Friday, 16 March 2018

Our local 'ecumenical' cathedral

Hauke in The Lady Chapel at St Albans Cathedral
St Albans is just 17 miles from Amersham and its Cathedral contains the shrine of Britain’s first Christ martyr.

Back in the early 90’s, when we lived in Hitchin, its Refectory was one of the very first places we took our new born son – I remember the sense of triumph we felt at managing to have an outing that included baby, buggy, changing bag and coffee!!

During my time in Hitchin I sometimes drove over to the Cathedral and served as duty chaplain for the day.  On one such visit I bumped into a Canadian Baptist Minister, we exchanged addresses and about five years later actually organised a Manse Exchange with each other.  All of that as a result of some ‘holy hanging around’ – as one of my colleagues cheekily describes chaplaincy!

Well, last week I was back at St Albans Cathedral (I used to call it St Albans Abbey but I see that isn’t what they call it now!) and it’s just thrilling to see the ‘ecumenical’ aspect of its ministry.

It has a number of ecumenical chaplains: Free Church, Roman Catholic and Lutheran and runs services in the Lady Chapel for all these traditions.

Last Wednesday I had been invited to take the Free Church service in the Lady Chapel.  Hauke, our Time for God volunteer came along and read the lesson – with many people engaging him in conversation afterwards.

I think St Albans is exemplary in its ecumenical hospitality and it was really very special to lead a Free Church service in this sacred space which started life in the Catholic tradition, moved on at The Reformation to the Anglican and is now a place where all are welcomed with the hospitality of Christ.

At the end of our time last week we ended the service by gathering around the shrine and used the ‘Alban Prayer’ – it goes like this:

We thank you for this place built to your glory and in memory of Alban, our first martyr. Following his example in the fellowship of the saints, may we worship and adore the true and living God, and be faithful witnesses to the Christ, who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Risks - in the name of love

Yesterday was International Women’s Day and this coming weekend we celebrate Mothering Sunday.

We are looking at the story of Moses in the Bulrushes on Sunday and in preparing for this I’ve noticed afresh just how many women figure in that story.

There are the brave midwives who go against King Pharaoh’s orders and end up saving Israelite babies rather than destroying them.  Love wins!

There is Miriam, the elder sister of baby Moses who watches him sale down the Nile in his basket and then suddenly appears the moment he is picked up and suggests that she finds an Israelite woman to wet nurse him – and so, actually, brings him back home straight away to be looked after by their own mother.  Miriam shows such clever cunning!

Of course Moses’ mother is there in the story – in fact she might even have been one of the midwives, the one called Puah, a nickname meaning ‘Bubbles’ because she was famous for keeping the babies quiet by blowing bubbles to them!  The mother of Moses did everything in her power to protect children.

Lastly there is the Princess of Egypt who ends up fishing Moses out of the water and adopting him.  Such a plucky rebel!  Her father the King had issued a decree that such babies should be got rid of but this woman speaks truth to power, adopts one and brings him home to the palace to be brought up in the Royal Family. 

I think all these inspirational women are heroes in the early story of Moses – each one lived with the courage of their convictions and took risks in the name of love.

Friday, 2 March 2018


We sang a hymn all about the cross on Sunday and it was a good one: Lift high the cross.  It felt appropriate too as the sermon had been based on Jesus’ invitation for us to ‘take up our cross’ and follow him.

Lent is, in some ways, the season of the Cross, after all it’s the destination of Jesus as he travels south from Galilee towards Jerusalem with its ‘greenhill outside the city walls’.

In his book: Hanging by a Thread Sam Wells, the Vicar of St Martin in the Fields captures our attention with a provocative one liner: There was a time when the cross was an answer…Today the cross is a question.

He’s asking us to re-examine the place of the cross in our faith.

I did that the other day talking to a friend who comes from the Roman Catholic tradition.  He, very genuinely, asked me why all the crosses in our church were empty?  I replied with what is probably a very usual answer for Protestants; something about us believing Jesus is no longer hanging there.  He understood my response but challenged me as he shared how important it is for him to see a bodily representation of Jesus upon the cross, reminding him that actually we don’t believe in an empty cross but Jesus physically dying upon it.

Well it made me think as he said it and I’ve been thinking about it ever since!

Later in his book Sam Wells says: On Good Friday Jesus doesn’t conquer.  He’s humiliated…

There’s so much truth in that statement.  Jesus shows us the heights of our humanity by dying with forgiveness, meeting violence with peace and laying down his life for a message of justice that was rejected by the power loving authorities.  He shows us another way.  A better way.  Yet it is a way of love that ultimately ends in personal suffering and humiliation. A tough way that even brings a cry of dereliction from his lips as he prays: My God, My God why have you forsaken me?

I think it was the Queen, in a message sent to the people of New York after 9/11 who said: Grief is the price you pay for love. 

Strikes me that if we seek to love like Jesus it will not be easy to go the distance and often it will appear foolish to those who look on. 

Some hymns we sing about the cross carry a sentiment that I’m not sure rings true with the awfulness of that first Good Friday.

Sir John Bowring was not only a Victorian Governor of Hong Kong but also a hymnwriter.  In the cross of Christ I glory is one of his and has this line: …from the cross the radiance streaming adds more lustre to the day.  I sort of get what he is saying but I don’t find it the most helpful interpretation of Calvary.

What happened at Golgotha was cruel, agonising, unjust and evil.  Jesus suffered because of love.  He was killed because his way of life threatened the status quo.

It’s mind blowing to then realise his invitation to us is ‘take up your cross and follow me’. 

Brian Wren’s hymn about the cross is one I find deeply disturbing, challenging and comforting all at the same time.

Here are a few verses:

Here hangs a man discarded,
a scarecrow hoisted high,
a nonsense pointing nowhere
to all who hurry by.

Yet here is help and comfort
for lives by comfort bound
when drums of dazzling progress
give strangely hollow sound.

Life, emptied of all meaning,
drained out in bleak distress,
can share in broken silence
our deepest emptiness.

And love that freely entered
the pit of life’s despair,
can name our hidden darkness
and suffer with us there.

Cross -words to make us think and ponder afresh the ‘one who hung and suffered there’.

Friday, 23 February 2018


Still at the start of Lent I’ve been pondering the story which comes at its end, that of Pilate washing his hands as he lets the mob decide the fate of Jesus.  In doing so he abdicates his responsibility and no amount of washing can absolve him of the charge that in the end he abandoned any sense of conviction and chooses instead the popular vote.

Churchill’s dictum is often quoted that democracy is a bad system until you consider the alternatives. Yet the rise of ‘popularism’ over recent months and years has achieved some questionable outcomes.  Perhaps I’m thinking this way having been given a copy of Fire and Fury: Inside the White House as a gift last week.

Leadership is tough and democracy is flawed yet in the end one has to temper the other.

I’m not sure the message of Jesus has ever really got the popular vote.  Take this weekend’s lectionary reading all about ‘taking up a cross and following Jesus’.  It’s an invitation to a life of tough choices, to be made at some personal cost.  Could you ever imagine a poster outside a church saying; Living a Christ-like life could be the biggest struggle of your life – join us at 10.30 Sundays to find out more!’.

Perhaps a central message of Lent is that a truly human life, one that reflects the life of Jesus, should be one lived with conviction, and that despite the siren voices of hedonistic popularism, selfless-love really does display the best of us, even if it involves cross-carrying.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Painting Creation

Our Junior Church take a monthly bible story and develop it over four weeks using a variety of different activities.  This month it’s been the Creation Poem of Genesis One and they have ‘painted’ it.  This week their efforts were put up in the church corridor.  The one opposite represents that moment when light came into being – it’s got great energy with a spiral of silver glitter at its centre.

I sometimes wonder if the Junior Church activities are far more interesting than the sermons I preach!  Perhaps soon I’ll have to stop people volunteering to be helpers!

I think it’s great that the few young people we are privileged to have week by week do some really interesting things from making bread and putting on puppet shows to these wonderful paintings.  It makes the bible come alive and our prayer is that something of the fun and involvement it produces will enable the lessons learnt to go deep into their hearts.

Blog holiday next week!

Thursday, 1 February 2018

We read to know we are not alone

This week I’m attending two book groups – I must get a proper job!!!

The first was at AFC on Tuesday when we gathered after LunchBreak to consider Matthew Fox’s book A New Reformation.  Fox, a theologian, has been forced out of the Roman Catholic Church so his book is really one of protest, and at times it's quite a forceful cry from the heart. 

Tuesday’s book got mixed reviews from our group yet, in the process, prompted an excellent and lively discussion!

I love talking about books because that produces a conversation which breathes life and, sometimes, a new perspective into our reading.

In the film Shadowlands, about CS Lewis and his marriage to Joy Davidson, there is that beautiful line: We read to know we are not alone.

So, I’m pleased to be going to another book group tomorrow!  This time in Luton and one that draws together half a dozen ministers from our local Association. 

The book we’ll be discussing is John Swinton’s Raging with Compassion which seeks to address the issue of Theodicy, that is how we continue to believe in a God of love in the light of so much suffering in the world.

Swinton urges us to steer away from trite or traditional answers to the problem of suffering and believe instead that in the cross we encounter a God who doesn’t explain pain away, but one who shares pain with, and alongside us.  This is the God who partners us in suffering.

I find this just about the only response worth considering, that suffering doesn’t require an answer (which never really comes) but a presence.

One of Swinton’s most helpful quotes in this respect is from Henri Nouwen:

When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.  The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares…

Well, I love books and the wisdom they contain – and I enjoy book groups – even when two come along in the same week! And I really do understand the idea that ‘we read to know we are not alone’.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The 'Big Society'

This week I sat in on our Partnership in Mission Committee as the issue of our Communion Offerings was discussed. It’s this committee’s responsibility to nominate the various charities we support on a monthly basis – and this forms an important part of our church’s ‘Mission Giving’.  I found it fascinating to look at the briefing papers and see the various organisations we’ve given to in recent years.  These are often small charities supported by our members and recommended by them.  On average we give to both the ‘parent’ denominations of our church, Christian Aid, eleven organisations through the Communion Offering and to three further charities through our Christmas Offerings.  All of that added up, last year, to just under £20,000 worth of support.

I want to suggest that this represents exemplary commitment by our congregation that flies in the face of what they call ‘compassion fatigue’.

In my experience churches are full of people whose faith and conviction makes them into communities of consistent generosity.
A few years ago I was at a Ministers’ Meeting addressed by our local MP who also happened to be a cabinet minister.  He arrived late having been detained at 10 Downing Street by the Prime Minister.  A little group of them had been called together following the announcement that the government believed in ‘The Big Society’.  This small cabinet group was being asked: what could the ‘Big Society’ look like?  It was a somewhat astonishing insight into the process of government policy: announce it first and work out what it really means afterwards!

Well our Ministers’ Meeting was in no such doubt as to what a ‘Big Society’ looks like – and we told the cabinet minister that we all stood in front of one every week!  For we stand before groups of worshippers who volunteer in both church and society, who have deep pockets of generosity and who embrace new projects with remarkable enthusiasm considering the routine commitments they already regularly maintain.  And part of this is represented by all those Communion Offerings we were discussing on Tuesday morning – as well as the 193 jobs/tasks that need doing in our church and are not only listed in our current directory but actually have names of people beside every one – volunteers who regularly step up to the mark.

‘Community’ is, I believe, a central theme in Christianity – and when it comes to the idea of the ‘Big Society’ I’m thrilled to say that in my experience churches really do ‘practice what they preach’!

Our local 'ecumenical' cathedral

Hauke in The Lady Chapel at St Albans Cathedral St Albans is just 17 miles from Amersham and its Cathedral contains the shrine of Brita...