Julian of Norwich and VE Day

May 9th, 2020

On 8 May we celebrated Julian of Norwich and the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Both fell under the shadow of the corona virus.There’s a theme of opportunity and crisis which draws the three together.

Julian lived in a cell attached to the church of St Julian in Norwich. From one window she could watch the Mass being celebrated. Another window looked out onto the street from where people would come seeking her guidance and advice. She was writing in the early 1400’s but reflecting upon earlier visions during a time of plague which brought fear and huge upheaval in society and church. Incredibly, at this time, she wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well”. She referred to God as the “ground of our beseeching”; God is the desire within us and the inspirer of our will. When she had her vision, all could not be well for people, many would die prematurely, businesses and farms would fail and priests were particularly badly hit, bringing comfort to plague victims. However, there were positive transformations: serfdom ended, as a consequence of labour shortages; and the church was renewed, especially in her convents and monasteries.

The end of war in 1945 also transformed society. So many had sacrificed so much and it was clear that health could no longer be the privilege of the monied classes and a basic standard of living was needed for all. As the pain was felt across the nation, so a new national social contract must emerge. Both the National Health Service and the Welfare State have their roots in the conflict with Nazi Germany. The horror of war necessitated the building of a just peace. “All shall be well”, not because the pain of grief and injury was to be forgotten, but because a new model of society emerged from the rubble and heroism.

Today, with the lockdown and disruption of the corona virus, we could be on a similar social cusp. There is fear for lives, jobs, education, mental wellbeing and future prospects. Also, the fear is different across the generations: older people are disproportionately at mortal risk; younger people have their education, job prospects, future pensions and ability to buy property profoundly impacted. This contemporary social upheaval may lead to greater equity across generations and communities or it can reenforce the privilege of those who are already secure. The proper recognition of our front line workers is a priority be they NHS, bus drivers, care home workers or food retailers. Could this also be a time to rediscover that: globalisation could be less about the market and more about health and the environment; that lack of opportunities among our young people affects the future of us all; and inequalities across our communities undermines the wellbeing of all the nation?

Can a parish with five livery halls, offer a model of community building on education, craft, association and charitable endeavour? A tradition which has weathered several plagues, can look beyond this pandemic with the gift of hope, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” The livery movement was reimagined after 1945, it can be part the reimagined future of us all.

The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us

May 4th, 2020

“Once I’m sure there’s nothing going on, I step inside letting the door thud shut”, wrote Philip Larkin in his poem Church Going. To the none believer, there is a strong draw to church buildings while, to the priest and community, these buildings are the custodians of memories, “once on an evening like this… a preacher caught fire and burned steadily before them with a strange light”, writes R.S. Thomas of an “ugly” chapel. Stones and timbers embody the memories of a nativity play with grandchildren, a funeral for a young soldier, the magic of bats flying through the Midnight Mass fumes of port and incense. But above all these places recall the loving nature of a God who “dwelt among us”. Buildings in the centre of their community, often for a millennia, recalling that “prayer has been valid”: in feast and famine; in joy and sorrow; and in pestilence and health.

So this Sunday morning, I went into St Vedast Church, which is on the same site as the Rectory, printed my sermon and then, sermon in hand, along with robes, vessels, books etc. went out side and celebrated the Parish Mass in my back garden/church courtyard against the outside wall of the church building. If I had been on the other side of the wall I would be going against very strong bishops’ advice not to celebrate even lone services in church buildings. What does this unusual celebration of the sacrament imply about our understanding of church and church buildings?

I stream the Mass as, following social distancing, we no longer gather around our altar to share bread and wine. But to the sadness of regulars and the incomprehension of the wider community, I am not able to stream within the church. Despite pictures in St. Vedast of celebrations with no roof, windows, or woodwork and the treasured possession of blackened and damaged communion vessels from the blitz, there is an assumption that now we need to withdraw from our building. At the very time when the church should be offering the generosity of the familiar, the assurance of being at the heart of our communities, we have withdrawn to kitchens and gardens. Although Easter incense wafted down Foster Lane from the open air Mass, unlike my Roman Catholic brethren I can’t say Mass in church nor offer last rites to a parishioner dying of covid.

In a Zoom nationwide conversation with priests, we noted how few funerals we were doing at this time of fatal pandemic. It appears that mourning families are not turning to their local vicar or wider church. Is that any wonder if we are not seen to be offering prayer in the places where communities have gathered for centuries, nor being present alongside health care professionals? Mass said in the home, in these circumstances, does not recall the early church gathering in houses, that was due to persecution and while church buildings were being established. Mass said in the home may imply a church on the margins unable to take a spiritual lead. John’s gospel, so familiar from Christmas services, recalls, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”. We look forward to once again dwelling among our communities in our familiar buildings.

Keep you mind in hell and despair not

May 2nd, 2020

The modern orthodox saint Silouan received the words, “Keep you mind in hell and despair not” directly from God. He understood this primarily as a call to humility as, if we lift ourselves out of hell, we become self reliant rather than God reliant. It’s the understanding of the 12 Step programme that there are times when we need to turn to something beyond us, a higher power, and avoid the addictive draw of despair. Silouan’s words apply to our time of lockdown.

In this context, hell may be understood as our current context. The fear, isolation and helplessness of these weeks. When lockdown started it was easy to work around this new context: Zoom kept meetings going; social media broke down isolation; news kept me in touch; new prayers gave me purpose. I soon realised that I had more Zoom meetings than previous physical meetings; social media kept me buzzing; news was forever streamed into my mind; and busyness in prayers kept me from God. My mind was not in hell but exhaustion was leading to despair, always doing and not being.

Now I try to stay in hell and despair not. My prayer life is sustainable and I give thanks for the simple repetitiveness of the Prayer Book office; newly rediscovered. As a parish priest I still offer intercession and Mass for the parish and its institutions but with rhythm and without despair, just holding before God. I periodically look at both the social media and the news avoiding the seduction of every “ping” on the phone. Allowing isolation to be a reality, but also ensuring that isolation leads to reflective solitude rather than crippling loneliness.

Sometimes, despair knocks at the door. Especially when I wonder if our Host Cafe will again be viable or consider the precariousness of jobs and vibrancy in the City. However, for now I am as stable as the Benedictine I once was. The Desert Father Abba Moses said, “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” We may not choose to remain in our house, flat or cell but we can choose to remain with the source of all wisdom.

Last Winchester Magazine Article

March 14th, 2017

This is my last column before journeying onto pastures new in central London, and I’m writing as the church makes its own spiritual journey through the austerity of Lent to the desolation of the cross, and beyond… The Hebrew figures of Abram and Sarai feature in our readings as God calls them to become migrants, “Go from your country and your kindred”. They’re to be unsettled, to be stirred up. It’s a story demonstrating that we cannot fit God into our existing way of life but we are called be changed to fit into God’s life. Physically they are called to change, to get up and move. Spiritually they are called to change, to be, as Jesus says, “born from above”. As a symbol of spiritual change they each receive a new name. They become Abraham and Sarah.

Before God calls them to change, they are barren; this harsh word encapsulates the shame of childlessness at this time. It’s only by moving that and changing their identity that they become fruitful. Not only with children but God also promises, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. By moving they experience fruitful blessing and become a blessing to others in turn. On the eve of personally moving and during the church’s journeying through Lent, what can be gleaned from this ancient tale?

Anglican Christians proclaim in their creeds a belief in the resurrection, while often passing over belief in death before resurrection. It’s striking that the centre of John’s vision of a new Jerusalem, in the Book of Revelation, is “the Lamb who was slain”. In this post-resurrection vision of Jesus, the scars of his torture and death are clearly visible. A reminder that, for him and for us, a new way of living can only be achieved if we die to the old way.

We’re all called to die to an old way of life. For some this will be location, the need to travel, for others this will be a sense of identity, similar to a change of name when entering into a marriage. It’s in change that opportunities come and in bereavements that we learn new insights. Abram and Sarai had to die to their home and their security, and it was only then that they could fully experience God’s action in their lives, leading them on, building them up, blessing them and enabling them to be a blessing to others. It was enriching but also confusing and painful.

For me, now I have to die to my Winchester life, while giving thanks for the blessings and friendship that I and my family have experienced. There is both a sense of loss and excitement with new opportunities. The parishes of East Winchester and St. Faith’s are also experiencing loss but God calls us into an exciting and fruitful future. Change is unsettling, as old comforts are swept away, but new insights will help to reveal the future into which we are called.

Reflection on the Rule of Benedict

February 15th, 2017

Over lunch at St. John’s church we discussed one of my favourite topics – St. Benedict. It seemed entirely appropriate to be discussing his Rule, adopted and adapted by so many religious orders, over a meal as his concerns include food and dining arrangements. However, his real insight is balance.

Benedict wrote his Rule in the 500s when previously solitary hermits started to live in communities, and had to balance the life of prayer with community and wider concerns. When a monk or nun joins a Benedictine abbey they have to make three promises: firstly stability, being committed to both a place and a community; secondly conversion, being open to God calling them into something new; and, lastly obedience, listening not just to the abbot but also the Scriptures, Holy Spirit and community. At one level this can appear contradictory, how can we be both stable and open to change, but at a deeper level this embraces the tension within life which can be so creative. Balance is shown throughout his Rule, be it balancing both prayer and work, moderation in food or the tension between the communal and the personal. In all of this the community member is called to intuitive obedience to God by listening “with the ear of your heart”.

Balance or harmony is vitally important. Benedict stipulated that Psalm 95, the Venite, would be used every morning . In saying it we hear, “harden not your hearts”. The ear of our heart must always remain open, our souls always receptive.The abbey must have an open spirit. One that receives the guest as it receives Christ and recognises him primarily in the poor or pilgrim; or open to the insights of the newest member as the Lord often reveals his own will to the youngest. How dynamic our churches would be if the new visitor was recognised as having insights equal to the longest serving member.

What really emerged over our lunchtime discussion was the balance and tension between our inherited tradition, stability, and the need to engage with a changing society, conversion. It is a tension which we experience in much of the church’s life: from the latest bishops’ document on sexuality, in the light of civil partnerships and equal marriage; to the desire for our services to be a place of comfort and familiarity in an ever changing world. It can be painful when what has nurtured us has limited engagement with contemporary experiences, or peoples deepest feelings of love and support remain unblessed because they do not follow our inherited heterosexual tradition.

Jesus went to the traditional stable places of worship, synagogue and Temple, but also looked to convert when he kicked over the money changers’ tables or challenged the Pharisees. Those who follow him today seek to live faithfully in unsettled times. Faithful to both our inherited Scriptures and tradition, as well as our contemporary community’s insights. The Spirit, who leads us into all truth,  breathes through all of these.

Change and Decay

February 2nd, 2017

Anglicans tend to sing Henry Francis Lyte’s, “Change and decay in all around I see, O thou who changest not, abide with me” with gusto. The hymn gives the warm feeling that change is to be avoided and that God blesses stability. However, this is a time of great change. Theresa May has started revealing her wishes for the greatest modern political change to our country; our withdrawal from the European Union. Trump has been inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. The distinctive Trump difference being the unique way he has repudiated so much of what went before him. Even the regular World Economic Forum meeting at Davos felt different with China developing a global role and America’s previous administration bowing out. 2017 brings changes, not just with Brexit and Trump, but also potential radical political change across Europe. “Change and decay”?

A classic philosophical view of God implies that God never changes and tends to bless stability. The classical view assumes that God is perfect and therefore incapable of change. To change God would have to become imperfect as God cannot become more perfect. However, Christians worship God as revealed to the Hebrews. A God who is subject to change and who reveals himself to a people in constant flux. Moses encounters God first in a burning bush and, while the bush does not change, the name of God is open to change and interpretation. The name for God, YHWY, can be translated as the stable “I am who I am”. However, as there is no future tense in ancient Hebrew, it can also be translated as the changeable “I will be who I will be”, or “I shall be who I shall be.” God’s nature, revealed by God’s name, can be open to fluctuation and change. Abraham understood this when he bargained with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; God can change God’s mind.

Change is a vital Christian insight into God’s nature. God in Christ is born, grows and develops, is hungry, dies and rises; a life full of change. God the Father is changed from a transcendent authority to a grieving parent. “Change and decay”? “Change and evolution” may be a better understanding.

What of the political changes being ushered in with 2017? Changes to the world order are not necessarily wrong. Some changes are clearly wrong and some wrong things have been said. Any Christian, who celebrates the dignity of human kind believing that God took human form, should work against racism and stereotyping of religions. They should also look to dismantle barriers rather than erect them. However, recent elections have revealed barriers internal to our society and communities, with many people feeling excluded or marginalised. Hopefully we can discern and support what is good in the changes of 2017. If the meeting at Davos can’t understand the election of Trump, then it needs to perceive ways of making its global vision more locally inclusive.

Midnight Mass at Chilcomb – for the Hampshire Chronicle

December 20th, 2016

I love Midnight Mass; it’s when poetry, drama and worship collide. For us, the celebration does not begin with the usual recognition of God’s presence, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”, but with a gathering together in the warmth and fellowship of our Rectory before beginning the night walk across fields to Chilcomb Church. Neither does the celebration end the wishing of a “Merry Christmas” after the blessing. God’s presence continues to be felt in the warmth of mulled wine and mince pies, and the tired dark trek back across fields. On this night, our worship overflows both the opening and closing of our liturgy. I’m reminded of The Fragment by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney; “Since when,” he asked,/ “Are the first line and last line of any poem/ Where the poem begins and ends?” Midnight Mass is unbounded faith breaching its beginning and ending. Our unrestrained God is sung in Christina Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter, “Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain”. In the harsh darkness of this season, the overflowing nature of God is discovered.


I also love the idea that we encounter God in the midst of darkness, in the middle of one of our longest nights. This is an ancient tradition. Moses had to journey from an initial (naïve?) vision of God as light, in a burning bush; to mystically (mature?) encountering of God in darkness in the enfolding clouds of Mount Sinai. Faith is mystery not rational proof and the God whom we worship in the depths of darkness will always remain hidden. “If you can understand, then it’s not God”, said the influential theologian Augustine.


The hidden nature of Midnight Mass is a warning against certainty and how certitude can close our minds to the new opportunities and insights offered by, what St. Paul calls, being “In Christ”. In Christ, our social categories break down, there is no male and female. In Christ, the finality of death is destroyed. In Christ, the reassurance offered by following a set law is undermined. Everything is redefined in that most inexpressible of emotions, love; the emotion that can only be expressed in the fluid language of poetry or song, or the symbolism of gift or touch.


The contemporary Irish poet, Pádraig Ó Tuama, writes in his poem The Creed, “I once was wrong/ because I thought I was right.” Clinging to certainty, to the bright revealing light of day and its clinical observations, can make us feel that we have the right answers when we have yet to properly explore the questions. Midnight Mass with its archaic language, traditional hymns and ancient setting engages our emotions and insight; raising questions prompted by darkness and mystery. The emotion of faith is engaged by the surrounding darkness. God is heard in the silence of the night. A child is worshiped in absolute vulnerability. The human condition is reborn.


Wishing you all a joyful and reflective Christmas night.

Advent Article

November 26th, 2016

The season of Advent is upon us. It’s the time when we expectantly look forward to Jesus coming, both historically in our Christmas celebration and in the future as the culmination of our lives. Advent brings with it uncertainty, how are we called to live our lives in response to the ever present and future coming of Jesus. It’s the challenge and comfort of God involved in the mess and beauty, joy and pain of human life. The uncertainty of the season seems to mirror our contemporary uncertainty as we contemplate the out workings of Brexit, the nature of a Trump presidency or the outcome of various European elections. How does our national and international situation reflect the Kingdom for which Jesus prayed?


We often associate candles or chocolate countdown calendars with Advent but a modern Advent image might be the painting by Banksy of a beggar saying, “Keep your coins, I want your change”. Advent should be a time when we are lured, like a moth to a flame, to different ways of seeing things, of doing things and of being. In his poem Kneeling, the priest/poet RS Thomas guides us to the need to take time out as, “The meaning is in the waiting” but this waiting is meant to drive us forward to a different psychological and spiritual place.


The emphasis on waiting and changing comes from the Christian understanding that God is love. Any loving relationship is built upon time together and willingness to change, not to grow apart, but to be drawn ever closer in a dialogue of thought and embrace of the lover. Loving relationships are expectant of the rich potential of exploring together, are unfulfilled as there always remains the possibility to go deeper, and are a work in progress as our experiences, both together and apart, add new dimensions to our relationship. All of this is true of our relationship with God, the source of love, as we acknowledge the imperfections of the present in the light of the source of all that is good and true. The philosopher John Caputo says the Advent of the God of love, “traumatises our narcissism”.


Narcissism is ever present in our consumer and advertising driven culture. Society proclaims that it’s essential to consider ourselves worthy of all the latest gadgets and trendy clothes. In contrast, Advent is about eternal values and experiences. Traditional themes for the Sundays of Advent include death, judgement, heaven and hell. Probably not much of a draw in the Christmas shopping but key to reflect upon if we hope to model and live eternal values. We also see communal and country narcissism in the desire to put various countries above others, and damn the consequences. The Kingdom for which Jesus prayed had eternal values to be applied universally. In this Kingdom, walls are to be replaced with bridges and fear is to be replaced by love; our neighbour is understood universally and God’s image is found in those not in our own image.


With love and prayers,           Paul


October 24th, 2016

“You have to change to stay the same”, said the abstract artist Bill de Kooning. He recognised that to do the same thing while all around you changes is not to do the same thing. It’s a challenge for the Church, an organisation which is naturally drawn to do the same thing as its founding events, the Jesus experience, are 2,000 years old. The social environment of Hampshire is changing and the church will need to change to engage with this dynamic context but this involves the risk of upsetting regular parishioners, and takes energy and endurance.


We could start with the purpose of the church. We are to be people who recognise that we are blessed by God, a blessing we experience in Christ Jesus and then share. We are to be salt of the earth and light of the world, as we seek the best for our society and share our faith. However, our inherited model of church involving building, vicar and Sunday morning is struggling to engage with contemporary people’s lives. It’s time to become re-immersed in our context.


Of course this is nothing new. In the 1960s Vincent Donovan wished to share faith with the Maasai of Tanzania. He recognised that his understanding of church was contaminated with Western assumptions and practices. To share he had to embrace local practices. We’ve lived with continuous change for several generations and the church has, just about, kept pace. We’re now in a period of discontinuous cultural change; contemporary change is disruptive and unpredictable. If pollsters have a hard time, so much more the church.


To resonate with our context, we need to encourage dissent within the church. Dissenters are those with imagination, those who can see ways of bridging gaps, and the best dissenters are “dreamers who do”. According to the Catholic priest and anthropologist, Gerald Arbuckle, for the church to engage with contemporary culture you need both “pathfinding dissenters” who drive the change on the ground, and “authority dissenters” in a leadership position giving space and encouragement to those pushing the bounds. Leaders can either facilitate or squash cultural engagement, and the church can be primarily for our society or for church members.


It’s hard to imagine new ways of being the church. Sometimes it feels as if we’re in a room and the only available world view is from that room. However, in any building there is a room next door with a different view; a view we can see if we can only move into the adjacent room. If we can see that view then we can embrace new possibilities, it’s the “adjacent possible” view of change. We can either stay in our room where we are comfortable and where we can consolidate our own view of church; or we can embrace different ways of being church and of engaging with society. As a church we need to turn away from narrow models of Christian life and recognise God’s image in those who are not in our image.

St. Michael and All Angels

September 28th, 2016

“How can we poor earthworms speak worthily of angelic spirits?”, asked St. Bernard in the 12th Century. So it’s with some trepidation that I write on angels today; the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Angels remain ever popular from Christmas tree decorations, to greeting cards, to New Age festivals but they’re also ever elusive; what are they?

Perhaps we understand angels through our own self-understanding and personal reflection. The theologian St. Augustine said God “created human nature as a kind of mean between angels and beasts”. For Augustine beasts are driven solely by the instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain. However, angels gaze on God and their nature is raised by the contemplation of God; the source of all being and love. Our human nature is battered by our animal instincts and our higher calling to gaze upon eternity. The word angel means “messenger” and the angelic message is that we’re much more than the animal instincts of tribe or violence, and are called to the celebration of love.

Christianity does not assume purity, in fact it abolishes purity. From its founding birth in a smelly cowshed, proclaimed by angels, to the degrading death of a criminal and tomb watched by angels, via prostitutes and lepers, Christianity is the most human of faiths. Our nature between beast and angels is the same nature that clothed God’s son. The battles with temptation and fear are shared by both Christ Jesus and us. It’s no wonder that Augustine said, “This is the very perfection of humankind to find out our own imperfections”.

There’s a tradition of the fallen angel. Lucifer was said to be the most beautiful of angels, his name implying that he shone brighter than those around him. This led to pride and an unwillingness to serve God and instead to dominate heaven. As with the “fall” of humankind in the Garden of Eden, so Lucifer fell from heaven as Archangel Michael drove him out. It’s a profound reflection on the dangers of self-importance and pride. Augustine prayed, “O Lord, help me to be pure, but not yet”. That’s partly because he was still enjoying his animal instincts but it’s also the realisation that purity is not part of the messy earthy and bodily reality of Christianity.

“I believe in angels”, sang Abba. I believe that we need to contemplate God and the self-giving of his son. The tradition of angels can help our reflections. Do we need to hear God’s call upon our lives? Contemplate with Gabriel who came to Mary with the news of God being made present in her womb and life. Do we need to understand the power of the gospel to overcome evil? Contemplate with Michael who drove Lucifer out of heaven. Do we need to acknowledge the power of evil? Surely news from Syria or refugee ships in the Mediterranean shows we do. The story of Lucifer is a powerful warning of a life where only self-love is contemplated.