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

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Ministry for the Long Haul 2: Inhabiting the Stories of Ourselves

Yesterday I spoke about how we are constructed as ministers by the stories of our faith, our churches and the communities we are embedded in. I focused on how, after feeding the crowd, Jesus orders his disciples to “gather up the fragments so that nothing is lost” and linked this to the harvest festival of Sukkoth or Booths with its five themes of thankfulness to and dependence on God, living close to the earth, remembering where we come from and solidarity with the poor. I see these as five marks of ministry for the long haul in terms of both our collective and our personal stories.

Gathering the fragments is a task we all have to do for ourselves as well as one another. In post-modern speak, our human stories are put together through bricolage which is French for DIY – pottering around with bricks and mortar so as to make something that is beautiful or useful or both. I thought of that when we embarked on building the now legendary Lego Cathedral at Durham. It took 300,000 bricks. People were invited to pay £1 per brick. At one time we thought it would take longer to build than the real thing. It proved to be a marvellous tool for interpretation and outreach. Children and adults felt they were part of creating something special. For a long time all you could see was a footprint. Walls, arcades, piers, doors, windows began to reach up uncertainly like plants in early spring – painfully slowly it seemed. But after a while, the building began to take recognisable shape. It started to resemble the cathedral so many people loved and admired, even if it was only in outline, a ghost that would still need tens of thousands of bricks were still needed to complete it. Like the Romanesque cathedral itself, this building project required much time and patience, real commitment and perseverance.

Lego Cathedral was a great conversation-starter. We did real evangelism by helping guests articulate what they thought they were doing by helping to construct a building of faith. Each brick was itself an act of faith, of belief and hope in the finished work of art. But it was intriguing to hear a number of people talk about it as a metaphor, as if they were laying another brick on the edifice of their own life. And this does seem to me how our stories are built up over a lifetime. I spoke yesterday about being artists of our own lives, collaborating with God in shaping our stories, framing our lives. Brick by brick, you could say, event by event, encounter by encounter, experience by experience. The footprint may already be there laid out for us to glimpse – or it may not. But somehow, in the providence of God, it happens. And as we grow older and can look back, as I am now doing in retirement, we can see more of it for what it truly is, and – despite the mistakes, despite the false starts, despite so much to regret and repent of, still be thankful. As I said yesterday, eucharistia, thankfulness, does seem to me to be right at the heart of a good journey, be it a long haul or a short one.

There are some episodes in life that you know you’ll never forget because they seem to shift your way of seeing things in some decisive way. One of these happened just as we moved into the vicarage when I became an incumbent. At the age of 32, even I could see that I had a lot to learn, though it’s only now that I realise how much. My predecessor in the parish had died suddenly of a brain tumour in his mid-fifties. He had only been inducted six months earlier so it was a terrible shock to his family and to the parish. His widow was still in the vicarage when we arrived to look around. She spoke about John’s life and ministry, how happy they had been as a family, how much they were looking forward to getting to know the parish and serving there. I asked how she thought she would carry on in the coming weeks and months. She said: “the one thing John kept on preaching, and living out, was the importance of gratitude. If we can be thank-you people, he said, even in the darkest times life can begin again as something wholesome and beautiful and good. I’m now trying very hard to learn that lesson. Time will tell how well I learn it.”

That could come straight out of Thomas à Kempis. In his Imitation of Christ he says: “Be thankful for the least gift, so shall you be ready to receive greater. Let the least be to you even as the greatest, even the most contemptible gift as something of special value. If you consider the worth of the Giver, no gift will seem little, or of too mean esteem. For that cannot be little which is given by the Most High God.” Translating the Imitation for Penguin Classics was the last project my training incumbent undertook in old age. I think that without knowing it, he taught me good habits of reflection that foster a thankful attitude. He still is. I’ve just finished reading a biography of Edith Cavell, the English nurse (daughter of the vicarage) who was executed by the Germans in 1915 for helping allied prisoners escape occupied Belgium. She had the Imitation with her in prison and wrote in it on the night before her execution, as if to say: my life has been offered to God. To have done my duty is all I could have asked. I am thankful for that privilege. 

I believe this is one of the most important lessons life has been trying to teach me. Gratitude seems to me to have an absolutely vital role, if not in directing our stories (for so much is beyond our control), then at least in framing the way we tell them. I’ve found this to be essential to the long haul. Embedding my personal story in the big Christian story is a vital part of that, as I said yesterday: through sacrament and scripture and the life of the church, learning that eucharistia is the foundation of everything we are as the people of God. 

You would expect me to say that at the core of my career as a priest has been daily prayer and worship. Of course that is right: my priestly identity and story are very largely shaped by it. It’s a truism to say that a stipendiary minister is “paid to pray” but it’s an accurate perception all the same. I wasn’t schooled in it during training, so when I discovered this habitus in my first years as a priest, I found in it the church’s answer to my daily struggle to pray. I suppose I was an intuitive Benedictine who, long before I got to know the Rule of St Benedict, instinctively recognised in the office the celebration of the praise of God. For most of my ministry I’ve enjoyed the wonderful privilege of celebrating the divine office in incomparable surroundings and to beautiful music. In particular, the psalms of the day, sung or said, have been an irreplaceable source of strength in good times and bad. In the psalms you witness a community of faith living, praying, celebrating, praising, struggling, lamenting, trying to make sense of life as it is lived under God, asking just such questions about their story as we’ve been looking at. 

But as I look back, I’m clear that the rhythm of what Benedict calls the Opus Dei, the “work of God”, was formed not in cathedrals but in the parish. Here is where the shaping of each day by morning and evening prayer seemed to me to be adding brick by brick to the edifice. Each morning my colleagues and I would go across to church, ring the bell, and say the office with whoever turned up to join us. Next door to the church there was a sheltered housing complex. Elderly women would sit in their rooms looking out over the churchyard. Once I was in the town and someone came up to me to ask me if I’d been unwell. “No, why do you ask?” I replied. “O, my aunt said she hadn’t seen you going over to church for prayers the other day.” I reassured her and said I’d had a few days’ holiday. But it taught me about how public is the priest’s role, and how parishioners take a deep interest in the spiritual habits of the clergy. “Say one for me” isn’t always a jokey aside from those who know little and care less about God. I realised that daily prayer was a duty, not just a privilege. It was part of my job. I only glimpsed then what I know more clearly now, which is that these habit-forming spiritual disciplines are very much an aspect of the long haul. And duty can keep us going even when inclination or desire have given up.

But what the Imitation says is that even lesser gifts are of estimable value and call for gratitude. How do you compare the greater and the lesser? - a gift is a gift. And that is precisely Thomas’s point. If I’ve even begun to learn this, it’s been the hard way. I’m thinking of the gifts that have sustained me particularly during the dark phases of the journey, the arid stretches, the tears. The point about the so-called lesser gifts is that they are very specific. They are unique to each of us. I’m thinking of the people who love us and the intimate relationships that sustain us; the books we have read; the music we have enjoyed; the pursuits that bring us joy, the landscapes on God’s good earth that give renewal and lift our spirits. The longer the haul, the more important these gifts become.

I believe that attention to the details that give texture to our stories is more significant as a sustaining spiritual discipline than we often realise. I’m of the personality type that loves the big picture, the grand narrative, symbols, images, stories, poetry, metaphors, the imagination. I happen to think that this is the world Christian theology inhabits, so they are prized gifts in our proclamation and our life as ministers. Everything is bigger than it seems, more mysterious, more wonderful, more bursting with possibilities, more charged with the grandeur of God than what we can see and touch and handle. But the danger for us INFJs, type 4 on the enneagram, is that we sit loose to precisely those things, the ordinary stuff of life. Detail matters if we take Incarnation seriously, for Jesus was born as a specific human being at a specific time in a specific place. We need to notice it, pay attention to it. We need to feed our curiosity. When Dr Johnson said: “bury yourself in a dictionary and come up in the presence of God” he was on to something profound. 

In my long haul, I’ve found this to be more and more important. In the parish, as I said yesterday, I began to be absorbed by the specifics of the place in which I was a parish priest: the history and fabric of the church building, the town it had served for so many centuries, the physical and cultural environment of its locality, and beyond it, life in North East of England, one of this country’s most characterful and fascinating regions. This belongs to what I was saying yesterday about knowing the story of the place and understanding its grain. But I also found it to be enriching personally to peer beneath the surface, try to grasp what made it what it is. I felt I wanted to become more indigenised, inhabit this strange and beautiful place, become part of its story. I was oddly proud when my children quickly acquired Northumberland accents, started speaking in the patois of the school playground. When we moved south again, they just as swiftly shed the evidence of having been northern for a while but then there was another story to discover and become part of and that was good too. 

When later on I read George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda a paragraph leapt out at me. She says: “A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakeable difference amidst the future widenings of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbours....may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood.” It’s related to what I said at my farewell sermon about living close to the earth. I’m certain we can’t be effective ministers unless we cherish and love the places where we serve. I’m saying that for me, developing a sense of place, discovering, getting to know, belonging to that “spot of a native land” has been more significant as I look back than I realised at the time. Each place to which I have belonged has become part of who I am, like the soldier looking ahead to death in Rupert Brooke’s poem, “A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, / Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, / A body of England's, breathing English air, / Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.” 

Let me go on to say something about human relationships and intimacy. Why do I speak about people only after I’ve spoken about place, you ask? For the simple reason that first among the gifts of place are the people who become central characters of our stories, either for a while or forever. My family, my close friends, colleagues past and present, teachers, mentors and guides, all belong to particular times and places in my story. And while we must live and love in the present, they all have the capacity to evoke the past. Kierkegaard said in words beloved of analysts and psychotherapists, “life must be lived forwards but understood backwards”. I think this is especially true of how through shared memory our relationships inform the way we look back and how we tell our personal stories. In these recent weeks following my mother’s death, I’m particularly aware of the importance of this. 

(Perhaps this is why I find the notion of virtual friendship through social media somewhat suspect. It lives in an eternal present that sits loose to time past and time future. It doesn’t seem to be rooted in the specifics of place and time in the way that enduring relationships do. Of course, the virtual can lead to the embodied, and embodied relationships can be and are expressed in the digital world, so I’m only asking a question about the Facebook language of “friendship” and what this can really mean if you have hundreds or thousands of them. As an avid Tweeter, I find the concept of “following” one another more honest to the flickering character of cyberspace; but I recognise that we are all learning to find our way around social media and in particular how to bring wisdom to bear on these fascinating but seductive worlds. For even if social media is “of the moment”, the eighteenth century spiritual writer de Caussade reminds us that the present moment is itself a sacrament where we should expect to encounter God. So the question is, how do we humanise, indeed divinise, the worlds we inhabit in cyberspace? How do we follow à Kempis and imitate Christ there? For another day, I think.) 

I have found the cultivation of intimacy as a basic need in the long haul. It has sustained me in ways that nothing else could. I’ve glimpsed the passion at the heart of God’s way of loving by being loved that way myself.  Especially has this been true at times when I have felt lonely or desperate, where I’ve messed up, where I’ve caused hurt or damage, where I’ve needed to be forgiven and reconciled – and sometimes, though less often, when I’ve needed to forgive. You don’t need me to elaborate on this point because it’s a basic part our flourishing as men and women. “It is not good for us to be alone” is a basic fact of human living. But it’s a central aspect of our priestly formation too. It’s not only a question of how our intimate relationships nurture and sustain us, how we are perhaps never closer to life as sheer gift than we are in the presence of people who truly love us. I believe it’s about living the reality of priesthood in the circles of intimacy we belong to and discovering that we have not lost hold of our capacity to be human. risks to our stability and integrity as ministers and as men and women. 

I have found that being in the role of a public representative of God’s grace and love can pose risks to my capacity for personal intimacy. As with anyone in a caring role, how we express care and compassion can become professionalised. We show love and care because it is our job to, R. S. Thomas’s “willed gentleness” that I mentioned yesterday. I don’t disparage that. We cannot be everyone’s intimate friend even if we sign off our parish letters “with love” or “your sincere friend and vicar”. But we can find ourselves to be seriously lonely even when at the core of elaborate networks of ministerial relationships. So I want to follow the hunch that it’s the richness of our personal intimate relationships that sustains warmth, humaneness and joy in the way we are with everyone else. During the long haul, intimacy has not only enriched me and held me personally, but has been crucial in enabling me to do what we are all invited to do as we collaborate with God in reaching out to his world: to inhabit and model being as fully human as I can be. It’s trying to be an exemplary disciple, or perhaps I mean human being, before the world, not only in virtue of public office but because of what we are in our deepest selves. I use that word crucial deliberately. It takes me back to the crux, the cross where we see self-giving love demonstrated in all its precariousness, fragility, vulnerability and infinite generosity. In this theological sense, passion is always an aspect of love. 

So what has sustained me personally over the long haul? As I’ve prepared this, I realise that I’ve fallen into unwitting alliteration in my answers: prayer, place, and people. And I only have to state in this way to see how obvious it all is. I am speaking to you as peers in ministry. My only possible qualification for standing here on these days is that I have been practising it a little longer than some of you. Let me conclude with a fourth ‘P’ that sums up some of what I’ve been trying to say. I am thinking of our capacity to stand back and take in our story, reflect on where we have come from and what it means. It’s the word perspective. 

The longer the haul, the larger your perspective – at least, if you bother to take in the view. In the early years of ministry, everything is in the foreground, inevitably: vivid, sharply focused. The beginnings of any new aspect of life ought to be like that: etched on our consciousness and engraved in the memory because they are so alive, so intensely lived. When there is ecstasy it is fierce and joyful; when there is agony it is desperate beyond words. With every privileged success you feel you could fly; with every mistake you wish the earth would swallow you up. It’s like William Blake looking into the sun and seeing angels of every hue in the universe, both dark and light. It’s true of the first stirrings of love and friendship; of faith coming to life; of the leap of insight as we grasp some truth or wisdom for the first time. And it’s true of being ordained. I can remember the first fine careless rapture as if it were yesterday. 

“If only it could last” said Augustine as he gazed out of the window in a rapturous moment with his mother Monica one day. But it’s a mercy that it doesn’t, I think. It’s not just a truth for photographers that while foregrounds matter a great deal, they are not the whole picture. With the years comes depth of field, to stay with the analogy of photography: things lie both in front of and beyond the plane where once we saw everything in just two dimensions. The long haul brings perspective, the capacity to see the landscape in a larger way, and as part of it, the path we ourselves have trodden in our journey thus far. The foreground isn’t everything. Someone once said, don’t trust foregrounds: they flash by so quickly when you are on the move. 

I’m thinking particularly of our experiences of disappointment or failure in ministry. For yes, there are tears in things. How have they not broken me over four decades? I spoke yesterday about being men and women who are ourselves formed by the mercy and grace that we hold out for others to discover. In one of his ordination addresses Michael Ramsey speaks about the need for grace to wash our motives, aspirations and ambitions in ministry as well as our words and actions. In the harvest feast of Succoth as we’ve seen, the Israelites were taught to learn the lessons of dependence on God, which is the other side of gratitude. 

I clearly recall what my bishop said to me in our personal interview on the night before I was ordained deacon. “Michael” he said, “you will make mistakes in the years that lie ahead. Many will be short-lived in their consequences; some may be serious. When you stumble or fall flat, there’s no point in wishing you hadn’t. Seek God’s mercy, get up if you can, dust yourself down and carry on. If you are seriously injured by your fall, make sure you find the help you need and take the time it takes to stand upright again and start walking.” I have recalled that advice gratefully times without number. But I would have added: in the early years of ministry, every mistake feels huge, possibly irrecoverable from. They squat there in the foreground, loud and ugly, mocking everything you hoped for, everything you pledged. It’s having travelled a certain distance that puts them in perspective. Mostly they are the result of simply being human. 

Let me remind you of what I said yesterday about the necessity of having spiritual guides, mentors, confessors who know us and can read us, who are there to hold up a mirror to ourselves and help us deal with the shame and the failure, the envy and the guilt, all that poses threats to our ministry and our humanity. They help us to make connections, see our narratives in new ways, and lend perspective. The decades undoubtedly bring the comfort of a longer view, the kind of wisdom that enables us better to see things as they are. There is something necessary and strangely reassuring about being in a role or a place long enough to have to live with your mistakes. Cultivating depth of field has had a stabilising effect on my journey through ministry. I think I am more trustful and less anxious than I was when I started out. The tears never go away as long as we truly care about what we are doing. But their effect, especially when penitence is involved, is to heal rather than to destroy. Is this why the desert fathers used to speak about “the gift of tears” as a kind of baptism?

What gives us this depth of field, this perspective? Is it just that we have travelled? I think it has to be more than mere distances clocked up on the milometer. It comes back to something I said earlier about “noticing”. The foregrounds we journey through inevitably leave their mark on us. They change us. We would not be what we are if we had not walked that particular way. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference” says Robert Frost in his endlessly quoted poem but it is not any less wise for that. So the capacity to pay attention to the roads we travel, notice the landmarks, learn how to read the landscape, all these play a part in shaping the stories we tell about ourselves as our way of remembering where we have been and what we have been given. As reflective practitioners for whom this kind of attention is a life habit, we not only become emotionally and spiritually intelligent but are given degrees of insight that equip us to be good, wise guides and pastors of others.   

Let me go back to the idea of being artists of our own lives in collaboration with God our maker and redeemer. So much in our story was unforeseeable at the outset. I don’t so much mean the big narrative about the privileged lives we lead, being affluent by any standards, well educated, giving our lives to do something we love. Nor do I mean the greater wealth of loving and being loved by others, or knowing and loving God, though there is nothing inevitable about any of these things in an uncertain world. I mean the contingencies of life, how we find ourselves in this place rather than that, in this particular role carrying these particular responsibilities. The twists and turns of the journey can baffle us sometimes. We may wish that things had turned out otherwise. We may have discovered that what we thought we would be giving most of our time to in ministry has turned out to be very different. 

For example, I became a dean twenty years ago believing that my primary task was to be a spiritual leader working closely with the bishop, the head of a religious foundation and faith community called a cathedral. The reality was more like being the CEO of a medium-sized business. Looking back, I can see that dilemma foreshadowed in my incumbency when “running a parish” felt not altogether to be the same as reaching out to the community, caring for people in their need, proclaiming the gospel, pursuing social justice, and offering spiritual accompaniment to the faithful. I have had to make friends with an institution as well as undertake a mission and practise a way of life.

So the narrative of our journeys has had to incorporate a great deal of nimble footwork on the way. You could call it improvisation, not in the sense of an organist meandering across the keyboard while the collection is taken, but as jazz musicians know it, that essential ability to seize the moment and do something creative and beautiful with it within the setting of a musical line that has its own direction of travel. When you travel, you develop an instinct for good spontaneity, what will enhance and enrich the journey, when it is good to turn aside to eat, drink or sleep or follow your curiosity, or where there is a need to attend to, even if it was not planned in advance. I think of Moses turning aside to see the burning bush, and the Good Samaritan not passing by on the other side when a wounded man needed his help, and the risen Jesus accepting hospitality on the Emmaus Road when he was making as if to travel on. Sometimes to “turn aside” is for the moment only, and we soon find ourselves back on the road we had taken. Sometimes the change of direction is permanent: but for that fork in the track, we would by now be in another place entirely. I said that jazz has its direction of travel, but who ever knows precisely where this musical adventure will end up? And not only is the journey different from what we imagined, and the story we tell about it, but we are different too because of it. You never know what the long haul of ministry is going to entail. As John Henry Newman said, “to live is to change, and to live long is to have changed much”.

I wanted to end on this note of seeing in perspective, having depth of field. Where is the long haul taking us? The other night we watched a beautiful film called A Late Quartet. I had seen it before but it was on TV and I said to my wife that it was not to be missed. It’s about a string quartet one of whose players, the cellist, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. The fallout among his colleagues threatens to break up this group of musicians who have invested their entire lives in making music together. The piece they are working on is one of Beethoven’s late quartets, the Opus 131 in C sharp minor. The film explores how the music is a metaphor of the human relationships and vice versa. But it also showed me how, as the totally deaf composer comes to the end of his life, Beethoven is striving for a new depth, a new purity and simplicity, not composing to please the crowd but for the sake of achieving perfection in the art itself. You find this is true of the late works of so many of the greatest artists. While I was watching, I thought of you the Stepney clergy and what I might bring to you in this conference.

I think it’s this. Thomas à Kempis says in the Imitation: “Purity and simplicity are the two wings with which we soar above the earth and all that is temporary in nature.” By purity he means the virtue Jesus is speaking about in the Sermon on the Mount, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” That’s not just resisting temptation, keeping ourselves uncontaminated. I doubt if that’s it at all. It’s something altogether more profound and more demanding, to practise singleness of mind, heart and purpose so that we are intent only on one thing, which is to do the will of God. Simplicity means the same thing, being stripped of all extraneous distractions so that we are focused on God and what he desires for us and of us.  

So late in life, I am trying to learn this lesson. I am not very good at it, though having to downsize in retirement, shed a lot of things that once mattered, lay aside the roles that have defined me for so long and live like everyone else behind an ordinary untitled front door are important as outward signs of an inward development that I hope may be to grow old gracefully. The narrowing of our horizons in later life can help us focus on what we really need to see, what ultimately matters for all our living and dying. Purity and simplicity are two words that sum it up for me. And if I have a regret, it is that I didn’t cotton on to the importance of those words a lot earlier on in my life. If I had, they would have helped me to come to terms more realistically with the failures and disappointments, with the unexpected and not always welcome surprises that are part of what it means to be on the road. 

But although I have retired, there’s an important sense that the long haul is not over yet. Ministry goes on in new ways. Life goes on in new ways. There will be surprises, ordeals maybe that will test faith in ways that can’t be foreseen. But retirement is like every other stage of the journey: filled with the promise and hope that whatever it brings, God will be there, even in the shadows. There is still time to learn, try to be a better disciple and a better person, aspire to a greater simplicity and purity of heart, a wiser, more generous way of being human and being Christian. What St Luke says of the youthful Jesus should be true at every stage of life, that we grow “in wisdom and stature and in the favour of the Lord and of human beings.” Matthew Arnold has a poem where he pictures life as a river flowing from the mountains to the ocean. He says that we are fortunate when there comes a moment of insight about what it was all for. “And then he thinks he knows / The hills where his life rose / And the sea where it goes.” The imitation of Christ is the clue, to attain to our full humanity which is “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” – this is the long haul as it reaches its God-given destination. 

September 2016

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Ministry for the Long Haul 1: Inhabiting the Stories of our Communities and Churches

When your Bishop invited me to speak to you about “Ministry for the Long Haul”, I asked him why he thought I might be at all qualified to do this. It’s true that I am a Londoner, though not from the Stepney Area (even if my son now has a flat in Bethnal Green, so I suppose that gives me a demonstrable connection). Most of my ministry has been in cathedrals, and although I have been an incumbent too, it was in a market town in the far north of England, nothing like the densely urban multicultural sector of London that you minister in. He replied, “well, you’ve completed the long haul, so share some of your experience about making that journey. It’s the human and spiritual insights we are looking for”. I couldn’t argue with that, and indeed today marks the first anniversary of my retirement. So here I am. 

I was ordained in my mid-20s. At that age, you believe you could do anything. But after the first decade and beyond, ministry can feel like a long haul as you look forward and, as I am doing now, back. And as the age of retirement stretches ever further our working lifetimes, it is getting longer than ever, though our forebears would have smiled at the idea that you ever “retire” from the cure of souls. But I have a hunch that for reasons we are familiar with, the sheer intensity of the demands of ministry is greater than it used to be for most clergy. Athletes know that the long haul calls for stamina and survival skills as well as fitness, the hunger to do well and the will to stay the course. That image is familiar to us from the New Testament. That image is about discipleship, not ministry specifically, but that itself tells us something obvious about public ministry, that we must never divorce it from our fundamental identity and vocation given to us in baptism. As disciples it’s our lifelong vocation to live in Jesus Christ, to become like him, and therefore – an important point this – to become more fully human, the men and women God made us to be. And that helps set our vocation as the ordained alongside every other vocation and human endeavour: whoever we are and whatever we do, our purpose is always to be good human beings and good disciples, faithful unto death. Life itself, if we are spared, is a long haul. 

It sounds like a strategy for survival, getting to the finishing line in one piece. That’s how I initially heard the Bishop’s suggested title. And I don’t deny that sometimes, maybe often – we are in survival mode in ministry. We have to be when crises and challenges threaten to overwhelm us and we wonder if are ever going to live to tell the tale. The set texts in these situations are the Psalm laments, the Book of Jeremiah and the Passion Narrative, especially Jesus in Gethsemane. 

But as I thought about it, I realised that this phrase "the long haul" was actually inviting us into a deeper kind of exploration. As I looked back at my farewell preached exactly a year ago today, it began to dawn on me. What I mean is this: that ministry for the long haul has to have shape, design, a sense of purposefulness and direction. I’m not going to reduce it to the corporate language of objectives and goals because that somehow makes ministry a mere function or set of tasks within an organisation. It’s not that I’m denying that ministry often comes down to “jobs”: every vocation is “work” in both a profound and an everyday sense, and activity needs to be purposeful if it is to be effective. In St John’s Gospel, to do the “work” of God is the same as doing the “will” of God. There is a rich theology of vocation there. Because of this, I believe it’s fundamental to a ministry that has depth, that is lasting in its effects and that is fulfilling for us who practise it, that it needs to have an architecture. 

Someone said that we should all become “artists of our own lives”. To which of course a person of faith adds the rider “under God”. To live wisely is, I think, to enter into this process of artistry and design more consciously as literally a “once-in-a-lifetime” collaboration with God as we become the people he meant us to be. I see this as an aspect of being created in God’s image. So if this is true of human life, it must also be true of vocation, of every ministry we exercise, and of public ministry in particular. My experience is that it’s at those times when I’ve been most aware of this that I’ve been happiest, because most fulfilled in what I have been and done as a priest – in the sense of doing the work of God. Though I also know from my experience how God can work through us in our dark times when, perhaps, the light more easily breaks through precisely because we are broken vessels.

But before I say more about this, let me sound a caveat. I can’t do better than quote from a book by Ruth Burrows, To Believe in Jesus. “God has given each of us the task of fashioning a beautiful vase for him which we must carry up the mountain in order to place in his hands. This vase represents everything we can do to please God, our good works, our prayers, our efforts to grow to maturity; all this God values most highly. Into the making of this vase, then, we put all we have, our whole self. It is for God we are fashioning it, we tell ourselves. When it is finished we begin our journey up the mountain. When we reach the top… it isn’t beautiful anymore. There it is in our hands, a tawdry, common pot… the vase into which we had put our all. A deep instinct is telling us that if we want God we have to go over the other side of the mountain… We can’t go down with anything in our hands; we must drop the vase, still precious though so disappointing. Beautiful or not, we cannot take it with us, we must go to God with nothing in our hands. Our spiritual achievement is our most precious treasure. It has to go.” Beware of Pelagianism!

Nevertheless, whether we have completed many decades of ordained ministry or are just setting out, God invites us into this project of collaboration. So how do we become artists of our own ministry, set about designing ministry for the long haul? Ministry, as we all know, has its outward and inward facing aspects. Spiritual, emotional and intellectual equilibrium are vital for our good health as clergy, and this requires us to pay attention to both the inward and outward if we are going to sustain ministry over many decades. Tomorrow I want to say something about inwardness and attitude. Let me today explore this outward-facing aspect of the long haul.

At my farewell service in Durham Cathedral, I preached from the feeding of the crowd in St John’s Gospel, “gather up the fragments so that nothing is lost”. (You can read it on this blog site at 27 September 2015). I linked it with a beautiful line from a poem by Edith Sitwell, “Nothing is lost, and all in the end is harvest”. It was harvest time, and the week of the Jewish Festival of Sukkot, Booths or Tabernacles which, says St John was precisely the season Jesus performed his great sign. So I looked back over 40 years of ministry and, so to speak, gathered some of the fragments of those four decades, their harvest. They seemed to me to echo the themes of Sukkot as the great pilgrim feast looked back over the 40 years of Israel’s desert journey from the standpoint of being settled in their own land.

Here, I said, is what has mattered to me over the long haul. “Thankfulness to God because to praise Almighty God, to practise gratitude, eucharistia, is the first principle of religion and the foundation of all it means to be human. Dependence on God because it is as we turn back to him and acknowledge his reign over us that we understand how he made us for himself and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in him. Living close to the earth because reverence for life, treating the world with courtesy and charity is to discover our true place in God’s creation. Remembering where we came from because the story of the great acts of God is the foundation of all Christian life, mission and the pursuit of truth and justice. And solidarity with the poor and needy such as the desperate and voiceless, the refugees and asylum-seekers, because as the sanctuary knocker on the Cathedral door announces, God’s household is a place of refuge, safety and care.”

Those five marks of the long haul belonged to a celebration of a journey. Israel’s wilderness journey to the land they believed was promised was celebrated in all three great pilgrim feasts. It called a community to reflect on its past story, inhabit it in the present in a dramatic ritual way, and allow it to bring expectation and hope to the life of faith and human experience. For us as Christians, it’s precisely the same dynamic that we are familiar with in the eucharist as the three tenses of past, present and future coalesce in a single rite. For the eucharist is a liturgy, the great liturgy in which we act out what we have been as a people, what we are now, and what we shall become in God’s time. Christian faith is to embrace the story of a redeemed community and own it personally in baptism by confessing that we belong, we pin our destiny to that of God’s people, we acknowledge its Lord as ours. “This is our story. This is our song.”

Let’s ask what this means for us as we undertake the journey of ministry purposefully and give it shape. For me in parish ministry, it was eye opening to attend a week’s workshops at the Grubb Institute and learn the distinction between person and public role. Never despise the transforming potential of good training! For all I know, this person-role distinction is obvious to all of you. But what made the difference for me was how it helped made sense of what a parish priest is there to do. I was learning how, as a priest, you are expected by many people to have special knowledge of divine mysteries, a hot line to God, and that at the very least I would be competent to say something intelligible in the face of human suffering and pain, whether brought about by natural disaster, human wickedness, or most often, in the personal lives of parishioners through serious illness or pain, the break-up of an intimate relationship, or bereavement.

My role in these situations, I began to grasp, was to be an interpreter of peoples’ stories. It was my calling to attempt to bring insight to shed light on human experience by looking at it in the light of faith, relating it to the big story of God’s coming among us in Jesus Christ. (I tried to write something about this drawing on the wisdom writings of the Old Testament in my book Wisdom and Ministry.) So when people speak about clergy being “religious professionals”, this is one aspect of what they are wanting to express. You could put it this way. As “professionals” (and I’m aware what questions the use of that word begs), we are embedded in a story that it’s our call to be telling. We are its public representatives, its spokespeople, its official guardians. When at our ordination we are solemnly handed the holy scriptures and told to “take authority”, this is the role that is being conferred on us. We belong, in the great image of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, to the House of the Interpreter. 

But the other side of this is to do with the stories of the communities we serve, and the human lives that constitute them. A good pastoral theology and practice requires us to be as embedded in these stories as we are in the church’s story that we rehearse in tell and re-tell in scripture and sacrament. And here is where I think we must be especially intentional as we take on the public role of interpreter in our parish. It’s true that people are the same in one place as another – human life is what it is in all its vicissitudes. But in another sense it’s not true. We are constructed by the communities we live in, shaped for better or worse by the concentric circles of our belonging in family, neighbourhood, town, city, region, nation and continent. There is a grain in the timber of human life, and if we don’t recognise it, we shall get the story wrong in important ways. So paying attention to the local story calls for careful eyes and ears and a good deal of discernment if we are to understand the places in which we work.
As a parish priest in the north, I had so much to learn about all this. And although I have learned a great deal in my ministry subsequently, I am quite clear that it was in my first incumbency that I learned most. In my thirties, suddenly finding myself in a public leadership role in a parish in a strange part of the world, the decades of ordained life ahead felt like a very long haul indeed. At times I found myself very low indeed and wondered how I would ever survive a lifetime in ministry. I can’t altogether explain it, though my uncomfortable discovery that as a priest you are constantly in the public eye and subject to scrutiny was near the heart of it. My difficulty in handling conflict and disappointment were also part of it. So was my fear of failure – not only because self-interest made me need to succeed but also for the better reason of not wanting to fail people, the church, the parish. I needed to develop healthier habits of mind and emotion. I needed to acquire resilience, learn that stamina comes into things.

You’re wondering how it is that I’m still here. There are a number of reasons. The sustaining love of God is at the heart of it of course. It found expression as it always does in many ways, some outward, some inward. I’ll say more about inwardness on the long haul tomorrow. I recall some of the books I read then that helped turn my attitude around from self-absorption to living more generously. Among them were the writings of Alan Ecclestone, especially A Staircase for Silence. It wasn’t just the content but the fact that it had been written by someone who had been a parish priest in a tough urban parish in the east end of Sheffield, a place I was to get to know well a decade later. He only started writing in retirement, not just (he said) because of the relentless demands of parish ministry but because he believed he would only have something to say as a spiritual or theological writer after a lifetime’s immersion in the agony and ecstasy of real life in the church and the world. 

I also remember how the poetry of R. S. Thomas came to my rescue, one of the greatest of twentieth century religious poets. Again, his profound insights were forged (I use that fiery analogy deliberately) in the tough setting of parish ministry in rural Wales. In one poem, he writes of his recalcitrant parishioners, “there is no loving such, only a willed gentleness”. How well he knew himself, and me too! How I longed to move beyond “willed gentleness” to love freely, sacrificially, given, like God’s. But one of the many things I have learned in ministry is that sometimes, maybe often, “willed gentleness” is all we are capable of. Like “good enough parenting” to quote Winnicott’s famous phrase, it may not be all that we aspire to, but rather than flail our poor selves out of guilt, shame and the sense of failure that so easily afflicts us, it is not only sufficient to be good and wholesome, but it is God-given too. Maybe someone can draw out of the gospels how Jesus practised willed gentleness against the temptation to be angry or to judge. Perhaps this turns out to be true love that is demonstrated in a way that is sustainable and practical. Remember that in the synoptic gospels, Jesus is only once said to have “loved” anyone, and that was the rich young ruler after whom the Lord looked with sorrow because the cost of discipleship was too high.

But what I learned from both Alan Ecclestone and R. S. Thomas was reinforced by a highly skilled mentor I was lucky enough to find. At this demanding and at times dark time, he was shrewd enough to see through my confusion and despondency and point me towards a healthier approach to ministry. And let me say before I go any further how essential I’ve found it to be to find the best possible accompaniers and guides in public ministry. If ever there is a fatal arrogance in people in public life, it is to think that they have to lead on their own. Nowadays, most of us take spiritual direction, mentoring, coaching and work consultancy for granted and gratefully avail ourselves of them, thanks to our bishops and dioceses who set aside funds to support us and encourage us to take the time we need to make sure we get the best help we can. I am quite clear that for my long haul as theological teacher, parish priest, cathedral canon and dean, these fellow-travellers were essential to my learning, my insight and my flourishing. And never more so than in the parish.

That particular mentor asked me in effect (and over many months) to do three things. The first was to try to understand what the priest symbolises and represents both in and to a local community. The second was to immerse myself in that community’s story, get to know it intimately, become part of it myself. The third was, in the light of the first two, to try to frame my own ministry intelligently and purposefully, make of it something that was not only of real and lasting value but lovely in its own right. They are of course all aspects of the same thing, but it was helpful at the time to see them as distinct. And I can honestly say that learning to reconfigure my public role in the light of these prompts and nudges was life-changing. They meant I could look back and see those few years as hugely formative – and be proud of the big steps forward that the parish achieved in that time. 

Let me take them in turn.

First, what the priest symbolises and represents. Thomas Mann said: “to live symbolically spells true freedom”. The Greek word means “to throw together”, to lay things alongside each other from which the word evolves into one standing for the other. It’s a rich idea theologically and psychologically and there is a vast literature devoted to it. But we have an intuitive idea about how a symbol opens up doors of perception in our minds and imaginations giving us access to meanings that are beyond the capacity of rational speech. 

We clergy inhabit a world of symbols all the time. We understand, because it is our job, how symbol and sacrament, ceremony and ritual belong to the Christian story we tell and clothe it with flesh and blood, incarnate it in a material and tangible way. This is especially true in the archetypal Christians sacraments of baptism and eucharist. What is less familiar is to think of ourselves in this way, in our ordained roles as deacons, priests and bishops. Now, a symbol (as opposed to a mere sign) is capable of exerting great power. A national flag, a football trophy, a wedding ring, a gift that carries great personal meaning for us because of the person who gave it to us – all these are true symbols in which heart is, so to say, speaking to heart. In church, water, bread, wine, oil, the book of the gospels, incense, lights, music, processions – all these and many more are invested with a symbolic character by the liturgy. They “glow”, as it were, with a quality we can only call numinous. So far so obvious – and so wonderful.

But by extension, the church building is itself a space that is symbolic of many things: the presence of God primarily, of course, and the worship and prayer that belong within it are what make it not just any space but “sacred space”. But it’s much more than that. It holds profound collective memories of a community; even a modern building like Coventry Cathedral where I once worked had rapidly acquired a deeply symbolic identity in just a few years. By the time I went there 25 years after it was opened, there were aspects of it that were as unquestionably iconic and sacred as the medieval bombed out church had been next door. And on top of that, a church is “sacred” to us if we worship there or did once, have been baptised or married there or said farewell to our beloved dead there. This year I walked my daughter up the aisle of Alnwick Church because she had chosen to be married there. It was a strange feeling to be the proud father of the bride in a place I’d known so well as its incumbent. 

For me, the sacredness of the place because of my memories, and of the sacredness of this unique moment in our family story came together unforgettably. All this belongs to the world of the symbol. I’m saying that when we operate in a highly symbolic environment, we ourselves become symbolic people. Like church buildings, we clergy evoke memories, expectations, longings, hopes, fears even. When we stand in the pulpit, when we preside at the Lord’s table, when we visit, when we chair the PCC, when we lead the prayers, even when we make a fool of ourselves in the parish pantomime so that people laugh good naturedly at us, we are functioning in this symbolic world. It goes with the role. It’s true to some extent of all leaders because a leader inevitably embodies and represents their institution or community to itself and to others. If you look at the highly ritualised world that, say, our politicians inhabit, you’ll see the point. In our case as clergy we stand on the elusive threshold between what is seen and what is unseen, between what is temporal and what is eternal, between the church’s story and the local and personal stories that belong to a particular place. We publicly represent and symbolise the values of the gospel, the story and teaching of the church, indeed the very mystery of God by who and what we are. 

I found it liberating to begin to understand that all this was to do with the role conferred in my ordination. I was called to inhabit it in a personal and unique way: we can never divorce person from role even if we need to distinguish between them to save ourselves from being swallowed up by the sheer demands of public office. It made sense of some of the (to me) sharp difficulties I thought I was facing in the parish, matters I now think are largely normal for us in our roles because they so often concern other peoples’ expectations, transferences and projections. It felt, and still feels, highly relevant to the long haul and how I was going to construe my ministry in a healthier way. In last year’s farewell sermon, I referred to knowing where we come from. That’s both a biographical and an existential aspect of ourselves. We need to know who and what we, “where we are coming from” in a pastoral, spiritual and sacramental sense. It empowers us to fulfil our calling to serve by feeding the hungry with good things. Solidarity with the poor in my sermon was meant to include all of human need wherever we find it – physical, emotional, spiritual. “Empowerment” to respond not only because it’s our duty but because it’s our privilege is how I have experienced that insight ever since, at least in my better moments.

The other side of this was to do with the parish itself and its story. This was my second point. For whom was I symbolic as the parish priest? The obvious answer is, to the worshipping community with whom, week by week and day by day, I broke bread and shared koinonia, that infinitely precious communion in holy things. But that was only part of the answer. You know what I’m going to say. Whatever I myself thought about it, whatever I said or did, there was no way that a market town parish was not going to pull me into the life of the whole community. Whether it was baptising, marrying and burying parishioners, national and local celebrations or disasters that the town wanted to observe in church, prayers at town council meetings, schools (not just the aided CofE school), hospital, theatre, music and the arts, trade, the historic Shrove Tuesday football match, the town wanted these activities to be ritualised, symbolised, “blessed”. It looked to us clergy to do this for them, or perhaps I should say, among them, as one of them. 

That was then, a generation ago, and there, in Northumberland. That was traditional Church of England parish ministry with a traditional northern accent. It’s 300 miles away from London and ten thousand miles away from the far more complex metropolitan worlds you are familiar with here in Stepney. But how strange it was to me at the time, schooled as I was in suburban churches in London and never having lived in the north of England before. I had to renegotiate my vocation. And I had to define the scope of my ministry in that parish and try to shape it round what I believed God was asking me to do there. And I believe the response I made, to embrace the wider parish, to be there in principle for everyone as far as I could, was the right one. I learned that the very word parish, “paroikia” means not those who go to church but those who “live around”. 

What this required of me was to develop a sense of place. The parish already had that – in abundance. But I needed to learn it for myself, embed myself in the particularities of that parish in that landscape at that time, learn its story. When we moved into the vicarage I found in the study a copy of the two-volume History of Alnwick by George Tate, published in the early 19th century. Copies are as rare as gold dust. Alas, inside the cover it said “For the use of Vicars of Alnwick. Not to be removed from the Vicarage”. From it I learned a lot about the church and the town, all new to me. I wrote a little visitors’ guide to the church – always a good way of learning about your place of work. This was a medieval building, but every church has a story as I’ve tried to say already. And from there I became fascinated with the history of the town itself, and the North East region in which it is set. All this seemed to me to be part of getting to grips with the story of the place in which I was serving as incumbent. It’s an approach I adopted everywhere else I went on to minister. In the language of my farewell sermon last year, it comes down to living close to the earth and paying attention to the story it has to tell.

And here is the point I want to make. It served me well to develop this sense of place as life-giving in its own right – after all, the parish is also our home and our family’s home: how could we not be curious about where we live? But it served me even better to see it as an essential resource for public ministry. It gained me, I think, a hearing, respect even, that I had taken the trouble to try to recognise the context of peoples’ lives and the stories of their community. It’s not a question of going native because a good parish theologian (which is what a priest is called to be) is not only there to affirm the environment with its narratives and traditions, its myths and rituals, its culture and habits, its self-understanding, its assumptions about what it aspires to be in the future. That goes for the church too, of course. Ministers must ask questions too, critique assumptions, perhaps even help a community reframe the story it tells about itself. But we have to learn and know and understand before we can stand in the House of the Interpreter, especially when, like Jeremiah, we have to pull up and destroy as well as build and plant. 

My third point was about the purposes and goals of public ministry. What did all this teach me about how to reframe my ministry at that time and set healthy directions for the future? I had no reason to think then that I would not spend three more decades in parishes. What I learned there was largely thanks to my mentor’s making me think through what ministry was about; much of it too was thanks to colleagues and parishioners who often without knowing it helped pennies to drop; and I have to admit, much of it was also through mistakes and misjudgements too embarrassing to recall.  But I look back to that experience as a time when better habits of mind and heart became at least the starting point for journeys that lay ahead. And I think I can say that as I have begun to take hold of ministry as something that has both purpose and art, they have largely stood up to some pretty robust testing since. (Don’t ever think by the way that cathedrals are refuges from the hard graft of parish life. If they were once upon a time, they certainly aren’t now.) 

In a report you know well in the Stepney Area, Church Growth in East London, Angus Ritchie speaks about having “a clear vison of goals, engaged in conscious self-reflection on being both faithful and reflective”. I think that is meant as a way of being for a healthy church that is growing and flourishing. But it maps directly on to our roles as clergy. If we are to be, as the phrase has it, “reflective practitioners” (what other kind of practitioner would any of us want to be?), then clarity about purpose and the capacity to be self-aware enough to think about what we are doing, and how, and why, are all indispensable. Indeed, I doubt that with the demands and stresses of ordained life as it is today, it is sustainable in any other way. I wouldn’t have used that language thirty years ago. But I now see that it was what I was seeing through a glass darkly. I can only say that over a lifetime of ministry, that way of thinking, behaving, pondering and praying has served me well. It has made the best of me what I am. 

In my farewell sermon, those insights about knowing where we come from, living close to the earth and solidarity with the poor were introduced by two imperatives: thankfulness to God and dependence on God. They sum up, I think, not only the whole of ministry but the whole of life. I’ll say more tomorrow. But in relation to the big story that we tell about a God who so loved the world, I hope I’ve made it clear that we as ministers are meant to be the public embodiment, the symbol, of those fundamental ways of being before God. Go back to the ordinal and see it for yourself in the emphasis laid on what clergy do and what we are. Austin Farrer spoke about the priest being a “walking sacrament”, or in an older register, "alter Christus", being as Christ to others. 

I said earlier that we can never separate ministry from discipleship. You could say that being ordained sets us up publicly as exemplary disciples. However uncomfortable we may feel about that way of putting it, I’m clear that this is how many see us. It’s where all those “oughts” and “musts” of ministry come from, rules that say clergy should behave like this and not like that. In a month when the sexuality of bishops has once again hit the headlines, we need to examine these assumptions. My point is simply to indicate that when you are an office-holder in the church, your life is up for scrutiny, and everyone has their own ideas about what is or isn’t appropriate for clergy. As symbolic people, we model something that is important not only in the church but beyond. Questions about values are bound to follow. We should welcome it because it shows that something, at least, still matters. The power of story and symbol is still there.

Of course, we know that none of us is that exemplary disciple. We are all broken, fractured human beings. We are precarious, we fall short and we fail God, the church and ourselves times without number. We know ourselves too well to be deceived on that point. This is why these two attitudes of dependence and gratitude are so fundamental to being a Christian. We are people formed by grace, and to live out of dependence and thankfulness is the only adequate way of responding to the God who freely comes to us, finds us, loves us and accepts us in Jesus. I doubt if I have learned anything more fundamental than that when it comes to the long haul. I am still learning it. 

So if we can tell the big story about God and engage with the stories of our communities consciously invoking (because it is our role to) the faith dimension of human life, if we can point to what is of abiding significance for us and give a reason for the hope that is within us, then, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, we do not lose heart. We shall have found ourselves artists of our ministries. They will have been not only useful but beautiful. We gather the fragments with joy, and offer them to God. All in the end is harvest. 

September 2016

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Cathedrals, Sacred Space and the Theatre of the Soul: an address to the Cathedral Precentors

In this anniversary year, your conference is paying homage to Shakespeare. How could it not? The last play I went to see was The Winter's Tale. It's one of his last dramas and it’s far from easy to classify, as if in his maturity Shakespeare is reaching beyond the straightforward categories of comedy, tragedy, history and so on. It starts out as a classical tragedy where, like Othello, the tragic flaw is jealousy. Leontes imagines that his old friend Polixenes is having an affair with his wife Hermione. Shakespeare vividly depicts a man eaten up by obsessional jealousy, his mental disintegration bringing about the collapse of a family's whole world with the deaths of his wife and his young son.

But then comedy seems to break in on the hopelessness. The famous stage direction “exit, pursued by a bear” seems to introduce a note of parody, hinting that nothing is quite what it seems. There is a clown and lots of flirtatious dancing, and all is set for a happy ending with paradise restored and broken relationships mended. But Shakespeare gets there by using a device that has puzzled critics because it seems as if it resorts to trickery. At the climax of the play Paulina brings the statue of lost Hermione back to life. It's a tease, for we don't know whether she was ever really dead or had simply been hidden away and looked after by Paulina. Anyway, in a beautiful recognition scene she and Leontes are reunited and the drama achieves its resolution.

Does the play itself 'lose its mind', so to speak, does the text forget itself as it disperses the high art of tragedy into what at times feels close to farce? Does the comedy, following hard on the heels of so much grimness, mock what went before as if to say, don't take any of this too seriously: it's just illusion, a ceremony to mark the passage of the seasons? Perhaps it's a parody on both tragedy and comedy: the scarcely believable speed at which things go wrong at the beginning, the sudden lurch into an apparently careless comedy complete with songs, ballet and pick-pocketing slapstick and a miracle (if that's what it is) to end with and give us the closure we want, the happy ending? Or is Shakespeare, far from being careless, showing his mastery of dramatic form by merging the two genres in one art-work and making what is unbelievable at one level credible at another?

As a theologian and one-time liturgist, I am fascinated by the resonances in The Winter's Tale of both the central Christian story of the passion and resurrection of Christ, and its ritual “showing forth” in the eucharist.  It's not that any particular figure is an image of Jesus (unless it is Paulina whose action in the drama is to bring about both judgment and redemption). It is the drama itself that feels irresistibly Christological, taking us through a passion-like experience of suffering and pain into a realm of laughter, reconciliation and dancing that suggest resurrection and the kingdom of God. So like the liturgy, the play becomes “play” in the sense of a game that imagines us to be living in the redeemed state we call the kingdom of God. The great transformation scene leads us out of winter into spring and summer, bringing colour into the sombre monochromes with which it began. This is one way in which the movement of “enchantment” from tragedy to comedy is not just credible but ultimately necessary.
There’s a particularly telling line when Paulina says near the end: “it is required you do awake your faith”. Which is why, when the statue comes to life (and who envies the actor who has to stand there so still for so long?), you can smile at the ludicrousness of what is happening, or else find yourself believing in it and being deeply moved. Theatre is always an act of faith for playwright, actors and above all, audience. In The Winter's Tale, we seem to be summoned into an act of faith that draws us into the life of things, into God. Either parody or gospel - or maybe both, because in an important way the gospel parodies the silliness of self-important human lives and says: look beyond this and see something that is not transient but eternal. Shakespeare is always big enough for there to be endless possibilities in the way we respond. And by keeping us guessing, he always has the last laugh.


In 1968, Peter Brook, the great Shakespeare director, wrote a little book that has become a classic for all who love theatre, The Empty Space. It’s a book every liturgist should read often, alongside that other slim but equally treasured volume, Aidan Kavanagh’s Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style published in 1982. Brook taught us to think about what takes place on a stage when something real is happening, as “holy theatre”. (He also coined the phrases deadly theatre, rough theatre and immediate theatre, all bursting with liturgical insight. I don’t know if Kavanagh knew the book but he writes as if he did.)

It’s “holy theatre”, indeed “the idea of the holy” that I intend to focus on today. I want to draw on my experience in the four cathedrals where I have served most of my public ministry. And I want to speak about the “holy” in a bigger sense than simply the liturgy, what that holy theatre is itself “about”, the theatre of human life as it is lived before God in the face of his fierce and wonderful love for the world.

My phrase “the theatre of the soul” is a conscious nod in the direction of two other books I’ve valued. They are by the psychoanalyst Joyce McDougall, Theatres of the Body and Theatres of the Mind. The first is about how the body acts out the scripts of our lives, especially those stories that are hurtful and destructive to us. The second focuses on illusion and truth as our stories get told and explored in the psychoanalytic process. It was a moment of insight for me when, thanks to the literature my psychotherapist wife was putting in front of me, I learned that the analytic space is often referred to by practitioners as “holy” or “sacred”. These connections say to me that like patriotism, liturgy is not enough. Sacred space is indeed very much to do with the holy theatre of the liturgy that is performed in it, and for which it exists at all.

But if we see the liturgy merely as an end in itself, rather than as a vehicle for transformation both collectively and personally, if we don’t recognise that the whole point of theatre is to challenge us, judge us, console us, mend our broken lives, help us to glimpse new possibilities, strengthen us to go on living, give us back our hope, we haven’t grasped its essential theological, pastoral and spiritual meaning. The theatre, the cathedral, the church, whatever is our ritual arena, they define the spaces in which human dramas get acted out and life is changed. Shakespeare understood it in ways that always surprise, amaze and delight us.

You need to know where I am coming from. Of my forty years of ordained life, nearly thirty have been in full-time ministry in three cathedrals, and in six of the other ten I was an honorary vicar choral of a fourth and as well as singing services, sang for a year in the back row of its choir when there was a lay clerk vacancy. That was Salisbury in the 1970s and early 80s. After an incumbency in Northumberland, I became Canon Precentor at Coventry, then Provost of Sheffield, then Dean of Durham from where I retired last year after nearly 13 years. You’ll understand that as a newly retired priest, I’ve been trying in the past year to gather the fragments, make sense of what my part in the public ministry of the church has been about, maybe – if I’m lucky – uncover meanings that I have not seen for what they are amid the demands of ordained life.

Now that my wife and I worship at the parish church across the road in our village, we are rediscovering what sacred space and liturgy mean on a more intimate level. After so long in cathedrals, attending a Georgian village church (Victorianised) for the Sunday eucharist and daily morning prayer concentrates the mind as to what really matters: God, humanity, community, relationships, mercy, grace, the kingdom of God. Every sacred space, even undistinguished ones like our parish church, represents and catalyses that divine-human encounter. My Christian experience started out in a Georgian church where I was a chorister. It looks like it may end in one too when singing days are done. It’s a very different kind of theatre from those I ministered in during my working life. But whatever the style, we know, as Aidan Kavanagh says, that a church is there for us to transact the business of God. It should be a tough, bracing space (very much a Peter Brook insight, that). It is not meant to imitate the soft, reassuring comforts of our drawing room. Cue memories of long DAC debates about over-carpeted churches. I wonder if the Chancellor of Coventry Diocese had read his book when he ruled against padded chairs in the church at Long Itchington?


So what have I learned about sacred space in the cathedrals I’ve known best?

It’s obvious to you as liturgists, though not always to your colleagues, that the “sacred” is the defining category when it comes to what a cathedral or church is for. Not all cathedrals are shrines to saints, but in a looser sense, sacred spaces are always “shrines” that draw seekers after truth into the world of the holy. What we mean by this theologically is not that therefore the space outside the shrine is somehow unholy, not quite belonging to God in the same way. On the contrary: all things, all people, all spaces belong to him and what we call the “profane” is simply that which is pro-fanum, lying beyond the sacred space but still in symbolic view of it and indeed defined by it. In medieval cities like Salisbury and Durham, the cathedral was historically the very reason their cities came into being. The monks of Durham likened their city to Jerusalem, a holy community defined, we could say sacralised by, the great temple from which it derived its meaning. So sacred geography is simply a way of focusing a universal awareness of divine presence. You only have to explore Wiltshire, as we did this summer, to see how so much of that county is a ritual landscape, a sacred geography whose focal points are its stone circles like Stonehenge and Avebury, its ceremonial burial places and, most important, the liturgical pathways that connected them. Having lived among that landscape, I recognised it again when we made the journey to Compostela and began to understand how geography has been assigned ritual and spiritual meanings by the chain of sacred spaces and the Camino between them.

I spoke about meanings in the plural. We could easily think that the “sacred” carries a single, unambiguous meaning. If you read books like Edmund Duby’s La Symbolique Romane on Romanesque symbolism, or Emile Mâle’s The Gothic Image, you might think that medieval cathedral expressed a single “idea” or vision of the sacred. Of course, that is true in terms of the central tenets of the creed. A cathedral is a public space whose liturgy and spirituality evokes a vision of the transcendent breaking into ordinary time. In the “winter’s tale” that described the lives of the vast majority of medieval people, the cathedral was where life took on a new and glorious aspect, where redemptive dramas were acted out and transformation scenes embodied, where tragedy and comedy mingled and illuminated each other in the light of Christian faith. Vaults and arcades, ceremonial doorways, colour, light, incense, chanting, processional journeys from one space to another across ritual thresholds – all these contributed to a powerful sense of the numinous, precisely what Rudolph Otto called in his great book whose title I’ve already borrowed, The Idea of the Holy. And in Christian sacred space, that idea focuses on the God who comes among us as the Incarnate Lord, who is crucified and raised from death.

But within that medieval “idea” lay quite distinct notions of what sacred space actually represented. In the Romanesque era, it was a fortified, defended space that reflected the precariousness of life by holding fragile human beings safe from the assaults of demonic powers. You see this most clearly at eleventh and twelfth century Durham, perched on its acropolis next to William the Conqueror’s castle, appearing for all the world to be one great defensive structure to keep the enemy at bay (in this case, not only demons, but those wayward Northumbrian Saxons as well. I often used to say to visitors that Durham was as much a statement of brutal Norman military might as it was a temple to the Almighty. Despite its celebrated beauty, Durham speaks volumes about political hegemony and the uses and abuses of power. Sacred space has its shadow side and we must tell the truth about that too.

In the high middle ages, however, the mighty solidity of Romanesque gave way to the airy soaring of the gothic vision. Thirteenth century Salisbury was one of its earliest expressions in England, its pure Early English creating a light-filled interior in which you could imagine that you had been transported into a vision of the new heaven and the new earth – that, at least, was the Abbé Suger’s intention in creating the first true gothic church in Europe, the Abbey of St Denis near Paris. A casket of light is a very different understanding of the sacred from an impregnable fortress. And you can see, in cathedrals like Winchester, Norwich, Ely, Gloucester and Durham how the building reflects a developing history of how the sacred is understood in new ways as the architecture moves from Romanesque to Gothic, from being, if you like, earth-bound and protected in a solid, rocklike way towards reaching up to touch heaven itself.

I’ve wondered, as I’ve presided at the eucharist in medieval cathedrals, whether the architecture, Romanesque or Gothic, makes a different to the ways we perform liturgically in these different kinds of space, and even affects the way we construe the sacrament itself. It’s a question of emphasis, not of essence. When Gothic was new to Christian architecture, did its vast open spaces and sense of exposure feel different to an assembly of worshippers from the enclosed, protected feel of Romanesque? Did it call for a different kind of theatre, maybe a new take on Christian faith and experience?

I began to ponder this when I went to Coventry as Precentor. As I first experienced it, the Cathedral felt utterly different in every conceivable way from Salisbury or from the more developed gothic of the big medieval town church of Alnwick where I had been incumbent. The architectural forms of the 1950s and 60s, Graham Sutherland’s great tapestry of Christ in Glory, the John Hutton west screen, a great wall of glass opening on to the ruins of the bombed out medieval church of St Michael, the liturgical spaces in the round in the Chapels of Unity and of Christ the Servant… how did you begin to create a liturgical performance worthy of that building? (This very question is posed explicitly by Peter Brook in a fascinating section about Coventry in The Empty Space.) As always, the building wins in the end as we all know: you have to start with the grain of the building and let it suggest the kind of ceremony it needs.

To help us do this, I invited some members of the Department of Theatre Studies at Warwick University to help us understand both the sacred space itself and the dynamics of architecture, audience and performer that was taking place within it. They were mostly not habitual church attenders but they knew about theatre, and were intrigued that we had approached them with our rather unusual request. They attended services and offered some sessions with our liturgical ministers. The principal outcomes were these. First, there is no substitute for paying a lot of attention to performance skills, whatever the environment we are working in. They thought there was work to do on our posture, our way of moving around the space, and our relationship with the words we spoke (a particular challenge, that, in a cathedral that had more difficult acoustics than any other I’ve worked in). They tried to instil in us the importance of embodiment, inhabiting a role and living and breathing it stage. It was not enough to utter words by themselves. They must be “made flesh” through our bodies in a profoundly incarnational way. They thought we had a lot of work to do, and so we did.

But the more surprising insight was to do with the nature of the space itself. They looked carefully at the cathedral from a performance point of view. They took in the great gaunt slab of the high altar below the tapestry, and the John Piper vestments created for the building that are more elaborately decorated behind than in front. And they said to us: you may think of your church as the first of the modern cathedrals because the finish makes it look that way. But we are saying to you that it is entirely medieval in orientation and attitude. The west-east axis culminating in an elevated high altar below the image of Christ in Glory – it is unambiguous that this is the last of the old cathedrals not the first of the new. So you should learn from the ceremonies of the middle ages and, while you will want to reinterpret them for the twentieth century, don’t dismiss the way they had evolved over many centuries in just such grand spaces as this.

What’s more (and here was the coup de grâce), the altar and the vestments tell us plainly that you would be better to have the three sacred ministers facing east at the sacrament rather than west. For then you would all be being true to the grain of the cathedral, the strong orientation of building and people towards the face of Christ on the tapestry. Moreover, as performers you would find that the your eastward-facing posture and the vestments, by concealing so much of you, would act as a kind of theatrical mask that frees you up to inhabit the rite in ways you are finding more difficult when you stand behind a grand granite counter and face the people. (I thought of that unexpected advice apropos of the recent injunctions in the Roman Catholic Church about ad orientem mass celebrations. Once again, it all comes down to sacred space and how we construe it.)

Well, we didn’t go back to the eastward position because it would have been unthinkable in those post Liturgical Movement days. But then I went to Sheffield where there were several immovable eastward-facing altars  though the high altar itself had been moved away from the east wall. I found a new kind of freedom, particularly (but not only) in Prayer Book celebrations, in facing east, something that continued in Durham where, at high altar celebrations, there is no choice about it. I don’t think there can be a doctrine about this either way (so to speak), and I have hardly ever found lay people to be as exercised about it as clergy; but I do believe that the characteristics of the building as a whole, the way that community has chosen to inhabit its sacred space, the theological and spiritual messages we want the liturgy to convey must all play a part in informing any church’s liturgical style.  


I spoke earlier about clergy being “guardians” of sacred space. I like the analogy and have always believed that guardianship is a very key task for cathedral clergy in particular. This is about much more than the liturgy. And the secularising tendencies of our age both inside and outside the church have greatly increased the pressures on the very idea of “sacred space”, let alone what it means to guard it against violation or abuse. Let me give a few examples from my experience.

Sheffield Cathedral has been praised for some decades for its ministry among homeless and vulnerable people. Liturgically, its worship was never given to that kind of racy pursuit of “relevance” that some seem to think is called for in the heart of a great city. But because the focus of our daily outreach in those days was the Cathedral hall, it was literally the case that the poor were always with us. As soon as the doors were opened for weekday matins at 0730, some homeless people would come straight in, sometimes with their dogs, find a bench, stretch out on it and go to sleep for the day. The early eucharist of the day was often enriched by the smells of a full English breakfast being prepared for our guests in the hall. The social context of need and deprivation in which we celebrated the liturgy could not have been clearer. No-one questioned that the nave was a perfectly proper place for homeless people to sit or lie. There were rules about smoking, alcohol and drugs which were strictly but good-humouredly enforced. The sanctuaries and altars were always regarded as “separate” (the root meaning in Hebrew of qadosh, “holy”, i.e. set apart).

But here’s what I learned about sacred space at Sheffield. It was clear to me that the public space of the nave was heavily contested. The poor reckoned they had as valid a claim on it as “their” place as anyone else. Rather wonderfully, the Cathedral community accepted this graciously; the few who were uncomfortable about it tended to gravitate to the highlands of west Sheffield and their big suburban churches. We all know from our experience of church life that sacred space, because it is usually public in character, is always heavily contested. People’s good sense of “belonging” in it, “inhabiting” it, “possessing” it can become adversarial. And when disputes about what is and isn’t “right” in the space are freighted with theological meanings, as they often are, it can become toxic. But in Sheffield, the homeless who sometimes thought they had “rights” in the nave were also its most passionate defenders. They would police it themselves. If somebody was drunk or abusive, they would show them to the door, sometimes a trifle roughly. At night, if anyone was tempted to break in or cause damage to the building, there was a loyal tribe of Cathedral irregulars who would see them off – vandalism rates in that Cathedral were remarkably low, given its setting. I’m saying that the “sacred” draws people of all sorts and conditions into the guardianship role that we might have thought belonged only to the authorised officers of the cathedral.

It seems to me that Cathedral chapters don’t give enough thought to their role as guardians of sacred space. As we know, the space itself communicates a message about its own purpose and meaning. That too is part of the “grain” of a cathedral, in this case a theological, spiritual and ethical grain. So here is where chapters, advised I suggest by precentors, should be crystal clear about the aims and values their cathedrals stand for, and make sure that their policies and liturgical plans reflect them unambiguously.

For example. In Coventry, we began the annual service during November for the commemoration of the victims of road accidents. When I wrote that first liturgy, I little thought it would be taken up nationally. We called that first service We are all Victims. It did not carry any subtext that was hostile to the automobile – least of all in Coventry with its long motor manufacturing industry. But all good things carry risk. It was a profoundly moving service at which the liturgy did what it was meant to: care for broken human beings, honour painful memories, try to bring healing and even hope.

Later, Coventry celebrated the centenary of the first motor car. This was to be a celebration of all things internally combustible. I was instructed by the Provost that there was to be a Coventry-manufactured car driven up the centre aisle and parked at the chancel step for the duration of the service. Then it was to be solemnly blessed, and driven out again. As a man under obedience, I duly complied, despite the very complex operational issues involved (how do you get a car into the nave of Coventry Cathedral where there is no great west door?). But to me, the memories of hundreds of people bereaved by road accidents sitting in that same nave at the annual service a few months before sat uneasily alongside this celebration. Somehow, the sacredness of the human stories told then seemed subverted by what we were doing. It’s an example not of what is right or wrong, good or bad; rather, the way in which sacred space, which is a world of symbols and images, magnifies the significance of every object that is brought into it, for good or ill. When I went into Ripon Cathedral a few years ago and saw a large field-gun, a 25-pounder I think, installed in the crossing as part of their Remembrance Sunday observance, I felt the same disquiet. But then I remembered how in Sheffield Cathedral, the screen surrounding the military chapel of St George and defining its space, was made of actual swords and bayonets from the Great War. Awkward.

Durham Cathedral, because it is loved by people across the world, is the most heavily contested space I have worked in. It is one of those universal masterpieces that really does belong to everyone. There, what I’ve called guardianship of the sacred space occupied a good deal of our time. When I went there, I found that the Chapter had engaged in long, careful debates about how to exercise this role, though they might not perhaps have thought of it in this way. But three policies in particular clearly enunciated a theological view about the church. First, because sacred space is God’s space, and God’s hospitality is unconditional, there were no admission charges for visitors. Second, photography was not allowed in the church because of the intrusive effect, especially of flash, on the spiritual environment in which people should be helped to be quiet, reflect, pray. And third, there was no eating or drinking other than at the eucharist, even in the nave or transepts (when we were planning my installation the Chapter Clerk made this very clear to me – I recall he seemed puzzled that I was even asking the question).

I need to be careful here. I am not saying that one set of policies can apply everywhere. Each cathedral has to do its thinking for itself. Sacredness belongs to place and will be differently understood and handled from one cathedral to another. I am only telling you about Durham. I wondered where Durham’s understanding of its guardianship role came from. It had of course been a monastic cathedral in the middle ages when the Rule of St Benedict had governed its entire life. I think that for the Chapter, the question “how do our decisions reflect that Benedictine inheritance” has always been present, usually implicitly as a kind of corporate memory, but also explicitly at times. For example, the Rule states unambiguously that nothing must ever be done in the oratory that might prevent a brother or sister from going there to say their prayers. The church, that is to say, is set apart for sacred liturgical and spiritual functions. You go to the refectory to eat, to the cloister to study or work, to the dormitory to rest. You go into the church to pray.

Now, that doctrine has never been applied uncritically in any cathedral since the middle ages and possibly not even then. In the nineteenth century at Durham, if you wanted to visit the Cathedral you knocked at the barred and bolted north door. If you were lucky, a verger would open up and charge you sixpence to look around. Admission charges are not new. But they do raise questions about the contract that is set up between visitors, worshippers and pilgrims on the one hand, and the space on the other. When you pay, you have different expectations of the place and its resources and facilities, possibly even of God too. It’s a tricky marriage of idealism and pragmatism that charging cathedrals have to manage if they take their sacred space seriously and guard it from the corrosive effects of monetisation. The same is true of the other dilemmas I mentioned.

Here’s another example. Not long ago the Cathedral was approached about holding a fashion show in the nave. It would bring lots of people into the church who had never been inside before. There would be a facility fee, a splash of good publicity, media headlines, and opportunities for us to promote our “product” (or “visitor offer” as they put it). So it would be mission. Why did we say no? Not because we were averse to the fee – the bottom line concentrates minds like nothing else can. Nor was it because we did not host a vast variety of non-liturgical events in the nave – concerts, exhibitions, lectures, drama, all the things cathedrals do. The reason was twofold. One was that we were not persuaded that this focus on wealth, celebrity and body image sat easily alongside the Cathedral’s purpose statement and values. The other was that we drew a distinction between being a venue and offering hospitality. It seemed to us that church can merely be a rather grand and beautiful venue to be hired out for others to take possession of. It would be a dereliction of guardianship. The Cathedral’s own involvement in and ownership of what went on within its walls was very much to do with the “sacred” and the trust placed in a faith community to look after it. If we had believed that a fashion show could be a kind of fresh expression that would “promote our product” (the gospel), then we would have shared the responsibility for it. Because whether we like it or not, a cathedral is perceived to carry responsibility for all that takes place within it. I found that out in a rather sharp way when we allowed an episode of the TV series Inspector George Gently to be filmed in the cathedral. Here, Durham was acting itself, not pretending to be somewhere else as it had done in Elizabeth or Harry Potter. But shots were fired in the nave and the good inspector was badly injured. There were predictable letters of outrage, though interestingly none from North East England, only from other parts of the country. Maybe north-easterners were proud to see their cathedral on television, but I could understand why others felt discomfort at this apparent, even if entirely fictional, violation of the sacred space.

But my most enduring insight into the ownership of Durham's sacred space came just after I arrived there. A retired bishop who worshipped with us took me on one side and told me about the Durham Miners' Gala which would soon be taking place in the city. As part of it. there is a huge service in the Cathedral with processions of miners' banners and colliery bands. It brings people together from across the North East: every pit village seems to be represented in an act of worship that is at once a powerful memory of Durham's great mining traditions, poignant because of the demise of that once proud industry, sad because of the memory of those killed and injured in mining disasters, and a celebration of the lives and aspirations of working people of the region. I did not know this at the time because I had not yet attended the event. But the bishop said to me: "Michael, the Miners will soon be crowding into this great space. They will claim it as their own. You will never understand Durham Cathedral until you have witnessed it and seen for yourself how deeply attached the people of this region are to their cathedral." He was right.


So let me end by suggesting how we should relate to sacred space in our cathedrals today. Here are four principles that could help us be good guardians of our spaces and manage the problematic boundaries between sacred and profane in today’s highly complex environment.

First, we must love our sacred spaces. It’s self-evident that we who work and worship in cathedrals love them, but for some parish clergy, the church fabric, which contains our sacred spaces, is seen as a burden, not a privilege. What’s more, after a lifetime of involvement with the sacred which is what ordained ministry amounts to, I’ve seen how careless familiarity with holy things can set in and compromise the reverence that is due to them. If we are caring for numinous spaces, presiding over numinous ceremonies and handling numinous objects, we need to be careful. Scholars of ritual remind us that the holy is not to be trifled with. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” says Hebrews about not being on our guard when we encounter the sacred. I’ve found that the habitus of reverence speaks volumes to people for whom the idea of the sacred is strange, even alien. To place love at the heart of our ministry in sacred spaces, especially in the liturgy, is to invest them with the central virtue of Christian character. It’s also to deliver us professional religious types from the affliction Ritual Notes is a symptom of, what Sydney Evans, when he was Dean of Salisbury called memorably, “sanctuary-mindedness, narcissism and lace”. 

Secondly, we need to base our attitude to sacred space on a rigorous biblical and catholic theology. We can bring to our handling of the sacred over scrupulous attitudes that don’t bear close examination theologically. Lurking not far beneath the surface can be all kinds of assumptions about ritual holiness, the issues Mary Douglas the anthropologist and Old Testament writer describes in her book Purity and Danger. It’s not that policies about sacred space and rubrics governing ceremonial correctness are necessarily “primitive” or arcane, for as she points out, it’s an ingrained habit of all societies to regulate and control behaviours at symbolic places and rituals. Remembrance Day ceremonies show us how the sacred can foster attitudes of high anxiety precisely because we invest so heavily in the memories they hold. I am simply saying that as a matter of good theology, we need to know what we are doing and why when we guard our sacred spaces, beginning with the psalmist’s affirmation that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it”. Psalm 24 is particularly important to liturgists because as a ritual of entry into the holy sanctuary, its theme is precisely how we should understand the sacred in the setting of a creation that God has already owned, hallowed and blessed.

Thirdly, we need to remember that the “sacred” does not simply belong to places, ceremonies and objects but to people and communities whose memories they hold, whose stories they tell, and who, because of their encounter with God, invest spiritual significance in them. So how we develop the building and make changes to the liturgy is always a matter of sensitivity because of their sacredness to a community. So we always need to recognise the image of God in all who cross our thresholds, and regard all of them as guests, pilgrims and worshippers rather than (God forbid) mere sightseers and tourists. If sacred space is essentially humane hospitable and generous, then access and welcome, interpretation and development become pastoral and spiritual tasks. Sacred space is for God’s people to use and find joy in. The space and its liturgy should both care for us. It’s our privilege as guardians to enable them to do that.

Finally, sacredness of space and place can only flourish in so far as they reflect our own integrity as guardians. That is to say, “this sanctuary of my soul” as the famous anthem text calls it, is as crucial as the sanctuary of the space itself. Sacred space has pastoral and ethical aspects as well as liturgical and ceremonial. I am speaking both collectively and individually. The “soul” of a cathedral chapter and community is as significant here as that of the individual. The decisions cathedrals need to make, so often driven by financial stringencies, the call to monetise everything, and the pressures of a public with their own ideas about what should happen in cathedrals, call, I think, for real “purity of heart”.

How do we undertake this in practice? It begins with the aims and values of the cathedral itself – not cathedrals generically but of our particular place: what we believe we are for, and what values we have agreed to work to. Aims and values need of course to be well calibrated by good theology and good ecclesiology, but if we have done our theological work well (and it takes a great deal of Chapter, staff and community time), our official statements will inform policy decisions about sacred space in an intelligent way.  This is what integrity means in practice, I think. And it helps us to act not out of reckless opportunism, nor out of worries about money and resources, nor out of the lazy conservatism that does not want to wrestle with issues but simply says “this is how we do things here”. Here is the secret of this “purity of heart”. It guards our integrity, ensures good process for decision-making, and above all protects us against gaining the whole world but losing our collective soul.

Cathedrals are among the most visible guardians of “soul” in our secularising western society today. Yet that same society seems ever more hungry for what cathedrals can bring to them by way of being spaces whose sacredness challenges our easy materialist assumptions, offers new opportunities for re-connecting with our humanity, invites us into the vision of God. This is why sacred space is the greatest resource for mission that we have, and why our investment in it will always be supremely worthwhile. For as the Bard is always showing us in his inimitably inventive way, the theatre of the soul is about nothing less than the re-enchantment of all life, the transfiguration of our bleak and hopeless winter’s tale by the happiness and hope of God’s glorious summer.

The Precentors’ Conference September 2016, Southwark Cathedral