Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sermon preached at the Cathedral Eucharist, Trinity 12B, Proper 16

Pray for me, that when I speak a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel...
Lord – in your mercy hear my prayer.

That process of prayer before preaching is something we take for granted, I'm sure...and I know, if I'm honest, that more often than not, if I'm in the congregation, my involvement in the preacher's prayer is limited to a formulaic “Amen”...though the view is rather different when I'm standing here, as I am right now, hugely conscious of the sheer presumptuousness of ascending these steps to speak about God and expecting others - you - to listen!

Just who do I think I am??

Preaching the word can surely only be possible if we hand the whole process over directly to God.
That's why for me the hope that the words I preach will be in the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit always comes in the form of a petition . “May I speak...” and not a declaration "I speak..."
How could it be otherwise.?
I'm overwhelmingly conscious that when those words are simply the overflow of my own hyper-active thoughts, they remain disturbingly earth-bound. I need, then, to engage with Paul's exhortation to pray in the Spirit...for the whole business of prayer is, of course, always about both communication and relationship.

But here as we meet for worship it would be easy to take it for granted. It's pretty much the first thing we do whenever we gather to hear God's Word, and to support one another in the life of faith. We come as individuals, carrying all the joys & concerns of our own lives, and as we pray The Spirit knits us together, and transforms us into the Body of Christ. Together we hear, see, taste, smell, feel, and sing God's love. And we respond in prayer.
Prayer is what most sets a church apart from any other sort of gathering.
It's our core purpose – and there is something about meeting somewhere where prayer has “been valid” since the days of Leofric and Godiva that adds extra impetus to the process.
My former bishop Michael Perham reminds us that prayer is like a spring running underground throughout our worship. “We hear the scriptures read, but in a way we pray them and that is why God is able to speak to us through them. We listen to the sermon, but in a way we pray it ...and it the prayer that changes it from dry theology into good news for our lives. We sing hymns and psalms, chants and songs, but at another level we pray them...”
Prayer is the life blood of the Christian community...the means by which we put down deep roots into God

But prayer is not, really, about what we do. It is, to quote Rowan Williams, rather an environment that we inhabit...the environment that is our relationship with God.
Among many many books on prayer on my shelves is one called simply “An Affair of the Heart”.
I love that reminder.
Prayer is an affair of the heart...
It should have nothing to do with duty – with the formulaic business of “saying our prayers” - though it's true that established habit and carefully crafted words can hold us steady when our hearts and minds are in tumult.
Terese of Liesieux puts it beautifully
I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and he always understands me. For me prayer is an aspiration of the heart...”

An aspiration...

A longing of our heart to turn towards God...a re-orientation of heart, mind, spirit as God calls us back to our truest selves.
And that aspiration is outstripped in every way by God's longing to reach out to us.

So prayer is most truly a conversation based on the language of love.
The love with which God reaches out to us, in myriad ways...through creation, through the arts, through Scripture, through one another – and above all through his Son, the living, breathing Jesus, who walked the earth, and the risen Lord who invites us here to meet him in bread and wine
God's endless unconditional love ....and the faltering love that we offer in return.
Here is the God whose arms are always open...who waits constantly for us to turn towards him, whose heart aches in longing for us to come to know Him...the God who is “always more ready to hear that we are to pray” and whose boundless generosity outstrips even our egocentric demands.

But we are oddly resistant – bafflingly narrow in our view of what God can do in us and for us.
He offers us life in all its fulness, “more than we either desire or deserve” but we ask instead for a win for the Sky Blues, fine weather for a wedding, or a 4 bedroomed house in Earlsdon.

Perhaps it is because we are too conscious of our own shortcomings, “guilty of dust and sin” - but you know, God has already dealt with that.
No matter how much we may struggle with ourselves, with those recurrent patterns of thought and behaviour that we have tried and tried and tried to bury, with the distressing realisations that “That – THAT – is part of me!!”...God has already dealt with it.

Yes – even those things we can't bear to mention or acknowledge.
God, in Christ, has them covered.
Forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid”...

Perhaps though we're simply too busy to bother. Prayer seems a pointless waste of our valuable time – for we're trapped in the self-important, self-reliant habits of contemporary life that leave little sense of the deepest realities
People on sinking ships complain of many things, but never of distraction in their prayers” said Herbert McCabe...and it's surely true that we petition with most urgency when we know that we are at the end of our own resources.
At that place where human capabilities are exhausted, and material distractions lose their power, prayer takes off as never before - for at that point we know that what we most need are words of eternal life.
To whom shall we go...?” indeed.

But in the meantime, perhaps it is simply that we don't believe prayer will change anything.
Sometimes we may not recognise God's gifts...
We pray for healing and perhaps God's gift to our loved one is the healing that comes as he gathers them safely into his arms.
Was our prayer answered?
Not as we chose...but surely the answer came.
If we imagine that prayer is all about changing God's mind, about bringing him round to our way of thinking – our hopes will often be disappointed, and so we decide to give up.
Transformation will happen right enough....but it's most likely to be a transformation of US as we pray, as we spend time with God, as we honestly struggle to mean those well-worn words “thy will be done”.

Sometimes, of course, we shy away from the recognition that God invites us to become the answer to our own prayers...that, having prayed for the poor and hungry to be relieved, it falls to us to go and feed them...but that is part of a continuing conversation as well. 
I know that when I'm tempted to let fly at God about refugees, global warming, child poverty, I can expect to hear God challenging me to BE an active part of the Body of back up my words with radical action.

Prayer will change me, if I let it...and it is certainly futile to pray if you have no intention of doing anything different when you rise from your knees – for in every relationship we can expect to be changed by the one with whom we're engaged.
In this relationship we place ourselves, trembling, in the hands of the living God....and as we place ourselves where God can touch us, and try to let go of the protective layers of assumptions about ourselves, and about God which so often disrupt our conversation, we become more truly, fully ourselves...

There in the stillness, where words cease, is God.
And you.
And I.
And all the needs of the broken, hurting world.

Rowan Williams again.
When you're lying on the beach, something is happening that has nothing to do with how you feel or how hard you're trying. You're not going to get a better tan by screwing up your eyes and concentrating. You give the time, and that's it. All you have to do is turn up. And then things change...You simply have to be there where the light can get at you”

So, in the end, there is nothing really to understand...nothing to “get right” props required, no special words - not even "hands together and eyes closed".
Prayer is all about love, God's love reaching out to us and helping us to respond little by little, as we are brought into alignment with the One who calls us to know him, leads us to trust him and speaks to us the words of eternal Him be glory both now and forever.

Almighty and everlasting God, 
you are always more ready to hear than we to pray
 and to give more than either we desire or deserve
pour down upon us the  abundance of your mercy
forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid
and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask 
but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, 
who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, now and for ever. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Call me Mother - a footnote

After I linked to this post on Facebook, there were some interesting reactions...To start with, a number of colleagues read it as a directive to call me "Mother" whether they wanted to or not.

Can I say LOUDLY that I'm delighted to be called Mother if that's what you find helpful - but if you don't, for goodness sake don't feel that you have to!
The point is for the label to enable, not confuse relationship...There might be times, I guess, when those who normally call me Kathryn might want to relate more specifically to me as a priest - and use "Mother" to differentiate...but again, it's all about the terms of the relationship.

But I was also struck by a childless friend, an ordinand who felt that she wouldn't be able to use the title as she had not been a mother herself. To her I would say, as I do on pretty much every Mothering Sunday that I'm let loose in a pulpit, that Mothering has never, ever been the exclusive preserve of those who give birth
When I think of those who have offered me the most consistent nurturing along the way, my father would be at the top of the list, but he would be closely followed by my children as well as many wonderful friends, both male and female, parents and childless. 
That list of behaviours shared by priests and parents is absolutely possible (not easy, but possible!) whether or not you've given birth...and indeed, it does not include giving birth at all...

Because, you see, at that moment of procreative miracle, the parallel fails.
As clergy we do not birth the Church - nor the faith of any of our congregation.
That is, of course, the work of the Holy Spirit - and her alone.
In fact, that's just what Paul says in the passage from Roman's I've been wrestling with for 8.00 tomorrow
4For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God...

At which point, of course, we're back at the paradox that if God is our true father, perhaps we should save the labels of parenthood for God alone...

But I suspect it's a second-order issue really.
If it helps you, great. If not, forget it!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Breathing Space: Walking the Labyrinth

Ever since I arrived in Coventry last year, I've wanted to bring a labyrinth into the Cathedral, and when I was given responsibility for the informal 6.30 service which we have re-launched as "Later", it was only a matter of time....
Some years ago, #1S and I spent an anxious few days drawing out and then spray painting a simple Chartres design on a large piece of theatrical canvas - and it has been amazingly well-used since, going out to all sorts of churches across Gloucester diocese and even getting involved in curate training there. And on Sunday it finally got unrolled in Coventry.

With the choir year ending that morning, the theme of holiday, holy-day, rest and re-creation was an obvious one. I'd found a rather lovely outline for a prayer walk based on psalm 23 here, so I grabbed some colouring sheets, a finger labyrinth and my CD of Preisner Requiem for my Friend and we were off. 

"Later" has a smaller congregation - so there is ample opportunity to befriend the building, and experience time out with God in any number of quiet corners. However, we still aren't very experienced in the ways of creative worship - until January, this service was a straightforward prayer & praise mix every week, under the "Cathedral Praise" banner...Now, that format alternates with the contemplative "Breathing Space", which seems to hit the spot for many - but I still feel I need to provide a fair amount of guidance, and often something vaguely resembling a preach too. 

So we started with a prayer, read our psalm slowly together, and then this:

Tonight’s theme, looking towards our summer break, is based on probably the best-loved of all the psalms.
Psalm 23 is, of course, a reminder of God’s presence with us throughout the whole of life, whatever our inner and outer landscapes. It may be that we find ourselves led along the gentle, peaceful paths where we are nurtured and sustained, where it is easy to recognise God’s care for us as we enjoy green pastures and still waters. That’s the kind of place in which we long to linger – and indeed, there are times when we really need to linger there, whether we know this or not. In an increasingly driven society, where 24/7 access is available for everything from health-care to groceries, it can be hard to stop, to breathe in the peace that God longs to share with us. 
We neglect the principle of Sabbath – time out to BE, and not to DO…
We seek to dam the still waters to generate electricity and calculate just how much more profitable those green pastures might be if they were sold off for development….

But we have a God who rested when he had made the world, and who invites us to take time out to rest with him, to luxuriate in his care for us, to run barefoot amid the green pastures and drink deep, refreshing draughts of those still waters. The Lord who is our shepherd leads us there and protects us while we rest, for he knows that we need those quiet times in which His Spirit can be at work restoring our soul.
Holidays – HOLY days – are part of God’s plan for us, and though we don’t have to have ££££s to spend on jetting off across the world, we are foolish and self-destructive if we ignore our need to come aside for a while and rest.
Follow the shepherd.

But that shepherd is there with us, too, during the hard times…the times when illness, unemployment, and the struggles of family life tax us and exhaust us…The times when wherever we turn there seems to be trouble and sadness….when each step that we take is hard, hard work – as if we were struggling through the darkness, heading towards our own death. These times too are foreseen by the shepherd – and he will never ever leave us to face them alone. He lends us his strength (for comfort means “with strength”)…and reminds us that he has a special purpose for each one of us, for which we are set aside as surely as any monarch anointed at their coronation, or priest at their ordination.
We are invited to feast in the wilderness, even in the valley of the shadow, surrounded by those who wish us harm. We are given blessing upon blessing, so that our cup overflows – and then we have the promise that this is just the beginning…that when we’ve completed this life’s journey, we will live in the house of the Lord forever.

So now we have time to savour these words and to rest on the promises they point to.
You are invited to take a phrase with you as you walk the labyrinth, or to ponder it as you find your own path around the Cathedral.
If you wish, there are activities for you to explore on the table…a paper labyrinth that you could trace prayerfully with a pen, a text from the psalm to colour and make your own, a way of praying for yourself and for one another.
We will end this time of prayer walking by ringing the peace bell and returning to the prayer circle for our closing prayer.

Walk gently, knowing that God walks with you.

And so we began.
Some people spent almost the entire hour prayerfully colouring in the text, others departed, armed with a colouring sheet and some pens, to far flung corners of the Cathedral, while there was a steady stream of barefoot pilgrims making their way round the labyrinth.
Some carried knotted string...Here's why

Tied in Knots
Life is complicated. Relationships are complicated, and we take so much time worrying...Take a piece of string from the table, sit down and spend some time bringing to God all those things that worry you.
For each worry, tie a loose knot in your piece of string and pray, telling God about each concern and asking God to help you to trust Him with it.
When you are ready, take this string with you on your walk into the labyrinth....When you reach the centre, exchange it for one of the pieces of string you'll find there, that represents another's worries. Pray, thanking God that he cares for the person who tied those knots, and that he will answer their prayers.
Pray that they will receive God's peace.
It's often easier to believe that God will deal with another's problems, rather than our own so as you pray, try to acknowledge that God will do for you what you pray he will do for others. Keep the unknotted string with you, in your purse or pocket, and when you come across it, let it remind you to pray for the person whose problems you offered to God - and to give thanks that God cares for you.

The labyrinth is quite small, and I fully expected people to return to their seats having exhausted the resources I'd provided well before an hour was up, but in the event we all sank gratefully into the silence, and it was only out of care for the verger, who can't go home til we've all departed, that I brought myself to ring the peace bell, our signal to regroup when our time out with God was over.
And, the space and stillness spoke to many.
We had some unexpected visitors: a couple passing through Coventry and just wondering what might be on at the Cathedral, a bypasser who thought it looked interesting and just happened in, a visitor from the "Holy Ground" congregation at Exeter Cathedral, who was intrigued to find us exploring similar ways of worship here. For some of our regulars it seemed to hit the spot, providing what they needed in ways that I couldn't predict. One way and another, it was all very lovely - and exactly what I needed after a particularly busy weekend.
I'm so glad that we waited - but so glad that, when the time was ripe, we could spend such a fruitful evening exploring God together.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Call me Mother

Last Wednesday a friend and I found ourselves leading a workshop on priesthood and parenthood.
Some of those attending were probably slightly disappointed, as they had hoped for practical tips for saying Mass with a toddler tucked under the arm, or ways of retaining the respect of your congregation after an enthusiastic Y1 has regaled them with tales of "What Mummy said to Daddy when  the car broke down"...but we were intent on something a bit different.

As a priest in the Catholic tradition I'm entirely comfortable calling my male colleagues "Father", though when I was first ordained I was oddly resistant to being called "Mother". In retrospect, I think this was mostly because I was very conscious that my ordination would have a considerable impact on my children, who had been used to having the first call on my time and attention, - and asking them to share the name that they called me as well as so much else just seemed like a bridge too far. In addition, having grown up in the kind of traditional parishes where "Father knows best" was a code for "So just sit in your pew and be quiet", I was absolutely resistant to any hint that this might be reflected in my ministry. I was not prepared in any way to subscribe to the use of parental language to encourage generations of the faithful to rest, passive and dependent as new-born infants , accepting no responsibility for the life of the church at all, though sometimes invited to share in carefully chosen chores, "to help Father". So, for the first few years after ordination, despite serving in a relatively Catholic context, my answer to the "What do we call you?" question was always, quite simply, "Kathryn".

Latterly, though, I've begun to adjust my ideas. This came about in part by spending time with friends in London diocese, where the language of Father and Mother feels entirely natural (even in quite catholic parishes in Gloucester it felt rather contrived, - you could somehow hear the inverted commas whenever it was used), and partly because I realised that actually, what people choose to call their priest is important in helping them to establish the relationship. So, while I absolutely REFUSE to answer to "Rev Kathryn", and enjoy "Canon Kathryn" (in a wryly amused "how on earth did THAT happen?" kind of way) I am now entirely happy to be called Mother as well, because for me that is all about relationship. I was scrabbling around trying to work out exactly what I meant by this when John-Francis Friendship wrote a rather helpful blog on the subject
"I have no desire to be addressed as ‘Reverend’ nor, for that matter, Vicar (another lazy way of referring to clergy) – I am not a vicar and never have been!  But I value being called Father and I will call women priests Mother because it reminds me and, I hope, them of that relationship in God we are called to both embrace and live out.  It reminds me that, as a priest, I am not called into an ordinary relationship with those I encounter but into a relationship in God our heavenly Father – and Mother.  "

Isn't that lovely?

So - in our workshop we went on to brain-storm some parental roles - and our list looked something like this:
Referee                     Challenger                  Negotiater                     Lender of resources
Comforter                  Mopper- up                 Confidante                   Provider of rituals
Welcomer                  Nurturer                      Protector                      Playmate
Celebrater                 Enforcer of discipline  Enabler                        Peace-maker  
Teacher                     Listener                      Boundary-setter           Story-teller
Setter of moral tone   Faith-keeper              Walker-beside              Someone who is always there

As we talked through these parental roles, it became increasingly clear that there is a huge and genuine cross-over between the tasks of parenthood and priesthood...

Of course, the priest exists to enable the ministry of the Church, and to facilitate encounters between God's people and their God. TOGETHER priest and people are called to be walking sacraments, living signs that the Kingdom of God has come near, and our collective task is to respond to those who say                    "Sir, we would see Jesus" (John 12:21)
We, and all God's people, exist to mediate God's love, to continue the work of the Incarnation - as Augustine so wonderfully puts it 
"You are to be taken, blessed, broken and distributed that the work of the Incarnation may go forward". is not, even for a second, actually all about US.

The other role that we identified gets to the heart of this...for both priest and parent are called to work ourselves out of a job, to let go, sometimes even to push our children out of the nest so that they can truly fly.
Always, always, it is about the priest (and the parent) getting out of the way...
Whenever I preside at the Eucharist, I  aspire to become transparent....
This is a paradox, of course, because the only thing I can bring to my priesthood is myself - and in shaping and setting the tone for a congregation's life, or that of a family, my own gifts and skills woill have their part to play. I don't comfortably identify with the traditional catholic clergy of my childhood who would remove their wedding rings in the vestry before celebrating Mass, as a sign that they left their own personal identity behind, any more than I want to create children (or, dear heaven, a congregation!) as mini-me's. Nonetheless, I've been conscious over the past few years of the risk that exists in that loving family relationship which can be part of parish life at its best...that sometimes, just sometimes, the deep affection of priest and congregation for one another can divert the focus from the God who is the ONLY reason for any of it.
"Sir, we would see JESUS".

We need to have strong relationships with our children - and with our churches - but those relationships are not there to serve our own needs but to enable children and churches alike to fly..So another key text is those words of John the Baptist
"He must become greater and I must become less" (John 3:30) 

On Friday of last week my daughter phoned in a state somewhere between joy and panic to tell me that she has a place on a 2 year post-graduate course IN CANADA!!!!!
She is 28,. She left home for uni a decade ago and has since collected a whole raft of degrees, lived in different towns and cities, coming home from time to time, but dancing her own dance, independently, to the music given to her alone.
And now she is going to do so on a different continent - and I have to let her - because, actually, that's the point!
Like it or not, as her mother, my job is to make myself redundant and let her go joyfully (though perhaps the odd tear is allowed) see her and her brothers independent, adult, living their lives, singing their songs, not copying mine.

I lent them resources for a while, - and I guess I always will. It would be a strange parent who refused to feed her children, no matter how grown up, - but they don't need to need me. You see, for them as for the congregations I serve, I'm simply the 18th camel.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


Practising a theology of welcome can stretch us all. Yet, developing a theology of welcome that offers genuine hospitality is surely vital, for if we don’t practice it, we exclude the Christ that welcomed all. If we gather in groups based on outer appearances or outer behaviors, we are excluding the Christ who ate with tax collectors and sinners. Being a welcoming people can be uncomfortable or it can be uncomfortably transforming—empowering us to be the radically welcoming community that Jesus taught us to be.
In my first year at Coventry  I’ve asked many of the regulars what drew them to the Cathedral in the first place – and what persuaded them to stay. For some, of course it was the beauty of our building and our worship – signposts that point to a beauty beyond all our imaginings. Others, though, cite the discovery of a group of people who welcomed them and made them feel at home. That’s a delight – and the strong sense of identity as a Cathedral community is something to celebrate too….as long as we are always mindful that in celebrating that identity we don’t unknowingly exclude those who might not fit the mould or demand that they settle down and conform. I'm very certain that we're not yet the Church God calls us to be...indeed, I've never been part of such a glorious, perfected body! We're broken, imperfect and disabled. We need the resources, fresh insights, different experiences of God and of his world that the stranger brings...but do we dare to acknowledge this?
Benedictine hospitality demands that we open our lives to others as well. Benedictine hospitality demands the extra effort, the extra time, the extra care that stretches beyond and above the order of the day. Real hospitality requires that we consider how to take the concerns of the poor, the hungry, the lonely, the dying into our own lives.
It is not enough simply to change our minds about things or to come to feel compassion for something that had never touched us before or even to change our own way of life to let in the concerns of others. Real hospitality lies in making change happen so that our community becomes a haven for the helpless, our members ready to act as a voice for the voiceless. Hospitality means we take people into the space that is our lives and minds and our hearts and our efforts. Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step toward dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn a prejudiced world around, one heart at a time.
Some have shared that their experience as newcomers has not been like this. Rather than stepping into a space made ready for them, they’ve struggled to be recognized, unsure that anyone has really noticed them at all. I’ve heard of some who loitered at the west end for several weeks before anyone engaged with them…who didn’t feel that anyone here cared much about their lives once they left the building….who still see the phrase “Cathedral Community” and swallow hard, as their experience has been of coming into a group that exists for 2 hours on Sunday but has no common life of mutual love and support beyond. An aside – unless our Sunday mornings are just the tip of the ice-berg of our community life, I’m not sure that we really qualify as a community at all, any more than the passionate crowd who gather to support the Sky Blues, but then go their separate ways. That might be something to ponder.
Welcoming in Christ’s name means rather more than offering a cup of coffee, though it’s true that the small things that add up… Saying hello. Smiling at the unfamiliar face sitting beside you. Remembering someone’s name and using it (that's specially important and helpful in our welcome to children...If they don't believe that we love them for their OWN sake, then how can they believe what we try to tell them of a loving, welcoming God?). Larger steps. Asking that person you’ve noticed in worship for the past month but haven’t formally met to Sunday lunch. Suggesting you meet for a coffee mid week. Even, giving a cup of cold water.

Hospitality is at the root of reconciliation...Words of wisdom from a contemporary Benedictine website
Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step toward dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn a prejudiced world around, one heart at a time.”
The crucial thing is that everyone —everyone—is received as Christ. Everyone receives a warm answer—on the phone, at the door, in the office. The Benedictine heart is to be a place without boundaries, a place where truth of the oneness of all things shatters all barriers, a point where all the differences of the world meet and melt, where Jew and Gentile, slave and free, woman and man all come together as equals.And once over the threshold, what comes next for a stranger turned guest in a Benedictine house?After being greeted by the brothers and the Superior, guests should be welcomed to join in Lectio Divina, to share a meal and to have their hands and feet washed. Through these three things, guests have the opportunity to deepen their understanding of God, to share in community life and to be served as is befitting those made in the image of God. I wonder what our equivalents might be.
Finally, of course, we cannot reflect on welcome without turning to Matthew 25. This undergirds the Benedictine teaching, but it is sobering reading for it shifts hospitality onto another plane altogether, beyond most “normal” aspirations.
Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ, because He will say: "I was a stranger and you took Me in” and let due honour be shown to all. When, therefore, a guest is announced, let him be met by the Superior and the brethren with every mark of charity. And let them first pray together, and then let them associate with one another in peace… let Christ be adored in them as He is also received.’ In other words, the reception of guests should be equal to the reception of Christ himself, in whose image all are made. By receiving others, we are welcoming Christ. Thus, if we are truly Christians, we show this in our treatment of others.
Just think about that for a moment. About what it would really mean to welcome each one of our visitors – tourists, school children, students, confused street dwellers...EACH ONE OF THEM as if they were Christ, the One for whom our souls long, the One for whom this building exists, the One for whom WE exist. Let's pause for a moment to picture him walking through the west door, coming to the welcome desk, asking “May I come in”...Imagine the joy. We have loved him for so long. We come here week by week to seek his face. And here he is at our door.
THAT'S the joy with which we should offer our welcome. The joy that transforms the unknown stranger into the person we most long to see. And you know, if we can aspire to that, I very much doubt it we'll have to worry about our community diminishing in the long run. Authentic hospitality let us open the doors of hearts as well as those of our building, as Christ himself invites us to do.
For Everyone Born, a Place at the Table
For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star overhead,
and God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice and joy!
For woman and man, a place at the table,
revising the roles, deciding the share,
with wisdom and grace, dividing the power,
for woman and man, a system that's fair,
and God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice and joy!
For young and for old, a place at the table,
a voice to be heard, a part in the song,
the hands of a child in hands that are wrinkled,
for young and for old, the right to belong,
and God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice and joy!
For gay and for straight, a place at the table,
a covenant shared, a welcoming space,
a rainbow of race and gender and colour,
for gay and for straight, the chalice of grace,
and God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice and joy!
For just and unjust, a place at the table,
abuser, abused, with need to forgive,
in anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy,
for just and unjust, a new way to live,
and God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice and joy!
For everyone born, a place at the table,
to live without fear, and simply to be,
to work, to speak out, to witness and worship,
for everyone born, the right to be free,
and God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice and joy!
Shirley Erena Murray 
Words © 1998 Hope Publishing Company

Saturday, July 18, 2015


It’s powerful stuff – because, of course, the Sacraments are powerful stuff…but we need to remember that we, with all our inadequacies, fears and reservations, can either be sacramental signs ourselves – pointing out and mediating God’s welcome to others – or the kind of caricatures that disrupt his loving purpose by showing a different way.
On one level it’s simple. We welcome others – because God welcomes us (cf Romans 15:7). The theme of welcome and hospitality is an unbreakable thread woven through the biblical narrative, binding together people of faith from generation to generation. Beginning in the first book of the Bible as God appeared to Abraham by the oaks at Mamre, our faith story starts shaping a theology of welcome. There in Genesis 18 as God passed by Abraham’s tent, Abraham welcomed the stranger with the words, “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves…” A theology of welcome rooted in small gestures…and of course in welcoming those three travelers, Abraham welcomed God, disguised in those random strangers, and his whole life was changed.

In Exodus this theme of welcome and hospitality continues as it looks inward. In chapter 23 we read, “You shall not oppress a resident stranger, you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” At some point in time, each of us has been in need of welcome, as we’re reminded here for “we all have been the stranger.” As Christians, of course, we encounter this experience because we know that the world in which we live is not our ultimate home. We are sojournors, resident aliens, as much as any wandering Aramean…but we are confident that we travel through life to a welcome home that is beyond all imagining.
From Genesis to Revelation, the biblical narrative continues to reveal a theology of've some examples to look up and reflect on later, but the picture is clear, and Matthew 10 couldn’t be clearer:
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
When you think about what it means to actually practice welcome in the twenty-first century,  it’s a daunting task. In a culture that encourages us to “network” with people who share our tastes; that defines us in groups of political preferences, social status, and economic standing; that breaks us down by age, sex or money, practising radical hospitality, reflecting God's welcome to us, is a counter cultural challenge…
So, what will it take for us, the God’s church in this place, to construct and practice an authentic theology of welcome? The first thing is perhaps to reaffirm that little things matter—that small gestures of kindness and welcome are deeply remembered. We’ve become so accustomed to the headline-busting grand gestures, so persuaded that more is better that we risk forgetting that little gestures of kindness and welcome can make a tremendous difference in the lives of others. Listen again. Jesus says, “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…
Such a very small gesture. It sounds like tokenism? It might even feel that way to the giver, and Jesus emphasizes that's it is scarcely heroic giving, with his use of the word ‘even.’ But though we often imagine discipleship requires huge sacrifice or entails great feats, as sometimes it does, at others, Jesus seems to say, it’s nothing more than giving a cup of cold water to one in need. Or offering a hug to someone who is grieving. Or a listening ear to someone in need of a friend. Or offering a ride to someone without a car. Or saying “Do Come in – it’s lovely to see you” to someone who looks less than certain that they'll feel at home in our service. Somebody whom you might struggle to feel at ease with, might prefer to turn away. Remember, at that moment when they’are hovering by the door, the quality of our welcome will directly influence their understanding of God's welcome.
Shall I say that again? Because it is terrifyingly true. Most people who leave a church because they've felt unwelcome there believe that God will be equally luke-warm in his pleasure at seeing them...but we know, don't we, how he welcomes us. Absolutely. Unconditionally. “Just as I am – of that free love the length, breadth, depth and height to prove”. God welcomes us.
So, in developing our collective theology of welcome we need to recast ourselves in the parable of the prodigal. BECAUSE we have had the experience of being welcomed with that wild generosity that sets all our past sins and failings aside. Because we recognise the danger of becoming the small-minded older brother who is unable to see beyond the obligations of natural justice, which would decree that he remained the “golden boy”, while his brother reaped the reward for his folly. Because we know that as we have received an unconditional loving welcome, this is what we must pass on....because of all this, our model from the parable must be the father...running down the road to sweep up his disreputable son in a whirlwind embrace and pulling him in to join the celebration.
Welcome won’t always be extravagant. We know that many who come to us would be horrified to find themselves at the centre of a wild uproarious party. Though it's apparently not true that cathedral worshippers are there because they prefer anonymity and disengagement to the demands of life in a parish church, nonetheless many people do prefer to slip in quietly...and a real welcome notices and respects that.  Like all the small acts of devotion, tenderness, and forgiveness that go largely unnoticed but tend the relationships that are most important to us, so also the life of faith is composed of a thousand small gestures. Except that, according to Jesus, there is no small gesture. Anything done in faith and love has cosmic significance for the ones involved and, indeed, for the world God loves so much. But this means, of course, that each unwelcoming gesture has, potentially, an equal and unhelpful significance. I'm sorry if that makes you feel as wretched as it does me...or perhaps, after all, I'm not sorry in the least. Perhaps that is something for us to grapple with as we work out how, really, we can live that theology of welcome which runs through the story of our faith. It's bound to be challenging.
Because, of course, when we welcome the stranger we run all sorts of risks. Remember all of those texts from Exodus and Leviticus and Isaiah about welcoming and offering hospitality to the outsider. A true theology of welcome invites, without boundaries, those who are considered to be aliens in our midst—those who are different from us; who look different, think different, and who believe differently. The woman or man just released from prison who needs a new start. The immigrant who needs a place of safety. The gay teenager whose parents have just thrown them out of their home. The child whose lone parent is an addict. These are the ones, Jesus tells us, whom we must welcome. It sounds simple and yet it can feel so complicated. Speaking to the stranger sitting beside you or in front of you or behind you in worship is not easy for everyone. Getting up and walking across the room to sit with someone who is sitting alone can be uncomfortable. Stepping away from a conversation with a trusted friend to speak to a visitor is hard to do, specially if you are secretly worried that they may in fact have been coming to the Cathedral for years and you simply haven’t noticed them! Listening, truly listening to someone whom you disagree with can be frustrating, challenging...It might even change you! Risky stuff. VERY risky. Of course we might hope, or imagine that those strangers will quickly be assimilated, that in just a few weeks they will fit in so comfortably that it is as if they have always been here. Sometimes, that will be true. Sometimes in welcoming the alien we are inviting them in to a process of transformation – but sometimes it is those who have opened their doors that find themselves unexpectedly changed..
Of course we cannot guarantee that our guests will share our tastes or our world view. Let's move from Scripture to the other foundational text that has special significance for us here at Coventry. With our monastic roots, we are heirs to a tradition shaped over generations by the Rule of St Benedict, which has much to say about hospitality. Benedict recognised that even brethren coming from another monastic house might see things in a very different way from the resident community, and that those differences could cause conflict. Listen
If a monk who is a stranger, arriveth from a distant place and desireth to live in the monastery as a guest, and is satisfied with the customs he findeth there… let him be received for as long a time as he desireth. Still, if he should reasonably, with humility and charity, censure or point out anything, let the Abbot consider discreetly whether the Lord did not perhaps send him for that very purpose.”
Thus, outsiders should always be welcome additions to a community, and differences of opinion, if offered in love, are to be respected and considered – for they might even enrich the host community. In other words, those whom we welcome will constantly enlarge our hearts and our minds….so that we will become step by step closer to being the kind of church in which everyone really might feel at home.
Here our core values complement one another. As ++Justin puts it, reconciliation means we find ways of disagreeing – perhaps very passionately – but loving each other deeply at the same time, and being deeply committed to each other.. Benedict, in fact, goes one step further, in suggesting that it may be that reconciliation, co-operation, and the improvement of the community may be the very reason for disagreement – it is to be treasured as a means of instruction brought about through divine grace.

You see a larger heart is the beginning of revolution. When I let strange people and strange ideas into my heart, I am beginning to shape a new world. Hospitality of the heart could change UK domestic policies. Hospitality of the heart could change UK foreign policy. Hospitality of the heart could make our world a world of potential friends rather than a world of probable enemies.

To be continued

Friday, July 17, 2015

WHY DOES WELCOME MATTER? Some theological reflections Part 1

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Welcome lies at the heart of the gospel…If I asked you to name your favourite parable here and now, I doubt if I’d have to wait very long before the prodigal son made an appearance – it’s certainly very dear to my own heart…and if you've not yet read it, may I encourage you to explore Henri Nouwen's book based on the Rembrandt painting.

 It’s one of those books that can change your whole sense of identity in Christ and revolutionise your attitude to brothers and sisters too…as it draws us into a sustained reflection from the viewpoint of each character in the parable. I wonder, though, which one you most readily identify with.
The Father?
The older brother?
The prodigal son himself?
It’s interesting how we tend, on the whole, to see ourselves as that young man who went so badly off the rails. I’m guessing that this is because each of us, whatever our life and faith story, is so very conscious of the unconditional loving welcome that we receive from God.
Hospitality is part of his DNA – and, what we have freely received we are called on to freely give in our turn. We know that. Think too, of the accounts of Jesus’s ministry. Again and again we hear “He welcomed…children…prostitutes…sinners…women…” – and in welcoming them he enabled them to see past the labels of a hostile society and recognise their true selves as precious children of God.

Time and again his teachings remind us about what it means to welcome someone, to include them, to show hospitality. Before there was healing, there was a welcome. Before a miracle, there was a welcome. Jesus welcomed sinners and outcasts to join him at the table to eat. He welcomed the little children, those considered by the culture to be invisible, to come to him. And he welcomed the women in his life, also a cultural boundary not to be crossed, to sit with him and discuss things of importance.
And now, of course, he reaches out to welcome us to his table week by week, offering us his own life, his own self in a fragment of bread and a sip of wine. Whatever your theology of Eucharist – and I recognize that we won’t all stand in the same place – this is surely the ultimate sacrament of both reconciliation and welcome….and we build fences round God’s table at our peril. The Iona Community has a glorious invitation that sums up for me exactly who might be included. You’ve probably met it before, but listen anyway!
This is the table not of the Church but of the Lord.
It is to be made ready for those who love him,
and who want to love him more.
So, come,
you who have much faith
and you who have little,
you who have been here often
and you who have not been for a very long time,
you who have tried to follow
and you who have failed.
Come, not because it is I who invite you:
it is our Lord.
It is his will that those who want him
should meet him here.
Frustratingly, of course, the Canons of the Church of England do not strictly permit such an open invitation – but it seems to me that the “membership” restrictions they impose can hinder the work of the Spirit…and I have never felt that God ordained me so that I could be a gatekeeper of the Sacraments...Empty, open hands cry out to be filled.

Meanwhile, there are barriers to cross before people ever reach the altar and we must never forget that the way that we welcome others into the life our Cathedral impacts upon the way that they understand and receive God’s welcome too – or turn away hungry. Our responsibility, week by week, is to ensure that we offer visitors a taste of the delight that God feels whenever one of his children turns their face towards him…That’s far more than simply not making it difficult for people to find their place and feel at home and we need to remember that God in Christ reconciling the world to himself will draw some most unlikely people to cross our threshold. People who have no idea why they’ve come. People seeking something and people who believe they have their lives neatly sewn up. People on a spiritual quest and people who are ambivalent to the point of hostility to the concept of faith. In her wonderful book “Take this Bread”, the one time atheist writer Sara Miles writes about the overwhelming reality of her own encounter with God, when she walked careless, curious into a church one day – and was quite simply handed Jesus in a piece of bread and a sip of wine...and meeting him there, had her life changed forever.

To be continued...