Learning from snow


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Early Wednesday morning and the world was beautifully transformed. A thick carpet of snow had reshaped the world. Everything looked different and the light reflected from the snow brought a new perspective to familiar landmarks. Rightly at our Morning Prayers in the Cathedral did we offer praise to the Lord of the Snow.

There is something exciting about the first fall of fresh snow. Children (and adults!) long to be outside and to play in this wonderful winter wonderland. For awhile wet gloves, cold noses and snow-clogged boots are forgotten amidst the fun but soon the call of the warm, dry indoors can not be ignored.

The once beautiful virgin snow is now a mass of footprints and the odd snow people, and paths start to become slippery. Vehicles are churning up the roads, cars start to be abandoned and in the wind the snow starts to drift. After the initial excitement a different reality sets in. It is fun to be off school but what about child care? Taking one snow day from work is a treat but key appointments start to be missed and we worry about the back-log of work we will face on our return.. And quickly we become conscious of isolated and vulnerable individuals for whom the snow starts to make their lives a prison, cut off from the daily support so essential to their lives.

It is surprising too how quickly the supermarkets start to run out of items especially fresh produce. All their smart delivery systems suddenly come unstuck as supplies chains come unstuck in the snow. Thankfully the local market stall seems to be able to produce a much better range of fresh vegetables despite the snow. Meanwhile at the first whiff of unusual weather trains are cancelled and buses stop running.

Snow teaches us a very important lesson. We are not as much in control of things as we often like to think. We have become so used to living our lives independent of the rhythms of nature, it comes as a bit of shock to the system to find nature still has the upper hand. We delude ourselves into thinking that we have subdued nature to our will but snow say otherwise.

Such is our surprise at such unpredictable weather that we have to give it names such as the Beast from the East or Storm Emma, as if somehow naming it helps us to feel more in charge of events. However all such name calling really reminds us how we are grown out of harmony with nature and how little attention we play to the elements that govern our planet. We have become poor at reading the signs of the times.

We are called to be stewards of all God gives us in creation but we have not been content with that and have rather sought to be masters of the created world. In our arrogance we ignore the evidence of our failure. The impact of climate change is all around us, oceans are polluted with plastics, in many of our cities air quality is damaging the lives of our children and too many species are facing extinction thanks to human action. We are proving poor stewards of this precious planet. Even when we are faced with the consequences of our actions, as demonstrated by the distressing scenes shown on Blue Planet 2, we are still slow to change the lifestyles that reap shut harm on our planet.

As the cold wind bites, our feet slip on the ice, and our too-precious car is buried under a white blanket it is time for us to learn the lesson of the snow. When the weather forces its attention upon us, it is a necessary reminder that we have to live lives in harmony with the created order. We are part of God’s work of creation not set apart from it. The different elements of the creation, and the very heart of its mystery and its wonder, means that nature will always impact on our lives in ways big and small and by the same token the way we live our lives will impact on the natural world around us, again in ways big and small. Our survival is intertwined with the rest of God’s creation. We must not be so foolish as to think that we are so amazing and masterful that we can carry on as if we were independent of the planet on which we are set.

We need to live lives more in tune with Creation and that begins by living lives more in harmony with the Creator. This season of snow is an important reminder of this fundamental truth but when the snow melts will we once again forget?


Time for the Church to resist centralisation and let the local flourish


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Malcolm Guite in his Poet’s Corner in the Church Times on 2nd February 2018 invites us to join CAMRE – the Campaign for Real Evangelism.  His inspiration is the growth of microbreweries and the local brews challenging the nation brands. He writes:


Perhaps we should see each small parish as a kind of microbrewery, combining an ancient recipe with local ingredients for a lively, distinct, and refreshing gift to its own community.

As the world is discovering the importance of localism, the Church of England seems busy following an outdated business model and be determined to strive for ever more centralisation.  The Church’s (alleged) great hope, Renewal and Reform, seems to be leading this mistaken big business model.  Bishops and Dean are to be shaped by new MBAs, theological courses and colleges are becoming more standardise, national programmes such as Alpha, Emmaus, Pilgrim are promoted as the new essentials and posts grow at Church House to over-see this new brave world.

A similar process is seen at work in the new Cathedrals Review Group report.  There is talk of a “cathedral sector” and a greater control over the way they are both governed and operated, additional reporting and creation of new “dashboards” to allow quick comparison – which presumes they have been made “alike” so like can be compared with like.

The fear in all of this is of the eccentric, the maverick, the individualist, the one who may go off message.  The dread is the uncontrolled individual (or individual church) saying or doing some that may bring the Church “reputational damage”.  Yes things go wrong (though we forget more often how they go right) but making change because of occasional mess-ups represents a failure to learn from the old adage that bad cases make bad laws.  Too often governments rush to legislation when something goes wrong and unintentionally can make things worse.  Centralisation, more control, more standardisation, will not protect the Church from mess-ups, but it may end up making the Church so bland nobody will care whether the Church messes-up or not.

The lesson from the Brexit referendum is that people do not like centralisation.  The yearn is for decision-making to be as close to the people it affects as possible.  Sadly the Church seems as slow to learn this lesson as many others in positions of power in our society. In many parishes Diocesan House can seem remote and out of touch and in turn Church House in London seems irrelevant.

Above all this creeping centralisation goes against the core Christian doctrine of Incarnation.  Jesus is made flesh at a particular moment of history, in a particular location. His words and his actions reflect the local context he was in.  Similarly in our own age each priest is called to incarnate the gospel in their own unique setting.  Each priest needs to be released to be their own microbrewery taking the three essential Kingdom ingredients named by Malcolm Guite as “Golden Grain, Living water and Secretly Working Yeast”.  Of course not all the brews will be the best fermentation and it may take several goes before something drinkable is achieved but as many a CAMRA member will tell you, these local brews usually knock the socks off the mass-produced, big brand alternatives.

It is time for the Archbishops’ Council, Church House, the House of Bishops, General Synod et al to let go and let be.  Release the levers of power and let’s go local.  Trust the priests on the ground, let the incarnational be the hall-mark of the Church – local, rooted, distinct – of its community, for its community.  All will not always go well, poor brews will occasionally taint the palate, but that is part of what it means to be family, Church family.  All this will make it much riskier to be a bishop, yet alone an archbishop, but as they themselves learn to become unpasteurised, the Church stands every chance of becoming  more colourful, diverse, and quirky – in short much more like the humanity God created.

So let’s get microbrewing…

Hard Thoughts prompted by lying on a hard cloister floor


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Last night a group of us slept out in the Cloisters to raise funds for the work of the excellent Church Urban Fund.

It cannot be considered any great hardship to go to sleep amidst the wonderful architecture of the Cloisters, the vaults covered with one of the greatest collection of medieval roof bosses in the world, but the floor was unforgiving and did not encourage sleep.

Thankfully there were no loud snorers, but the floor was unforgiving and sleep did not seem to want to come.

At least I was nice and warm despite the settling of frost on the Cloister Garth, but the floor was unforgiving and encouraged hard thoughts rather than deep sleep.

Why was I doing this?  Why in 21st century Britain, one of the richest countries in the world, do we need to be raising money for the homeless – some of whom would be huddled in doorways not more than a couple of hundred yards from where I was curled up?  And yes I was warm in my many layers of clothing and blankets together representing more possessions than most of the homeless of our city possessed, but representing just a small fraction of the clothes hanging in my wardrobe back home.

It is the sheer inequalities at the heart to our society that are so breath-taking. In any society there will always be some that struggle, or who, for what ever reason take a wrong turning and life starts to unravel.  Conscious of this we proudly created the Welfare State; together we would look after the most vulnerable and weakest in our midst.  Or at least that was the vision we thought was on offer but instead a narrative emerges of the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor.  The poor it seems have to be sifted and as the wholes in the sieve get bigger more fall through the net.  Too many get no help and many have to wait to long for the little help on offer; stripped of their dignity they must learn to be grateful for what little they receive.

When we encounter the growing numbers huddled in shop doorways some encourage us to intervene, to offer food, or warm clothing.  Others tell us by doing that we make the problem worse, we need, instead, to encourage them to use the agencies on offer, and donate to the approved charities. Help is out their we just need to be aware of it and signpost people on.  We are left confused and feeling helpless. And when you do get to know the statutory teams you find good people, trying to give of their best but overworked and under-resourced – they too often feel helpless in the face of the need that confronts them.

To mention the need for more resources has almost become taboo.  The new mantra is that you do not solve problems by throwing money at them.  There may be truth in this but there can be no denying resources help – austerity has done more than trim the fat, it is now cutting into the bone.  One party tells us to encourage wealth because it trickles down to benefit all but it does not seem to trickle down very far.  The other party talks of taxing them, of making them pay their fair share, but for fear of lost votes the talk is always of “them” not of “us” – and even rarer still of “me”. The rich are always those with more than me.

But this “have” is willing to have less in order that the “have-nots” may have more.  I would willingly pay more tax, still pay my prescription charges whilst working even if I have reached a certain age and as long as I am working I do not need other discounts or free passes because of my age.  I would rather live with less it that will lead to a more just and equal society.

Lying on a hard floor provokes hard thoughts.  There is nothing virtuous about being part of a sleep out. Our joint efforts may help others apply another sticking plaster on the sore of inequality but we are long past the time when deeper, longer lasting solutions are needed.

As dawn creeps into the cloisters, I pull on my glasses and the roof bosses come into focus and there above me, weather-worn but still discernible, is the image of Christ on the cross. Two thousand years on and we still have to learn the lesson of self-giving love.  The challenge of God’s Kingdom of justice and peace needs to be proclaimed afresh. I crawl out of my sleeping bag and wonder how today I can achieve that task.

Fallen Clergy: solo artists or team players?


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This week’s report from the Cathedrals Working Group, speaks of the need for penitence for those occasions when relationships between cathedral and diocese, bishop and dean have broken down.  And they might have added between residentiary canons and deans. Approaching any conversation about church institutions on one’s knees seems like a good starting point.

Tensions in a Cathedral Close are not new, they are the stuff of literature and occasionally of newspaper headlines.  At best they are undignified and at worst deeply damaging to the wider Church’s reputation.  So what is to be done about them?  This latest report suggests yet  more new rules and regulations but however well intentioned will this really solve the problem?

The truth is clergy falling out is not just a cathedral issue.  Team ministries are also a regular source of clerical tensions to such an extent that bishops are often hesitant to create new team ministries and even break up the ones already existing.  Similarly relationships between training incumbents and curates can be fraught and each year some curate has to be rescued and given a new parish.

Clergy do not always work well with other clergy.  In part this just reflects their natural human frailty.  But there is also something more fundamental going on.  For all the talk of collaborative ministry, and no one ministering alone, the core model of the Church of England is the priest and his or her parish.  The focus is the lone priest working their own territory; working in teams is the exception. Whatever the intention of their training, clergy emerge as solo artists.

Yet when Jesus sent out the disciples, he sent them out in pairs.  From the beginning the model was of shared ministry.  Similarly religious communities offer models of ministry as a corporate not an individual undertaking.  Their rules of life, such as the Rule of St Benedict still have much to teach us:

This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: The should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behaviour, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone  else.  To their fellow monks they show pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot unfeigned and humble love. (Ch72)

We know the first apostles did fall out with each other and religious communities can be riven with division, but they nevertheless set the model of ministry as a shared undertaking.  Perhaps if we could return to a sense of priests as “Clerks in Holy Orders”, individuals under authority, part of the wider corporate whole – just a part, one part among many, of the Body of Christ, then just perhaps many of the recommendations of this report would not be needed.

Sadly the individualism of the age has infected the ranks of the clergy as much as other parts of society.  The opportunity for the Church is to model how it can be different, where individualism is not the hallmark, where teams are places of mutual flourishing and leadership inclusive and enabling.

Until the Church changes its underlying model of ministry, cathedral chapters will dysfunction, team ministries will fall apart and training curacies will come undone.  If we do not foster a more shared approach to ministry then this latest report will just create new structures that will, in due time, create more trouble at cathedral and in ten or so years time create a new crisis leading to a new report.  The deck chairs can be rearranged but the fundamental problem with the good ship, Church, remains.

Truly the place to start to a different future is on our knees.

The Empty Crib; a home for mistaken expectations


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It is not a story you will find written in the Gospels nor recorded elsewhere in the writings of the Church, but it is a story I have always felt was true.  If the Gospels end with the Empty Tomb, they begin with the Empty Crib.

When Mary returned from visiting her cousin Elizabeth, Joseph had a surprise for his betrothed.  After their uncertain start, Joseph wanted to make amends.  He wanted to show he would be there for her and was indeed quietly excited by this forthcoming birth.

So while Mary was away he had set to work.  Using offcuts from other commissions, and finding time around other paying customers,  Joseph set to work to build a crib for their baby.  And when Mary returned from her stay with Elizabeth, Joseph could not wait to show his handiwork to her.  With his hands covering her eyes, he led her into his workshop…and then the big reveal.  Her squeal of delight was reward enough.  Gazing together at the empty crib, the excitement of being parents drew them closer together.  Despite the shaky start they were going to make great parents.

And in the weeks that followed Mary would find endless excuses to visit Joseph in his workshop just to look at the crib, and touching her growing belly would smile with quiet excitement at the prospect of the adventure ahead.  At the end of each day Joseph took a brief moment to run his hand over the wood of the crib, his heart pregnant with expectation at the prospect of fatherhood.

Their dreams shattered in an instant by the rough knock on the door, the message of the census and the unlooked-for journey back to Joseph’s home town.  As they gathered their few possessions for the journey, unspoken they both knew the crib would need to be left behind but surely they would be back – this was just a temporary interruption to the life they had planned together.

Resting beside the road at night, the darkness hid the growing anxiety in both their eyes that they would not be back home in time for the birth.  Their last thoughts before a troubled sleep and their first on a too early waking were of the crib and the lost security it represented.

Bethlehem.  The crowds.  The onset of contractions.  No home comforts, no privacy and in the end only the stable’s manger for their sleeping baby – both trying hard not to think of the sweet crib that now seemed so far away.  This was not how it was meant to be.

Rumours of the wrath of Herod.  When the only hope of safety is leaving home behind then you know this is not the future you had planned.  No one chooses to become a refugee.  Each night on the long road to Egypt, cowering in the darkness, alert to every sound, taking turns to cradle their baby, their last thoughts before a troubled sleep and their first on a too early waking were of the crib and the lost security it represented.

Trying to find a home in a foreign county, far from everything that was once so familiar, thoughts would often turn to another time and another place, and uninvited, each would find coming to their memory an empty crib and all their dreams of what they had imagined parenthood would be like.

By the time it was safe enough to return there was no more need of a crib and the path they would be forced to take would mean it would never be seen again, never again would they feel its wood beneath their hands.  But as this baby grew first to boyhood and then to manhood, and life with Jesus took so many twists and turns that this became the new normal, still the image of that crib would return and they would wonder what had happened to the life they had planned.

Memories of magi from the East.  Gifts of Gold and Frankincense were surprising but flattering in their way.  But myrrh hinted at a different darker story; a gift for one who would suffer.  This was not part of his parents’ dreams.  And a cousins meeting.  News of John baptising at the River Jordan spread like wild-fire through the towns and countryside, heralding the one who was to come.  But John is stopped in his tracks as the one whose sandal he knows he is not worthy to tie asks him for baptism.  A mother’s delight at accompanying her son to a wedding yet a strange place for a Messiah to begin bios ministry and when all are a little the worse for wear, water is turned into wine, 150 gallons of wine.  What kind of a son is this, what kind of a Messiah is this?

I believe every church should have an empty crib by its door and there as we enter we should place our assumptions, our expectations, our judgements and our prejudices.  Made with such sincerity of purpose and good intent, the empty crib should sit there as a folly to our pretence to understand the things of God.

To understand the moment of Epiphany it is necessary to let go of the way you thought it would be – bring nothing but an open mind and a responsive heart.  With hands outstretched and eyes wide open, with Jesus we walk into a future not of our making but of his shaping.   Epiphany comes when we let God take us where He wills.

Wishing you a properly smelly Christmas


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What smells will waft through your home at Christmas time.  Will it be the mouth-watering smell of home cooking?  Will it be the pine smell of a freshly cut Christmas tree or perhaps you will resort to scented candles or oil burners to bring you the smells of traditional Christmas spices?

Smells can be very powerful at evoking memory and there may be particular smells that evoke the memories of Christmas celebrations past.  But to really get in the Christmas mood we need a very different set of smells.

The sweet hot breath of a cow, the not unattractive smell of sweaty donkey, the fuggy smell of damp sheep and the slightly fermented smell of warm straw.  These were the smells of that first Christmas morn, these were the smells that first filled the lungs of the infant Christ.  And these were the smells that would best express the coming of God’s kingdom.

God comes to us as life really is, no more pretence, no carefully placed scents to cover up the reality of life.  God comes to us in the midst of life as it honestly is, with all its mess and funny smells, with all its chaos and upset.

And there was no better setting than a stable and all its associated smells, because in a stable there can be no pretending, no putting on of airs and graces – in a stable you just have to be yourself.

And at the centre of this smell stable is the babe in the manger who is none other than God’s message of love to each one of us.  God is the one from whom no secrets are hidden, who knows us exactly as we are, who sees through all our pretence and our excuses – and knowing us for exactly what we are, accepts us and loves us.

So this Christmas no more fake scents.  May your lungs be full of all the smells of the stable.  Know that the baby lying in the manger is looking up and seeing you for who you are, who you really are, and longs for nothing more than to be loved back by you.

The Christ-child looks around the stable – could there be a greater contrast to the glories of heaven – and breathes in the stable smells – so very different from the fragrances of the heavenly realm – and smiles.  Why?  Because, truly, you are worth it.

I met God the other day; she was five feet tall


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I met God the other day.  She said her name was Susan but she looked a lot like God to me.  She was about five feet tall, well dressed, young middle-aged and married to Fred, and to Freda.  When I met her she was with Freda, six feet plus, blond and quietly glamorous.

Susan explained that when he was wearing trousers, she knew she was married to Fred. When she was wearing a dress she knew she was married to Freda.  She went on to say:  I look at this way; I am lucky as I got two for the price of one and with both we have lots of fun together.

What shone through in this brief encounter was Susan’s absolute love and acceptance of her partner.  She would not claim to be anything other than a loving wife.  Yet meeting   her and witnessing love and acceptance so visibly demonstrated, she appeared truly divine.  God’s presence in the world comes in many guises but on this day she was five feet tall.

Is not such unconditional love and acceptance what we first receive from God, and which we are called to show to others?  God is our heavenly parent who loves and accepts us just as we are – the one from whom no secrets are hidden, who knows us as we really are and embraces us as his own.

Maybe I have just been fortunate, but in the LGBT gatherings I have experienced, I have always found a remarkable spirit of understanding and of acceptance and it is this that has made me feel God is present at such gatherings.  It is because of this that when I hear Christians climbing on to their high horses about gender and sexuality I always feel so sad – consciously or unconsciously it feels like it is God who is being rejected all over again.

There will be some who will say it is I who have got all this wrong but all I know is the other day I met God and she was five feet tall.

Living in the fog of news; when news confuses rather than clarifies


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The phrase the “fog of war” emerged in military planning towards the end of the 1800s as a way of describing a commander’s confusion both of their own real strength, that of their allies and of their enemies.  Amidst this fog, military intelligence becomes the key tool to try to give clarity to planning.

Today we are learning to live with the “fog of news”, an uncertainty about what is happening and of the validity of our own views and the views of others.  The phrase “fake news” may be associated with President Trump  but although he may have named it he did not invent it.  Whilst we hold on to the idea that there is a definitive source of “accurate” news, if you have been involved in any story which then becomes reported as news, likely as not your own perception of those events will be very different to what is reported.

Similarly in choosing the source for the news we consume, we are already giving a slant to how we will see the world.  The Guardian’s world view is different from that of the Daily Mail and Channel 4 news feels very different from Channel 5 news.  The BBC may play on its brand integrity but all too often that mask slips.

It might be assumed that the task of news media is to help lift the fog but often they just add to it.  So the BBC lead with their interview of an ex-police officer’s comments on the contents of the computer of Damian Green.  Having initially focused on the questions it raised about a politician’s integrity, then they focused on the motivation for the police officer for giving the interview and criticisms of the breach of confidentiality.  The BBC had both generated the scoop and the story about the scoop and in the process had added fog to fog rather than bringing light to truth.

Everyone jumped up and down as President Trump announced the re-location of the US embassy for Israel to Jerusalem.  In the rush to highlight the maverick nature of this new President, little was made of the fact that this has been long-standing US policy and that other US Presidents had spoken of realising this ambition although none had actually acted on it.

For all the hours of reportage on Brexit are any of us really clearer what is happening? Similarly lack of clarity hovers around allegations of sexual harassment in parliament and in the film industry.  Stories drop in and out of the headlines, much depending on when “news” is no longer considered to be “new”.   Refugees continue to drown in the Mediterranean, mass shootings regularly happen in the US, the conflict in Ukraine drags on, civil war is a daily reality in many countries such as South Sudan and the Central African Republic but, in the main, as such events are not new they are not news.  We are regularly told the NHS and Social Care are on the brink of collapse yet nothing seems to have changed so are we blindly moving towards a cliff edge or is someone crying wolf?  24/7 rolling news does not mean we are necessarily better informed about what is actually happening in the world and the demands of rolling news means that reactions are more knee-jerk and less considered.

Amidst the fog, many seem to feel that this just validates their own opinion (or should that be prejudices?) and become more bunkered in their own world view.  If others are not offering clarity then my own perceptions are as valid as anyone else’s .  The denser the fog, the more shrill the voices and the more acceptable it seems to vilify, or blacken, the name of those who dare to offer an alternative voice.

In the midst of the fog of news we cling to any passing certainty and try to make it our own.  But what happens if we let go of certainty and admit to not knowing?  In the search for truth a certain humility seems in order.  In admitting to not knowing, we open ourselves up to listening more to others, we learn to value discernment over proclamation, we become genuine searchers after truth rather than merely seeking evidence to support what we really thought all along.

In our own parliament, on the floor of the House, we are treated to the degrading spectacle of MPs trading their own versions of truth in a manner that often makes a cat fight look dignified.  But away from the spotlight, parliamentary select committees bring together people from diverse political backgrounds, who with the help of experts, do a much more effective task of seeking after truth, and often to the discomfort of the party in power.

In the fog of news, it is not the loudest voice nor the most repeated assertion that helps bring clarity but rather the gathering in a genuine spirit of not knowing.  It is in the letting go of prejudice and in the openness to those who come to life from a different perspective that the fog thins. It is in stilling my assertions, and in giving attention to the too often drowned out voice, that some clarity may emerge.

Perhaps if news was not 24 hours 7 days each week but 7 minutes of reflection each 24 hours we might see the fog lift and our clarity of vision improve.


Advent: a reminder that to be Church is to always be compromised


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Advent has arrived and with it come the annual pleas to keep the season as a special time in the life of the Church and to resist the creeping advances of Christmas. Clergy try to hold a line by keeping christmas trees in churches at bay and resist the too early singing of carols.  Christmas we are reminded begins on 25th December and can then be celebrated for twelve, if not for forty days; that is the real Christmas season.

There is no doubting that Advent is an important season in its own right.  A time of proper preparation, reflection and penitence.  We recall how the patriarchs and matriarchs longed for the coming of God’s Saviour.  We hear again the words of the prophets spoken to people feeling abandoned in exile.  We think of John the Baptist seeking to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.  And we honour Mary as she in a unique and personal way responds to the call of God.  This at least is the acceptable face of Advent and with Advent wreaths makes the Church appear to joining in the count down to the BIG DAY although really the themes here are more significant than can be captured in the evermore commercial offering of Advent Calendars

As we prepare to meek God in the Christ-child we are also encouraged to consider when we will meet God at the end of our life and to contemplate the four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell – although any preacher deciding to major on these themes is usually regarded as a bit of a party pooper.

Then of course is the theme of the Second Coming, when Christ will return again and complete the work of Salvation begun in his earthly ministry two thousand.  Although from the first a key part of the Christian message (Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again), the Church is shy of being associated with the doom-mongers and end-of-the-worlders – safer to stay with keeping the focus on the babe in Bethlehem.

Each of these important Advent themes is linked by the theme of waiting which in itself is a fundamental human experience and with which all too many can identify.  But in an impatient world, and where taking the waiting out of wanting is seen as a virtue, these rich Advent themes are always going to struggle to make traction beyond the faithful few.

The dilemma for the Church is whether to stand out against the crowd and in so doing appear grumpy and out of touch.  Or does the Church go with the flow and risk lessening its message to the lowest common denominator.  Some will always want the Church to stand out for truth, for the purity of its message, seeing its difference as a virtue and a sign of its success.

Jesus himself recognises this same dilemma – John the Baptist comes neither eating nor drinking and is thought to have a demon whilst Jesus eats and drinks and is thought a glutton and a drunkard.  But what matters is Jesus is there amidst the mix and mess of people’s ordinary lives and from that comes the natural chances to speak of other (and deeper) things.

Trying to keep a good Advent is yet another reminder that to be Church is always to be in some way compromised.  Whatever path we take will will always in some way be less than we wanted to be.  Thankfully the salvation which the Church preaches is not about goodness and perfection but about grace.

The Christmas message begins not by being stand-offish and remote but by getting down amidst the muck and chaos – to join in where other people are already gathering and celebrating. The real skill is then discerning the stepping stones and bridges that in quiet, affirming and unthreatening ways then enable us to shift the gaze from the sausage roll in the manger to Love hidden in the straw.

It is only a compromised Church that can make that connection; only a broken Church that can heal.


Cathedrals: Mother Church or Distant Aunt?


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Traditionally cathedrals are known as the Mother church of their diocese, emphasising the link between parish and cathedral, diocese and cathedral.  The cathedral is the home of the seat of the bishop (the cathedra) and here clergy and people gather with their bishop for acts of celebration and of learning.  The cathedral also prays daily for the bishop and the parishes in the bishop’s care.

Cathedrals also seek to be Mother church in the way they offer support for clergy, encouraging them to come and spend a quiet day in the cathedral, for reading or reflection, away from the pressures of the parish, or even to come and stay for longer with the cathedral becoming a place for retreat and refreshment. Cathedral clergy also make themselves available to offer support and guidance to parish clergy as spiritual director or other resource. In these and other ways cathedrals offer themselves as a place of nurture.

Increasingly there is an expectation that cathedrals will be engaged with the diocesan mission plan and central Church initiatives.  Some wish to see cathedrals more directly under the control of their bishop and more responsive to the needs and wishes of the diocese and more “on message”.

Intended or not many see in the Church of England’s present Renewal and Reform programme a centralising tendency but there is a danger that this could damage the very mission they are seeking to promote. Although seen as rooted in history and tradition, for many who discover cathedrals and their worship, cathedrals are a fresh expression of Church, even a refreshing expression of Church.  It is not a claim to be better but a desire to be different and difference can be enriching.

Part of the very success of cathedrals – and cathedrals have been one of the signs of growth for the Church – is that they are independent, that they do sit at times more on the edge of the Church.  The very significant numbers visiting cathedrals, their engagement with the wider community through civic events, exhibitions, concerts, conferences and a wide variety of other activities means they meet and engage with a range of people who otherwise the Church might not otherwise be in contact with.  They are seen as places which are acceptable to people of all faiths and of no faiths, often acting as a bridge between Church and Community.  Being different, being independent, is part of their mission.

Too close an association with either diocese or national church could stifle the very success of cathedrals.  As far as possible cathedrals need to be free from imposing others’ agendas on those who cross their thresholds – to do so would be to undermine the sense of cathedrals being safe places, where all are welcome and difficult conversations can be had, where anonymity is acceptable, places large enough to hide in, big enough to point beyond themselves and hint at something other.

Inevitably there can be tensions between independent minded cathedrals and diocese and national Church but tension in and of itself need not be a bad thing.  As long as the reason for the independence is clearly articulated and it is shaped by a genuine desire to reach out and be that bride between Church and Community, then the wider Church can only benefit from independent minded cathedrals.

At times rightly and properly cathedrals will play their part in being “mother church” in all the positive connotations of that phrase, but at time, please also let the cathedrals be a distant aunt, allowing them to be at times slightly eccentric, “off message”.  But hopefully through their social and community engagement, by their welcome and cherishing of their visitors also a beloved, if distant, aunt.  We all need relatives who are different, even slightly mysterious or intriguing.  They enrich our sense of being a family and family life is richer and stronger for their presence.

So, long may diocese and national Church resist the temptation to meddle in the life of our cathedrals.  Rather let them be given the freedom to do the things they do best, in their own distinctive way, and allow them, at times, to be less mother and more aunt – if distant at times hopefully still beloved.