne and Thomas’s fellow-Welshman, George Herbert, from the 17th Century, the Wesleys from the 18th, John Keble, John Henry Newman, and J.M. Neale from the 19th (although Neale’s considerable poetic gifts were, like John Wesley’s, primarily those of a translator, rather than a writer of original poetry).

R.S. Thomas, however, is not like any of them.  His poetry is not devotional, like Keble or Newman’s, nor “metaphysical” (however you may understand that word) like Traherne or Herbert.  It is also quite unlike the poetry produced by the two other poets at whose writings we have looked during this Advent.   It has neither the doctrinal clarity of St Ambrose, nor the passionate intensity of St John of the Cross.

Thomas is a “one-off”, whose life and poetry were marked by paradox.  In the sermon which he preached in St Michael’s church, Porthmadog, at a Eucharist in thanksgiving for R.S. Thomas’s life, Archbishop Barry Morgan reminded his hearers that “He could look fierce at times and yet could be the gentlest and most sensitive of men; he came across as dour and yet had a delightfully impish sense of humour; he could rail against the Anglicisation of his country and yet he wrote poetry in English and married women who spoke no Welsh; he could make the most provocative of statements which could come across as callous and yet he was personally kind and compassionate; he was a patriotic Welshman but when he read his poems he sounded so English; he claimed to love nature more than humanity and yet some of his poems are full of love and tenderness.”

Probably the first thing that strikes a reader of Thomas’s poetry, especially the early poetry focused on people and places among which he had ministered, is the clarity, sometimes the bleak clarity, of his vision.  Sometimes, too, that vision could be suffused with a deep bitterness against a world which had forgotten the truths by which human beings become fully alive – and I don’t just mean the formal teachings of Christianity.  He had a respect for nature and for the deep rhythms of life which was positively Franciscan in its perceptions.  He and his first wife, Elsie, the artist Mildred Eldridge, shared a life of Spartan simplicity – or rather, a life which would have been recognised as authentic by the saints of the golden age of Welsh piety.

He hated what he called “the Machine”, the culture of materialist consumerism, for which he mostly blamed England, and he had no truck with its products, except that he briefly owned a refrigerator (or, according to some accounts a vacuum cleaner) but got rid of it because it was “too noisy”.

Stillness and silence were characteristic of his life and his poetry.  He was aware of the vastness and intricacy of creation.  His later poems use scientific concepts as a rich source of metaphor and parable.  As Archbishop Barry Morgan pointed out, he could come across as uncomfortably hard-edged.  A much younger colleague in Llandaff Diocese described Thomas as “a poet who loved with the eyes of truth”.  He was certainly not a sentimentalist, neither about rural life, nor about rural people.  His early poems, in particular, are almost merciless in the clarity with which he depicted the world in which he ministered and its people.  Even in his long first marriage to Elsie Eldridge, there were no outward displays of affection.  Obituaries recorded that they were never seen to touch one another in public.  But when Elsie died in 1991 he wrote some beautiful love lyrics in memory of her.

You may notice that, so far, I haven’t mentioned God.  Thomas’s relationship with God was complex.  It would be too easy to make the comparison with his namesake among the apostles and call him a poet of doubt.  Barry Morgan, in the sermon to which I have referred above, put the matter succinctly when he said that “… he stood in a long tradition of those who had wrestled with God back to Jacob, Isaiah, St John of the Cross, Master Eckhart and Luther who, echoing Isaiah, said ‘Truly thou art a God that hidest thyself’’. RS knew that God is ultimately unknowable in himself – He is a mystery to which our human words point only by analogy.”  So in Thomas’s poetry we find hints and inklings and moments of insight, but no blazing theophanies.

To quote Barry Morgan again: “…his poetry right up to the very end of his life reflects his struggle to get to know the Living God. Not for him the bland platitudes of religion. Not for him the acceptance of the creeds and dogmas of the church which were not to be questioned. Rather, his poems honestly faced the struggle one has, whether one is ordained or not, of praying to God and trying to worship him… Far from being a man of no faith – here was a man of Job-like faith, struggling to make sense of the world, and belief in a God of love.  Conventional theological answers did not satisfy him, nor the facile fundamentalism of a faith that asked no questions. No, he saw the real problems of trying to believe in God and struggled with those questions throughout his ministry. By articulating them in his poetry, he helped those of us who were also struggling, in our belief and faith.”

But enough of introductions.  Here are half a dozen links to the man in his own words…

and for the addict:

Tony Dickinson

Poets of Christ’s coming (2)

(St John of the Cross: f.d. 14th December)

It would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast than the one between the first and second of our “Poets of Christ’s Coming”.  My previous post was devoted to St Ambrose, the commanding leader in state and church, responsible for a key strategic province of the Western Empire before taking charge of what is still the largest diocese in the Italian Church, the inspirational preacher and teacher (recognised, along with his pupil Augustine and the two “great” popes, Leo and Gregory, as a “doctor of the western Church”), the conscience of the Emperor, and a bishop who turned to poetry so that others could publicly sing their faith and grow in that faith as they pondered the words they sang, a man who lived through, and helped to guide the Church through, one of the pivotal epochs of European history.  In this reflection we commemorate St John of the Cross, a man who lived in another pivotal epoch, twelve centuries after Ambrose, a time when the Western Church was, once again, divided – this time by the teaching of an Augustinian friar from Saxony, Martin Luther, and his fellow Reformers.

In almost all other respects, however, John was as unlike Ambrose as it is possible for two human beings to be.  He was of humble origins, born in an out-of-the-way village in Castile to parents who earned their living as weavers.  He was not a man of affairs but a poor scholar of the kind that Geoffrey Chaucer would have recognised as first cousin to his “Clerke of Oxenforde”.  He had been a visionary since his childhood, and – even by the standards of the 16th century – a small man.  St Teresa of Avila joked when he and Fray Antonio de Heredia (who was much taller) became the first men to join the reformed wing of the Carmelite order that God has sent her “a friar and a half”.

But that half-friar became Teresa’s right hand during her struggles to carry out the reform of the order against opposition that was sometimes petty and childish and at other times violently vindictive.  John was imprisoned twice by opponents of the reform, suffering repeated torture at the hands of his captors. On one occasion he escaped by letting himself down from an open window on a rope made from strips of bed-sheet – which ended nine feet above the ground.  He jumped the rest!

In both imprisonments he knew both the presence and the apparent absence of God.  From that experience he developed a profound understanding of the human journey deeper into God’s love through what he called “the dark night of the senses” and the deeper, more disorienting “dark night of the spirit” – or of the soul.  At the same time, he produced the most beautiful love-poetry, addressed to God, poetry of an immense simplicity and strength which has defeated many would-be translators, poetry for which John provided his own theological and spiritual commentary in his book “The dark night of the Soul”.

I mentioned in my previous post the difficulty of turning poetry in one language into poetry in another language.  Some attempts from the nineteenth and early twentieth century are, quite frankly, cringe-making – especially when thy attempt to match the rhythm and rhyme of St John’s own words.  However, translation is a necessity for those with little or no Spanish and in the middle years of the last century the South African poet, Roy Campbell, who lived in Spain for some years before and during the Spanish Civil War, had some success in producing an English version of two dozen of the saint’s poems, ranging from four-line epigrams to lengthy scriptural paraphrases which are neither over-literal nor fake-antique nor in the kind of “poetic” diction so loved by Victorian translators.

Like Ambrose, John used “ordinary language” to great effect and, on the whole, Roy Campbell matches him in that.  Campbell does, however, have to struggle with one major difference between Spanish and English.  Spanish words (especially when they are inflected) are often much longer than their English equivalents, so in a number of places Roy Campbell uses adjectives as padding, or stretches a vivid word into a full-fledged simile.  With those two provisos, here is a link to Campbell’s version of the poems of St John of the Cross.

Tony Dickinson

Poets of Christ’s Coming (1)

(St Ambrose of Milan: f.d. 7th December)

The three Fridays of this year’s Advent each mark a saint’s day, in the calendar of either Common Worship or the Book of Common Prayer.  The first two Fridays are “lesser festivals”, days for which the main Common Worship calendar provides no proper readings, although there is a special collect for the day.  The third is, in the Prayer Book calendar, a “red letter day”, with its own special collect, epistle and gospel.  By coincidence, the first two Fridays commemorate saints who are significant Christian poets, as well as being important figures in the history of the Church, while the red letter day celebrates an apostle whose given name is the same as the surname of a poet in the succession of Anglican poet-priests which includes figures as diverse as John Donne, George Herbert, Thomas Traherne, the Wesleys, and John Keble.  Between them, our three poets span seventeen centuries, from the fourth to the twentieth – and they do so in the order in which they appear in the calendar.

So, in the first of these three posts, we head back in time to the fourth century of our era, to a point in history when the European world was changing, the period which scholars call “late antiquity”. During this period Rome’s power over the Mediterranean world was beginning to ebb increasingly quickly.  The “limes”, the frontier which separated the Roman world from the barbarians, was becoming more porous and fragile.  Since the beginning of the 4th century, following the Emperor Constantine’s vision of a cross of light and a voice from heaven telling him “In this sign you shall conquer”, the Christian Church had emerged from the catacombs and was being transformed from a subterranean and suspect movement into a serious actor in the mainstream life and culture of the Empire.

Aurelius Ambrosius was part of all these changes.  He was born, around AD 340, into a Christian family.  His father was a senior government official, the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul – a post which it would have been inconceivable for a Christian to hold three decades earlier.  At the time of his son’s birth he was based in the important military centre of Augusta Treverorum, the modern-day German city of Trier.  Ambrosius, or, to give him his English name, Ambrose, followed his father into government service.  In his early thirties he was appointed to the governorship of Liguria (so Genoa was on his patch) and Emilia, based in Milan, which was effectively the capital of the Western Roman Empire.  Rome was too far from the frontiers and increasingly a backwater, although it still had a huge symbolic significance.

Ambrose had not been in the post much more than a couple of years when the Bishop of Milan died.  The Christian community in Milan was deeply divided between those who held the orthodox faith as defined by the Council of Nicaea nearly fifty years before and those who followed the beliefs of Arius, who held that, while Jesus was more than simply human, he was not fully divine and that there had been a time when he was not.  It was important, given the strategic importance of Milan, that the city should remain at peace and Ambrose took part in the election of the new bishop, to ensure fair play and to prevent the city descending into riot and, probably, bloodshed.

Ambrose was admired and trusted by both sides and it is recorded that, as soon as he appeared in the church where the election was due to take place, the cry went up “Ambrose for bishop!”  Now, Ambrose was almost totally unqualified for this post.  He was a Christian, as his parents had been, but he had never been baptised.  Like many in government service (including the Emperor Constantine) he had postponed baptism in case his official duties caused him to sin – and left an indelible stain after he had been, to use the old expression, “washed in the blood of the Lamb”.

So, Ambrose refused to accept election.  But the people of Milan were insistent.  So was the Emperor.  In the face of that amount of pressure Ambrose gave way.  He was baptised, ordained, consecrated and appointed bishop of Milan within a week.  Which makes all the hoo-ha when Justin Welby became Archbishop of Canterbury about his lack of episcopal experience seem very petty-minded!   And the people who shouted for the election of Ambrose were proved to be wiser than most crowds.  He was a brilliant bishop.  He was, as you might expect from his background, an outstanding administrator and organiser.  He was also a fine preacher – and because, unlike many of his contemporaries, he knew Greek, he was able to keep in touch with what was going on in the Church in the Eastern half of the Empire. This meant that he was up-to-date with theological and liturgical thinking. 

One of the developments in the Eastern Church during the second half of the fourth century was the increasing use of hymns in worship.  Ambrose took over this development with such enthusiasm that he is often described as the founder of western hymnody.  He realised, like Martin Luther at the time of the Reformation, and the Wesleys in 18th-century England, that hymns were a very effective way of teaching ordinary people theology.  Unlike many poets of the fourth century, who were still working in the same style and with the same verse-forms as the Roman poets Virgil and Horace nearly four hundred years before, he chose simple measures that could be remembered, and, like the Iona community in our own day, he preferred to use simple language – something we don’t always realise when we sing Ambrose’s hymns (yes, we still sing them today), because when they were translated into English in the 19th century, the convention was to use “poetic diction” and obsolete forms, like “thee” and “thou”. So tonight, I’m not going to talk further about Ambrose’s influence on the Western Church, or about how he became the conscience of the Empire, or about his key role in the conversion of St Augustine of Hippo.

Instead, I’m going to end with a three of the hymns which he wrote for the people of Milan, and which are still sung today.

The first is a hymn he wrote for the dawning of the day.  Its Latin title is “Splendor Paternae gloriae”.  In English it is known as “O splendour of God’s glory bright”:

The second hymn is one for the ending of the day, or rather “the lighting of the lamps”, which was an important time of day in an age when electric light at the touch of a switch was unknown.  In Latin its first line is “Deus Creator omnium” (“God, creator of all”).  In English we know it as “Creator of the earth and sky”:

Finally, I’m going to share with you a hymn that Ambrose wrote for Christmas Eve.  His original version begins with a paraphrase of the first verse of Psalm 80, but most hymn-books open with the second verse, which begins with the words, “Veni, Redemptor gentium”.   For that reason we know it as “Come, thou Redeemer of the earth” (which is what the Latin means):

Tony Dickinson

Farewell to Moses

Advent Sunday was the last time when we shall see (at least for the foreseeable future) the smiling face of our dear brother Moses Adesina.  In the short time that Moses has been with us, he has become a greatly valued member of our church family and has played a significant part of our church life, whether up at the front, as he was on Advent Sunday morning, or quietly in the background, working with Peter Asemwote and Lis Watkins to set up the church on Sundays, or helping Peter and others tidy the church grounds.  He has also been seen regularly welcoming visitors, serving refreshments and shifting furniture for concerts and church lunches.  On 5th December he will be on his way to Nairobi, to begin the final stage of training for ordained ministry in Christ’s Church.  It has been a long and winding journey and it is quite possible that there may be one or two more twists in it yet, but God is faithful and the One who has called Moses, and has brought him thus far, will make sure that he fulfils the ministry to which he is being called.  We wish Moses safe journeys from Genoa to Nairobi and a fruitful and blessed time as a student at Carlile College.  Please pray for him, as he begins this new stage of his journey towards priesthood.  On his last day with us we presented him with two simple gifts, a suitably inscribed new Bible, and a pen-and-ink sketch of the church as a token of our thanks for all that he has given by his presence among us.

Remembrance in Bordighera

I have done a fair bit of “depping” in my time, usually for bishops or archdeacons on ecumenical occasions in the UK.  Before today I had never “depped” for an ambassador.  HE Ms Morris was scheduled to give the keynote address at the ecumenical commemoration in Bordighera’s War Cemetery today, but Mrs May required her presence at a meeting in Palermo, so that she had to head south instead of north.  As a result, I was asked by the local congregation to step in (I was already down to lead the prayers).  This is what I said (the “reading” to which I refer was Matthew 5:1-12):

When I was a curate, thirty-plus years ago, I used to pay regular visits to one of the older inhabitants of the parish where I served.  Edgar had led an interesting life.  As a master carpenter in the 1920s and 1930s he worked on the state-rooms of the great Cunard liners, the “Queen Mary” and “Queen Elizabeth”.  In the following decade he found himself at Leavesden Aerodrome (now the studios where the Harry Potter films were made), working on the production of Halifax bombers for the Royal Air Force.  But the reason I mention him today is that as a young man, despite his poor eyesight, he had enlisted in a cavalry unit and been sent to fight on the Struma Front on the border between Greece and Bulgaria.  He always said that the Struma Front was one of the “forgotten fronts” of the First World War, although several nations, including Britain and Italy, were involved in the fighting.

For most British people an all-but exclusive focus on the horrors of the Western Front means that most other campaigns of the First World War, including the war in Italy, are also largely forgotten, even though the twelve battles, culminating in the disaster of Caporetto, which were fought along the river Isonzo between 1915 and 1917 were among the bloodiest of the war, “like Flanders”, someone has commented, “but two thousand feet up and with trenches dug into rock and ice instead of mud”, and in 1917 an expeditionary force was sent from Britain.

Today, as we remember, our thoughts are focused on eighty-three young and not-so-young men and one woman who died in the military hospitals here, either of wounds received in that campaign or from the flu’ pandemic that overlapped its ending: riflemen, gunners, sappers, mechanics, medics, clerks, and one stray civilian, as well as the inevitable PBI, as my father (a gunner) used to call them; men from all parts of Britain who served in that expeditionary force, men from Jamaica and Barbados, one man from north-west India – and men from half a dozen provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czech, Croat, Transylvanian, Slovenian: former enemies, brought together in the place of their death and burial.

We remember, in sorrow, the competitive egoisms, personal and national, which pushed the world into war a hundred years ago, and which still afflict our planet. The “War to end War” whose victims we commemorate was far from being the final harvest of the bitter fruit of human arrogance and greed.  We remember, too, the fruits of courage and comradeship which sustained those who served their countries in time of conflict, and we give thanks for the generous hospitality of communities like Bordighera, which saw not “allies” and “enemies” but human beings in need of help and healing.  And we look to the words of Jesus which we heard in the reading from St Matthew’s Gospel to find a remedy for the destructive drives which led to those years of slaughter along the Isonzo.

Jesus’ words are an uncomfortable reminder that, despite appearances,  the blessing of God rests not on the wealthy and the powerful, but on those who confront and accept the pain of the world, those who strive for justice, who show mercy, who work for peace.  The Sermon on the Mount is not, as some have called it, “an impossible ethic”.  It is the blueprint for human survival – and an unwavering critique of human power structures and hierarchies.

Jesus calls us to abandon the quest for status, to lay down the self-righteousness that denies or defies the righteousness of God who has compassion on our enemies as much as on us who suffer at their hands.  He calls us to live as though we truly believe in the God who has made all humanity in his image and likeness, Czech, Croat, Hungarian, Romanian, Slovenian equally with Italian, Jamaican, Indian and Briton.  He calls us to have confidence in the ultimate triumph of God’s love and his justice.  He calls us to believe in the possibility of God’s “shalom”, that peace which is not just the absence of war, but the fulfilment of the prophet’s vision of swords beaten into ploughshares in a transformed world where all creatures live in harmony.  To believe in that possibility is to believe in good news, to believe in the reality of God’s coming kingdom.

A brief reflection on All Saints’ Day

All Saints’ Day is the day when we remember with thanksgiving not just the saints with a capital S, but all who have been important for our growth as Christians and our progress in discipleship. They may have been our companions on the journey for a short while or for half a lifetime and more. They may have been models of holiness through whom God’s glory shone for us. They may have been ordinary people who had the gift of encouragement, knowing somehow just the right word to say at the right time. Whoever they may have been, whatever they may have been for us, we give thanks for them among those “spirits of the righteous made perfect” listed in today’s first reading among the inhabitants of the heavenly Jerusalem.
We give thanks, too, for countless others, not known to us, and not formally recognised by any Christian tradition, but who bore witness to the living Christ in the way they lived and died.
Three years ago, on a visit to our son when he was at university in Sheffield, the Dickinson family spent a day in the Peak District.  In the afternoon we stopped for tea in the pretty Derbyshire village of Eyam. Now, Eyam is not just a pretty village. It is also a rather grim footnote in English history. It was hit in late 1665 by the plague which had ravaged London earlier that year. 350 people in the village died, but led by their Rector, William Mompesson, and his predecessor, Thomas Stanley*, the people of Eyam took the decision to prevent the plague spreading further by putting themselves in quarantine until the illness had burnt itself out.
William and Thomas could have left, but they stayed and ministered to the sick and dying, as did William’s wife, Catherine. She sent their children away to safety, but she refused to leave her husband. Toward the end of the outbreak, she too caught the plague and died, bearing witness in death as in life to the love of the Son of God who laid down his life for his friends. Since that visit I have remembered her, and William, and Thomas Stanley, among the holy ones of God, as people who lived those eight blessings which Jesus proclaimed in today’s Gospel. And I shall be praying for all who find themselves, as they did, in the front line of the conflict between duty, love, and safety.
*Thomas Stanley was one of those “ejected” clergy who had been driven out of the Church of England in 1662 because they could not, in conscience, consent to using only the Book Of Common Prayer in public worship.  That he worked so closely with his successor in such a tragic situation says a great deal about them both.

Praying through Brexit

Bishop Robert wrote recently to all the chaplaincies in the diocese asking for prayer in the run-up to 29th March, and especially as the negotiations reach their climax. Here is the content of his letter:

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Invitation to Pray

Over the next 6 months, the UK will be negotiating its departure from the European Union. This is a project of immense political and technical complexity. However, if the project goes badly, the UK could enter a period of crisis, of a kind that post-war Britain has not so far experienced. I therefore call upon you to join me in praying for the negotiating process.

Whilst many are rightly concerned about how any deal will eventually be agreed by the UK Parliament, the first big milestone in the process is a summit in Brussels next week. This will convene on 17 and 18 October and brings together the Prime Ministers/Presidents of the 28 EU States. If there is good progress but more remains to be settled, then there is likely to be a further Summit in November. Some 90% of the Withdrawal Agreement (including the areas related to Citizens’ Rights) has already been agreed, but further work is needed on trade arrangements and the Irish border. Both sides want a deal. However, as in any deal-making, things can go wrong, and the parties could talk past each other or fall out with one another. No-one should be under any illusion as to the seriousness of these negotiations.

I am aware that many of the recipients of this letter and those in our congregations are not British. However, this is a matter of more general European concern. So can I specifically ask you to pray for the negotiations in your Sunday services this coming weekend? Also, please consider setting aside 17 and 18 October as days of prayer. Pray specifically:

• For the civil servants working ‘under the radar’ to construct forms of agreement
• For the leaders of the nations to act in the interests of all their people and for the common good.

With all good wishes,

Yours in Christ,

+Robert Gibraltar in Europe

Reflections on a marriage

On 5th October I conducted my first wedding blessing in Italy.  The actual marriage took place in Beijing earlier in the year and the guests had come from many parts of the world.  Some had come from the western edge of the Atlantic Isles, others from the heart of the Middle Kingdom, and the rest from many different places between and beyond.  What drew them was probably the most powerful force in the universe, the force of love.

They had come to acknowledge and celebrate the love between the newly married couple, and had come because of love for them.  What drew each of them, many after long journeys, was their love for the couple, whether as family members, friends, or colleagues.  And what the couple had set at the heart of this celebration of their love was a powerful reminder that their love is a reflection of another love, the love that, in the words of the greatest of all Italian poets, “moves the sun and the other stars”.  Love is the nature of God.  Love is the power that creates the universe and sustains it in being. Love is the power which seizes and transforms human lives.

They had chosen for the reading a passage from St John’s Gospel (ch. 15: vv. 9-17) which spells it out the nature of love with an almost terrifying clarity.  The love of which Jesus speaks to his disciples, in that passage, and which lies at the heart of the universe, is not “warm fuzzies”, fluffy kittens, bluebirds, hearts and flowers.  The love of which Jesus speaks to his disciples is a love which shows itself in self-giving, self-emptying, commitment to the beloved – even to the point of death.  “Love one another” says Jesus, “as I have loved you.”  Those words are, if you think about it, frightening.  Loving as Jesus loves means setting no limits, no boundaries to our giving, our sharing of life, our readiness to forgive – and to be forgiven.  Loving as Jesus loves means being open to the world as well as open to each other. It includes all the commitments to which the partners pledge themselves at a wedding ceremony – but it goes way, way beyond them.

That is why at a wedding service in the Eastern Orthodox Churches the new husband and wife are crowned by the priest.  Their crowning is an action rich in meaning.  On one level it affirms that the bride and groom are king and queen for the day of their wedding.  On another level it gives them authority over any children to be born of their union. But it also points at a deeper level to those who bear witness to God’s love at the cost of their life.  In Christian art, crowns are the symbol of martyrs, those who, to quote the words of Jesus from our reading “lay down their life for their friends”, and particularly those who lay down their life for the love of God because there is no alternative which leaves them with any integrity.  Marriage, in that sense, is a kind of “white martyrdom”, an act of witness in which no blood is shed, but in which the ego of a husband or wife is laid low by the demands of self-giving love.

By their choice of reading for this celebration, the couple had set the bar for the future of their relationship high, some might think “impossibly high”. But, the closing words of Jesus in that reading remind us that it isn’t down to them, or to any of us, to be romantic heroes or heroines in our own strength.  In fact, most of love isn’t about heroism – or romance, for that matter, once the glamour and excitement of a celebration like Friday’s fades into memory.  Most of love is not about the grand gesture, but about the little deaths to selfishness and pride, the everyday exchanges, the patience, the willingness to forgive and be forgiven which come about when each partner puts the other’s good, the other’s happiness, ahead of their own.  Love is about learning who we are, and who the other is, within God’s love; and God’s love is the source and the sustainer of human love. Love is about bearing fruit, “fruit that will last”, says Jesus.  Our prayers on Friday were that the couple’s love for each other will indeed bear more and more fruit as each of them learns more fully the art of self-surrender and abides faithfully in one another’s love until their love becomes taken up wholly into the love of God.

A Church in crisis?

One of the changes identified in the British Social Attitudes survey for 2017 gave rise to such headlines as “Church in crisis as only 2% of young adults identify as C of E”.

There was, as you may imagine, a lot of hand-wringing about this, but the Revd Angela Rayner (newly ordained and serving as assistant curate in the Lynn Team Ministry in Norwich Diocese), called for a sense of proportion. ‘The Church of England’ she tweeted ‘is very rarely “in crisis”, (only when the tea runs out), but terminal decline is more of an issue. It may not be inevitable, and might be reversible if we would undertake certain steps.’

What follows is her list of twenty suggestions to halt – or reverse the decline.  Not all of them are easily applicable outside the UK, but I post them here for you to ponder.  What, among Ms Rayner’s list, is possible for us here in Genoa? What would never work because of where we are/who we are? What other possibilities would you suggest?

  1. All church buildings to be open daily from morning to dusk.
  2. Morning and Evening Prayer to be said publicly every day in every parish/benefice.
  3. Evening Prayer to be sung, if at all possible, once a week according to BCP.
  4. Mass to be said daily or at least four times per week in each Benefice (where possible).
  5. Mass to be celebrated on major feast days, not transferred to Sunday.
  6. Domestic liturgical practices to be introduced in every household (epiphany chalking, Advent calendars etc.)
  7. Abstinence from meat to be reintroduced on Fridays, and communal parish fasts to be agreed in Lent.
  8. Confession (or equivalent) to be advertised, encouraged and held weekly, not by appointment.
  9. Weekly catechism classes, and lay guilds of catechists trained by Dioceses.
  10. All parishes to go on pilgrimage once a year (locally or further afield)
  11. Spiritual direction to be given greater prominence, and more spiritual directors trained. All Christians encouraged to adopt spiritual directors.
  12. Links between non-church schools and churches to be strengthened, and schools welcomed frequently into church buildings esp on Sundays.
  13. Children to be involved in “up front” ways as much as possible in all church services e.g. choir, reading, serving.
  14. Children and youth to attend an annual festival/pilgrimage or similar to meet a wider variety of Christians.
  15. Nobody to be refused baptism, but church to appoint additional God-parents/supporters to encourage additional contact with families.
  16. Churching of women service to be updated, and mothers and fathers to be welcomed into church when children are born.
  17. Use of sacramentals to be encouraged in and out of church e.g. holy water stoops, rosaries, candles and medals.
  18. Public processions to be held a few times each year, and new businesses/classrooms/homes to be blessed frequently.
  19. Parishioners encouraged to give 5% of income to parish church.
  20. All clergy to wear clerical collars.

Ponte Morandi – a month on (14th September, 2018)

The Church of the Holy Ghost participated in the minute’s silence in memory of the victims and the “Nine Tailors” were rung on the ship’s bell of the “London Valour” immediately before the silence.  In the evening Tony Dickinson attended both the civic act of remembrance in Piazza de Ferrari and the memorial Mass in the Cathedral. 

Both the civic and the cathedral acts of remembrance for those who died in the collapse of the Ponte Morandi were “full house”, with standing-room only in San Lorenzo and the vast space of Piazza de Ferrari full of people. Young and old, men and women, teenagers and young children of all races gathered together in both venues, representatives of a city united, to show their grief and sense of loss, their solidarity with those who mourn most deeply, and their gratitude to those, vigili, police, volunteers of all kinds, who had undertaken the difficult and dangerous work of rescue and recovery. The civic remembrance began with a reading of the names of the dead, each with a short biographical sketch, to the accompaniment of the Adagio by Samuel Barber. Some were almost unbearably poignant, especially the last, of the youngest person to die. Here even the reader, who had kept control of his emotions through what must have been a horribly difficult task, almost lost it, and all the way through there was much furtive (and not-so-furtive) wiping of eyes and blowing of noses. Bishop Anselmi spoke well in the Piazza, finishing his contribution by leading the crowd in saying the Angelus, whose closing words, a plea to Mary to “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death”, were singularly appropriate. And it was good to see the vigili and others taking centre stage as they recalled their part in the tragedy. The Mass in the cathedral was solemn and dignified, and the names of the victims were again read out, this time within the framework of the Eucharistic prayer, giving a sense of thanksgiving for their lives as well as the offering of those lives to be taken up into the suffering and death of Jesus and transformed by the love and mercy of God.


On Thursday 10th May the Church marks the return of Jesus to the Father who sent him.  There will be a celebration of the Eucharist for Ascension Day at 1230, and the church will be open all day for people to drop in and pray.  This is being done as part of the global “Thy Kingdom Come” initiative, which runs from Ascension Day to Pentecost (10th-20th May). “Thy Kingdom Come” started in England a couple of years ago and is now being taken up enthusiastically (and ecumenically) in many countries. There will be morning and evening prayer at the Church of the Holy Ghost on the day as well as prayer stations and other resources.  I hope you will be able to join us.  If you would like to know more about “Thy Kingdom Come” and, particularly, about things that individuals and families can do during the ten days, please follow this link to the website and then click on “Resources”. There will also, I hope, be material appearing on the “Church and Friends” FB page during the next few days, so please, if you are on Facebook, please keep an eye on that.

A new page in this church’s history:

We have Fr Tony Dickinson with us to provide an active ministry to this church and metropolitan area. A very exciting time and an important development for our congregation. Welcome!

Revd Canon Tony Dickinson

Born in Liverpool in 1948, Tony Dickinson was educated at Liverpool Collegiate School and New College, Oxford.  He worked in university administration at the University of Durham’s Institute of Education and the Open University’s Southern Regional office in Oxford before following a call to ordained ministry.   After training at Lincoln Theological College he was ordained in St Alban’s Abbey (deacon 1982: priest 1983).  Since then he has worked in parishes in Watford (1982-1986), Slough (1986-1994) and High Wycombe (1994-2018).  From 1995 to 2013 he was one of the team of Ecumenical Officers in the diocese of Oxford, serving for some years as team leader.  For the past 23 years he has also been the European Officer of the Diocese of Oxford, developing a formal partnership with the diocese of Växjö in the Church of Sweden and encouraging attendance at the German Protestant Kirchentag, which he has attended since 1985.  Since 2005 he has been an Honorary Canon of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford.  He has been engaged in interfaith and intercultural relations for much of his ministry, with a particular focus on the encounter between Christians and Muslims, about which he has written.  He is also an experienced spiritual director.

Tony is a reasonably fluent French-speaker and can get by in German, Spanish and Italian (he is working on this!) as well as in Swedish.  He is married to Sandra, who is a health-care professional, and they have two grown-up children, Hugh and Beatrice.

Some of our locum chaplains who has served our church so generously in the past:

For February, including Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, we welcome back Fr Gordon Bond SSC.

Fr GordonBy birth a Yorkshireman, I trained at Chichester Theological College, and my ministry has been spent very much south of my homeland, mostly in the Diocese of Chichester.

Before moving to the parish of St Mary East Grinstead, where I spent a large part of my priestly ministry, I was chaplain to Bishop Colin Docker, then Bishop of Horsham. I enjoyed my time working with Bishop Colin, but always saw my vocation in parish ministry.

I enjoyed being at Saint Mary’s, where, with a strong core of laity, we led a firm spiritual life in the catholic tradition of the Church of England.

Since retiring some ten years ago and battling with a few ill-health problems, I have been helping out in the parish of St Richard in Haywards Heath.

My two hobbies are Travel in Continental Europe (when I am fit and able) and I enjoy Modern Foreign Languages. I speak reasonable French and a little German. My Italian is improving in terms of nouns: verbs are next!

I count it a privilege to serve once again the spiritual community at Holy Ghost.

Fr Bernard Fray is back with us for the month of January.

 I have been in parish ministry for some twenty years. Having previously been in teaching at King Edward VI School Lichfield and then deputy head at an independent school in Hampshire, I moved back north to take on the role of Head at a school near Scarborough .
I was ordained in York Minster and still continue to serve in the York Diocese.   Since retiring from full time ministry, I have enjoyed my several visits to Genoa, both in the heat of summer and the cold of winter. I have had two Christmases here. I have also served  at St. Moritz in Switzerland on three winter seasons, and in addition I serve as chaplain on the Saga cruise liners.     I love travelling, modern languages and performing music (when I can).
We welcome for the first time Bishop David Farrer, and his wife Helen, to be wish us for most of November then Advent and Christmas.

Bishop David Farrer was born in England but moved to Australia as a child. He trained as a horticulturist in the Dandenong Ranges and at Burnley Horticultural College, Melbourne before studying for the ordained ministry in Adelaide. He was ordained priest in 1969 and a few years later returned to Melbourne where he served in the parishes of Brunswick and Eastern Hill, was Chaplain to Parliament of Victoria, a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral and also Archdeacon of Melbourne. His commitment to community work in Australia earned him the title of Citizen of the Year in Brunswick in 1983 “for work with the unemployed and homeless”.

He was consecrated bishop in 1998 and was Bishop of Wangaratta from 1998 to 2008, during which time he helped establish four low-fee Anglican schools.  His vision for these schools was that they should be low-fee Anglican Schools for the growing populations of the Diocese, to work closely with the local parishes and to meet the educational social and spiritual needs of the children who attended. From their very beginnings he and the other founders have overseen amazing growth of what was obviously a very much wanted and needed educational option.

In 2008 Bishop David returned to England to become Vicar of the Parish of Arundel in West Sussex: he also served as an Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Chichester. Since then he has done an eighteen-month locum in the Parish of All Saints East St Kilda in Melbourne and a shorter locum at the nearby St James’ Parish.

Bishop David and Helen have two sons and five grandchildren in Australia.

For the month of October and the first part of November we welcome the return of Fr Peter Blackburn, long-time locum chaplain with this church, he is now based in London.


We welcome for the first time to our church Fr Richard Gowty who sends this message to us all:

Greetings to you all from Australia.

I am looking forward to being your Chaplain for the month of September.

It will be the third time I have served in Italy, having been a locum Chaplain on previous occasions in Lake Como and Taormina.

My wife Maggie and I live on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast with our dog Barney where I am an Archdeacon and in charge of the parish of Palmwoods. Maggie is a retired teacher, and together we enjoy the many blessings of life in a wonderful country, enjoying good health and surrounded by family and friends.

We have three married daughters, Anna, Kate and Sophie and seven grandchildren, all of whom live in reasonably close proximity to us.

We love to travel, especially in Europe, with Italy and the Italian people close to our hearts. We have lived in a number of overseas places where I have worked as a priest, including London and the USA, but we are pleased to call Australia home.

Besides our love for the Anglican church, we have many interests. Obviously we both enjoy travel and meeting new friends, and look forward to doing so amongst you in September.

Maggie manages the Parish Op shop in Palmwoods and enjoys reading, keeping up with family and friends, cooking and gardening; I am a keen golfer as well as an unashamed lover of Italian food and culture, and this increases every time we have the privilege of visiting your country. Together we are proud grandparents to Lily, Emma, Harry, George, Daisy, Bell and Phoebe.

Maggie and I will shortly leave Australia to be with you in Genoa. We very much look forward to this posting and pray that my ministry among you will be a blessing to both you and us.

With warm regards

Archdeacon Richard and Maggie Gowty


We welcome back to our church, after quite some time (!), for the last Sunday in July and the whole month of August Fr. Michael Bullock.

I was last in Genova in 2000, having spent eighteen months as Chaplain of Liguria. There will be one or two people I remember from those days, and I look forward to meeting them again and also getting to know new faces. Since leaving Liguria I was Chaplain at Lisbon (Portugal) for a number of years before retiring to England in 2012. I have lived in Spalding in the east of England since then, interspersed with periods of locum duty in the Diocese in Europe in various countries all of which
have interested and stimulated me. History and languages and the people who speak them have always been a joy. I am writing this from Norfolk (England) where I am attending the annual retreat and chapter meeting of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd (OGS) a religious society of celibate priests and laymen to which I have belonged since 1993.
After leaving Genova in September I hope to take up the ministry of Chaplain of Bonn and Cologne (Germany) in November.
Michael Bullock OGS


For June and most of July we were happy to have Fr Bernard Fray back with us.

 I have been in parish ministry for some twenty years. Having previously been in teaching at King Edward VI School Lichfield and then deputy head at an independent school in Hampshire, I moved back north to take on the role of Head at a school near Scarborough .
I was ordained in York Minster and still continue to serve in the York Diocese.   Since retiring from full time ministry, I have enjoyed my several visits to Genoa, both in the heat of summer and the cold of winter. I have had two Christmases here. I have also served  at St. Moritz in Switzerland on three winter seasons, and in addition I serve as chaplain on the Saga cruise liners.     I love travelling, modern languages and performing music (when I can).


We welcome back to our church for the month of May Rev. Douglas Greenaway

The Rev. Douglas Andrew Greenaway was Ordained to the Holy Order of Priests in the Anglican/Episcopal Diocese of Washington and completed his Master of Divinity at Wesley Theological Seminary, in Washington, DC. He currently serves as Priest Associate at St. Paul’s Rock Creek Parish. Prior ministries include serving as Assistant Rector at St. Alban’s Parish, Washington, DC, as Clergy Chaplain for Episcopal Students at American University, and as on-call Chaplain at Washington Hospital Center.

Since 1985, Fr. Greenaway has served as an advocate and government affairs specialist.  As President & CEO of the NATIONAL WIC ASSOCIATION, NWA, since 1990, Douglas is responsible for directing the Association as well as representing the interests of its members – the 50 States, 40 Indian Nations, and Trust Territories, 2200 local agencies, and 10,000 clinics who operate the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children as well as the nearly 9 million mothers and young children who participate in WIC – before Congress, the US Department of Agriculture, other Federal agencies and the White House.  His ministry with NWA has been recognized by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, USA.

A Master’s graduate of The Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture in Washington, DC, Douglas practiced his profession as an Architect for eight years in Los Angeles, India, Washington, DC, and Germany before returning to an earlier love, public policy!

In 1974, after graduating in Political Science/Sociology from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, Douglas began work with the Research Office of the Official Opposition in Canadian Parliament, writing speeches and debate notes for the Leader of the Official Opposition and Opposition Members of Parliament.

A resident of Washington, DC, Douglas was born in Belleville, Ontario, Canada. He is the proud father of Vishal Sean and a new grandson Kavi Vishal. Both father and son are avid, dedicated skiers.


For Easter and our service of Confirmation we welcomed back Fr Gordon Bond SSC.

Fr GordonBy birth a Yorkshireman, I trained at Chichester Theological College, and my ministry has been spent very much south of my homeland, mostly in the Diocese of Chichester.

Before moving to the parish of St Mary East Grinstead, where I spent a large part of my priestly ministry, I was chaplain to Bishop Colin Docker, then Bishop of Horsham. I enjoyed my time working with Bishop Colin, but always saw my vocation in parish ministry.

I enjoyed being at Saint Mary’s, where, with a strong core of laity, we led a firm spiritual life in the catholic tradition of the Church of England.

Since retiring some ten years ago and battling with a few ill-health problems, I have been helping out in the parish of St Richard in Haywards Heath.

My two hobbies are Travel in Continental Europe (when I am fit and able) and I enjoy Modern Foreign Languages. I speak reasonable French and a little German. My Italian is improving in terms of nouns: verbs are next!

I count it a privilege to have served the spiritual community at Holy Ghost on several occasions – twice now to celebrate together the joy of the Resurrection.


Priests at the Church of the Holy Ghost Genova 2016-2017

Here are the names of the priests coming to serve this church over the next months. We thank them for their dedication and witness.


  • December   –   Peter Cavanagh


  • January 1   –    Peter Cavanagh
  • January      –    Clifford Owen
  • February    –    Ed Hanson
  • March         –    Elizabeth Bussmann
  • April            –    Gordon Bond
  • May             –    Douglas Greenaway
  • June            –    Bernard Fray
  • July             –    Bernard Fray
  • August        –    Michael Bullock
  • September –    Richard Gowty
  • October      –    Peter Blackburn
  • November –    Douglas Greenaway
  • December. –   Michael Bullock


For the month of March we have been privileged to welcome back Rev.d Elizabeth Bussmann-Morton. She is also our Environment Officer for the Anglican Diocese in Europe.

I have lived in Switzerland since 1971 and trained originally as a Deacon in the Swiss Church. However, in 2000 my husband Edi, and I returned to England where I trained as a Church Army Evangelist in Sheffield. We had thought we would stay for two or three years but it became 14! In 2014 we returned to Switzerland to enjoy our grandchildren while they are still relatively young. When we left in 2000 we had 1, now there are 10!

In England I was rector of two parishes in Surrey, a ministry I really loved. Now I help twice a month at St Peter’s in Chateau d’Oex and am also the Environmental Officer for the Diocese in Europe. I have also discovered the privilege of being a locum minister. This is my first time outside of Switzerland where I have been a seasonal minister for ICS in places such as Zermatt, Interlaken and Wengen. Our Golden Retriever, Monty, is also here in Genova and he LOVES it! Never had so many pats and kisses, not to mention all the dogs everywhere we go! Life will be very boring back home…..


For February 2017 Holy Ghost Anglican Church has welcomed back Father Ed Hanson.

Ed Hanson

The Rev. Edward W. Hanson lives in Twickenham, England (within shouting distant of the RFU stadium, although sadly not a fan himself).  Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, Ed worked as an academic historian before training for ordination initially at the Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass., and then at Ripon College Cuddesdon, Oxford.  He was ordained at Lincoln Cathedral and served a curacy in Lincoln City before moving to an incumbency in the Diocese of Chelmsford.  For ten years he was rector of three village parishes in the south of Essex and served as Rural Dean before taking a (slightly) early retirement in 2014.  Since then, Ed has been busy with locum work both in the West London area and most recently with the Diocese in Europe.  When one retires as a Rector, one does not retire as a priest.  In fact, it usually means that one can own one’s priesthood more fully when not weighed down with administration and meetings.  It has also allowed more time for a return to historical research and writing (early American history, genealogy, and a current project in Italian history), as well as travel through much of Europe which he has still not visited.


January 2017 – Fr Clifford Owen

Clifford and Avis Owen

Clifford retired from the Chaplaincy in Ostend and Bruges Belgium in October 2012 so is now into his fifth year of retirement. Apart from one or two short locums a year he has been quite busy in Huntingdon Deanery where he took six weddings last summer. Apart from retirement ministry Clifford has tried to keep up the practical interests that he knows cannot last for more than a few years. He works a day each week on the Nene Valley Steam Railway as a volunteer in the workshop. Twice a year he helps on archaeological digs in Cambridgeshire and has recently joined Huntingdon Male Voice Choir.
Avis continues to work as a volunteer research assistant in Huntingdonshire County Record Office and has taken up learning Latin to understand the medieval parish registers. She continues her sewing interest and has made three recent outstanding bed quilts.
Increasingly time is being taken up with assisting elderly relations as well as giving back to our four children and grandchildren some of the time they have missed from us over the ten years we have worked in the Diocese in Europe before retirement.


Advent and Christmas – We are very grateful to Fr Peter Cavanagh for stepping in and joining us mid-December till the New Year.


Peter Cavanagh was ordained in 1973 in the Diocese of Liverpool and after serving a curacy was appointed Vicar of St Columba’s Church, Anfield in 1979.  St Columba’s is an Art Deco church building and during his time there a restoration of this wonderful church was undertaken.

In 1994 the Parish Hall was burnt down (on November 5th!) and a new Parish Centre was added to the church building.  In 1997 Peter was appointed  Vicar of Lancaster and stayed there until retirement in 2010.  Throughout his ministry Peter has served on various committees connected with the care and preservation of church buildings, and now helps find new uses for churches now surplus to requirement.
He enjoys reading, cooking, music (especially opera) and is an avid reader.


For November 2016 we welcome the return of Fr John Smith:

Canon John Smith
Canon John Smith

I am a retired Anglican priest and diocesan educationalist, living in Nottinghamshire, but most recently in paid employment in Kent, who has been here three of four times previously. Proof of my marriage is in the photo, and I am much occupied by travelling in Italy and the USA, where our son has lived and worked since 2000, and our only grandchildren are. I love playing chess, reading novels and history, doing the Guardian crossword, looking at art, the ballet, listening to music, speaking French, and leading Church of England worship.


For October 2016 we welcome Fr John Bennett, for the first time, to our church.

IMG_0700John and Rita Bennett live in the Yorkshire Dales, in the UK. Rita is a retired teacher. John is a retired Anglican priest who has served in North Yorkshire, both as a Methodist superintendent and an Anglican priest and now works in the chaplaincy team in Ripon Cathedral. They have organised a number of ecumenical pilgrimages in both Rome and Assisi and currently John is the Yorkshire representative, in support of the Anglican Centre in Rome.  He is also a member of the Anglican Franciscan third order. They have served overseas in the Church of Bangladesh and John is a trustee of Christians Aware, an international and ecumenical movement aiming to develop multi-cultural understanding.   They have a love of Italy, history, the arts and the countryside.


For the month of September we welcomed the return of Fr Peter Blackburn.


For the month of July we welcome the return of Fr David Emmott.



For the month of June we welcome the return of Fr Lawson Nagel.

Fr Lawson

It’s great to be back in Genoa after a five-year gap! My wife Mary and I lead busy lives – I am the Vicar of Aldwick in the Diocese of Chichester and Mary is the Secretary of the Catholic Group in General Synod – but coming to Genoa allows us to have a ‘working holiday’ and meet up with friends old and new. Back in 2011 we had our two younger children Tim and Polly with us; both are now married and Polly and her husband Gareth are expecting their second child in September. Our elder son Tom works in London and rings bells in various churches, and our elder daughter Lucy is a deacon in Bristol. Over the years I have been able to point several priests from the Catholic tradition towards Genoa, and it’s good that Mary and I have been able to come this year ourselves . There’s such a warm welcome here for us, and for you too – come and see!

Fr Lawson


For Easter we welcome back Fr Gordon Bond SSC.

Fr GordonBy birth a Yorkshireman, I trained at Chichester Theological College, and my ministry has been spent very much south of my homeland, mostly in the Diocese of Chichester.

Before moving to the parish of St Mary East Grinstead, where I spent a large part of my priestly ministry, I was chaplain to Bishop Colin Docker, then Bishop of Horsham. I enjoyed my time working with Bishop Colin, but always saw my vocation in parish ministry.

I enjoyed being at Saint Mary’s, where, with a strong core of laity, we led a firm spiritual life in the catholic tradition of the Church of England.

Since retiring some ten years ago and battling with a few ill-health problems, I have been helping out in the parish of St Richard in Haywards Heath.

My two hobbies are Travel in Continental Europe (when I am fit and able) and I enjoy Modern Foreign Languages. I speak reasonable French and a little German. My Italian is improving in terms of nouns: verbs are next!

I count it a privilege to have served the spiritual community at Holy Ghost on several occasions – twice now to celebrate together the joy of the Resurrection.


For March 2016 we welcomed Fr John Bennett, for the first time, to our church.

IMG_0700John and Rita Bennett live in the Yorkshire Dales, in the UK. Rita is a retired teacher. John is a retired Anglican priest who has served in North Yorkshire, both as a Methodist superintendent and an Anglican priest and now works in the chaplaincy team in Ripon Cathedral. They have organised a number of ecumenical pilgrimages in both Rome and Assisi and currently John is the Yorkshire representative, in support of the Anglican Centre in Rome.  He is also a member of the Anglican Franciscan third order. They have served overseas in the Church of Bangladesh and John is a trustee of Christians Aware, an international and ecumenical movement aiming to develop multi-cultural understanding.   They have a love of Italy, history, the arts and the countryside.


Sunday March 20th: Palm Sunday Address

Sunday March 13th:   Passion Sunday Address and today’s Baptism

Sunday March 6th:       A Message for Mothering Sunday from Revd John

Here are some of the profiles of chaplains who come to serve the International Anglican Church in Genova

For January 2017 we will welcome back Father Clifford Owen owen picture

Holy Ghost Anglican Church welcomes Rev. Dr. Clifford Owen and his wife, Avis, who have joined us from England. Prior to becoming a priest, Fr.Clifford served in the Royal Navy for 10 years as an Engineering Officer. His tours of duty took him to the Far East, Persian Gulf, Mediterranean and the Baltic.

Fr. Clifford was ordained priest in 1974 in the Dioceseof St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich. In 1976 he moved to the Guildford Diocese, where he worked in
a new housing area near Bordon army camp and was successful in building an ecumenical church with the Methodists and URCs. It was here also that
he became involved in the healing ministry. Then in 1989, he moved to rural ministry in the Teme Valley of Worcestershire where he was also the Diocesan Ecumenical Officer.
In 2002 Fr. Clifford served as chaplain at Holy Trinity parish on the Greek island of Corfu where he was involved in helping to plant new congregations on Corfu, and also on the islands of Paxos and Lefkada.
In 2008 Fr. Clifford moved to the English speaking churches of Brugge and Oostende in Belgium. He officially retired from there in 2012. He now lives in the Diocese of Ely in the UK and keeps busy doing supply work at different churches, as a Day Chaplain at the Ely Cathedral and as a trustee of the Acorn and Whitehill Chase trusts.
In 2013 Fr. Clifford did an extended stint as locum chaplain at St. Luke’s in Fontainebleau, France.
In his retirement, Fr. Clifford now works as a volunteer on the Nene Valley Railway, Peterborough, one of the UK’s 113 steam locomotive heritage lines, where he is able to lend some of his engineering experience from back in the “old days.”
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