14 May, 5 Easter by Katharine Rumens
Genesis 8: 1 – 12
I believe that children should be allowed to run around in church. Within limits: not during the service, especially not during the quiet bits. After the service, they are welcome to dash around but note: no screaming, no shouting, no skateboards, no bikes, no scooters. Keep out of the pulpit and remember biscuits are for everyone to share. Ration yourselves.
Oh yes, children are very welcome in church and I firmly believe that children should be allowed to run around in their church.
When I was a somewhat elderly child of 12 I was allowed to run around the cloisters of Salisbury Cathedral. It was getting on for evening when the cathedral was shut to the public and we had the space to ourselves. We would then go into the darkening cathedral to rehearse our opera. I was second bear with my best friend Mary. The production was Noyes Fludde performed by local schoolchildren with professional singers taking the adult roles. Naturally God was also a professional.
I had a sense that it was OK to do that stuff in our cathedral. Unlike the other times I had been there, you didn’t have to be serious, bewildered or bored.
It was a turning point. Although withstanding God’s wrath for forty days and forty nights had its own solemnity and fear – even as a second bear.
We sent invitations for today out to those of you who were married here or have had relationships blessed. We do this each year. We have fun choosing the music – listen out for Land of Hope and Glory on 2 organs at the end of the service. However, the readings are not fun today – they are the set readings for Easter 5 and are being read not just at St Giles’, but at all churches of all denominations who use the Common Lectionary – in this country and across the world.
Welcome to the first reading which tells of the end of the flood: Noah opened the window and sent out a raven and then a dove to bring tidings of the external world. What has been going on out there? A raven will land on anything including dead matter. It found carrion in abundance – all those carcasses both human and animal floating on the waters. Feasting on the unsaved, the raven did not need to return.
Noah next sent the dove, who returned to him. Welcome back dove. He waited for seven days, and then sent the dove off again. It returned with an olive leaf in its beak and thus the olive branch became the symbol of peace. A sign of a new beginning. A turning point in the fate of humankind. Things could only get better. After seven days more, Noah sent the dove off for the third time. And it returned no more.
Welcome back to a reading about letting go and separation. A turning point about not looking back. We must move on, we say.
Our second reading describes a brutal execution and introduces us to a young man who positively wants to see another stoned to death. Stephen – an elected leader of the community - was killed for speaking out against the high priests. The young man was called Saul – to be renamed Paul. This is a turning point in his (Saul’s) life – but Stephen had to die.
Welcome to the cost of discipleship.
Welcome to the third reading – today’s gospel from John which is a poplar reading at funerals. Jesus was speaking to his close friends on the night before he was to die. He told them not to worry, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’ The one with a very troubled heart was comforting those who had been closest to him. It’s a complex reading – but it can bring comfort and reassurance to those who mourn. We will be made welcome in the next life – however we understand that.
What we say now matters because our words may well be remembered after we have died. Words are precious: we must use them well.
Welcome back, but don’t expect to be uplifted by what you hear.
A month ago, to the day it was Good Friday. The pews were in the side aisles, the church empty of furniture except the chairs we needed for the service of 3 hours. In the middle of the nave on the floor was a spilt chalice from our supper on Maundy Thursday, the red wine stain splashed over the white paper cloth. Nails, dice - symbols of the story we had read together. And silence.
We had all those weeks of Lent to enter into the darkness of the cross and Easter morning is such a sudden turning point – Alleluia, Christ is risen we say – and continue to repeat on the following Sundays. We are people of the resurrection – we believe that death` is not the end but a new beginning.
Everything can be transformed: the life and death in our stories and the stories we hear in the news – even death. The church has been described as the community of the walking wounded. Perhaps we know our need to be transformed.
A woman who lost a leg in the Boston Marathon reflects that it is when her spirits are low that she doubts everything she does. It is then that she is called back to what matters most in her life: that she is created and loved by God, loved by her family and friends who, in turn, she dearly loves. Love never ends, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Let’s not forget that.
We listened to the story of Noah. The great flood subsides in order that a new creation can emerge. The stoning of Stephen is a significant turning point in the story of the relationship between the early church and Judaism. Thomas – don’t laugh at him – asking the basic question. What is God like and how can we get to God? Disciples are called to grow in understanding.
In all this God gives herself, God gives himself into the world – and we should throw ourselves into the business of living and loving. Whether it’s been days, weeks, months or years since you last stepped inside St Giles’, you were invited back because you chose to celebrate a turning point in your lives here. May you run wild and free – but not during the service - as you continue to grow in faith and hope and love.
Sunday 7 May, 4 Easter by Katharine Rumens
John 10: 1- 10
A kindly critic of the church writes that clergy are trained in waist-high pulpits and so use their arms a great deal while speaking. The two most common arm movements are the great enfolding gesture – large symmetrical circles which demonstrate an urge to gather and include and the wide arm span to demonstrate the enormous distance from the extreme conservative evangelical to the extreme Anglo-Catholic wing. And this is just the Church of England. My arms are not long enough at this point to begin to include other denominations in my embrace.
Take your pick of the flock that appeals to you:
The evangelical is well scrubbed – the self-conscious, even smug, heir to the traditions of the Reformation and, before that, to the early Church. They worry that many Anglicans are Christians in name only and like the idea of evangelising them.
Anglo-Catholics are scented rather than scrubbed and the clergy elaborately robed. They would be a Roman Catholic in Italy, or Orthodox in Greece. Liberal-minded on the bible, nit-pickingly precise on details of liturgy and vestments. Love the church; less keen on outsiders.
The liberal – those of us who would consider that we sit – stand – kneel in the centre. We are relaxed in dress and manners; open-minded to a fault; see the central tenets of the faith as dearly held but hard to believe – symbolic rather than literal. We may find evangelising distasteful and worry that other Anglicans make the church look off-putting.
Who is in and who is out of the sheepfold? And who gets through the gate?
In his poem Lycidas Milton laments the death of his great friend Edward King who was going to be ordained but tragically died in a shipwreck. Milton believed that King would have made a good priest – and uses the sheepfold imagery to contrast him with those who “for their bellies’ sake Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold!” Worldly and ambitious, their interest was not in pastoral ministry, and “the hungry sheep look up and are not fed.” A good line that.
My heart sank when I read in Church Times this week about GAFCON – the organisation that was formed from The Global Anglican Future Conference in 2008 to address the growing controversy of the divisions in the Anglican Communion. This organisation has agreed to provide a missionary bishop for conservative evangelicals in UK.
With the increasing influence of materialism, secularism, and the loss of moral foundations, our people – I’m not sure who they identify at their people – face dangers that are subtle, but spiritually dangerous.
“The move has been made without the approval of Anglican leaders in this country.” A nice episcopal Anglican understatement and a move which many of us would see as contributing to controversy. After all John wrote that “God so loved the world” – both what is secular and what is spiritual - not “God so loved the church,” and I believe that God has never stopped loving the world.
However, this sense of the intruder – or thief or bandit to use the images in today’s gospel, pales into insignificance when we read that Isis has warned Egyptian Muslims to stay away from Christian gatherings as well as government, military and police offices, suggesting that the militant group will keep up attacks on what is referred to as “legitimate targets”. Last month, two Isis suicide bombers killed at least 45 people at churches in Alexandria and Tanta, one of the bloodiest episodes in the country in years.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”
The context of Jesus’ teaching is a simple story; the door of the sheep fold is opened by the doorkeeper, a shepherd comes in, calls those who are his own sheep, and leads them out.
It’s not very clear who Jesus the storyteller represents: the gatekeeper or the shepherd.
Since the 3rd century artists have represented Jesus as a shepherd. Perhaps it is an easier image to understand – we find the metaphor of shepherd and sheep in the psalms – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ and in Ezekiel: God the true Shepherd, or Isaiah – all we like sheep have gone astray.
It is probably not just the metaphor of the shepherd, but also the context. As we need to find space in our lives, we need to put space and peace in our understanding of God and of Jesus Christ. The shepherd in a simple rural landscape speaks to us of the spaciousness of God.
This was nothing new - images of shepherds were used in pagan funerary monuments to symbolise the peace of the afterlife. It was easy for the Roman sculptors who made the C3 and C4 monuments we can still see today in the catacombs to adapt their patterns to the demands of the Christian clientele. A shepherd holding a sheep, with a tree or two beside him spoke of a belief in the afterlife spent in the company of Christ himself.
Perhaps the saddest inscription of all in the catacombs is to Aurelius Castus who was just 8 months old when he died. We would consider the depiction of the shepherd pretty crude - more Sunday Club than Michaelangelo – but the shepherd has got a very firm grasp on the sheep he carries on his shoulders. Jesus will not let go of his sheep.
O God who brought us to birth and in whose arms we die, in our grief and shock contain and comfort us; embrace us with your love, give us hope in our confusion and grace to let go into new life.
This is a funeral prayer – the living and the dead held in the arms of God.
During the week, I was introduced to Emil – born on Easter day, cradled by his mother as he slept in her lap.
Rachel, a committed Christian, died on Easter Day. She had been named on our prayer board. She was a journalist and wrote about her approaching death. “When you are ill – or, indeed going through any serious trauma – you can often sense that behind people’s kind enquiries, about how you are coping is a huge unspoken fear: “How would I deal with that.” How will I deal with my dying?
She wrote, “This is when we all – those who are ill and those around them – need to look to God’s love, the charity that abideth above all, and realise that this uncertainty will come to an end. We will be taken up in God. God knows each one of us, better than we know ourselves, in all our anxieties and natural dread. And we are secure in God, in every part of ourselves known by God.”
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
Sunday 30 April Third Sunday of Easter by Katharine Rumens
Luke 24: 3 – 35
When action is in the air, I like to produce a sign-up sheet. Perhaps posterity will prove they have been my most memorable words and they will be carved on my tombstone: ‘Please write your name on the list at the back of the church’. It can help to know in advance who plans to come along with their idiosyncrasies and potato salad. There are currently two lists on the go. One for the PCC supper meeting on Tuesday and the other for the parish weekend at the Othona Community.
What shall we do this year? For a number of weeks there has been a search for a book – I thought one looked promising until I get down to reading it and thought that dualism and duality in Paul was probably not going to make our pulses race with excitement.
Rowan Williams Being Disciples – Essentials of the Christian Life looked to be more our cup of tea. ‘Very popular’ said the helpful woman in the bookshop. That’ll do I thought skimming my way through it. There’s a chapter on holiness.
We know about holiness – that’s why we go back year after year to the ancient chapel of St Peter. It’s a holy place where prayer has been offered for centuries. Outside the salt marshes – the changelessness of the big skies, the smell of the sea, the song of the sky lark. Inside the sense of stillness and peace.
Holy – a place that touches us – perhaps deep within ourselves. A place that we want to return to, it draws us as this church draws people at all times and during the working week to sit and to pray. The Irish poet and priest John O’ Donahue wrote: ‘If your marriage is going bad, your kids on dope, your work is unsatisfactory, you’re really unhappy, maybe the place not to go to is the pub, maybe the place to go to – even if you’ve lost all faith in the divine – is into the church, a safe spiritual place of no judgement. Just go in, and let some of that into you.’
Holy places, holy spaces. Holy people. We know what holy people look like – they can be found in religious communities behind high walls. They wear a habit and are called brother this or sister that, father or mother. They are a race apart and we are a bit in awe of them because, unlike them, we enjoy bad films, swear and do not love our neighbour who throws a late-night party as we should.
Rowan Williams writes, ‘Holiness….is not an extra-special kind of goodness, because somehow it’s not about competing levels of how good you are. It’s about enlarging the world, and about being involved in the world. A holy person is somebody who is not afraid to be at the tough points in the centre of the middle of it all who actually makes you see things and people afresh.
Then their eyes were opened, and they recognised him.
Holy people allow you not to see them, but God. You come away feeling not, ‘Oh, what a wonderful person,’ but, ‘What a wonderful world, ‘What a wonderful God,’ or even, with surprise, ‘What a wonderful person I am too.’
The Road to Emmaus. Luke tells the story of two friends who have turn their backs on the city of death and resurrection and are going home to Emmaus.
What are they doing, walking down that road with slow, distracted steps, talking as they go? Are they running away from the strange events in Jerusalem? If so, they are not very logical, because as soon as the stranger starts asking questions, they betray themselves as disciples of the recently crucified Jesus. Just listen to their Galilean accents.
If they are afraid, shouldn’t they keep their mouths shut? Their most overwhelming need, greater than even their need for security, or space, or whatever it is that set them off on the road to Emmaus, is the need to talk. They have to find some sense in what is going on. They turn to the stranger, and the words pour out. They are past caring whether he is a safe confident. At first they are angry with the stranger. They must have been so angry with each other over the past few days, since the crucifixion. Since the death.
The only way to bear the sadness they all feel is to make sure they know it is shared. Here is some fool who seems not to know of the great tragedy that has overturned all their hopes. But soon they forget their anger and they return to their search. What is going on? What can it all mean?
All their hopes of Jesus confounded, and with them, all they had come to believe about the God of love and his purposes. They turn to the stranger, too perplexed to realise how silly this ought to have been. How could the stranger possibly have the answers?
Into their turmoil the stranger, who is no stranger, speaks his words of rough and humorous revelation.
‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!’
The two disciples eventually recognised Jesus – in the breaking of the bread. The revelation of holiness. Suddenly the road to Emmaus is the road home, after all. What a wonderful world! What a wonderful God. What a wonderful person I am too.
Encounters that transform us. When we come away delighting – we had such a good time – it was lovely to see you, to see everyone again. Some years ago I went to visit my elderly godmother who used to talk the whole time. I am sure she found me equally irritating. We had a little outing to the nearest open space – the churchyard – and sat on a bench in the sun neither of us feeling the need to talk.
I had gone to visit her to do her some good – but it didn’t work out like that. She did good to me. Unexpectedly it was a holy time, a holy encounter that made my heart burn with gratitude within me.
The Road to Emmaus, the path to holiness. What a wonderful world! What a wonderful God.
If you want to be holy, look at God. If you want to be holy, enjoy God’s world, enter into it as much as you can in love and in service. And who knows, maybe one day someone will say of you, ‘You know, when I met them, the landscape looked different.’
A path worth exploring, a road worth taking.
Sunday 23 April by Catherine Shelley
Seeing is believing – or is it?
Three extraordinary stories in this morning’s readings… Extraordinary events happening to perfectly ordinary groups of people, just like you and me gathered here this morning.
There’s Moses leading the Israelites through the Red Sea – guided by God as a pillar of cloud (Exodus 14: 15 – 21, 30 – 31)
Peter, standing with the rest of the disciples, speaking to the people of Israel about ‘this Jesus’, crucified but freed and raised from the dead (Acts 2: 14a, 22)
And then the Gospel story, of that Jesus himself, gliding through the walls to meet with the disciples in the upper room (John 20: 19 – end)
Of the three, the last of them is possibly the most strangely extraordinary.
It is one thing to be told the story of the Red Sea parting to enable the Israelite slaves to escape from Egyptian oppression… A story that scientists over the decades have tried to explain in material terms by various forces of the weather or to hear the preaching about Jesus defeating death, which could be taken at a metaphorical level or something.
But actually to be standing in the room when Jesus slips in, ghost-like, scars and all must have been a very strange experience. You can hardly blame Thomas for doubting it when his friends tell him they’ve seen the risen Jesus. Poor Thomas, nicknamed as “doubting” throughout the ages.
Yet his reaction is entirely understandable; I suspect many of us here would have reacted in the same way, saying “Don't be ridiculous - he was crucified & nailed to the cross; if you say he’s risen again, prove it!” or “I don't believe you & I won't believe you unless I see the scars in the flesh” It's the natural reaction.
A few years ago, whilst working as chaplain at Birmingham University, I was sitting in court waiting for a case, in which I was pastorally involved, to be called on when in walked a barrister that I'd known many years ago, when I was a baby barrister myself. What was so disturbing about the incident is that I had understood that said barrister had died of a heart attack a decade or so earlier.
So to see him alive, fully robed in Birmingham’s criminal courts was a bit of a shock to the system. It transpired that whilst he did have a heart attack reports of his death were somewhat premature! So I know that even when you do see someone in the flesh who you think has died, it can be hard to believe the evidence of your own eyes.
And yet when Jesus did appear, to Thomas & the other disciples, whether it was materialising through walls as in today's reading, moseying along the beaches at Tiberias or on the road to Emmaus and over supper, the disciples accepted and believed...
Jesus turned up doing ordinary things, eating ordinary meals, chatting with the disciples as if nothing had happened. Apparently it's a device used by novelists - make most of your novel so ordinary and believable that when you bring in the unusual and out of the ordinary the familiarity of the backdrop will make it all credible; so much so that often real life can be far more extraordinary than a novel.
Hence the phrases –
“You couldn't make it up...” and “you wouldn't believe it if it was in a novel...”
Yet, strange and extraordinary though it is, the disciples seem to take Jesus’ resurrection entirely at face value; even Thomas, once he has actually seen and felt the scars…
Not that it is normal exactly but the disciples don't ask all sorts of questions about it; they just accept that Jesus their friend is back, scarred but unbowed and apparently full of life. There is clearly something so compelling about Jesus that they don't need to rationalise it, they just see and believe.
So what of us who stand here in church some 2000 or so years later, in an age of scepticism and secularism? I think one of the difficulties our society struggles with is the enlightenment desire for scientific proof - for hard empirical facts.
To convict anyone in a criminal court we require proof 'beyond reasonable doubt'
And yet we, sitting here, are among those whom Jesus foresees, who have not seen and yet who have, at some level, come to believe...
I say 'at some level' because my guess is that there are a variety of views about the resurrection amongst those of us gathered here this morning and amongst our wider congregation dispersed elsewhere this holiday season.
A ComRes survey commissioned by the BBC for Palm Sunday was reported as finding that a quarter of those who identified themselves as Christians didn’t believe in the Resurrection. Even 40+% of those described as ‘active Christians’ – by which I think they meant church going rather than running marathons - no longer believe in the resurrection literally as described in the Bible.
Yet I suspect that survey result says more about the questions asked than the actual beliefs of the people polled. Literal belief in the Bible as a scientific or historical text is to misinterpret or misunderstand the Bible. It is not a scientific text or the sort of apparently objective history that academics write nowadays. Which is not to say that it is not true.
The resurrection is clearly there in the Bible but it remains a mystery; we cannot prove it scientifically, and the opposite of Thomas's doubt is not certain proof but faith. And it is the belief of faith, not belief in certainty, that Jesus is talking about when he says 'happy are those who believe without seeing...'
I actually believe that there is more faith and more wonder in our skeptical, secular age than generally appreciated.... Take this mobile phone, around which an alarming amount of my life revolves. I have faith that when I turn it on in the morning it will work. I have faith that when I type in a little message and text or email it to someone - who may be the other side of the city or the other side of the world - that message will arrive safely. In fact I'm now more confident that my email messages will arrive safely than things I send by the much more tangible postal service.
The reality is that in much of our world we live by faith and hope in what have become perfectly ordinary everyday bits of technology. And yet when I was a child, which is only a few decades ago, the technology that now fits into this phone would have taken up a whole room of mainframe computer, like the ones Alan Turing experimented on at Bletchley Park or that sat in my dad's labs at Manchester University - or what was then UMIST.
In the light of the extraordinary changes and technological shifts in our world we can do things now that would never have been believed possible even a few decades ago, let alone the 2,000 years since Jesus was alive….
And in the light of the huge amount of faith we place in the inter-dependence of our complex society and trust that our technology and services will keep working…
Faith in the Easter mystery of life, death and resurrection – and the hope that brings - may not be so extraordinary after all. But for those who are still unsure I will finish with the words of another doubting Thomas – the poet RS Thomas, who looked but didn’t always see…
I emerge from the mind’s cave into the worse darkness
outside, where things pass and the Lord is in none of them.
I have heard the still, small voice and it was that of bacteria
demolishing my cosmos.
I have lingered too long on this threshold, but where can I go?
To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards the light. To look forward?
Ah, what balance is needed at the edges of such an
I am left alone on the surface of a turning planet.
What to do but, like Michelangelo’s Adam, put my hand out into unknown space,hoping for the reciprocating touch?
During Lent members of the congregation are invited by the Rector to preach a sermon entitled 'God at Work'
Sunday 2 April by Dawn Runnicles
‘Sing unto the Lord a new song.
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord’. Psalm 98
The constants in my life have been church and music. We were the Powell Family and we lived in Beckenham. The area was leafy and peaceful. There was my mother and father, my big sister and my little brother. Another very little brother was too young to remember this period. My father and I met for the first time when I was three, on his return from the war. Some years later, into our parish of St Paul’s, came a team of evangelists. They held prayer meetings and bible studies and it was during this time that my father answered God’s call and became converted to Christianity. He took up the reins of Christian leadership with vigour and soon became a respected and much loved pillar of the church. He set us all a lifelong example of faith and worship. It was he who gave us our spiritual wisdom. We were, where we were, by God’s grace. We used to gather for family prayers, in our pyjamas, round the big bed, the old gas fire whirring away and our school clothes laid out on the fender warming through. We were chilly on our knees and I felt envious of my mother still snug under the bedclothes. We had a reading, a hymn and prayers. I remember choosing hymns from Golden Bells and the Billy Graham songbook. We enjoyed singing together, and, as St Augustin said ‘in singing we pray twice’. It was a happy, bonding start to the day. God was at work in our lives.
We went to Matins on Sundays mornings, as a family, which was very important to my father. Then it was Sunday School. That was the routine. My only bone of contention was that girls were not allowed in the choir. My mother, sister and brother were all choir members and I had to sit in the pew, longing to be singing up there where it was all happening. I did once sing a solo at Christmas. I had always loved my father’s bendy bible, with its smooth, gold-edged pages and was thrilled when I was presented with a similar one at my confirmation. I treasure it. Confirmation classes were powerful. Texts were abundant. Whenever I say to myself ‘I don’t know how I did that’, I quote Philippians 4:13 – ‘I can do all things, through Christ, which strengtheneth me’. That is my faith.
We loved St Paul’s, with the beautiful white angel font, where we were all christened, and the enormous William Holman-Hunt masterpiece,’ I am the Light of the World,’ John 8:12. It was so big it felt life-like. The door represents the human soul, which cannot be opened from the outside. There is no handle on the door and the rusty nails and hinges overgrown with ivy, denote that the door has never been opened and that the figure of Christ is asking permission to enter. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hear my voice and open the door I will come in to you and will eat with you and you with me’. Revelation 3:20
I asked a friend for his memories of our household and he said he looked upon his times with us as his introduction to Christian life and values, which have stood him in good stead all his life. Our memories of St Paul’s bind us together and formed a valuable foundation for our lives. God was at work. We had continuity, stability, friends and much love.
One summer, we went to a Pathfinder Fellowship houseparty in Shanklin. Families enjoyed the fellowship, fun and laughter of other Christians on a similar spiritual journey. The Powell family happened to overlap with the Runnicles family. Thursday evening, was concert night. I played a prize-winning piano piece and I remember Alan Runnicles in his little shorts and school blazer singing ‘Oh, for the wings of a Dove.’ He was a chorister at Southwark Cathedral. We were 10. God was at work when nearly 20 years later we met up again. When I told my mother I was getting engaged, she said, ‘how many times have I heard that before, dear? And then, in her worldly wisdom, ‘Now, are you sure? The Runnicles are ever so churchy, you know, ever so churchy’. By that time, I had been 9 times round the world.
When I had landed the highly sought-after post of purser’s officer in the Merchant Navy, 50 years ago to the day, reception of the news had been mixed. My boss frowned, breathed in deeply and said ‘do your parents know? I would never ever let any daughter of mine go to sea’! My parents were delighted. I would have the opportunity to travel the world and use my languages. So, Oriana became my 42,000-ton home for the next three years. I had a first class, outside cabin, with porthole and cabin boy ‘Alright for some people’, said my mother. I had a fine view to sea or land – ever changing – but God did not change. The round world voyage took three months. Oriana held the record for the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic, Southampton to Sydney via the Suez Canal in 21 days. However, we were the very last ship to pass through the Canal before the war broke out in 1967. The entire east bank of the Suez Canal had been occupied by Israeli forces and Egypt immediately imposed a blockade, which closed the canal to all shipping. As a result, 15 cargo ships were trapped in the canal for over 8 years. God was at work in our escaping that fate. So we were re-routed via the Cape, thus becoming P & O pioneers to South Africa.
Life at sea is all about teamwork and living in a tight community with no means of escape. I worked for the Commodore of the P & O Fleet. It was glamorous, but tough, being a woman at sea in a man’s world, but even in this environment, God was at work. Each Sunday, when at sea, the captain would lead a service. I would gather together for a hymn practice any colleagues or passengers interested in taking part in the worship. We would form a small, enthusiastic choir to enhance the service and, however small the group, we were not singing for ourselves, or for the company but were singing for the Lord. It was not a spiritual memory that I took away from the sea, but treasured moments like these of peace, fellowship and bonding. In a world, out of touch with the real world, I needed God, to remain constant in prayer and faith.
On retirement, we built a villa in the South of France. We located a perfect plot in the Esterel hills with a view across the terra cotta rooftops, stretching beyond Frejus cathedral and down to the sea. There was the mystery as to how it would all turn out. There was the faith that it would be a rich blessing for us all. Indeed, it was. We soon discovered the English-speaking Church of St John the Evangelist, which was to be the centre of our lives in France. During the war years, and the occupation of Provence, the church was closed and most of the British residents evacuated. After the war, St John’s was re-consecrated and it is now the only Anglican church building in the Var. On our first visit to the church service, the church warden welcomed us, saying to Alan, ‘you look like a bass, here’s the music, go and stand there!’ We were in! We joined the choir. Much work was needed to the fabric of the building, inside and out. Alan had an immediate vision for St John’s and spent the next three years, dramatically refurbishing the church. I had set about fund raising, organising concerts and piano recitals, in hilltop chapels and churches throughout the region. It was music to the glory of God. The church went from strength to strength and we were the first church in France to become affiliated to the Royal School of Church Music. We were in the right place, at the right time, to make a difference. God was at work.
Returning to the Barbican for the third time, in 2011, was the continuation of my journey along the holy path. I felt well acquainted with the City. I remember, age 10, coming up from Beckenham in fancy dress to the Mansion House to attend the Lord Mayor’s Children’s party. It was room after room of delight. Before joining my ship for standby duties in dry dock, I had done my company training in St Botolph Street. Petticoat Lane, Leadenhall Cheese Market and Houndsditch Warehouse (sounds dreadful!) were my favourite lunchtime haunts. My father had been a Pikeman and Musketeer in the Honourable Artillery Company, a member of the Worshipful Company of Innholders and was a Freeman of the City of London. My husband had won a Heritage Year Award for his refurbishment of Simpson’s Tavern, at 38 ½ Cornhill, established in 1757 and frequented by Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys.
A haven of peace was awaiting me at St Giles with a focus and sense of belonging. God’s will for our lives has reason and purpose. To play a part in the festival choir and be able to sing joyously is uplifting. It has been rewarding to help organise events, welcoming outsiders into a friendly, caring place of worship. I am very blessed with my gifts from God of family, friendship, focus and faith, and God has helped me not to waver, when faced with adversity. ‘All things work together for good to those that love God.’ Romans 8:28.
I was simply overjoyed to discover St Paul, and St John the Evangelist, standing, side by side, with St Giles, in the East window. The three saints, from the beloved churches on my journey, united, here, in harmony. How great is that?
The organs, choir, bells, concerts and music abound at St Giles and fill God’s house with glory, enabling us all to come together in worship and fellowship. And to see my little grandson, Christian, aged 3, cradling the very large bible, down the aisle, on Christmas Day, was, truly, God at Work.
Sunday 19 March by Malcolm Waters
I had a late start as a churchgoer. Neither of my parents went to church while I was growing up and so I didn’t either. Later in his life, however, my father did become a regular attender at his local parish church, St Barnabas in Purley.
Sadly, my parents died within 36 hours of each other around the turn of the year 2003-04. My father had asked for his funeral service to be taken by Revd Yvonne Davis, an assistant priest at St Barnabas, whose ministry he much admired. So she conducted what turned out to be a joint funeral for both my parents. The comfort which she provided both to me and my wife, Setsu, was a great help to both of us. With her gentle encouragement and support, we started attending my father’s old church and were both confirmed in the following year.
A particular sermon has stayed in my mind from those early days at St Barnabas. It was preached by the honorary curate there, a retired art master. In it, he told how a vicar at another church had read out the Nicene Creed, inviting the members of the congregation to stand up for the bits they believed in and to sit down for those they didn’t. Apparently, the congregation were bobbing up and down like Jack-in-the-boxes.
To my relief, no one has ever done that at any church service which I’ve been to. But I’ve often wondered which parts of the Creed would keep me on my feet, and which parts would have me sitting down or hovering indecisively between the two.
A line in the Creed which would leave me uncertain whether to sit or stand, but which nonetheless resonates with me because of my job as a lawyer, is the line about the Last Judgment, where we say that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”.
When I was at school, I took part in what must have been one of the worst ever performances of Mozart’s Requiem, with every instrument in the school orchestra out of tune in a slightly different way. In the text of the requiem mass, the Dies Irae (the Day of Wrath) takes up the idea of the Last Judgment. A verse which sometimes comes into my mind in those anxious minutes when I’m sitting in court waiting for a case to start is the one which speaks about the trembling as we wait for the coming of the Judge: “Quantus tremor est futurus …” – “How great will be the quaking, when the Judge will come, investigating everything strictly”.
That quaking is all too understandable when we consider the powerful images of the Last Judgment that have come down to us from the middle ages. One which I’ve seen a couple of times on holidays in Italy is the vast mosaic which covers the west wall of the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, a small island in the Venetian lagoon. The mosaic dates from around 1100. It shows Christ seated, in readiness to perform his role as Judge. Below him, the angels sound the trumpet to summon the dead from earth and sea. In the next tier down, we see, on Christ’s right hand side, those who have been resurrected to glory and entered eternal life in the new earth. And on Christ’s left hand side (the bit we’re all interested in), we see those condemned to eternal torment being energetically pitch-forked into the lake of fire, with special chambers of Hell reserved for particular sins committed by the damned. As one commentator puts it: “This Hell is a Paradise for Byzantine art lovers”.
Back to my humdrum world of work. My practice is mainly to do with the supply of financial services to consumers, which means that any trials I get involved in are in the civil, rather than the criminal, courts. In fact, as I act mostly for financial institutions, my clients’ priority is normally to keep well clear of a court. Usually, the last thing they want is to get into costly and unpredictable fights in court with their customers or regulators.
When cases of mine do end up in court, the trial process tends to be painstaking rather than dramatic. Often, the law is complex and technical, there may be long and obscure documents to interpret, inconsistencies in the evidence to be resolved and ambiguities to be stripped away. As the US Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, once remarked dryly: "The main business of a lawyer is to take the romance, the mystery, the irony, the ambiguity out of everything he touches."
At the end of the trial comes the judgment – often the Judge will reserve judgment to allow time to consider the decision, carefully weighing up the evidence and the rival arguments made by each side at the trial.
Despite all its checks and safeguards, this is a human process and so of course things can, and often do, go awry – though, if the Judge’s decision is wrong, the losing side can normally get permission to appeal to a higher court and try to get the judgment overturned.
But the reach of human justice is limited. For all sorts of reasons (not least cost) many cases where the law could provide a remedy never get to court. And, more generally, there are whole areas of human conduct which lie outside the province of the law, so that the law is powerless to provide redress even for actions which we may believe to be profoundly wrong.
So, given the limitations on earthly justice, I don’t find it difficult to believe in a final judgment on all of us, however high or low, by a perfectly just judge “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden”. That would answer a powerful need for justice which all too often is unsatisfied in this world.
But what I do find extremely difficult is the appalling fate which, on the traditional picture, awaits the condemned – all of whom face the unimaginable horror of everlasting, conscious torment in Hell. That is a fate which strikes me as unthinkably cruel even for the worst evil-doer, let alone for those who, as it were, just miss Heaven by a hairsbreadth.
So my closing thought is a wish that we could move to an understanding of what the Bible has to tell us about the Last Judgment, which, alongside the radiant hope it offers to the saved, has room for a less horrific fate for the damned. Then I for one could stand with greater assurance to affirm my belief that Jesus will indeed “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”.
Sunday 12 March by Wendy Ellis
We moved during the bright April of 1995 to a village in Kent. Our new house was called Church View. I was 8 months pregnant with my daughter Shelby. We were moving because we needed more space for our growing family. The view of the church was visible from the upstairs bedrooms. Once Shelby was born, I arranged for her baptism at St Mary’s. I found out that there was a family service every month, and a Sunday School during term time. I thought that I would start taking my new baby and toddler Chloe along. We had no direct neighbours, and I wanted to make friends and meet new people. It was only a short walk to St Mary’s, across a green recreation field. It seemed to me that I had to find out what was going on at the church that my home was named after.
It proved to be a great way for the children to make friends. They were so young we would stay for the sessions and learn the Bible stories too. They loved the stories and would listen carefully to find out what happened to the characters in the end. They would ask what happened to the man let down through the roof? or did they rebuild the walls of Jericho? As we met, week by week, the other parents and I thought that we should look towards being confirmed. We had got caught up in our children’s faith journey - and it seemed we had been baptised, but none of us were confirmed. We decided to take the Emmaus course, and were duly confirmed by the Bishop.
After being confirmed, and this being the Church of England, of course I was encouraged to start something else! It was suggested to me to join the Mothers’ Union. What an off-putting title! - However, I went with the flow and still joined. The MU is a global charity, which engages with issues in society and with church life. It has been providing a support network for families since 1876. You may know that their head office is at Mary Sumner House, in Westminster, so named after the founder. The group met at the parish hall and, as I had now finished the Emmaus course, I did have the time to join the evening sessions. We would have a short act of worship followed by a collection of lively speakers – or we would discuss what we could do to help families in our local community. There was a women’s refuge around the corner, we would try to meet their needs with collecting food and clothing. There was also a great rivalry between us and the Women’s Institute! Our summer fayre stall would have to have the best cakes and jam!
Another responsibility of our group would be to invite families back to church on the anniversary of their child’s baptism. It was wonderful when they said yes, we’re coming, but where some responses were polite others were disheartening as they would say “we are visiting our relatives and won’t be there”. We would do this every year for 5 years, hoping that this would keep a connection for them with their church family. The children would receive a numbered card - presented to them during the family service - with much joy and applause. It is not easy to have children in church. We found some families came along and others, who said they would attend, did not show up. I am reminded of the parable of the sower, where some seed did fall on good soil, where it produced a crop, but some seed fell among thorns which grew up and choked the plants. Family service could be a long hour with young children, but it was always worth making the effort to invite them once a year.
My children were growing fast and still attending Sunday School. I remembered from their Baptism that I had promised to bring them to confirmation. When they were 6 and 9 they were ready to make their first communion. They had a weekly course of sessions, learning about God, the Bible, Holy Communion, the Trinity and Prayer. The admission to first communion was on Easter Sunday, followed by cake! An essential of any good C of E celebration! They were encouraged to worship regularly and to continue in receiving instruction, with the help of lay volunteers who always played a big part in teaching the children. They are truly a group of special people. Both of my girls came to be confirmed as teenagers and I had now fulfilled my promise made at their baptism.
I went to services, if not every week, then certainly once a month. There was no plan and no family tradition of church attendance, but I enjoyed going. I would help with teaching the younger children at Sunday School when I could -teaching is fun!
I decided to go back to full-time work in 2002. My workplace was an International engineering consultancy and multi-faith. I didn’t feel out of place mentioning my faith. It wasn’t odd or different to say that I was teaching Sunday School.
I had learned the well-known Bible stories at junior level, and it was time to move on to more adult study. There were regular home groups, led by members of the congregation with a love of scripture that couldn’t help but rub off onto those of us who hadn’t studied for a while. I had taken Religious Studies at A level, it was just one of my subjects at school, but I had not kept my knowledge growing. I went along on a Monday night, where we would follow a study book, read out loud from the Bible and then answer questions and share ideas. I must say that no-one at St Giles has experienced more Bible study than me! A Level, Emmaus, Alpha and finally home group.
Finishing with prayer points enabled us to talk about our personal lives, and made sure we would bring our concerns before God. Members of the group with health issues found this particularly helpful, as we discovered that persistence in prayer could bring great results.
Having moved to London, I work part-time at a Jewish practice of chartered accountants. A colleague asked if I went to church – she had a Catholic family tradition. I found myself in a multi-faith environment again, but she knew how to cope with my affirmative answer. There is an empathy with people of other faith’s when mentioning God at work. The wideness of God is not confined to one religion or another.
I now live in Roman House. I still have a church view from my bedroom window, and my husband jokes that I can never live anywhere without one. Not such a bad idea in my book, as you will never be far away from being part of a church family.
Sunday 5 March by Peter Woods
Fifty years ago I was at the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, a training centre for pilots and navigators, and for several ground branches too. I was trained in logistics – moving people and equipment to the right place at the right time. I spent 30 years plying my trade wherever the RAF chose to send me. They never sent me to war and I only fired weapons in practice. So my experiences are mostly from flying a “mahogany bomber” – an office desk – in Whitehall, or overseas in warm, sunny and peaceful places where Service personnel were accompanied by their families.
There are about 150,000 people in the armed forces. Statistics show that three quarters of them are Christian. The UK’s larger military units have churches and chaplains who were, of course, especially busy during the recent 13 year campaign in Afghanistan. 456 Service personnel lost their lives and hundreds were wounded, with many suffering life-changing injuries. Some 6000 patients were flown home on aeromedical evacuation flights for hospital treatment. Chaplains travelled widely in Afghanistan to be with the troops wherever they were operating. The Chaplains contributed to the maintenance of morale, traditionally dependent on the 3 Ms: Mail, Meals and Money. Medical is a vital 4th M for those in combat. Knowledge that medical treatment would be there for the wounded, and that there would be a flight to hospital in UK if necessary, was a key factor in sustaining military morale.
And this applies to families on overseas postings too. We were in Cyprus when, one Christmas Eve, a child on a military base had drunk from a bottle that he had found on the sports field. It was labelled ‘Paraquat’, which is a potent weed killer - usually fatal if consumed. The child was dangerously ill. The medics wanted to analyse the liquid. There was no appropriate test equipment available in Cyprus. Early on Christmas Day an RAF aircraft was despatched from UK to Cyprus with the single small package of test material. Analysis showed that the substance was indeed paraquat but, mercifully, it had been significantly diluted. On that Christmas day our prayers were answered and the child recovered. That was God at work for the military community.
My first overseas posting had been to the RAF base at Changi in Singapore. My parents had met in Singapore, and my grandfather had died in Changi Jail after 3 years internment during the war. His grave was in a cemetery on the island. My grandmother had said that I would find it at the Bida Dari, a Malay term for a cemetery. Twenty five years had passed since the war and there were, inevitably, many more cemeteries, including the Krangi war cemetery, with its endless rows of about four and a half thousand graves. I felt that I had a hopeless task and I did not want to disappoint my grandmother. I prayed for guidance. Be persistent. Don’t give up.
Eventually I found myself in a small Christian Cemetery in Upper Serangoon Road. There were few clear markings on the graves but fortunately there was an office with all the details. I found the grave of Alan Ker, my grandfather, and took photos to send to my grandmother. Within weeks, my posting to Singapore was cut short, and I was sent to Hong Kong, but by then my prayer had been answered.
Much of my career was spent in the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. “Whitehall Warriors” are not in physical danger. Their main fear might be of failure to make the right decision or to deliver the right support. Their courage is never tested in the heat of battle. What is courage? It is doing something that you know is frightening. The military work which most clearly demands courage is that of the Ammunition Technical Officer – the bomb disposal expert (either male or female) who has to disarm Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). The device is designed to kill but, to save others, the technical expert’s job is to make “the Lonely Walk” to the device, assess it, and slowly but methodically disarm it. They know that there is a high risk that they could be killed and, indeed, many were killed or injured but, in Afghanistan, they did the job daily. They said that they just hoped they would not be ‘the next one’ but many will have prayed too.
For me, I had some scary experiences while working for MoD, but not in the same league as those in the front line of combat. But I experienced the fear of failure. In 1982 the Falklands Island conflict stretched the capacity of our forces to the limit. I was in Whitehall in an RAF team managing the delivery of aviation fuel to RAF bases, including Ascension Island, the remote staging post in the Atlantic en route to the Falklands. The Vulcan bombers, the fleet of Victor refuelling aircraft and the frequent transport aircraft were consuming vast amounts of aviation fuel.
Additional fuel storage was rapidly constructed on the island and tankers were chartered to deliver a constant stream of fuel shipments. At the peak of the operation we suddenly had to suspend aircraft refuelling. The fuel had been contaminated. It was a heart-stopping moment. A specialist was sent from London to investigate. Filters were cleaned and re-fitted and fuel flowed again. A failure in fuel delivery would have been a show-stopper. We had prayed and God was at work.
There is a prayer that I have used since I was sent by the RAF to university for a year to qualify for a particular job. I was about 40, and I was concerned about my capacity to pass the course. This is Samuel Johnson’s prayer for students, but also an ideal prayer to God at Work:
O God, who has ordained that whatever is to be desired, should be sought by labour, and who, by thy blessing, brings honest labour to good effect, look with mercy on my endeavours. Grant that I may desire only that which is lawful and right. Afford me calmness of mind and steadiness of purpose, that I may so do thy will in this short life, as to obtain happiness in the world to come. For the sake of Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen
Sunday 12 February 3 Before Lent by Katharine Rumens
Ecclesiasticus 15: 15 – end and Matthew 5: 21 – 26
If you were wondering what secret of a successful life is, we got the answer last week: Tim Cook chief executive of Apple was speaking to students and advised them not to fall in love with profits or revenues and instead to concentrate on finding something that they felt passionately about.
We are not told what the students thought about that – how else are they going to pay off their student loans unless they get rich – isn’t passion a bit of a luxury when there are bills to pay?
Tim Cook said, ’My advice to all of you is: don’t work for money – it will wear out fast, or you’ll never make enough ever to be happy. You have to find the intersection of doing something you’re passionate about and at the same time something that is in the service of other people.
Interestingly under Cook's leadership Apple has increased its donations to charity, and the philosophy of the company is to leave the world a better place than when we found it. Good virtuous stuff.
What do we know about Tim Cook? Very little really - he is by nature a solitary and Wikipedia tells us that he was baptised as a Baptist – that is as an adult not as an infant. Baptists explain that baptism is a very special moment on the journey of faith. It is a moment when God's presence and blessing meets us – we agree with all that – but for them it is a moment when we make our personal commitment of faith in Jesus as Lord. Not the parents and godparents speaking on behalf of the child, but the individual speaking for themselves. That’s what Tim Cook has done. He has made the conscious choice to stand on God’s side.
‘If you choose’ says the writer of Ecclesiasticus – one of the wisdom books of the bible. Prophecy had come to an end, the revelation of God was now recorded in a series of sayings. We very rarely get to hear a reading from this or any other book in the Apocrypha on a Sunday morning which contains books enticingly called Susanna or ‘Bel and the Dragon.’
The author of Ecclesiasticus sets down the choices that face us all. You choose, life or death. And don’t blame Eve, or the snake when you mess things up. It’s your choice.
In the collect we prayed:
Eternal God, give your people grace so to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that among the many changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.
Don’t fix your heart on money - it will wear out fast, or you’ll never make enough ever to be happy. Choose to fix your heart on true joy.
We’ve got a bit of a breathing space – two and a half weeks before we really need to get down to the heart-fixing time of Lent. Our preparations for Lent may be just be a couple of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday if we have remembered to buy the lemons. The weather is grim and grey – we’ve had too much sofa. Life is a bit pan-cakey - fatty and a bit flat. Do some early spring cleaning, have a clear out - make some choices.
Up the mountain, Jesus put it this way. You shall not murder – that’s the law, but I say to you… and he makes it harder. As a theologian provocatively says, Jesus comes across as a fanatic having a rant and as a consequence has been ignored by Christians ever since.
When Jesus called his society together he gave its members a new way of life to live. He gave them a new way to deal with offenders – by forgiving them. He gave them a new way to deal with violence – by suffering. He gave them a new way to deal with money – by sharing it. He gave them a new way to deal with problems of leadership – by drawing upon the gifts of every member – however humble. He gave them a new way to deal with a corrupt society – by building a new order, not smashing the old. He gave them a new pattern of relationship.
And a new way of following the law which begins with the attitude that can lead to appalling actions. Anger can lead to murder, road rage can kill. Desdemona dies because Othello is eaten up with the anger of a jealous husband.
I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow. (William Blake)
So stop now. Name your anger. ‘When you are offering your gifts at the altar’…..The duty of reconciliation takes precedence even over duties commanded by God in temple worship. Meeting the one who has wronged us, or the one we have wronged is far harder than just following the letter of the law. Those difficult conversations as the ones managed by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa twenty years ago. Difficult conversations which need to go on the whole time if wrath is not to grow out of control; if reconciliation is going to be possible.
Anyone can follow the rules – that’s the easy part to offer turtle doves, a bull, a sheep or a goat – as required by the law. Anyone looking on would assume I was a good and devout believer doing the right thing. They are not to know I have unfinished business. It wouldn’t show. Who would know?
Jesus challenges members of the church to confront those whom we think have sinned against us. ‘If you are angry.’ He does not say that if we think we have been wronged we might consider confronting the one we believe has done us wrong. Jesus tells us we must do it because the wrong is not against us, but against the body, that is, the whole holiness of the church is at stake. ‘Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.’
As is revealed almost weekly in the press: holiness is at stake because of the abuse of children and young people, because of violence against the vulnerable, and hidden lies lived by those in positions of power. Distressingly the list goes on.
And for ourselves? If you choose. As we look ahead to Lent, perhaps a question to ask ourselves is what can I do about what makes me angry? Which is probably quite enough to keep us going for 40 days and 40 nights.
Sunday 5 February 4 Before Lent by Katharine Rumens
It is probably not a good idea when being sized up for a job to risk being witty. The archdeacon, the rector and I were the kitchen sorting out coffee before the interview. There was general chat about holidays – and I said I thought that camping was a cry for help. I did not know at the time that in the summer holidays the archdeacon’s and rector’s families regularly went camping together in France.
The wisdom of the campers’ lifestyle choice was confirmed this week by scientists who maintain that a weekend’s camping can improve your health. Almost one in ten of those interviewed said they went camping to get some ‘alone time’. I thought that was interesting – not ‘me’ time - going to the gym, having a pedicure, catching up on a box set with a bag of crisps. But ‘alone time’.
Out there watching the seasons change and the sun set – alone – perhaps in the company of others – but not crowded out by distractions. Withdrawing to make space for ‘Alone time.’ As that line from the Desert Fathers: sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything. It’s finding the grace to stay still and letting the Holy Spirit reveal everything to you.
On each of these four remaining Sundays before Lent the gospel reading will take us up a mountain. Three extracts are from the Sermon on the Mount, as today, and the Sunday before Lent we are on the Mountain of the Transfiguration. Mountains – encounters with God, places of revelation, the giving of the Ten Commandments, and the temptations of Jesus, ‘Again the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world.’ (Matt 4:8)
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain and began to speak…you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.
The previous chapter of Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus should have been going – was it really in the scheme of things for him to be hanging around. Didn’t he have a job to do? Just as he was about to get going, news reached him that John the Baptist had been arrested. Not good news, if this is what happens to the one who goes before, what will happen to the one who follows? What does Jesus do? He withdraws to Galilee. Alone time big time. Since the beginning, since a star rose in the east for the magi there have been constant withdrawals in this story. The magi withdrew and returned to their country by another way; Joseph withdrew with his wife and child to Egypt and later to Nazareth. Now Jesus too must withdraw. He won’t escape suffering, but he will not seek it.
Jesus withdrew to Galilee – there he began to preach proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. His fame spread. Great crowds followed him. ‘When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain;’ which should – according to scripture - be the place of solitude – when Moses climbed Mount Sinai he wasn’t followed by a mob demanding his attention.
And the first verses of the sermon are the famous blessings: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn…. then ‘You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world’. You are, you know.
Peter Hall’s autobiography is called, ‘Making an exhibition of myself.’ We can imagine this is a misquotation of what an exasperated grown up said to him as a child. Don’t make an exhibition of yourself. Stop showing off. Simmer down and read a book quietly, otherwise I shall get cross.
Only rude, badly brought up children want to be the centre of attention. Ironic really that for much of his life, both professionally and privately, Peter Hall was in the limelight.
Jesus tells the people to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world - not for their personal need for attention and affirmation – perhaps nothing more than showing off which even grown-ups are capable of. This is about our participation in God’s work in the world. That is the glory; that is what give life and light through and to ourselves and others.
Jesus does not say to the crowd, do remember to put your lamp under a bushel basket. On grounds of health and safety alone we don’t want you to dazzle us by your brilliance. No, says Jesus. Shine out. Bathe the world in light.
On Monday, the PCC revised our Mission Action Plan – we’re still working on it. It’s on the website – have a look at it, let us know if there are things to be added, or changes to be made. We have lit our lamp. Now for that lampstand. One of our five points is ‘We look outwards’, and we mainly do so through supporting charities – like the foodbank collections four times a year. We do not stand outside Waitrose with a big sign saying ‘Members of St Giles’ putting the gospel into action – look at us and be impressed’. We do not put a sticker on every tin donated saying ‘from a collection organised by practising Christians.’ That would be making an exhibition of ourselves. We just do it.
Being the light of the world is not about tagging a spiritual tract on at the end of an action. Those who need foodbanks are not preached at, given a bible passage to learn, told to repent. Being the light of the world is communicating the good news that shapes our thoughts and words and deeds – sometimes this will be explicit. More often it will be implicit – actions that communicate that God is love.
Sometimes the food bank collections go to the Dunloe Centre in Haggerston run by St Saviour’s Priory. Once a week people who live on the streets and refugees are given a hot meal and a supply of food and toiletries. Sister Elizabeth runs it. She was asked by one young man why he felt so much love when he came to collect his ration of food. Elizabeth is a Godly and wise woman. She said you have to remember it was bought in love, collected in love, sorted in love and we give it to you in love. There is a chain of love making all this possible.
“Prayerful lives, deeds of mercy, gentle listening to the needs of others: these are God’s beacons, a chain of light across the world which human eyes may see and as a result be lifted above the doubt and despair which can engulf us”.
Perhaps we need alone time to think about all that.
29 January 2017 Candlemas by Katharine Rumens
Luke 2: 22 – 40
I had Mary by the throat and one of the magi by the feet. A North American visitor in church last Saturday afternoon looked bewildered as I set the figures in place in front of the altar. ‘Why have you still got it out? We take ours down on 6 January (clearly indicating that that is the correct time to do it). I have never seen a crib left in place for so long.’
He gave me that look of pity and despair that other parts of the Anglican Communion reserve for those of us who live on Planet Church of England.
I said the figures which journeyed along the window sills in Advent would be in position till Candlemas – today – when we celebrate the presentation of Christ by his parents in the Temple. A good conclusion to the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany. Unlike the world which is happy to move onto winter sales and Easter Eggs on 26 December we hang on in there for the full forty days.
By now he admitted that Christ Church Oxford and also St Paul’s Cathedrals have still got their cribs out – perhaps we are not all wrong. He then asked if there was anything interesting to see in the church: not our easiest or most appreciative visitor.
Candlemas, one feast day and several names: the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus.
Purification which derived from the book of Leviticus: a woman was considered ceremonially unclean for forty days after the birth of a male child, and for eighty days after the birth of a female child. The astonishing events surrounding the birth - angel song and stars, all that treasure in her heart and yet Mary conforms in a down to earth way to the requirements of her religion. She didn’t say, ‘I don’t think I’ll bother with all that.’
And the Presentation only goes to show at one level, how dead ordinary Mary and Joseph were. An ordinary Jewish family doing what everyone else did. Two modest, humble parents from lower down Judean society come inconspicuously into the Temple to perform their duty according to the Law of Moses. They did not try to use their angelic messages as a way of getting round their religious duty.
Today we mark two Jewish ceremonies which in the past 750 years have been associated with Candlemas – the Christianisation of Imboic, the Celtic celebration of the end of winter in honour of Bigid the goddess of purification and fertility. Peasants would carry torches and go through the fields in procession, offering prayers to purify the ground before planting. May the harvest not fail this year.
Tame that by bringing it into church and the torches were replaced by candles symbolising Christ the light of the world. The people would then take the candles away to bring protection to their homes.
We wouldn’t buy that now. Mere candlelight - which so easily flickers and goes out - as protection, when what is needed is good insurance, a burglar alarm, security gates, shutters, padlocks, locks and keys, and of course a high fence. Then we are protected. Then we feel safe.
The trouble with great art is that it gets in the way of how we are able to visualise Bible stories afresh. I can’t get rid of Rembrandt’s depiction of the presentation of Jesus – great sweeps of shadow in huge architectural space. Real drama. Mary, Joseph, Anna and Simeon holding the baby are bathed in great light. Behind them a crowd on steps – some praying, some tourists, giving the feel of an immense building. A small patch of light in the immensity of the darkness.
It is a bit like Luke’s narrative – flicks of paint, hints of highlight; look carefully into the shadows to see what is going on here. An ordinary ceremony marked by strange happenings. Hints about Simeon and Anna, they are not clergy or even religious leaders. Two small cameos in the momentous events. Devout old people who found new wonder in the familiar setting of the Temple. All that patient waiting. (Hang on in there all you who despair at the slow – oh so slow revolving of Planet Church of England). Did the voice of doubt ever whisper in Anna and Simeon’s ear, ‘It’s waste of time you know, you’ll never live to see it.’ Give up and go home – everyone will understand.
Two more people give their evidence that the birth of Jesus was of exceptional significance. At least they make more reliable witnesses than shepherds down from the hills. It is an odd collection of people who notice the possibility of what’s going on.
Simeon is ready to die. He has made his peace with the idea of dying ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace.’ I trust when my time comes I too will have the faith to make my peace with my death.
All those years spent looking forward to fulfilment in ways that we can measure: exams taken, career prospects explored, a comfortable income with a lifestyle to match. There gets a point when it seems rude to ask, what are your plans now? Do we expect nothing more of the elderly than that they look back over their lives and share their memories of the past – when they were healthier, more energetic, more powerful – more like us?
In the darkness do we see the inner light of old age? The glory that is hidden in the human soul and surpasses death. It is never too late to see the glory of God. We believe that death is not the end but a new beginning.
In the Temple Simeon finds a tune and Anna’s lyric ecstasy sings out as the shadowed colonnades fill with the bright melody which all nations will come to sing. (Mary, Zechariah, the angels and shepherds and Simeon: they just can’t stop singing their hearts out in these first two chapters of Luke.)
You could say that all leave taking has an element of dying. Going away and saying goodbye can make us sad. Will we meet again? How changed will we be next time we see each other? Today we say goodbye to Jennie as our Assistant Priest – as on Thursday we say goodbye to Richard our bishop. We do not expect to see you again. Our paths will cross and we look forward to your visiting us from time to time during the year – of keeping in touch. We look back over the journey we have shared together these past six years with great thanks. Jennie, as you go on your way may the glory of God shine through you and Amy to lighten the world.
8 January Epiphany by Katharine Rumens
Matthew 2: 1 – 12
In Alan Bennet’s play The History Boys a bright young teacher arrives at the Grammar School to teach the small group of pupils preparing for the Oxbridge entrance exam. They have been thoroughly taught, their essays are competent but predictable and so dull. The new teacher tells them their work must stand out – surprise the examiners. Argue that Stalin was sensitive, Hitler was home loving, Mussolini was misunderstood etc. Tell it a new way see it through a different lens. Be different. Make it interesting. Shine on paper. Then you will be accepted and get a place – as we know they were. It worked.
In the time of King Herod. His father Antipater had appointed
him governor of Galilee in 47 BCE, when he about 25 or 28 – that is he was a bit younger than when Jesus began his ministry at the age of 30. 7 years later he was unexpectedly appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate. Which would make him about the same age as Jesus was when he was crucified. Jesus who they also called king. ‘Over his head they put the charge against him which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’ A death which, at the time means nothing to Rome.
Herod is king only because it pleases the Romans to have him rule over this troublesome region peopled by equally troubling Judeans. He is useful to Rome. He would be very used to getting presents from those in search of favours and of disappearing those who caused him trouble. Lots of people bowed down to him every day of his life. It comes with being king.
Modern scholars agree Herod suffered throughout his lifetime from depression and paranoia. This is not a healthy combination in our leaders. He introduced security measures to supress the contempt his people, especially Jews, had towards him. It has been suggested that he used secret police to monitor and report the feelings of the general populace towards him. He had a bodyguard of 2,000 soldiers.
At the end of his reign, anger and dissatisfaction were common amongst the Jews. It is so easy to create a climate of fear. Fear of the other. Fear of the unknown. So says Herod: if you do not like my rule, if you do not obey me, you will find you like the direct rule of the Romans even less. Better the devil you know. Jerusalem fears. Herod’s rule is made possible because the fear of those he rules makes Herod’s rule seem necessary. ‘He is the only one who has got what it takes to be our leader in these troubled times,’ they said. The historian Josephus stated that Herod was so concerned that no one would mourn his death, that he commanded a large group of distinguished men to come to Jericho, and he gave an order that they should be killed at the time of his death so that the displays of grief that he craved would take place. It didn’t turn out like that - not so much grief as violence – riots followed Herod's death in many cities, including Jerusalem. All the built-up grievances against him were unleashed. The injustices and fears of all the years were met.
The magi – most unwisely – happen to be travelling at the very end of Herod’s reign. They enter a country of angry and dissatisfied people. Herod’s fear of a mere baby reveals how precarious his rule, how fragile his authority.
History does not record that in private Herod displayed a completely different side to his character. He liked fluffy kittens, embroidering pin cushions and writing romantic poetry. The fact that his is considered a despot who, incidentally, killed his wife and two of his sons is an indication of the stress he under as he tries to reconcile the demands of Roman authorities with the needs of his people, the Jews.
Jesus, the eternal son of the father, is born in Herod’s time – a time of political cynicism. The people are frightened, they are frozen. It is a dark time.
There are no prizes for seeing darkness. Deadlines, debts, depression – January is here. Blue Monday is coming up. All those New Year resolutions so quickly abandoned.
Some days it seems as if darkness covers the whole earth – like it did right back in the beginning on the first day. Terrorists, tyrants, the global economy hanging by a thread, the rich getting richer, the poor paying the price, refugees pounding on doors locked against them, racism so entrenched we don’t even notice it.
Arise! Shine! Who can spot the light? The Epiphany story tells of these unwise travellers. Are they completely clueless? Do they learn nothing from the countries through which they pass? Have they listened to no travellers’ tales round the campfires at night? Has no local guide warned them to watch out for Herod – a nasty piece of work if ever I saw one, and the people scared silly?
It would appear that they have lived charmed existences removed from reality by wealth and privilege; those who remain oblivious to their surroundings and ignorant of the country find themselves in. So caught up are they in their star gazing, they don’t see the ground under their feet.
It is not good news for Herod that strangers appear believing a king has been born. He is no fool. He is an experienced leader – he has a reputation for being crafty – intrigue is a way of life – plot and counter-plot. With those bodyguards to make sure things go his way. He is frightened, but he knows what to do.
Add that to his list of better qualities – Herod is resourceful.
He calls together two groups of people who don’t always get on. The chief priests and the scribes: the intellectuals of the day educated to serve those in power. They tell him – quoting from scripture, ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah….from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ Jesus of Bethlehem has been born.
The magi are helped by this most unlikely of sources. Herod gives the travellers the answer. Not Jerusalem but Bethlehem. Yet Herod doesn’t get on his horse and gallop down there to see for himself. It’s only 5.5 miles – he could be there in an hour. He trusts them. The travellers will return.
Without Herod the magi might not have found the one they were looking for.
Magi – schooled in the complexity of the world – see the mother and child – the timeless simplicity of new life and love. And then they go home – right back to where they came from.
A theologian writes: I think that religious people are often too good at sorting the good from the bad, the joy from the sadness, the beautiful from the ugly. We sort and separate, control and organise so as not to muddle or contaminate.
This is not Matthew’s way – nor his way of drawing us into the story. The crafty, the frightened, the intelligent, the naïve involved in the coming of the magi. We know life is wild and uncontrollable – it will go pear-shaped without warning. The light shines in the darkness. When we see it together, we see it whole.
Our nostrils are full of the smoke from historic burnings. 350 years ago the City was still smouldering after the Great Fire. St Giles escaped only to fall victim to the 1897 conflagration in the nearby ostrich feather warehouse and then even more seriously in 1940, the church was devastated by incendiary bombs.
Tonight however is an occasion for celebrating the resilience of London and recovery of nerve on the part of the Christian community in London. Memories and associations cluster thickly here in St Giles and we give thanks for those who have worshipped here before us and especially those who in recent years have brought the church back to life.
Thanksgiving is a creative act which diverts the pressure of the passing
moment and opens the mind and the heart to what lies beneath and beyond the sick hurry of the everyday. John Milton, who is remembered here with particular respect, said “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world”.
The City is a very hectic environment and we need accessible places where we can penetrate the surface of things to gain a deeper vision of what is worthwhile in life and a clearer direction of travel. Hats off to you for keeping the church open. St Giles is just such a place as Jacob found at Beth-el, which means “the house of God”. The name Jacob means “the supplanter” he who by his cunning had stolen his brother’s birth right; he was a schemer, a wheeler-dealer so it was only when he went to sleep that he woke up. Those who range over the surface world with avid eye are really in fantasy land those who are shown the world beneath and beyond the surface, awake. Jacob woke from his sleep and said “Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it. How awesome is this place.”
Recovery after disaster depends, yes upon financial and material resources but also vitally on resources of the spirit. A lot of hard work and planning went into rebuilding this church. We praise God for those who had the faith to ensure that St Giles rose from the ashes.
Faith and confidence which means literally “having faith together” are as significant in building and rebuilding a city as bricks and mortar. Here in the City there have been times when faith has been relegated to the leisure sector. Not so long ago there was a crisis of confidence which called in question the importance of maintaining and developing the life of the churches rebuilt after the Great Fire and restored after the war. Plans were drawn up to close all but four of the City Churches but with renewed
confidence in the centrality of faith to the life of the City we have witnessed an astonishing revival. Confidence in Jesus Christ has been turned into compassion and creativity as we seek with every one of good will to serve all Londoners irrespective of their place of origin or world view.
It is important to know the story of a place in a way that fuels gratitude. So often fruitful change happens, when we recover an original inspiration in new circumstances – in truth we remember the future.
One of the things we remember this evening especially in the presence of Mollie Munn is St Luke’s Old Street which was re-united with St Giles 50 years ago. This ancient parish was once upon a time divided into two parts, the area within the City which was called the Freedom and the area which became St Luke’s which was called the Lordship.
John Wesley preached and worshipped in St Luke’s and he had a family connection with this place and I rejoice that this is of the places where the tragic schism between Methodism and the Church of England is being overcome. Leslie and Jennifer are not here as oecumenical guests but beloved partners in the gospel. We have moved into a post-denominational future although some church leaders have yet to get the message. As we remember we need to transcend the broils of recent centuries in order to remember our roots, as people “chosen and precious in God’s sight, called to be living stones being built into a spiritual house in which all may taste and see the Spirit of Jesus Christ”. We remember our roots with a lively sense of the judgement of the end time which will be anticipated, as scripture says, by a time of trial when the strength and integrity of what has been built will be once again tested by fire.
There are those in every generation who imagine complacently that the present reality will endure but the tectonic plates are shifting. The unchallengeable western hegemony of the last 250 years is giving way to a more genuinely multi-polar world in which the countries of the East will resume the place they have occupied for most of human history. We have the privilege of serving Jesus Christ, the hope of the whole world, on this global crossroads which is London and we must be determined to embrace the diversity of modern London. Whatever we do for Jesus Christ in this wired up City reverberates for good or ill throughout world.
We serve by building a diverse community united in the Spirit of Christ to touch and embrace all our neighbours without distinction. London is full of people who live alone and we have a clear responsibility to consider their needs and their contribution. I especially honour the emphasis in your Mission Action Plan on work with young people and St Luke’s school in particular. This will require creativity and I may not be the best guide in this area. I was in one of our primary schools recently and the children asked me – do you remember anything which you did at school. I said, yes, I was the ink monitor. It was a job for a responsible child who had a metal can full of ink with which the china inkwells in our desks were filled every morning. They looked baffled and the teacher came to my rescue saying, we have just done a project on the Victorians and there is one of those cans in the display. We need young people themselves to help us navigate into the new digital world.
So for the past and the resilience of this church after its various fires,
thanks. And for the future in which our work will certainly be tested again,
we ask for the vision of Jacob and the stickability of Mollie Munn.’
Where to visit us:-
St Giles' Cripplegate Church
London EC2Y 8DA
Registered Charity Number 1138077
Services and church opening hours
Thursday 25 May Feast of the Ascension
08.30 Holy Communion
Communion (First Sunday in the month)
10.00 Parish Eucharist
16.00 Evening Prayer
Evening Prayer may be cancelled on the Sunday after Christmas and on Easter Day or during August. The service may also be cancelled if no key holder is available or it may take place in the Rectory instead.
08.30 Morning Prayer (Monday-Thursday)
Monthly Private Prayer and Reflection
These sessions are held on the first Thursday of the month., from 13.00-13.30.
Dates for future sessions 1 June, 6 July. There is no session in August
These sessions are normally held on the first Thursday of the month from 13.30-15.00. Some gentle cleaning and tea and cakes at the end.
Dates for future sessions
1 June, 6 July. There is no session in August
The church is normally open from 11.00-16.00 Monday to Friday.
Parish Office Opening Hours
Tel: 020 7638 1997
The Parish Administrator is on annual leave until Thursday