About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean of Sheffield, then Durham.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Monday, 5 August 2019

A Memorial Service at Alnwick: Tom Moralee RIP

I got to know Tom Moralee during my time as Vicar here in the 1980s. He was a stalwart of this church, rarely missing a Sunday, always there to help out in whatever way he could. As a new incumbent, I recall thinking: there’s one of those people you instinctively know belongs to the backbone of a place. He was quietly spoken and didn’t draw attention to himself, yet he was a reliable, strong presence who imparted confidence. You are always glad of such people you know you can trust and whose support and friendship you can count on.

Tom was a native North Easterner, Northumberland-born and bred. He had lived in Alnwick since his father’s work brought him here as a teenager. He, Sheila, Brinley, Clare and her husband Steve were - are - a close family. He was utterly conscientious in his work, whether it involved wearing a boiler-suit or an immaculately laundered collar and tie. He was the kind of man we call “public spirited”. He cared about this place and took his citizenship seriously. As a special he was commended by the Chief Constable for his role in connection with a stabbing in the town. Here at St Michael’s he was a sidesman and member of the Parochial Church Council. But he contributed to the social capital in unseen, unsung ways too. If Bailiffgate looked clean and tidy, the chances are that Tom had been there to pick up litter. If the grass in the churchyard looked well-cared for and the weeds kept down, that too could well have been Tom’s work. When elderly parishioners shared Sunday lunch together, Tom was part of the team that did the hard work. He wouldn’t have thought of any of this as exceptional. It’s what you do if your community matters to you and jobs need doing. But goodness doesn’t mean doing extraordinary things. It means doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way. 

He knew a lot of people in and around Alnwick, and it’s not surprising that so many are gathered here today. Whether you are among his family and friends, colleagues or neighbours, you will have your own memories of him. There are many stories told about his kindness and care for people. One elderly woman remembered how at Christmas, he took heating oil round to her home because she had run out of fuel. Someone else said that if you were having a bad day, the one person you would have been glad to bump into was Tom. For a private kind of man with what he would have said were traditional values, he had a wicked sense of humour and was famed for his jokes and stories, though as a vicar I didn’t necessarily get to hear the more risqué ones! 

All this speaks of a sociable, well-respected man who, perhaps without realising it, acted as a glue to the society of our town (as someone how once lived here, I can’t help thinking of it even after all these years as
our town). He helped bind it together in the bonds of friendship, good neighbourliness and citizenhood. Whether in public roles in church or community, or in the intimacies of family and personal life, such good men and women are a precious gift. It’s when they are gone that we become keenly aware of the debt we owe to them. 

Which is why we bring our memories to this place where the people of our town have been named and honoured across the centuries. To remember and pay tribute to someone we have lost reminds us how precious they were to us, and always will be. Not simply because of our treasured memories but because death is not the end of the relationships we cherish. Those whom we have loved and lost are always alive to the God in whom all of human life is gathered up in a Love that is more profound than ours can ever be. Today is a day to remind one another that we are always held by God’s everlasting arms every moment from the cradle to the grave and beyond it.

Our Bible reading reassures us on this point. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God” says St Paul in those marvellous words we heard just now, not even the power we are most afraid of, death itself. How could it when Christianity tells us that Jesus suffered, died and was buried; and in rising again at Easter opened the way to everlasting life? In St John’s Gospel, on the night before he died, Jesus bade farewell to his disciples and comforted them. “In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” There is room enough for us all: that’s the promise. So he tells us. “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” 

Words like these mean everything in our grief. They bring us strength when we feel lost, confidence when we despair, comfort when fears and doubts assail us, light to see by when we are afraid of stumbling in the dark. We say our goodbyes in tears and sorrow, yet edged with hope because of the promise that God will not abandon us. That makes it possible to release our loved ones, give them back to the God who lent them to us, with hearts full of gratitude for all that they were to us. 

When I knew I would be leaving Alnwick more than thirty years ago, I decided I would visit each member of the church council personally to let them know. I don’t know why I’ve retained such a clear memory of Tom walking me to the front door after our conversation and his saying to me, “Michael, thank you for these last few years. We won’t forget you when we’ve gone.” Now it’s my turn to say those same words to him, which I do on behalf of all of us. Tom, thank you for the life that we have lived together in these years that have now come to an end. We shall always remember you. Go in God. Rest in peace, Rise in glory. And may God bring us all to the eternal mansions of his love.

Alnwick, 5 August 2019

Romans 8.31-end

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Haydn, Happiness & Hope: A sermon at the Edinburgh Festival

When the first Edinburgh International Festival took place in 1947, it was “to heal the wounds of war through the language of the arts” by providing “a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”. The brief looked for a city with a distinguished setting and townscape that would embrace the opportunity “to make the festival a major preoccupation not only in the City Chambers but in the heart and home of every citizen, however modest”. That’s an aspiration to admire, not least for its idea that the arts need to find a place in our healing and flourishing, and that they belong to everyone, not only the wealthy or well-educated or privileged. An event that was any less generous or inclusive would not be the Edinburgh Festival we cherish.

Among possible festival locations, Salzburg was mentioned as the kind of city to emulate. So how apt to have the city of Mozart represented at this mass through his sublime Ave Verum, and indeed eighteenth century Austria, the homeland also of Joseph Haydn whose Little Organ Mass we are enjoying this morning. In its way, our music from the German-speaking world (including a Bach organ voluntary) affirms a confident Europeanism, our belonging to this continent that has enriched Scotland in so many ways and to which (setting a fine example to England) it remains sturdily committed. Brexit is not a word that’s understood in the world of music, theatre, film, letters or art.

The Haydn brothers Joseph and Michael, both great composers, were deeply religious men. Of Joseph’s Little Organ Mass one of the experts* has said: “in this music, Haydn’s religious character becomes glowingly apparent: instinctive and unquestioning in faith, yet celebratory and reverent, seeking devotion through the contemplation of beauty.” Near the end of his life he was taken to a performance of his Creation to celebrate his birthday. When they reached that glorious C major chord that bursts out of the representation of chaos at the start of the score, “And there was light”, Haydn, it is said, “raised his trembling arms to Heaven, as if in prayer to the Father of Harmony”.

He spoke to his biographer about composing an Agnus Dei for one of his late masses. “I prayed, not like a miserable sinner in despair but calmly, slowly. I felt that an Infinite God would surely have mercy on his finite creature, pardoning dust for being dust. I experienced a joy so confident that as I composed to the words of the prayer, I could not suppress my joy but gave vent to my happy spirits and wrote above the miserere, Allegro. Not at all like the more reflective adagios we are used to at this point in the liturgy. But that is Haydn, always taking us by surprise, not least spiritually. My daughter and I once went to his mausoleum at Eisenstadt in Lower Austria, near the Palace of the Esterhazys he’d served so loyally. Inside they were playing a cd of one of his masses. I needed to honour the great man and thank him for all that he’d meant to me. It was most moving.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want to go back to that phrase I quoted, seeking devotion through the contemplation of beauty. This seems to me to be one of the functions of music and the arts for people of faith. Perhaps a hint of this lies behind the vision of those who created the Edinburgh Festival, a belief in the power of art to bring life back into some kind of beautiful order and ordered beauty. Making contemplatives of us means learning how to see, to pay attention, to be present to our experience and glimpse its inner meaning, what Gerard Manley Hopkins called inscape. And as we are doing the work of God at this eucharist today, we should celebrate the capacity of liturgy to achieve this, help us live in a more contemplative way so that we “see into the life of things” as Wordsworth put it.

So let’s ponder the juxtapositions within our worship today. Into the words of the mass and the music of Haydn and Mozart, the lectionary inserts readings that ask questions that are among the most fundamental we can face. Where does meaning lie, asks the preacher in Ecclesiastes, exhausted by the ever-circling years that bring no age of gold, only vanity and ennui. Psalm 49 examines the futility of living only for your power or wealth or fame or reputation, for death is the great leveller that will bring us all down to the grave like the beasts that perish. The gospel reading about the rich fool warns that there is no gospel of prosperity and we can take nothing with us when we die. Even Colossians, so radiant with the spirit of Easter, warns that we must put to death our self-serving behaviours and “set our minds on things that are above”.

I wonder whether we can set up a spiritual conversation between these readings and the Viennese mass we are enjoying. On the one hand the readings underline the realities of living and dying. They belong to the world of a series of medieval paintings in Hexham Abbey where we often worship, that show the “Dance of Death”. A skeleton brandishing a scythe comes up to different kinds of people and engages them in deadly waltz that tells them that their time has come. These sombre readings call on us to face our mortality and ask what it means to become wise in the light of our human condition.

On the other hand, Haydn’s music is shot through with a God-given happiness. Not I think because “Papa Haydn” was cheerful by temperament (though he was remembered for it), but rather that his music evokes the confident faith in which it was composed. The gospel reading ends with a striking turn of phrase. It speaks of those “who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God”. Might we experience the liturgy, enriched by the arts of the church and especially Haydn’s music, as one of the ways in which we might become “rich towards God”? Seeking devotion through the contemplation of beauty we said. That seems to me to be one of the God-given paths to wisdom because it enables us to see ourselves as we truly are, “frail and feeble, doomed to die”, yet in Christ raised from the dead, given back our lives, put together again, transformed, discovering the wisdom that teaches us how to be “rich towards God”.

The sixth century writer Boethius authored a famous book called The Consolations of Philosophy. He wrote it in prison as he faced death at the hands of his political enemies. It calmed his spirit and brought him peace at the last. Medieval theologians loved his writings because of their message that through wisdom, the soul attains to the vision of God. I believe music and the arts bring consolations too when they find their place in liturgy, prayer and a contemplative outlook. In this sacred space, in the environment of the holy, Haydn’s music is a source of grace and wisdom that strengthens us, steadies our gaze, comforts us and gives us confidence at the grave and gate of death. We lift up our hearts in gratitude, and find ourselves once again caught up in the movement of God’s everlasting love towards creation. And here’s the miracle, that we are risen with Christ, learning to seek the things that are above, discovering how to be rich towards God.

Old St Paul’s Church, Edinburgh, 4 August 2019
Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14, 18-23; Psalm 49.1-11, Colossians 3.1-11, Luke 12.13-21

*H.C. Robbins Landon & David Wyn Jones, Haydn: his life and music, 1988 

Sunday, 28 July 2019

The Wager: Religion is Worth It!

Tonight we read from the story of Joseph. Let me leap forward to the end where Genesis sums it all up. After all the twists and turns, Joseph speaks to the brothers who had done him so much wrong: ‘even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good’.  Until now, even though Joseph has been reconciled to them, the outcome is not yet clear. Will he, the powerful Egyptian officer of state, treat them as family or as vassals?  What will forgiveness mean for him and for them?  Joseph reaches a true ‘my Lord and my God’ moment. “You intended evil…. God intended good”. In conspiracy and catastrophe, God has done all tings well.  

When is it a true act of faith to say ‘it was for the best, and good has come out of it’, and when is it just a thoughtless cliché to make us feel better about the bad things that happen?  We don’t say it, and shouldn’t say it, when we hear of a child who has been abused, or bystanders blown to pieces by a suicide bomber, or a pensioner murdered in her own home.  We condemn wickedness, and we do what we can to help its victims, but we try not to theorise because we know that words can make things worse as well as better. In the face of what is wrong or just bewildering, we won’t try to guess what God intends in the perplexing, inscrutable events of human life.  

Yet the instinct to find meanings is also part of being human. And this is where Joseph helps us with an insight of faith into life’s meaning.  Faith tells a story of how God has been moving within the ordinary processes of cause and effect to work his wise and loving purposes in the world.  It is not always apparent from the evidence: it’s faith that makes the connections. It takes the long view where we can only see the foreground. That brings strength and hope. It’s possible to pick up the pieces and carry on. 

I was talking once with a distinguished astronomer. ‘Where is the ground for your beliefs?’ he asked.  I said it was as much a matter of the heart as the head, for the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.  I went on to say that I had a strong instinct what my life would have become if I had not been a Christian. I would have been only half alive, and served the wrong gods.  Now I have been a Christian for fifty three years and a priest for more than forty, I have staked my whole adult life on Christianity being true.  As my retrospect lengthens, I echo Joseph’s words. God did indeed intend it for good.  But they are still said in faith.  Suppose Christianity turned out to be a fantasy?  Would my life have been wasted?  I have only this one life to live. I can’t go back and start again, choose a different ladder to climb up on. We stake our lives on the beliefs and values that matter to us.  Pascal’s Wager taught us how much of an act of trust faith is.

You may recall, a few years ago, the slogan on London buses: ‘There is probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’.  The word ‘probably’ is the clue.  It tells us that atheism is not so much a cool decision of unbiased reason as a true act of faith. It’s a wager: weigh up the evidence, then stake your life on it. Worry is only for religious people. But what if it said: ‘God may exist, so stop being frivolous and start living well’? I can only speak for myself. I concluded years ago that I would rather have lived as a Christian and tried to make a difference in the world than serve the gods of money, power, ambition and self.  The wager is that Christianity is true.  Even if it turned out not to be, the Christian life would still be worthwhile. It would still add to the sum of human happiness including my own. 

Faith doesn’t mean knowing for certain. If only we could!  It’s trusting that this is good news worth investing the whole of life in, a wager that makes sense because of the man who calls to us to follow.  Two thousand years of Christian experience tell us about the life-changing power of goodness.  My scientist conversation partner had a lot to say about how religion divides and demeans people.  He is right: debased religion is mad, bad and dangerous to know.  But, I said, why not judge religion as you judge science, not at its worst but at its best?  For me, it is the goodness and integrity of so many Christians I have known that makes Christianity not only attractive but believable.  

On this first day of the week we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.  He is God’s pledge that our hope in this good news is well placed. If ever it was true of an event that ‘you meant harm but God meant it for good’, it is the crucifixion. Who’d have thought it on Good Friday? Yet Easter makes it both possible and believable.  It is not the certainty we crave. Faith still has to be faith. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” There is still a wager  in entrusting ourselves to Jesus and his kingdom. How can we know where it will lead? But to construct our life on this rock gives us stability amid shifting sands.  With the years the conviction grows that it was a wise decision. It was worth believing that “God intended it for good”, that ‘love is his meaning’. In that faith we can both live and die. 

Haydon Old Church, 28 July 2019

Genesis 42.1-25

Monday, 1 July 2019

The Way of St Hild: a new pilgrim route

When we think about The Way of Saint Hild our first thoughts are naturally about Hild herself, the life and times of this great Saxon woman, and how the themes of her life might speak to us today. And I shall come on to her shortly. But before we do, I want to look briefly at the other important word in this project title, Way. 

The idea of pilgrimage trails is ancient. For centuries people have criss-crossed Europe to undertake pilgrimages to the great Christian shrines of Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago da Compostela where I was two months ago. Here in England among prominent pilgrim destinations have been, and still are, Canterbury, Walsingham and Glastonbury. And in the North East, Lindisfarne, Hexham, Jarrow, Wearmouth and Durham where I was privileged to spend thirteen years of my life as, you might say, a guardian of St Cuthbert’s shrine.

Among those honoured places here in the North East are, or ought to be, South Shields, Whitby and Hartlepool, the three sites most closely associated with St Hild, and through her, the Saxon saints of the seventh century. The Way of St Hild will link the two southern sites associated with her, a pilgrim path along the North Sea that connects St Hilda’s Church on Hartlepool’s Headland to the Abbey on the cliffs above Whitby. 

What is a pilgrimage for? Why would anyone want to walk the path we are creating? Why do people already walk the St Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose to Holy Island, and the St Oswald’s Way from Holy Island to Heavenfield? This seems to me to be a fundamental question to ask if we are going to make sense of this project. 

A pilgrimage is a journey with a purpose. Traditionally, that meant a religious purpose, making an often long and arduous journey to visit a place associated with some key event in the story of faith, or with the lives of holy men and women who are revered in that story. The tradition speaks about holy places, sites that have been touched and lit up in some way because of those associations. “Hild was here.” And insofar as the whole journey is inspired by this sense of holy purpose, we can say that it comes to define a sacred geography, a landscape imbued with historical, cultural and spiritual meanings
So pilgrimage declares: this is not just any landscape, however historic, however beautiful. The pilgrim way contributes to what we can call place-making. Its very existence enhances our understanding of our native geography, its genius loci or “spirit of the place” that makes it what it is, or as we tend to say nowadays, its sense of place. The journey may already be familiar or be travelled for the first time. The important thing is that pilgrimage lends it added significance. It suggests new ways of looking at it because of the stories it commemorates. There are new interpretations, new meanings, new textures. 
Historically, pilgrimage has been defined in terms of journeys with a religious purpose, but I need to broaden that understanding. A journey can have many kinds of purpose that are not always overtly religious. Veterans travel to honour war graves where their comrades lie buried. Holidaymakers visit distant places they haven’t been to before to learn about their culture and art, meet their peoples and admire their landscapes. People go back to their birthplace or where their ancestors have lived. These are all pilgrimages in their different ways. A holiday is literally a holy day. That makes the point. 
The Way of St Hild is offered as a journey that carries multiple significance. We can see this clearly from the twelve proposed stations for the “augmented reality” interpretations. It begins and ends with churches associated with St Hild herself, a traditional way of setting out and completing a pilgrimage at a sacred site. Some set our saint in the context of the Saxon era and explore how her story was told and her pilgrimage developed into the later middle ages and beyond. Another identifies her as one of a North East cluster of holy men and women who were honoured by pilgrimages. But some stations are more historical. They make us aware of the Anglo-Saxon culture in which Hild lived and that the pilgrimage landscape has a prehistory going back to Roman times. One of them opens up an aspect of the natural world, the wildlife of the Tees Estuary and helps us understand the landscapes that Hild knew and that formed her as a northern saint. Not all of these are directly focused on Hild herself, but all of them contribute to the rich texture of this pilgrim journey and place her story in a larger context than simply her own life and times.
One of the important aspects of any pilgrimage is that while it often commemorates people or events in the past, at its best it is never backward-looking. That is to say, good pilgrimage makes a distinction between the past in itself, the past as it’s featured in the stories told about it by subsequent generations, and the past as we ourselves encounter and experience it as people of today. Theologians talk about anamnesis, bringing the past into the present so that it has the potential to shed light upon our contemporary concerns and even contribute to shaping the future. This is what is happening when Christians celebrate the eucharist and take bread and wine “in remembrance of me”, not to relive the past memory but to actualise it in the present, make it a real agency of transformation. 
This seems to me to be crucial in the way we set about the project of imagining this particular Hild-inspired journey and creating it as an offer to enrich people’s lives. How do we avoid setting up an exercise that is no more than an exercise in recreating the past? By taking an intentionally holistic view of what we are engaged in, not least in its connections with our contemporary world. This means broadening the scope as far as we can while preserving the integrity of the controlling theme of St Hild. I shall come back to this later on.
I began by defining pilgrimage as journey with a purpose. Ultimately, I guess that purpose means our own self-understanding as contemporary men and women. A way is more than a physical path. It suggests our way of life, a spirituality of being human, the journey we cannot help making if we are serious about human life and being good citizens of our age. We want in our best moments to know our place in the world and how we can leave a legacy that will have added value and enhanced not only our own lives but those of our successors.

So much for the meanings of pilgrimage. I want now to turn to Hild herself and how we should commemorate her in this pilgrim journey. Let me say something about her life and times, and then suggest themes to consider as we create this pilgrimage that bears her name. 
Our source for the life of St Hild (in Latin, Hilda) is the Venerable Bede, that great chronicler of the late seventh and early eighth century to whom we owe the very idea of “England”. As a Northumbrian living in the double monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow, his focus was inevitably northern which makes him the best (and often only) authority on Christian Northumbria in what we’ve come to call its golden age. It is agreed by all that Bede was a scrupulous historian when judged by the criteria of his times, and a wealth of information about the Saxon kingdom and its people has been preserved to us which would otherwise have been lost.
He tells us that Hild was a Saxon princess who was brought up in the court of King Edwin of Northumbria. When he converted to Christianity in 627, the first Northumbrian king to do so, he and his entire court were baptised by Paulinus at York, including the thirteen-year old Hild. Sent away to the safety of the south when Edwin was killed by the Mercians in 633, she returned to Northumbria at the summons of Aidan of Lindisfarne who asked her to found a religious community somewhere north of the River Wear. Tradition identifies this with the ancient Christian site on which St Hilda’s Church in South Shields was later built. In 649 Aidan appointed her as Abbess of the double monastery at Hartlepool, a community of men and women who took vows and lived separately but worshipped together in their abbey church. In keeping with Northumbrian Christian tradition instituted by Bishop Aidan, himself an Irishman, their rule of life would have drawn on Irish rather than Roman Benedictine monasticism.
Again, we don’t know precisely where the community was situated but we can assume it to have been on the Headland by St Hilda’s Church where the remains of the medieval sea wall and the convent cemetery can still be seen. Perhaps we should see the Headland as a second Lindisfarne, an almost-island that was conducive to spiritual reflection and the life of prayer. The Saxon church loved these semi-detached places by the sea, isolated in themselves yet always connected to the mainland. Even today, the Headland retains these qualities despite – or perhaps because – of its urban character. It’s one of the most magical places I know. In my book Landscapes of Faith I said of it that “it is quintessentially north eastern in its marriage of a centuries-old Christian history and more modern urbanisation”. Like Bede’s churches at Wearmouth and Jarrow, the Saxon churches at Billingham and Escomb, and Durham Cathedral itself. 
Hild founded Whitby Abbey in 657. This too was a double monastery, and there is no reason to doubt that it was situated on the cliffs near the Benedictine abbey that was built there in the thirteenth century. (Indeed, it could even be possible that it was “double” in the sense Wearmouth-Jarrow was: a single convent on two geographical sites, Hartlepool and Whitby.) Bede commends Whitby as a model of its kind, a house of discipline, prayer, learning, good works, peaceability and charity. Its greatest moment took place in the year 664. Oswiu, Oswald’s brother and successor as King of Northumbria, convened a synod there to resolve matters of dispute in the church of which he was the leading lay person. 
The principal point of contention concerned the date of Easter. This may seem arcane to us today, but to Christians in the early centuries of the church’s history it was a matter of extreme importance to celebrate the festival of the resurrection on the correct day and together. Bede himself wrote about the mathematics and astronomy that underlay the complex calculations. Irish tradition, inherited by the influential community on Lindisfarne, calculated the date one way, Catholics, taking their lead from the continental European church and St Augustine’s mission in the southern kingdoms, in another. This was a sharply personal issue for Oswiu because while he like his brother followed the Irish calendar, his queen Eanfleda who had been brought up in Kent followed Roman practice. This meant that one of them could be feasting in Eastertide while the other was still fasting rigorously in Lent. What was at stake was the unity of the Northumbrian church. But more than that, the kingdom’s political relationships with the rest of England and with the continent had everything to gain by reaching agreement.
Oswiu listened carefully, then decided in favour of the Catholic way and imposed it on his kingdom. This was how decisions were made in those days. Cuius regio, eius religio – you followed the religion of whoever reigned over you. Those on Lindisfarne who could not accept it returned to Iona where they had come from, and then to the north of Ireland (where, in due course, the church fell into line with the Catholic south, thus ending a schism that had divided the western church). For Bede, the Synod of Whitby was a turning point in the history of the northern church. And we can see Hild’s role in the synod as presiding over bitterly contested ground, acknowledging the outcome of the dispute, and promoting its acceptance among the company of those gathered in her monastery and in the wider Northumbrian church – all the more impressive for the fact that she personally inclined to the Irish tradition in which she had been formed, rather than the Roman.
Hild died on 17 November 680. It was not long before her memory began to be venerated. We know this from a church calendar from early in the eighth century, not long after the Lindisfarne Gospels were written. I think we should remember her for her holiness, her piety, her administrative skills, her wisdom, her learning, her charity and, not least, her extraordinary energy even in old age. Two stories endeared her to the ordinary people of her day. Bede tells the story of how she enabled the simple cow-herd Caedmon to sing and compose poems in praise of God. He is the earliest English poet whose name we know, so Hild came to be celebrated as a midwife of poetry and song. A legend was told of her turning snakes to stone during an infestation of the town, which supposedly explained fossils found in the cliffs; hence the ammonite symbol long associated with her which you will see on many churches and institutions dedicated to her.

Why does her story matter to us today, and how should we set about commemorating it in our Pilgrim Way of St Hild? Let me make three suggestions.
Firstwe should respect and honour our Christian heritage. What do I mean by invoking that slippery word? I mean, among other things, the “landscapes of faith” that we are fortunate enough to live in here in North East England. In England, it’s perhaps only in Cornwall and the North East that we have such a rich legacy of saints from early Christian times. The difference is that whereas in Cornwall, so many of them have survived only in village names and church dedications, here in the North East we know a great deal about who they were, how they lived and what they achieved that left such a mark on the collective memory that they were canonised as saints. 
Most people have heard of Aidan, Cuthbert and Bede. Fewer could name Oswald, Wilfred, Benedict Biscop, St John of Beverley, Chad and Cedd. Hild belongs in that second group of saints who had a real and lasting impact on the history of the English, but remains comparatively little known. I think it is the duty of places associated with any great men and women to promote their memory and celebrate their contribution to our history. It helps if natural and built heritage create obvious ways in which to do this, which they indeed do in this part of England. 
But intangible heritage is as important as what is visible and concrete. Intangible heritage has to do with stories and their meanings, the values and aspirations, that human beings assign to their surroundings to explain why they matter and should be cherished. It is the story itself that must be told in order to interpret the “sense of place” I spoke about at the beginning, and bear witness to the importance of events that shaped our past. So our project is an act of piety, that is, an explicit acknowledgment of what makes our places what they are, and what we owe to them as people who are, consciously or unconsciously, formed by them. In her case, we should not be afraid of speaking about promoting spiritual values, those dimensions of human life that are intanglible but influential and formative, whatever content we choose to give to that kind of language.
Secondly, we should draw on the narratives of the past so as to inform our present and future. I am thinking of two aspects of Hild’s story as a leader in public life that I think speak directly to our society today. She was a woman, perhaps the most accomplished of the women Bede makes a point of celebrating in his History. An abbot or abbess was always a person of significance in Saxon England. But her oversight as a woman of one of the great institutions of Saxon England, and her capacity to open up educational possibilities for young women and girls in the convent tells us much about her stature. Her presiding role in a monastery important enough to host a royal synod is all the evidence we need of her standing in the kingdom. This speaks volumes to the times we are living in as we struggle to achieve equality in our gender roles in public and personal life. By extension, we could see her role as symbolic of our quest for a genuine inclusion of all who are marginalised in our supposedly equal society. We can see Caedmon, the singer whom Hild brought in from outside as an instance of the literally voiceless person on the edge of her privileged circle being recognised, heard, taken seriously and given back their power. As a practitioner of social justice, she speaks eloquently into our own divided society. 
And this is what Hild’s conduct at the Synod of Whitby particularly witnesses to. As far as we can tell, she demonstrated the capacity to reach across a society fractured by ideological debates in order to achieve unity and common purpose. We can see her, I think, as a broker of reconciliation towards those hurt by the king’s decision, for while loyal to the agreed outcome, as a woman herself shaped by Ireland and Iona, she did not lose her sympathy for those on the losing side. In our increasingly fraught politics, there are all kinds of lessons those in public life can usefully draw from the career of a leader whom tradition honours for her celebrated wisdom in turbulent times.
But thirdly, we need to respect the pastness of the past and while learning from it, we should not attempt to recapitulate it in our present experience. I said earlier that we must not allow a project of this kind to become locked into the past, still less to try to reconstruct it and relive it in the utterly different world in which we live. We only do justice to Hild if we can distance ourselves from her and recognise that she was a woman of her time. There is so much we can learn from her, but it doesn’t follow that we should inhabit the cultural assumptions and thought-world of seventh century Northumbria. We must beware of nostalgia for our Saxon past. Nostalgia is literally aching for home. But the past is not our home. The present is.
This hardly needs to be said, but there is a strain of heritage activity (which has influenced some sections of the church in its take on Northumbrian Christianity) that risks romanticising the past, subtly – or not so subtly – suggesting that it was better, kinder, more noble, more courageous than the present. I think this is a point worth dwelling on at a time when nationalism is on the rise, often driven, it seems, by a nostalgic harking back to the days of empire or the wartime spirit. More than thirteen centuries after the event there are still people who will tell you that the decision at the Synod of Whitby was a terrible mistake, fatally compromising the purity of a supposedly primitive Celtic Christianity as against the corruptions of Rome. When heritage colludes with nostalgia to convey the message that the past was always better than the present, we should beware. 
The fact is that the Anglo-Saxon world was cruel and harsh to an extent that we don’t always realise when we look at our Christian sources. Christian monarchs thought nothing of slaughtering their foes as a matter of daily reality. The saints of that era practised extreme asceticism of a kind we might be tempted to regard as eccentric or even abusive, especially when the young were trained up in these practices. I am thinking of Cuthbert walking into the North Sea and reciting Psalms all night long while the waters rose up to his neck. We are impressed and moved by that story but I doubt that we should emulate it, especially knowing the North Sea as we do. So it’s important that we do not regard historical figures as our contemporaries, however much we may admire them. We need to learn from them intelligently, exercise discernment as their critical friends.
This is how we must respect Hild as a great woman who belongs to our common past. We honour her by respecting the distance that lies between our times and hers, the gap of the centuries across which we reach back to her story and try to tell it as people of today. This entails understanding how her memory come down to us endlessly worked on and reshaped by those who received it, cherished it and bequeathed it to those who followed. Tradition is traditio, literally “that which is handed on”. It is never free of the influences of those who receive it and pass it on. This is part of its richness, that layered, textured quality the deep structures of our best stories acquire precisely because they have been handled with such reverence and love. 
So the interpretative task is: how do the horizons of the Saxon and our modern worlds encounter each other in ways that respect the distinctiveness of each and enrich our own? The Way of St Hild ought to help us pilgrims who walk it understand our own times all the better for the insights that our past sheds on it. Here is where the choice of augmented reality stations and the interpretative experiences we offer is fundamental. If the enterprise is to realise its cultural and spiritual aims, it must demonstrate a holistic understanding of pilgrimage that sets it in our own times and addresses contemporary concerns. 
For example, I could see further interpretation points) focusing on themes such as: 

-the natural maritime heritage of this stretch of the North Sea coast (recalling how the Saxon 
saints lived close to nature), together with threats to the environment, species diversity and natural habitats;
-industry on the coast including mining, shipping and fishing;
-Hartlepool’s role as a gateway to safety for those given sanctuary at Durham Cathedral and embarking on exile
-sea and land communications along the coast (in the middle ages, the sea was the highway of choice that connected nations and societies);
-poverty, need and social justice in the North East (of which the Saxon saints were champions);
-war and conflict from the Viking invasions, military fortifications along the coast, and the air raids of the Great War;
-education and learning (promoted in Hild’s convents as a key aim of monasticism);
-the arts in the North East from Caedmon, Hild’s poet, to the present;
-sport, leisure and recreation as they respond to the opportunity of “sabbatical time” whether chosen or enforced by unemployment, age, sickness or disability. 
This can sound contrived, I know. And pilgrims would see straight through any bogus attempt to make connections. But I could make a plausible case for a Hild pilgrimage broadening its reach in all these ways. And that includes connecting it with other pilgrim “ways” that already exist or are being developed in the North East. They could link us to Holy Island, St Oswald and St Aidan, Durham and St Cuthbert, Hexham and St Wilfrid, and Wearmouth-Jarrow and St Benedict Biscop and Bede. Once the controlling idea was worked out, so much else could flow from it. Natural heritage, our Christian past, the lived experience of the people whose “places” the route passes through, the larger dilemmas of contemporary North East England, all have a part to play in contributing to the wholeness of pilgrimage in these parts, its capacity to raise questions and make connections across the entire breadth of human life as it is experienced in this region of England. 
The “pastness of the past” is part of its gift to us. By resisting nostalgia, but instead receiving and understanding it for what it is and what it has become helps us become genuinely contemporary citizens of the present who are able to contribute to today’s world with renewed insight, imagination and vitality. The Way of St Hild has an enormous amount to contribute to our common life here in the North East. “Augmented reality” could be another word for pilgrimage, in whatever ways we experience it. It’s very good to have a small part to play in realising this imaginative project.
At a seminar to discuss the development of a pilgrim trail "The Way of St Hild"
Hartlepool, 2 July 2019

Sunday, 30 June 2019

A Priest at the Altar - for the first time

When you do something for the first time, you can never repeat that moment. That first time is also a last time, because only once in your life do you experience it as the first time. It can be, often is, a defining moment.  You will have your own memories.  Here are some of my landmark first-times. Singing the music of Bach. Glimpsing what calculus was about. First communion. Someone saying to me “I love you” and saying it back. Setting eyes on Durham Cathedral. Being at the birth of my first child. Visiting the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
And yes, the first time I presided at the eucharist, as Ian is doing this morning. In one way, an important way, this is just another eucharist on an ordinary Sunday in ordinary time. Today the church is doing what the church always does on the first day of the week. Like Peter in our gospel, we acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, so we are here to worship him. What else would we do on a Sunday morning?
Yet today is not ordinary for Ian, and therefore not for us. For a new priest, his first celebration of the eucharist is an occasion to remember for a lifetime. Somehow the very ordinariness of the event highlights what is special about it. How many more times will Ian in the name of the church do this in remembrance of Jesus? Be it many or few, it will never again be like today with that blend of anticipation, excitement, nervousness, gratitude and the sense of privilege that belong to the first time.
Yesterday I gave an address to the priest candidates at the end of their retreat. I had the privilege of conducting their deacons’ retreat last year, so we were old friends. I quoted some passages that the twentieth century Cistercian monk Thomas Merton wrote about his ordination as a priest, and the first mass he celebrated the next day. He says of those days of ordination and first eucharist “they crown this portion of my history… for this I came into the world”. I hope Ian feels today that he was meant to do this, stand at the altar and preside at the eucharist as God’s priest.
But Merton goes on to say something else. Some people had warned him that he would be nervous the first time he stood there, anxious to make sure he got everything right. Yet he confided to his diary: “I did not find that to be true at all. I felt as if I had been saying mass all my life”. So today is ordinary and not-ordinary just as the eucharist itself is ordinary and not-ordinary. That is its paradox. In and through the stuff of matter, ordinary things like bread and wine, we glimpse God. He comes to us in the grace and glory of self-giving love. Ordinary yet God takes the stuff of everyday life and transforms it so that he may transform us. That’s what a sacrament means.
Why is God so humble as to choose this way of being among us in and through ordinary things?  Today we are honouring Saint Peter whose festival was yesterday. In the gospel we heard, he recognises Jesus as God’s Messiah, God’s Christ. And Jesus says of that moment, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven”. How could an ordinary, rough-hewn fisherman rise to that great confession of faith? Jesus says that it’s not his own doing. Rather, it’s God gift to him, this revelation of the Son of the Living God. And because of it, another gift is given, his role in God’s church which Jesus will build upon this rock. Everything is gift. Faith is gift, and hope, and love. And church, priesthood, and eucharist. And the love of friends, our companions in faith with whom we break bread. All of life is gift.
The ordinariness and not-ordinariness of today says something important about how Ian will be among you as a priest. Yesterday he was set apart to do God’s work in the church and in the world. You might think that would make him someone special. Ah, how seductive it is to put our priests and bishops on pedestals and defer to them. But that is not the way of the gospel. We do the priesthood a disservice when we elevate it above our humanity. Ordination doesn’t take someone away from us. The best priests are those in whom people recognise something of themselves, taken, blessed, broken and given, just like the ordinary bread of the eucharist.
It’s the action of God that makes the difference. Pusey said that holiness was not doing extraordinary things, but doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way: extraordinary because it is God’s work. Priests are walking sacraments of God’s presence in our midst. That is what makes priesthood holy and not-ordinary, a sign of contradiction in a world that thinks it has no need of spirituality and sacraments and sacred spaces. The world needs priests who by what they symbolise point people to God.  And perhaps a priest is never more a priest than when he or she is at the altar, just as the church is never more the church than when we do what we are doing now, making eucharist, giving thanks, offering our life to God, receiving it back transformed.
The church’s priesthood and sacraments belong not to us but to God. Yet his work is also ours. For Ian and for us, today marks the seal of his journey towards ordination. A new priest stands among us. The altar stands ready, with bread and wine. It is time to do what Jesus commands, to celebrate the feast, and once more and once less, show forth the Lord’s death until he comes.

St Bartholomew’s, Whittingham, 30 June 2019
At the first celebration of the eucharist of The Reverend Ian Chadwick
Matthew 16.13-19

Saturday, 29 June 2019

Walking on Water: an ordination retreat address

Last year I gave five ordination retreat addresses to the deacon ordinands in the Diocese of Newcastle. This year I was invited to be with them again to give their final retreat address on the day of their ordination as priests. In 2018 I took as my theme five of the "signs" of glory in St John's Gospel. I suggested that ordained ministry could be seen as a sign that bears witness to God's glory and love in the world in such a way as to evoke faith. This year I decided to continue that theme with an address on a sixth sign in St John where Jesus walks on the water. Here is my reflection.

A year ago it was my privilege to explore with you the signs of glory in St John’s Gospel. We looked at the turning of the water into wine at Cana, the healing of the Roman officer’s son, the feeding of the five thousand, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. We asked how these familiar stories shed light on our ministry as ordained men and women, specifically as deacons.

You’ll remember that John bears witness to these signs because they disclose who Jesus is and what he has come to do. They are signs of glory because glory is John’s word for God’s giving of himself in love for the world in the incarnate Word in whom, he says, we see “grace and truth”. These are not events chosen at random out of hundreds of possibilities. John tells us at the end of the gospel what his method has been. “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 21.30-31). Revealing God’s glory and bringing faith to birth – these are John’s aims.

How quickly a year flies by! When I was asked to come back and give an address on this Saturday morning of your ordination as priests, I thought, let’s return to St John’s Gospel and look at another of the seven signs that we didn’t study last year. Let’s ask the same question, how does this story speak to us on our ordination day, this time as we stand on the threshold of starting out on our life’s work as priests in the church of God.

So today let’s turn to the story in John 6.15-21 where Jesus walks on the water. I’ve often thought that ordained ministry is like walking on water. And that faith itself is walking on water. As clergy we are ministers of faith who not only speak about it but model ways of believing. We don’t pretend to cast-iron certainties but to faith in the spirit of the man in the gospels who said “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief!” This strikes me as hugely important in a world where everything is logic-based or evidence-led. The only evidence for Christianity that interests me is lives that are transformed by it. And to open ourselves and others up to the life-changing power of the risen Christ is to launch ourselves out on the deep, as Jesus says to Simon in St Luke. There is no shallow end in Christianity.

I’ve long treasured a saying of Soren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth century Danish philosopher and theologian. He says that if we think logic or evidence could lead us to grasp God objectively, then it wouldn’t be belief. “Precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith, I must constantly hold fast the objective uncertainty, so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.” That’s a lot of water. As ministers this is our natural habitat. I remember an ordinand saying once that he wanted to explore becoming a priest because he wanted a role in life where his feet wouldn’t touch the ground.

On your ordination day last year I asked you about your hopes and aspirations and expectations as you approached this great moment in your lives. “You wouldn’t be human if somewhere within, you didn’t tremble at this threshold” I said, recalling my own ordination more than forty years ago. Now that I look back, it felt a bit like the disciples going down to the sea, getting into a boat and setting off on their voyage. Even if the lake wasn’t rough to begin with, it was now, John points out, “dark”. Ahead of them an adventure beckoned. But there was so much that was unknown to them, so much that they couldn’t know. There is risk involved in launching out on to the deep at night, as they will tell you when you visit Galilee and learn about the storms and squalls that suddenly sweep down from Mount Hermon and churn up the water treacherously.

But I think the key question concerns what is going on inside us. Van Gogh said that the human heart is “very much like the sea; it has its storms, it has its tides, and in its depths it has its pearls too”. This is a metaphor they may not recognise in poor landlocked dioceses. But we here in Newcastle know the North Sea and its fickleness, the calm still days where barely a ripple laps the pristine white beaches of Northumberland, and the storms out of the north east that crash against the basalt rocks and lighthouses and breakwaters so violently that you wonder they are still standing. We know our own selves too. On the night before Thomas Merton was ordained priest in 1949, he confided to his journal The Sign of Jonas. “My life is a great mess and tangle of half-conscious subterfuges to evade grace and duty. I have done all things badly. I have thrown away great opportunities. My infidelity to Christ, instead of making me sick with despair, drives me to throw myself all the more blindly into the arms of His mercy.” He knew about treading water at seventy thousand fathoms.

Which is, not literally but metaphorically what the disciples experienced on Gennesaret that night. “The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.” They had rowed three or four miles, says John, which can only mean that they were in the middle of the lake, out of sight of the shoreline. At the height of the tempest, they see Jesus coming to them, drawing near to the boat. “And they were terrified” says the text. You’d have thought they would already be frightened for their lives because of the storm. Yet it’s the apparition of Jesus that terrifies: that’s clear from the words Jesus speaks. “It is I; do not be afraid”.

As you know, the sea held many threats for Hebrews. They were not natural seafarers like the Philistines. To them the waters, necessary for life, necessary for flourishing, were to be respected, even feared. They harboured demonic powers that could overwhelm and destroy people. The psalms are full of references to the “dragons of the deep” and prayers for God to keep safe those who cried out from waters that were rising up to their neck. In Mesopotamian myth, creation came about because the god overcame the monster of the primordial ocean and brought forth order and safety, symbolised by the dry land. So to be exposed to wind and storm out on open water was one of the worst ordeals a Jewish disciple could imagine.

And walking over the storm-tossed waves Jesus comes. We mustn’t miss the significance of this. For St John it recalls the first day of creation when everything was tohu wavohu, “a formless void”, a chaotic “welter and waste and darkness over the deep” as Robert Alter translates it in his brilliant commentary on the Hebrew Bible. “And God’s breath was hovering over the waters.” The text is telling us that this Jesus is Lord over the deep, the One to whom sovereignty belongs because it was he who created it in the first place. St John is taking us back to the opening words of the Bible and the opening words of his gospel. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” “It is I; do not be afraid.” Or as we should translate it, I AM. Don’t miss the importance of that Ego Eimi. When we hear those two words, we know we are in the presence of the one who affirms of himself that he is none other than the embodiment of Israel’s God Yahweh who, you’ll recall, appeared to Moses and Elijah out of the storm cloud and bid his people to be loyal to his teaching and his covenant.

Why am I telling you all this on your ordination day? What does this sign of Jesus walking on water suggest to us about being priests in God’s church?

There are two connections I want to make. The first is to do with the nature of this sign. Recall that in the gospel, Jesus’ signs reveal God’s glory and evoke faith. Last year we saw that the signs in St John’s Gospel could suggest how ordained ministry is about precisely those same two things: revealing God’s glory and evoking faith. What are deacons and priests for if we don’t publicly represent God’s presence among us and invite other people to discover glory in their midst as they find faith for themselves?

We mustn’t lose sight of the simplicity of what we are about as clergy, I think. We say in the General Thanksgiving, and lead others in saying, “We bless thee for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory”. That says everything about glory and faith in relation to all of human life. Every sign of God unveils an aspect of glory, and knocks on our doors of perception to believe in a more profound way. And as ministers of God we are called to play our part of that movement of God’s love and grace towards his creation. A priest is a “walking sacrament” said Austin Farrer in one of his sermons. That means being “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” according to the Prayer Book’s definition of a sacrament. This is what you pledge today for the rest of your lives.

Let’s pursue the story a little further. Let’s ask what effect the presence of Jesus has on those storm-tossed disciples, and his disclosure “I AM: do not be frightened”. The text says that “they wanted to take him into the boat”. Why not say that they simply received him into the boat? I think because in their initial terror at the apparition, their natural instinct is to protect themselves from this alien presence. But now that they know who it is who is coming to them, there is a change of mind and heart: they desire him, they need him to come in among them. Only that way does salvation lie. “Immediately they reached the land toward which they were going.” John doesn’t say that the storm is stilled. What matters is that navigation is restored. Direction is recovered. The voyage is safely accomplished.

Let me put to you the idea that priesthood is about bringing God-given direction and purpose to people’s lives. You’ve already begun to discover this during your deacon’s year. You have listened to enquirers who don’t know where they are as the voices of many beliefs and ideologies clamour for attention, and have helped them find faith in God. You have sat with those in distress and brought them comfort and hope in their troubles. You have guided the faithful in their prayers and pointed to ways in which they might deepen their spiritual lives. You have ministered to parishioners at the key transitions of life – baptisms, marriages, funerals – where they are open to exploring the deep meanings of human existence. You have preached about God’s wise and loving will for the world and for us.

All of this continues when you become priests but in a more focused, intentional way. As priests you are explicitly called to represent and hold together the wholeness of the church’s ministry when the Bishop presents you with the Bible. “Receive this book as a sign (there’s that word again!) of the authority which God has given you this day to preach the gospel of Christ and to minister his holy sacraments.” Bearing witness to glory and evoking faith – that’s what a sign is for. And that means, in the words of the collect, bringing order to the unruly wills and affections of us mortals. The ordinal is clear about this. “Priests” the Bishop will say “are called to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and admonish, to feed and provide for his family in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.” That’s the image of the desert rather than the sea. But the message is the same. When Jesus gets into the boat with us, our moral and spiritual compass is restored. We are safe because the voyage finds its direction again. We make landfall. There is order and stability once more.

The second connection I want to make between Jesus walking on the water and our ministry as priests arises out of the setting of this story in St John. It’s intriguing that this sign of glory is embedded in a story about another sign. Today’s narrative separates the account of Jesus feeding the crowd from his teaching about it. You need to read the whole of this chapter to get the connection. After Jesus has multiplied the loaves and the fragments have been gathered up, the crowd clamours to make him king, this “prophet who is to come into the world”. So Jesus withdraws from them, and disciples get into the boat to cross the lake to Capernaum. After their encounter in the storm, John takes us back to the crowd that has gone looking for Jesus. This is where he speaks about himself as “the living bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”. This is John’s equivalent of an institution narrative where Jesus talks about “eating my flesh and drinking my blood”, sacramental language that took us directly to the eucharist and our celebration of it as the heart of the church’s life.

I’m saying that strange as it may seem, the sign of Jesus in the storm belongs with the sign of the bread of life. The Lord who feeds the crowd is the One who saves his followers from disaster by walking on water and getting into their boat with them. Which is to suggest that what I’ve called bringing safety is profoundly linked to the sacrament of the eucharist. On one day the disciples hear Jesus say in the tempest, “I AM: do not be afraid.” The next day they hear him promise: “this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that we may eat of it and not die…Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever.” Salvation and sacrament seamlessly bound together in this story of two signs.

For all of you, to preside at the eucharist for the first time will be a day you will always remember. I’m sure you have prepared yourself for many weeks and months, offered it to God and asked to be worthy of this great and wonderful act you will be performing in the name of the crucified and risen Lord Christ whose table it is. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every eucharist recaptured the hungers and hopes we bring to our first! I’m sure that when you stand at the altar for the first time as a priest, you will echo Thomas Merton. “The greatest gift that come to anyone is to share in the infinite act by which God’s love is poured out on all humanity.” He describes how, in the joy of his ordination and first mass, “a new world has somehow been brought into being…full of sublimity and of things that none of us will understand for a year or two to come”. Or even after a lifetime, I think. He is speaking of every privileged occasion when we feel ourselves caught up in God’s mission to bring reconciliation and healing to the human family. And he says it of himself as a new priest who is deeply aware of his role in the eucharist, the focus of all that the church proclaims good news about the God who so loves the world, and who wants to bring about its redemption.

And that’s the link between these two signs which both bear witness to glory and evoke faith. As a priest at the eucharist, your vocation is to take, bless, break and give the living bread that is God’s pledge of eternal life, so that the world may be saved through Christ for ever. The story we tell and act out in the eucharist is the template of the redeemed life. In our disorientation and darkness, it resets our compass, gives us back our sense of direction, re-orientates us so that we travel safely and arrive where we should be. Precisely as Jesus does when he walks on the water and gets into the boat. As priests, you take your place in both these stories. You inhabit these signs in your own selves as ministers of grace and truth. As walking sacraments, you are ministers of God’s love who speak about it and live it out as the purpose and ground of all our being. In the name of your Lord, and as signs of his presence, you too have come so that people may have life, and have it in all its fulness.

“Who is sufficient for these things?” asks St Paul in his Corinthian letters. Not me, not you, not any of the men and women who will be ordained priest today and tomorrow. Knowing our frailty and fear, our ambivalence and uncertainty, the inner storms and tides Van Gogh wrote about, but knowing too the pearls and every other gift we have to bring, there is only one thing we can do. To pray Veni Creator, “Come Holy Ghost” so that we may be cleansed and inspired and equipped as only God’s Spirit can. And kneel humbly and open our hands to receive the living bread that God wants to give us. For we know that Jesus is in the boat with us, whatever storms we face on the journeys that lie ahead, however many fathoms deep are the waters we are launched on.

Which is why we are deeply, deeply thankful for all that has brought us to this point in our lives today. God be with you.