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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

In Memoriam Bill Hugonin

Bill Hugonin was for many years one of the churchwardens at St Michael's, Alnwick, including the years I served there as vicar of the parish. He died in March 2022. He had asked me to speak at his funeral, not to give a formal eulogy (which was beautifully offered by one of his oldest friends) but to introduce the prayers by reflecting briefly on his faith and the part it played in his long and active life.


It is exactly 40 years ago this year that I first got to know Bill Hugonin. I came as the new, young and raw incumbent of this parish of Alnwick. How much I had to learn, and how good a mentor he proved to be! I wasn’t to know the importance he would come to have for me not only during my years here but in the decades that lay ahead. I owe him a very great debt of gratitude for being one of the key influences of my life. He would have laughed at the thought - and did, when I tried much later in life to thank him. But it is true.

Latterly, he spoke often about what he called the “end-game”. He was not afraid of death, though he hoped his dying would be gentle. He had wanted to live well, he said, to be a human being with integrity, to try to make some difference in the world. Which he did, as we’ve heard, with characteristic generosity, practicality and kindness. And he wanted to die well too, if that was possible. His funeral was worked over with great care: the hymns, the readings, the prayers. A good funeral, he said, must always celebrate a person’s life, give thanks for all that he or she meant to family, friends and the wider community. It should try to reflect character, values, what really mattered to that person. So Bill wanted this service to reflect the faith that was so central to his life. He saw his funeral as a ceremony in which we would give back to his Maker and ours a precious life that was lent to us for a while. Which is to say, today is first and foremost an act of worship, of celebration, of thanksgiving, of prayer, and of loving commendation to God.

Bill’s faith was understated and modest. In a very Church of England way, he was not given to extravagant displays of piety. He valued the quieter, more reflective spirit of Christian wisdom informed by the best insights of theology and literature, poetry and art. His faith went deep, very deep indeed, for Christianity had borne and shaped him, nurtured him, made him aware (one of his favourite words). But conviction was nuanced by what I would call his tentativeness. He was wary of religious certainties and of those who claim to know too much about “God’s will”, how God is involved in human history or the evolution of the cosmos. Religious faith is precisely not to have easy answers but to look for and glimpse God in the arena of life as it is lived in the real world. His was the journey of the relentless questioner, a seeker-after-truth. For him, soul-making was always a work in progress. He believed faith should expand our horizons, stretch our minds beyond what is comfortable or conventional or familiar. And he undertook this lifelong work of striving to become a human being who is fully alive.

You get a feel for his faith in the quotations at the end of this order of service. It’s in the spirit of the reading from T. S. Eliot that we heard: “we shall not cease from exploration” - or, as St Anselm said, "faith seeking understanding". He pondered life’s sorrowful mysteries: suffering, cruelty, injustice, for he felt and grieved deeply for the pain of the world. But at the same time, he had learned that even in dark times, all of life is gift, transfigured by goodness, truth and beauty. And by joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always” said St Paul in the Bible reading Bill chose. And transfigured above all by the love he knew surrounded him: in his family, in his many friendships, in the goodness of things, and supremely in “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars".

In this Holy Week of Jesus’ cross and passion, we face death in all its darkness, all its bitterness and loss. But, as Bill used to say to me at times when I faced worry or despondency, we remember that Christ Easters in us too, rises within us as the bringer of love and joy and peace. In a few days we shall celebrate this resurrection once again, and glimpse how it is love, not death, that speaks the final word.

To that great and everlasting Love we turn now in trust and thankfulness, in the words Bill chose for us. Let us pray.


The prayers that followed were all chosen by Bill, as were the Bible and poetry readings, hymns and a selection of texts printed in the service order that reflected his values and aspirations as a man of faith.

Sunday, 10 April 2022

In Memoriam Peter David Manning

Adolescent friendships can shape our lives. Peter and I were school friends back in the 1960s. We were close. He was a little older than me, which meant that he was a big influence in my teenage years. He encouraged me to audition as a chorister at Hampstead Parish Church where he already sang, a decision that had lifelong consequences for me as a cathedral precentor and dean. We did chemistry experiments together in the science sixth form, lightly supervised in those days, including trying to create an explosive detonating device (we didn’t succeed - the school is still standing). We cycled round north London, listened to choral music on our crystal-sets, and pottered with our reel-to-reel tape recorders (with his flare for electronics, he had built his own and my parents paid for me to have a replica). We played piano duets (he was a better musician than me because he practised properly) and listened to each other navigate Bach on the school organ. Peter taught me about isobars, occluded fronts and cloud forms. He had his own barograph, an exquisite device of which I was intensely envious, still I’m told performing faithfully in his and Liz’s home at Cornsay where he was honoured as the local village meteorologist.

His family had a house in the Cotswolds, and I spent happy weeks there in school holidays. I would take my bike on the train and we would enjoy days roaming the hills, visiting village churches, picnicking by streams and pondering the mystery of things at evocative sites like the nearby Rollright Stones. We laughed helplessly at The Navy Lark and The Clitheroe Kid on the Light Programme, and at Flanders and Swann (At the Drop of a Hat, At the Drop of Another Hat) on two scratchy LPs we must have listened to daily. We talked incessantly, as teenagers do, about God, the universe and everything. Given Peter’s legendary wine collection at Cornsay, I’m wondering if Bordeaux and Burgundies featured at the dining table at Over Norton. I don’t recall. But that cottage was always a place of welcome and warmth during the turmoils of adolescence. Even now, three quarters of a lifetime away, it holds fond memories.

One day Peter’s father asked us if we’d like a men’s day out in their stylish Triumph Vitesse (“0 to 60 in eight seconds”, Peter had told me proudly). The plan was to visit the Three Choirs Cathedrals of Worcester, Hereford and Gloucester. It didn’t end well. Taking a bend in the road too fast, the car struck the bank and careered off on the opposite side. Finding a lucky gap in the oncoming traffic, the Vitesse skimmed across a ditch, ploughed through a hedge, and turned over in a field. The three of us hung there upside down. There was a long silence. It was broken by Peter’s plaintive voice from behind, “O dad, what have you done?” Understated, seemingly unfazed, cool even. That was very Peter. Then, in the face of his father’s helplessness and mine, his practical instinct took over. He instructed us to extricate ourselves from the car and push it back upright. “Try starting it” he ordered. The ignition fired first time. We got back in and his father drove the off-piste Vitesse diffidently out of the field (through the gate this time). The rest of the journey was taken up with a discussion about tactics on getting home, for it was decided that on no account must his mother know what had happened. So a not very convincing story was concocted about an overhanging branch that gave way just as we were passing underneath it, which explained the dent in the car. She cross-examined me in private. Somehow, I held to the official line. I don’t know if she ever found out.

Our paths diverged after schooldays. Peter came to Durham to read music and stayed for the rest of his life. Who could blame him? Nearly four decades later, I followed him here. His was among the warmest of welcomes that greeted me when I arrived as Dean at the cathedral where he had sung as a choral scholar in undergraduate days. I’d followed his career from afar, so I knew he had become an internationally recognised expert on Electronic and Computer Music, to quote the title of his best-known book. What I found as I mingled with Durham’s music community was how respected, admired and even loved the Professor was by those whom he had taught, supervised, made music with and worked amongst. There’d always been that spark of inventiveness and creativity about him that had nudged me to think in new ways (that I never got the hang of things electro-acoustic is my fault, not his). But there was something else too: his capacity to focus on the task. He’d learned at school, the hard way I think, that imagination and flair are not enough: there need to be discipline and hard work to shape inspiration and ideas into productive teaching, writing and research. We honour his professional achievements. They are very significant and will endure.

But what I most want to celebrate today are Peter’s personal qualities. I’m thinking of what I already knew in our schoolboy friendship: generosity, patience, tolerance, care, a wry sense of humour, and yes - a capacity for forgiveness. The child was the father of the man: beneath the reserve, the slight but perhaps cultivated eccentricity, lay warmth, kindness, humanity, playfulness, gentleness of spirit. In later life when we got to know each other again, we had both changed of course. But those remembered aspects of his character were there - now shaped and sustained by a long and happy marriage and a rich family life. To have reached and celebrated their golden wedding last year was, I know, an event of great significance to Peter and Liz, Clare and David and their families. Marriages that endure into older age and yield their harvests of faith, hope and love are always beautiful and moving.

We treasure our memories and are the richer for them. Rest in peace Peter. God keep you in his care.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Ascension Day: a reflection

Even in these times of ordeal, we must celebrate. All around us, people are lonely and afraid. They are suffering and dying. They are grieving, lost and sad. There isn’t a household in England that the virus hasn’t touched in some way. We could easily feel as forlorn as the disciples gazing at the sky Jesus has disappeared into. Like them, we could imagine he had abandoned us. 
Yet as it says in the funeral liturgy of the Orthodox churches, ‘even at the grave we sing ‘alleluia’. Forty days after Easter, it is still the season of resurrection. Christ is risen. In our troubles it’s all the more important to celebrate and allow this marvellous springtime to help us say ‘yes’ to life. For death is swallowed up in victory. 
And today, Ascension Day, we celebrate Jesus as Christ the King, our Sovereign enthroned in glory. It is as he has been proclaiming throughout his ministry, that God reigns. Ascension affirms that the exalted Christ ‘fills all things’, as the Letter to the Ephesians puts it, so that he may be in our midst and all around us, among us and within our deepest selves. Far from having left us orphaned and alone, he is Immanuel, God-with-us in time and eternity. And he invites us to embrace his reign and renew our citizenship of this glorious kingdom. Our hearts are full of joy.
Jesus’ ascension is of a piece with everything he has been to us in his incarnate life. In the New Testament his exaltation is spoken of in the imagery of the coronation of the kings of Israel. The Letter to the Hebrews quotes a chain of texts from the Psalms to show how the hopes and longings projected on to Israel’s human rulers are realised in Jesus who has sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’ (Psalm 2); ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever’ (Psalm 45). 
But if we follow that imagery back to its source we find we are drawn to the duties of kingship as well as its privileges.  The king is to be God’s servant, loyal to the covenant. He is to be the agent of peace and justice, the guardian of the vulnerable and poor. In another psalm (82), God sits in a cosmic court with the heavenly beings gathered round him. Are they worthy to be called gods, he asks?  The test is simple. ‘Maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute; rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’  
But these lofty princes fail dismally and are condemned. ‘How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?’ ‘I said you are gods, nevertheless you shall die like mortals and fall like any prince.’  In high office they have forgotten who they are and why they have been raised up. They have forfeited the right to govern. They have ascended the hill of the Lord only to be toppled by the sin of pride.   
Not so the exalted Christ.  For he bears the imprint of the nails on his body, and takes us with him into God’s very heart. As we should have been singing today in the Ascension Day hymn:
See! the heaven its Lord receives
Yet he loves the world he leaves:
Though returning to his throne,
Still he calls mankind his own
The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of him as our great high priest who even in his exaltation is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters and to be with us. ‘We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect was tested as we are.’  That letter could not be more emphatic on this point that Jesus passes the test of what it means have ascended as the highest of the exalted ones, above all principalities and powers. High and lifted up as he is, nevertheless he is present to the lowliest of his family to deal gently with us, and especially with the needy whom he calls in St Matthew ‘the least of these my brothers and sisters’. 
So humility and service, not pomp and pageantry, describe the ascension of Jesus. For he is the same Lord who healed the sick and spoke kindly to the neglected, washed his disciples’ feet, felt the agony of Gethsemane and went out to die.  Any other messiah would not have been born in a stable with nowhere to lay his head, been executed between thieves, risen secretly behind the stone, or ascended on an obscure hilltop with only a handful of witnesses to tell of it.  
But this Messiah has taken the form of a servant, never more to lay it by. His ascension is as ‘kenotic’ as his incarnation and crucifixion: an act of humble self-emptying, for this is how he is not only in time but in eternity. There is one glory for the Lord who took the form of a slave: one abasement, one lowliness, one meekness, even in his exaltation and enthronement.  
Only this Messiah could still bear the marks of the nails as the risen Lord. Only this Messiah could be pictured as a Lamb upon a throne. Only this Messiah could be our great high priest who feels for humanity, intercedes on our behalf, and serves us by washing our feet. Only this Messiah could humbly come to us in bread and wine so that we might welcome him and exalt him in our hearts. 
We want to know in these times that God is not far away from any one of us. It’s the marvellous paradox of Ascension Day that while in one sense Jesus has ‘gone away’ as he said he must, yet he is closer to us than our own souls. He walks alongside us to lighten our burdens and share our joys. We can trust him to comfort us and help us, answer all our longings and make us whole again.
Ascension Day 2020
Ephesians 1.15-23, Acts 1.1-11, Luke 24.44-53

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Home from Exile: the lost son and the loving father

Why do we love this story so much? It’s one of the most beautifully told in the entire Bible: Luke is the supreme craftsman of the New Testament when it comes to storytelling. Think of the birth narratives or the passion story or the Good Samaritan or the Emmaus Road. 

But no doubt the subject matter has a lot to do with the way we feel about this story. I put it that way deliberately, for the parables are addressed as much to our capacity to feel and imagine as they are to our ability to think. It presents us with so many themes that that resonate within us at a profound level: our love for our parents and children and siblings; our anxiety at the prospect of being distant from those who care for us; our fear of finding ourselves in some kind of exile or estrangement; our longing for whatever home means for us and our lifelong quest to find it. These themes are universal to our human experience: family, kinship, journey, exile, homecoming, welcome, love.

The three parables in this fifteenth chapter of St Luke are all concerned with finding what was lost. The setting is the familiar grumble: ‘this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’ – familiar in the gospels, familiar across two thousand years of Christian history, for it will not do, say the scribes and Pharisees and their plentiful successors, to associate with the wrong sort. In the case of the lost sheep and the lost coin, the pattern is the same: the happy gathering together of friends and neighbours to celebrate: ‘rejoice with me, for I have found what was lost!’ And Jesus’ twice-repeated comment, ‘Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents’.

In the case of the lost son, Luke does not need to elaborate on the story, simply to tell as tenderly as he can of losing and finding, turning away and then turning round, coming home and finding joy. For repentance is metanoia, changing your mind, reorienting yourself, turning to face a different direction. This is the emotional and spiritual drama of the beloved son. His father longs for him not to leave, but go he must and make his own way in the world. Does the father intuit that it will not be for ever? And yet he gives him his share of the inheritance – how final that must have seemed as he stood and watched him disappear over the horizon. How long did it take the son to contemplate turning round? How many days, months, years are collapsed into that telling phrase ‘But when he came to himself’? And then, how much time had to elapse before he climbed that last hill (why do I always imagine the return journey being uphill?) and there was his father running to meet him?


‘Home is where we start from’ said the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He meant our mother’s womb, for however painful our early lives may have been, whatever loss we have known, whatever damage we have suffered, the womb was our original place of safety. Our mother was once our world. And if we were born well and had good enough parenting, the world in turn became our mother and we were at home as children of the world. Some of you will remember the 1950s advert for children’s shoes. ‘Start-rite and they’ll walk happily ever after.’ Being born, growing up, becoming an adult, starting work, every threshold we cross on the human journey is a starting-out, a fresh beginning. I am learning that in this, to me, still quite new life-stage called retirement. Inevitably, what we knew before, if it was good, takes on the aspect of what was familiar and trusted and safe, like the home we started out from. 

Yet the more we travel through life, the more we are aware that exile is a fact of human existence. I don’t mean that it’s the whole story, or that we always experience it as sharply as the bitter cry of Psalm 137. With Jeremiah (but this takes time), we learn to negotiate it, befriend it, find ourselves at home in what we would once have called a strange land. But that only serves to underline what becomes increasingly clear to us as life goes on, that ‘here we have no lasting city, but we look for the one that is to come’ (Hebrews 13.14). We long for a place of rest. We long to be held and loved. We long for home. 

It’s not primarily a matter of geography, but of the spirit. The ‘distant country’ of the prodigal may not have been further than the town across the hill, just far enough to be out of sight, but father and son both knew they were separated by a great gulf that only metanoia could bridge. And this is the point of the parable, of course, the greatness of spirit in both the father and his prodigal son that was able to cross that bridge and come home. And yes, for there was a coming home for the father too who had been in his own exile ever since his beloved boy had left. Compare them both with the meanness of the older son who, when the others rejoiced at this marvellous homecoming, refused to have anything to do with either of them. Always at home with his father, yet never at home, for ever in the far country of self-righteousness and surliness and moral rectitude. 

One more point about home as the place we start from. We must understand that what the younger son came back to was not the same as the home he set out from. His relationship with his father had changed, and with his elder brother too. He no longer had his inheritance. His experience of estrangement and reconciliation had shaped him in ways that nothing else could have done. Home had changed and he had changed and they had changed. He, they, all had to learn to inhabit this new place they all called home. The famous words of T. S. Eliot in the Four Quartets were true for all of them but especially for the one who had travelled furthest: ‘we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’. We may think we are going back. But we never are. And like the cherubim and the flaming sword that guarded the way back to Eden at the end of the Genesis story, it’s an illusion to think we ever can. The only way to travel is onwards. Which, once we understand it, takes real strength and courage. It calls upon the deepest resources of faith and hope we can ever summon within us. 


How does this story of the prodigal son speak to us?

The point of the parable is of course so that we may learn what kind of God Jesus is pointing us to. It’s not so much about the prodigal son as the tender father who longs to find his beloved child once again and goes running to meet him when he returns. We don’t need to hear the words we heard in those earlier stories, ‘rejoice with me, for I have found what was lost’. We can see for ourselves the beautiful truth that there can never be more joy in heaven or on earth than when in some state of alienation or exile, we find ourselves once more, experience that change of mind and heart called metanoia, and come home to the God who looks for us because he loves us. This is spiritual work, heart-work if you like, that I need to do all my life if I want to be true to my Christian faith. And in every way I can, to reflect this divine way of being in all my human relationships, reaching out in compassion and tenderness to all whose paths cross mine, as God reaches out to me. And finding my true self as well, coming home to who and what I am, fearfully and wonderfully made by the God welcomes me and loves me. 

I have preached this text all my life. I don’t underestimate how hard it is in practice. But I think we need to hear what this story says to us collectively too. I mean our churches and faith communities especially. I believe that the ideas of home and hospitality are intimately linked. If home means space for us to find ourselves and flourish in, hospitality means creating space for others. When the loving father made space for his returning son and gave him a seat at the feast, he was doing what God did in creation, stepping back and giving space for creation to come into being and exist, and within it, for humanity to live in his image. Creation is always an act of love. Redemption in the parable means recognising how that movement of love belongs to the centre of all life where God is perpetually looking to mend our brokenness, heal our wounds, welcome us home, place us at his table, feed us at his banquet. This is the invitation we need to hear when we are beginning to find ourselves, so to speak, alienated and exiled by a virus that is instilling fear in the land we think of as home and a place of safety. If we are going to find God in this strange land of the Coronavirus, it is going to be in the acts of solidarity, kindness and care we offer to one another, and especially to those who are most vulnerable in our midst.

Are we capable of this kind of hospitality? The thing about love is that it doesn’t prescribe boundaries, draw up tests of worthiness. Only prejudice does that, precisely what the Pharisees and scribes were doing when they complained about how Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. The hardest truth about love is that it is a sea without a shore, a sun without a sphere, as all-present and all-pervasive as God himself. This is what the elder son in the parable could not bear. Love that is too generous, kindness that is too profligate, what kind of corrupt morality would that lead to! 

There are some poems that have meant everything to me in my years of preaching. This is probably the last time I’ll have the opportunity to quote one of them. Perhaps it is George Herbert’s greatest. I think it was inspired by our parable. It speaks to me about coming home to God, coming home to others, coming home to myself. 

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked anything.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat. 
                             So I did sit and eat. 

Luke 15. 11-end

Monday, 9 March 2020

A Path by Land and Sea: the Way of St Hild

 This is a remarkable gathering in a remarkable place on a remarkable day. And all because of a remarkable woman. It’s St Hild we have to thank for inspiring this celebration that begins here at Hartlepool and ends at Whitby this afternoon. Two places that cherish the memory of this great Saxon woman, and now a pilgrim path along the North Sea coast to link them, the Way of St Hild.  

You might think it’s a little eccentric to look back across more than thirteen hundred years to find inspiration for this project. But the North is fiercely proud of its saints: Aidan, Oswald, Benedict Biscop, Wilfred, Chad, Cuthbert, and Bede whose writing lovingly tell their stories and help us imagine the world they lived in. Hild was one of these men and women of Northumbria’s Golden Age who shaped the culture and spirituality of the North East, to whom we owe so much of the North East’s identity and character and its marvellous ‘sense of place’. To Northerners, these legendary saints aren’t locked into some remote and distant past. They are our contemporaries, our fellow-travellers, our friends. 

St Hild would have known intimately the route that bears her name. As Abbess first of Hartlepool and then of Whitby, she must often have made the journey between them, whether walking or riding the marshlands and the high cliffs, or viewing them from afar as she plied the highway of the great grey ocean. What’s more, her family links to the Northumbrian royal house at Bamburgh and to the mother house on Lindisfarne would have taken her to the northern reaches of the kingdom too, past South Shields where there is another church dedicated to her and where she may have founded her first convent. 

‘All who knew Hild the handmaiden of Christ called her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace’ says Bede. He writes about her as ‘a jewel in the land’, a shining light as a Christian leader, teacher, reconciler and healer. Her name means battle and she did indeed live through turbulent times. A Synod at Whitby in 664 at which King Oswiu presided called for leadership skills of the highest order when church and state were bitterly divided. She died full of years in 680. On her deathbed she urged her brothers and sisters ‘to preserve the gospel peace among themselves and towards others’, to live out the virtues of service to others as she herself had done throughout her life. 

Our new Way of St Hild sets out to tell her story and celebrate her legacy. It does this not only by referring back to the events of her life, but by setting her in the context of her times, of the natural landscapes her path traverses, and of the events that subsequently changed the world she knew, sometimes, we can safely say, beyond anything she could have imagined in her lifetime. The natural environment of salt marsh and estuary and cliff top, the profusion of birdlife and wildlife, the fossil memories from aeons past she would recognise today. The sound of the salt sea crashing against the old eternal rocks would always have been music to her ears, for it was this that she taught Caedmon the cowherd to sing about as he found his voice to praise the Creator. 

But what would she have made of the heavy industry of Teesmouth, the comings and goings of rigs and tankers, the steel, iron and alum works on the edge of the moors, feats of heavy 
engineering like the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge, or facilities along the coast dedicated to tourism, sport and leisure? One of the fascinations of creating this route has been the extraordinary contrasts you encounter on the Way of St Hild. And inviting reflection on what it could all mean to men and women of our twenty-first century. So this pilgrim path is as much a celebration of human activity and achievement – with all its dilemmas and compromises - as it is of the beauties of the natural world and the life and times of one of our greatest saints. 

It’s a remarkable collaboration between Hartlepool Council and neighbouring local authorities, the churches, tourism agencies, the Royal Navy, and people and organisations that care for and interpret our natural and built heritage. Hild would have liked that spirit of common purpose. And given her adventurous spirit, she’d have liked, I think, the digital access to the pilgrimage that’s been created through augmented reality stations, so that people with limited or no mobility can still be pilgrims and walk the route on their smartphone. 

It’s appropriate to be doing this in 2020 as our contribution to this ‘Year of Pilgrimage’ that’s being observed by cathedrals and pilgrimage sites across the land. Durham Cathedral is the focal point of a cluster of new pilgrim routes being launched this year, one of which connects with the Way of St Hild here on the Headland at Hartlepool. The capacity of saints and holy places to inspire pilgrimage is evidence of the interest being awakened today in what’s being called ‘religious tourism’. Stories like Hild’s are Christian in origin. Yet like the pilgrim routes to Compostela, Jerusalem and Canterbury, interest in pilgrimage is alive in people of many faiths and of no faith in particular for whom the spiritual search is a fundamental aspect of being alive. I don’t hesitate to claim that Hild’s faith prized inclusion as a basic Christian value. That’s the spirit in which we have tried to create this pilgrimage.

Which brings me to my final point. The more I study Bede’s writings about St Hild and her legacy as a Christian leader, the more remarkable I find it that a woman should have been entrusted with the authority conferred on her as a medieval abbess by bishops and kings. Saxon monasteries were not primarily places of retreat but centres from which the land was Christianised and ruled, and affairs of state were managed. Politics and religion were inextricably intertwined in places like Hartlepool and Whitby. The woman whose memory is enshrined in our pilgrim path belonged to the front rank of leaders in the Saxon world. No wonder Bishop Aidan ‘loved her heartily for her innate wisdom and her devotion to the service of God’.

So you’ll not be surprised that there was a fond wish to launch The Way of St Hild on International Women’s Day 2020, Sunday 8 March. This year’s theme is Generation Equality, meaning the empowerment of women and girls not only for good citizenship but also for leadership in the worlds of today and tomorrow. Like Ruth in our first reading, Hild speaks to us across the centuries of all that represents the best and noblest in human character, giftedness and service. She is a woman for us all to be proud of, and whether as women or men, to emulate as we ask ourselves what it might mean to serve God and our neighbour in whatever capacity he calls us to at just such a time as this? 
St Hilda, Hartlepool
Sunday 8 March 2020

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Be Born in us Today

One of our wedding presents we still use is a leather-bound visitors’ book. It’s much battered now, after forty five years; but it is a precious record of guests whom we have welcomed into our home – family, friends, strangers, and who knows, perhaps even angels entertained unawares. The shifting patterns of our personal relationships are traced through its pages: people we have worked with; people we were once close to; people who have died; people we have grown to love increasingly over the years. 

In our book, there are four entries from 1977 to 1983.  Those guests couldn't write their own names, so we did it for them when they crossed our threshold for the first time, long expected and already much loved. I needn’t tell you that they are our four children. The book brings it all back: the long months of waiting, the careful preparations, the sense of expectancy - joyful, but tinged with anxiety in case things should not be exactly right, or we might not be good enough parents, or we might not have enough love to give to this infinitely fragile creature who will be so dependent on us. There is nothing you would not do to welcome a child. And if that child does not arrive, or the visit is cut short, the pain would be unbearable. There is no loss like the loss of a child.

Each year in our churches and homes we prepare the crib to receive its honoured guest. It is an act of love, for there is nothing you would not do for this Child who comes to visit us. And like the preparations you make for any birth in the family, it is not just that we want everything to be outwardly right, though that matters. We want everything to be inwardly right too. The crib becomes a picture of our own lives being put back together, made beautiful for Christ.  St Teresa of Avila talked of the Interior Castle of our lives; but she might have spoken of the Interior Crib, with the heart as the manger-throne to receive the King of kings. 

How do we prepare this inward crib of ours? I said that there is no loss in life like the loss of a child. Yet our society has, in a way, lost a child, and Christmas brings it home with particular force. Who is this child we have lost?  I think it’s the child within us capable of expectation and wonder, happiness and delight.  Once upon a time, those qualities were in full flower in us.  We call it innocence, which perhaps means the capacity to be open the world in all its beauty and generosity and see into the life of things.  It’s a capacity that in many of us grown-ups tends to unripen until it is has shrivelled to a bud.  
I think I know 
Where all children come from but the puzzle
To me is, as they grow up, where they go.
Love, wonder, marvellous hope. All these can wither
With crawling years like flowers on a stalk;
Or to some piper's tune vanish for ever
As creatures murdered on a morning walk.

This year I have felt it again, the way Christmas erodes to the tired, tinselled routine, a thousand miles away from the simplicity and mystery of this wonderful festival.  Perhaps only the very young, the very poor, the very lonely and the very hurt understand Christmas: they have nothing to get in the way.  So what does it mean to say that Christmas is a time for children.  How do we acknowledge that in us all is an infant crying for the light? Don’t we yearn for that child to emerge from the dark and start playing? Don’t we ache to feel what we feel as we gaze as if for the first time on the ox and ass and shepherds and Mary and Joseph and the baby?  

If someone said, on Christmas Eve
‘Come, see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
We can hear this as nostalgia.  I see it more as a longing for meaning, the kind of meaning that children more easily grasp than adults.  Jesus says that unless we become like little children, we can never enter the kingdom of heaven.  And what is that but to rediscover not only the lost child in ourselves but the holy Child of Bethlehem.  If only we could find him again!  But Christmas says he is not far from any one of us, the one who brings truth and love into our world.  He comes as the stranger we do not recognise, yet he is the friend who cares about us.  He comes as the sovereign of the universe, yet he is the humblest of subjects.  He comes as the almighty creator, yet he is the slave who empties himself to be among us as one who serves. He is nearer to us than our own souls.  He asks for house-room in our crib.  He stands at the door and knocks, and waits to see what we will do with him.  
The fourteenth century mystical theologian Meister Eckhart said: “We must all become God’s mothers, for God desires to be born in each of us.” A poem a friend wrote a few years ago for her Christmas card captures beautifully the ‘how’, the ‘what’ and the ‘where’ of Christmas, the three life-changing questions we put to the nativity and the nativity puts to us. 

How should I best prepare?  Coming at you
with a running jump I might easily
just miss you altogether; land instead
where earth’s turn must face me with a shadow.

What if I lose the way, arriving late
to bend my knee; will all the food be gone,
leaving scattered embers and camel dung?

Where shall a baby safely lay his head
and not be overlooked or trampled on?

‘Within the manger of your heart,’ he said.


The first text quoted is from Charles Causley’s poem ‘School at Four O'Clock’.  The second is from Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’.  The final poem is by Sheila Bryer, ‘Advent’ (© S Bryer 2007, used with permission).