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

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

In Defence of Wilfrid

Tomorrow is the feast of St Wilfrid, the 1300th anniversary of his death in 709.  Hexham would not be here if it weren’t for him.  Wilfrid built the first church here in the 7th century on such a grand scale, says his biographer Eddius, that no other church north of the Alps could compare with it.  Your marvellous crypt, all that is left of Wilfrid’s church, is one of the holy places of the north for it links us directly to the saints of Northumbria’s golden age, like his other crypt at Ripon; and like Wearmouth, Jarrow and Escomb whose stones still stand as a record of the Saxon church.  And even where those layers of primitive faith have been overlaid with the centuries, as at Bamburgh and Whitby, Lastingham and Hartlepool, Coldingham, the island of the Inner Farne, and Lindisfarne itself the fountainhead of them all, the memory of the saints is still powerful.  These numinous places have a power to move us that is all their own.  Their testimony is undimmed with the passing of time, for you feel as perhaps nowhere else the fervour of holy men and women who prayed here.  Coming from Durham, I include in that list the shrines of Cuthbert and Bede in our cathedral, for though buried beneath the grandest of romanesque canopies, it is the simplicity of their faith that touches and inspires us today.
Nowhere else in England has such a concentration of ancient Christian sites, and nowhere has such a constellation of saints whose lives have so affected the course of English history.  Of these, Wilfrid was without doubt one of the most able and most influential.  He was one of Aidan’s boys like Chad and Cedd, a native Northumbrian who was sent to Holy Island to be educated at the monastery there.  From there his studies took him to Canterbury, Gaul and Rome, an experience that gave him an understanding of the wider continental church few others of his generation had, and which gives us the clue to his life.   Here of all places, I do not need to rehearse his colourful career as ecclesiastical statesman and politician par excellence, striding out across Europe like some new Joshua to conquer lands for God.  From the beginning, as abbot of Ripon and bishop of York, and as apologist for the Roman way at the Synod of Whitby, he courted controversy.  Combative and pugnacious, he fell out with practically every Saxon king and prelate in the land, first imprisoned and then exiled, and making not one but two long journeys to Rome to appeal to the pope.  Finally, and not without controversy, he returned to Northumbria where his church at Hexham became a centre of his see.
Of all the saints of his era, Wilfrid is usually presented as an unattractive image of worldly ambition and self-interest, corrupted by the power he craved.  He was said to be carried to his consecration on a throne supported by nine bishops, not exactly an icon of servant leadership.  While his teacher Aidan had preferred to walk rather than ride, Wilfrid never had a conscience about his fine horses and retinue of servants and warriors.  His reforms of Irish customs at Ripon led to the rough expulsion of Cuthbert who was guest master there, an event Durham finds it hard to forgive.  And so it goes on.  He looks like the antithesis of the gospel simplicity we associate with Lindisfarne which Jesus speaks of in tonight’s reading: ‘I thank you, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.’  This is how we like our saints to be: childlike, humble, innocent.  Wilfrid, worldly-wise, power-hungry, clever, and not a little ruthless, puzzles us. 
So, at your Rector’s specific prompting, let me attempt the difficult but important task of defending Wilfrid.  I am not going to paint over his faults, though he is not the only saint to have them.  But it seems to me that we can make the case for his being one of the Saxon church’s most far-sighted, dedicated and courageous leaders.  Let me try. 
First let me say something about the collision of Irish and Roman customs at the Synod of Whitby in 664.  By then, the date of Easter was already celebrated on the same date both across continental Europe and also in much of Ireland as well.  The Columban communities of Iona and Lindisfarne were a tiny minority.  Wilfrid understood where the future lay: not because it was ‘Roman’ rather than Irish, but because he was committed to the unity of the church and believed that the bishop was the visible focus her teaching and her sacramental life.  His passion was for a church that was one, holy, catholic and apostolic, extending across the known world.  This explains much in him that otherwise seems like a puzzling denial of his own Northumbrian traditions.  If we love the church because we love God, then a larger vision of the church, and in particular, the pursuit of unity among Christians is given in the gospel.  The church exists as an institution with a catholic shape and structure in order that it may have continuity in time as well as place through the preservation of what is handed on across the generations.  Wilfrid understood how the tides of history as well as theology were flowing, which is why he threw his weight behind Europe and Rome.  It is a fantasy to think that the outcome could have been different, even if ‘Celtic Christians’ with more romance than historical sense continue to argue that it should.
Secondly, we should celebrate in Wilfrid one of the most energetic of evangelists and founders of monasteries of his day.  To establish religious communities, build churches, nurture their faithful, establish schools for the education of the young and proclaim the gospel all belonged together as ‘mission’.  This is precisely what Aidan had done at Lindisfarne.  In this Wilfrid was the loyal imitator of his teacher, planting Christianity as far afield as Sussex and the Isle of Wight as well as in Mercia and possibly in Frisia, another instance of the extraordinary confidence and flair of the Lindisfarne mission.  And the evidence is that Wifrid was conscientious in the pastoral care of his people as missioner, teacher and bishop.  We do him a disservice if we somehow imagine that he was interested only in the institution of the church and its power relations with the state, rather that in its community of disciples.  His great church here at Hexham testified, no doubt, to human power as much as to the glory of God.  Yet the crypt that remains, its layout designed to give the faithful access to the relics of the saints, seems to speak more of the power of holiness, the spiritual quest to re-connect with what truly belongs to the foundation of a life lived before God. 
Finally, we should honour Wilfrid as one of the two men who first introduced into England the Rule of St Benedict.  (We don’t know whether he or Benedict Biscop was the pioneer, but we can honour them both for it.)  This is more important than it sounds.  As a matter of history, it paved the way for the upsurge of Benedictine monasticism in the late Saxon period, itself the soil in which the great monasteries of the high middle-ages were planted.  The influence of the Benedictine life in English history is incalculable, not only in the great libraries that flourished in monasteries such as Durham, or the economic impact of the religious houses that controlled estates in every corner of the land, but in the spiritual legacy it bequeathed to the English church.   It can be argued that the liturgy and spirituality we love the Church of England for, particularly in the Book of Common Prayer, is a direct legacy of its Benedictine past with its instinct for order, balance and seriousness, pattern and rhythm, for the reticence that prefers to listen before speaking, for its profound care for human beings individually and in community.  We owe Wilfrid more than we know for his commitment to this wise and humane rule.  It took a well-travelled man to grasp why it mattered. 
Jesus says in our reading tonight: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’  Benedict’s rule makes humility its principal virtue.  He likens it to Jacob’s ladder, each of the twelve degrees of humility bringing us nearer to heaven; only the steps lead downwards rather than up, for the lower we go, the closer we are to God.  In Wilfrid’s quieter final years, the years of peace as Bede calls them, could it be that politics and power lost their appeal, and instead it was the call to be gentle and humble in heart like his Master that he heard again as in his boyhood he had heard it on Lindisfarne where sky and sand and sea spoke of simple things, and the Lord called as once he had called disciples by the lakeside and had said, ‘follow me’? 
Hexham Abbey, 11 October 2009
On the eve of the 1300th anniversary of the death of St Wilfrid
Matthew 11.20-end

Monday, 9 July 2018

In Praise of Choral Evensong

How easily I could become nostalgic about evensong! It takes me back to my days as a chorister and my first ever evensong one November night when I put on a probationer’s cassock and walked in with the choir. I wasn’t ready to sing, but I never forgot that initiation into Prayer Book liturgy: the responses (Smith of Durham), the psalms, the readings and the canticles – Walmisley in D Minor. It was a recognition that I somehow knew would have consequences for the rest of my lifetime.
I spent six years teaching theology in Salisbury, living in the Close and singing as a priest-vicar choral and sometimes in the back row of the choir. After five years in a parish, I came back to cathedral life where I was immersed full-time for thirty years, first Coventry, then Sheffield and finally Durham. Prayer Book Evensong became a daily fact of life. I never tired of it, not once. It was a time to offer to God the day’s work, recall my fundamental duty to be a person at prayer, be thankful for all that was good in the day’s affairs, slough off its inevitable irritations and frustrations. I’m sometimes asked in retirement, what do I miss most from my life at Durham? There is so much that I loved in that great place. But in the end, it came down to choral evensong. When I heard the Howells Gloucester Service on BBC broadcast evensong not long ago, I was taken by surprise at the sense of loss, for it was sung at my farewell evensong at Durham. That service felt like a gathering up of the fragments of the whole of my life from that first day as a chorister onwards.
Why do we love evensong? Not simply the words of the Book of Common Prayer, with its instinct for harmony and balance, rhythm and cadence, pace and pause, the English language at its best where every word seems right. Nor is it simply the music of the service, though the English choral tradition is beyond price. Nor is it our great cathedrals, abbeys and churches that are normally the places where we encounter evensong nowadays. Nor is it choirs to sing the service beautifully, though our choral foundations are the envy of the world. Nor is it its place in the cycle of each day, that magical threshold when afternoon turns towards evening, and “the shades lengthen and the busy world is hushed”. No, I think it is a unique alchemy of all these things acting on one another and on us who, for an hour or so, are a community at prayer that inhabits holy time and space. Who would have thought that a simple arrangement of Psalms and Bible texts (which is all that evensong is) could have created such a good, profound enchantment?
But there is more we need to say. Forty years ago, Philip Toynbee wrote a famous essay in the magazine Encounter with the title “Evensong at Peterborough”. He and his wife dropped into the Cathedral one day to break a long car journey. Evensong was taking place in the quire. They sat in the nave to listen. “Sometimes the memory of that Evensong seems almost unreal, as remote in time from the England we had been passing through as it had immediately seemed remote in space. Yet there were elements in the celebration itself which showed very clearly that it belonged to our own age: a modern translation of the Bible had been used; a hymn sung in a thoroughly modern manner; a merciful absence of parsonical droning… The dominant impression is of a gracious, holy but esoteric ceremony being performed in the choir at Peterborough, massively isolated from the modern city outside… Yet we had not been only spectators of that deft performance; in so far as each of us had found it possible we had also been participants.”
Evensong is sometimes criticised for being aloof, remote from ordinary worshippers, denying them the right to take part. We should challenge that allegation. In liturgy, we “take part” in different ways. Often it’s by active engagement, joining in the spoken words, singing the music together in many styles: classic hymns, worship songs, gospel, responsorial psalms, Taizé chants. But the spiritual tradition teaches us that our participation has another dimension alongside the active. This is its contemplative aspect. Contemplative means being silent before God, learning how to listen and pay attention so as to deepen our awareness. All this evensong teaches us by inviting us, not to be a passive audience enjoying a concert, but to become an engaged community that is entirely involved in the liturgy in a contemplative way. That’s what Philip Toynbee meant by saying, we had been participants. Even sitting in the distant nave of the cathedral, they felt involved, committed to the act of worship, taking part in it in the deepest possible way.
In my years in cathedrals, I discovered something rather remarkable. It was that among the worshipping community were people who had found their way into Christian faith as a result of evensong. Some told a similar story to mine, for they too had been choristers, and something about the spirituality of choral worship wouldn’t let them go, even if it took many years or decades to find their way back. Others were parents of choristers who had attended services to see and hear their children sing and found that they too were drawn to become curious about faith. Others had wandered in, Toynbee-like, because they loved music and found that behold, something greater than music was here.
Toynbee’s article illustrates how evensong is part of the church’s mission. What he is wanting to write about is not evensong itself but what that afternoon in Peterborough led him to think about as he pondered it in the following weeks. Fundamentally, he is asking, how can Christianity be credible in a secular age like ours? How do we understand the presence of God among us so that we can commend faith as a living reality, not a nostalgic memory from a past age. Maybe in its quiet, gently persuasive, even contemplative, way, evensong can speak to people in ways that the Sunday morning eucharist can’t quite do. You can slip into evensong anonymously, hide behind a pillar if you want to, not have to pass the peace with the person next to you, not have to sing words you don’t understand or believe in, think your own thoughts. This is liturgy at its most generous that invites us to respond in whatever way we can at that moment. Some evangelism can feel coersive. But not evensong, which even as it works on us to bear witness to good news, respects the integrity of each person.
Find your own place in this hospitable service, it seems to say. Yes, it would be wonderful if you come in time to the fulness of faith and Christian commitment. But for now, let it invite you in. If you are not a believer, let it persuade you that faith is worth exploring. If you are a half-believer or an ex-believer, let it entice you to taste it and see what happens. If you know and love God, let it offer you space to rest, to contemplate, be thankful, deepen your awareness, give you time for the work of prayer and lead you to enter more profoundly into the ocean of God’s love. To find our own level of response is the gift of the Prayer Book, to respect our humanity, honour our integrity, and draw us on to become better, wiser people of "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit", as we heard in our second lesson, people for whom evensong is a rehearsal for the worship of heaven when we shall know as we are known in that great love that has no end.

Michael Sadgrove
Winslow, 8 July 2018

Romans 14. 1-17

Revisiting the Great Tapestry: a lecture in Coventry Cathedral

I am very glad to be back in Coventry in this year when the Diocese celebrates its centenary, and with it, this Cathedral in its two incarnations. We came to Coventry in 1987, this building’s silver jubilee year. In eight years here, I learned most of what I know about liturgy and music which were my main brief as Precentor. But as I look back, I realise that what influenced me most was this building itself, and the community whose place it was and is. I don’t only mean in the sense of understanding what cathedral ministry means, and thereby setting the course of the rest of my working life as a dean in two other cathedrals. I mean the experience of being a worshipper here, a disciple, a praying human being for whom this place proved to be extraordinarily formative.
My book on the Tapestry, A Picture of Faith, was published in 1995, the year we left Coventry. But I wrote it earlier than that, during a period of sabbatical leave in, I think, 1991. It was the only book I have ever written in longhand. Maybe handwriting a text makes a difference. You feel in intimate contact with the words as they take shape on paper. I wonder whether this first essay in producing something to last wasn’t the best of me, because of the slowness of writing in your own hand. Everything is weighed and pondered when you are not in a rush as you so often are on a computer or tablet.
I had not looked at it for a quarter of a century until I was invited to give this lecture. But I have revisited the Tapestry itself, times without number. When I left Coventry, I bought a remaindered poster of it for one pound in the Cathedral shop and had it framed. It has hung in my study ever since. It’s not the same as seeing it in the flesh, but it’s the next best thing. But when I have come back here, I always feel that it greets me like an old friend. As I say in the book, I feel recognised by it, known, embraced. It will always be for me a profound metaphor of being loved.
That’s partly the good recognition you often have when you find yourself back in a place where you have flourished. But it’s more than that. I think it’s the specific part the Tapestry played in my human, spiritual and theological formation in the years I was here. Writing the book was only a final stage of a process in which the Tapestry worked on me long before I worked on it.
I first came here in 1962, not long after the consecration. My parents thought we should drive up the newly opened M1 from London and see the cathedral, this emblem of a post-war Britain rising from the ashes. I was twelve. I have never forgotten that day. Two things stand out in my memory of that sunny day: the jet-black marble floor in which you could see yourself reflected; and the Tapestry, whose golds and greens cast an unforgettable glow over the entire building, and whose figure of Christ in Majesty laid down a way of contemplating the divine that I have returned to ever since.
For me it was life-changing. I don’t say that it was my very first religious experience. But I think Coventry gave me my first explicit glimmerings of a faith that I knew I did not yet have but began to crave. (That happened not long afterwards at school as I sang the top line in Bach’s St John Passion. It sowed the seeds of my next book, The Eight Words of Jesus which was a reflection on the Passion Narrative in the Fourth Gospel; but it had to wait until Durham to see the light of day.) So you can see why, when I came here twenty five years later to work, it already felt like a homecoming.
In my time, the daily prayer of the Cathedral always took place within sight of the Tapestry. In the mornings, and when evensong was sung of course, it would be celebrated in the quire. When evening prayer was said, it would take place in the Lady Chapel. This was true of both Sunday eucharists too, the early service in the Lady Chapel and the sung eucharist at the high altar. When I said that most of the week we worshipped “in sight of the Tapestry”, I don’t just mean our sight of it. I also mean its sight of us. For Christ in Majesty is such a powerful figure that he presides not only over the Tapestry but over the entire Cathedral as Basil Spence had intended. The Tapestry dominates everything. That cannot but powerfully configure the spirituality of the cathedral and everyone who worships there.
A Picture of Faith was my attempt to explore how it was configuring me. It was never meant to be an art monograph, though I read a lot about Graham Sutherland as I researched it. I was also clear that I was not writing a work of formal theology, though theology came into every page. As I put it in the book, I wanted to offer a modest piece of prayed theology illuminated by the insights of poets and painters, writers, musicians and spiritual guides down the ages. What I set out to do was to set out a personal reading of the Tapestry as it had encountered me as a human being endeavouring to make sense of life, as an explorer of the spirit as I say in the preface. I did not want to speak for anyone else, only myself. Hence the confessional tone using the first person singular throughout.
When the book was published, some people told me they didn’t see all of the Tapestry’s symbolism in the same way as I did. And why not? I’d learned something about stained glass in Salisbury when the Prisoners of Conscience east window was being installed in the late 1970s. Gabriel Loire, the artist in Chartres, spoke about tolérance. He meant the capacity of art to be read in different ways because it has depth and texture and layers of meaning. Tolérance, he said, is about an attitude of openness and generosity in the way we read art, texts, people. It stimulates our curiosity, makes us want to ask questions. This became an important idea for me because it allowed the imagination to roam, take risks with the meanings that lay in written texts (the Bible, literature and poetry), architecture like this Cathedral, and above all at that time, the Tapestry.
Indeed, one aspect of the design of this Cathedral had already got me into trouble. When the old Cathedral Pitkin Guide went out of print. John Petty asked me to write a new one, not to revise the old but to create an entirely new book. He said: don’t just describe. Interpret how you think this great church speaks about Christianity. That’s the real point, isn’t it: how to explore the architecture and the design of the furnishings as a witness to the gospel. Today we would speak about the missional dimension of the Cathedral. There’s no better way to learn about your church, not simply as heritage or architecture but as the home of a worshipping community, a place of lived spiritual experience, a building that makes a statement about this church’s mission.
Here’s what I wrote about this quire we are sitting in. “The canopies above the canons’ stalls suggest thorns, or birds in flight.” That simple sentence greatly upset one member of the Cathedral community. He said: “Provost Williams taught us that the quire was an avenue of thorns leading up to the high altar. It’s about death and resurrection. Flying birds don’t come into it.” Before long, other people were being told that the Precentor was subverting the Cathedral’s “message”. He was determined to fall out with me about it, I’m afraid. I was sorry about that. I did not think that the canopies, beautiful as they are, were worth the upset.
But I was adamant that the way we read art and architecture is permissive not univocal.  There can never be a single authorised reading of anything, whatever the artist intended (if we can ever know). Yes, Spence did speak about an avenue of thorns. But I doubt he would have excluded other images that the canopies suggested. When I showed his son-in-law and architect Anthony Blee the draft text of my guidebook for his comment, he was happy with what I had said about birds in flight signalling transcendence, which indeed he linked to the flame above the Dean’s stall symbolising the Holy Spirit and to the descent of the Dove in at the top of the Tapestry. The science of hermeneutics is dedicated to understanding how readings of texts are always multivocal – and buildings, art, human beings and communities are all “texts” for those purposes. What I was trying to do was to be inclusive in my reading rather than exclusive. As a spiritual and moral principle, I believe that inclusion is always better than exclusion. I’ll come back to that point towards the end.
Let’s turn to the Tapestry itself for another example of this. Look at what is going on just outside the right-hand edge of the mandorla between St John’s eagle above and St Mark’s lion below. You can see St Michael the Archangel reaching down to a beaked creature who is facing away from Christ. This is Graham Sutherland’s depiction of Satan being thrown out of heaven, according to the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation. But as I pondered this image I was struck how different it is from the more famous depiction of the same event at the Cathedral’s entrance. There, Jacob Epstein’s great sculpture has the archangel treading down the adversary in a decisive act of triumph over evil. The Tapestry seems more ambiguous. Michael could as easily be reaching down to stop Satan from falling out of heaven as pushing him in a final coup de grace.
This ambivalence seemed to me to be important. Is the Tapestry saying that there is an eternal chasm between good and evil, and consequently a permanent banishment of the wicked to hell? Or is there is a constant work of redemption taking place in the cosmos that will one day lead to the healing of all that is now separated, distorted, fractured? In the earliest centuries of the Christian era, theologians like Origen said that as long as a soul remains in hell, Christ remains on the cross. At the time when Sutherland was designing the Tapestry, the writings of the Catholic priest Teilhard de Chardin were highly influential. Influenced by the universalism of Origen and by Darwinian evolutionary theory, he envisaged a divine work of convergence towards the unity of creation. He spoke of it as the “Omega Point”. It’s interesting to conjecture whether Teilhard’s theology was an influence on the design. As far as St Michael and the devil are concerned, Sutherland doesn’t say in his book on the Tapestry what he intended. And even if he had, that would not constrain our own reading of it. All artists and writers speak beyond what they think or intend. Sutherland only says that by including it, he wanted to acknowledge the dedication of the Cathedral to St Michael and at the same time create a degree of asymmetry that he believed the Tapestry needed.
I went outside many times to study the Jacob Epstein sculpture and how he depicts the victorious St Michael. It’s often been observed that his face, far from wearing the conventional demeanour of a victor, is remarkably quiescent, almost subdued. I think commentators are right to construe this as compassion; not that Michael hasn’t defeated evil, but that in defeat are the seeds of a new beginning, which explains why Satan is looking up at the victor who stands guard over him, not defiantly but entertaining the hope that redemption, even for him, is not an impossible idea. If this is right, then there is a coherence between the two St Michaels, outside and in, and that seems to me to fit precisely into the message of global, indeed cosmic, reconciliation that this Cathedral has always proclaimed to the world. Who’d have thought that a detail on the Tapestry could have such far-reaching theological consequences?
I think this insight was the key to unlocking my own reading of the Tapestry. When I first thought of writing about it, I imagined it would be a kind of descriptive essay. There’s still room for that project, understanding the Tapestry’s place in the design of the Cathedral, in art-history, as a landmark in textile creation, and as a theological statement in the tradition of Christian iconography. The splendid Sutherland exhibition you are enjoying in this Cathedral demonstrates the stature of a great artist whose reputation, I think, has been steadily growing since his lifetime. Ben Quash who has already lectured here could be the person to write it. But what I was finding as I pondered the Tapestry was that it was drawing me into it and inviting me to find my personal place within its rich, complex symbolism that about God, the universe and everything. Meanings were what I was interested in, not fixed, static codes that imperiously ordered me to understand it this way, but dynamic, fluid meanings that invited me to make a personal spiritual journey, become curious, explore, discover, discern.
So I tried to put myself inside the Tapestry and learn. Let’s consider the human figure standing between the feet of Jesus because, very thoughtfully, Sutherland has already placed someone, anyone, you, me, every child of humanity, on the Tapestry. I admit I was startled to re-read what I’d written about this. Having made the point that the figure is not, in fact, life-sized, though you often hear it said, I go on:
If I concentrate on what I see in that square of tapestry and for the time being forget about the rest, I see an eloquent picture of my existence. I stand alone in a dark place. Above me is a great swirl of – I know not what; it simply overwhelms the place where I am, like some huge, lowering storm cloud. On either side of me are feet and legs, rearing up to be lost in the darkness above. I am not to know whose they are. For all I know, they may as well be the wreckage of some colossal monument, like Shelley’s “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” with their chilling motto: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
The word that comes to mind as I ponder the human being is lostness: lost in relation to the scale of his (sic) immense surroundings, lost in a deeper, more existential sense in the face of life’s dilemmas. In one way this man can look exceedingly forlorn. I come back to Dante in his dark wood: ready for his journey, yet not knowing in which direction to go. I see myself in that diminutive human figure at the times of my life when I have felt most perplexed, crushed almost by the demands, dilemmas and uncertainties of being alive and human. At such times it is as if I am stripped of all the normal securities with which I protect myself from too much reality. I am alone and naked in the dark, like the figure on the Tapestry. Like Job, I hear a voice summoning me to stand up, like a man, and be questioned. Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?
(That passage illustrates the stream-of-consciousness style in which I wrote. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it illustrates the interest in psychotherapy that was awakening in me at the time my wife Jenny was beginning a psychoanalytic training. I believed that in the spirit of Now Voyager! the only book worth writing was an honest one in which I was not going to be afraid of the first-person singular.)
The chapter goes on to explore the hiddenness of God, the endlessly fascinating story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with the angel, the via negativa in Christian spirituality exemplified by spiritual guides like Meister Eckhart, the anonymous fourteenth century book The Cloud of Unknowing and some of the poetry of R. S. Thomas. What does it mean to speak of the absence of God as a spiritual reality? How do we speak about God without resorting to analogies? How we find God in the dark places of life? It’s important you know that this comes near the end of the book. So it is set in the context of what we’ve come to learn about Christ in glory crucified and risen, about the grace and truth of God our Creator and Redeemer, about the four living creatures as symbols of the evangelists, the bringers of good news. And although I conceived this chapter as necessarily about the shadow side of life, it’s important that I also quote the ending.
The darkness that swallowed up Christ on the mountain of transfiguration still contains him and shines because of him. It becomes the shekinah, the cloud of glory. In the absence is a profound presence. And as I pierce through to that presence, I find out that its nature and its name is love.
The tapestry beautifully expresses this paradox. For the man’s darkness is none other than the shadow of the great Christ above him. The fearful cloud over his head is the very skirt of Christ. On each side are the feet of Christ, strong, trustworthy. The man may not know it, but he is “wholly within love”. I see myself in him now in a new way: erect, noble, dignified in this new status as child of God. He is as I know myself to be, “wholly within love”, held firm, profoundly safe… “So the darkness shall be the light and the stillness the dancing”…In this dark yet good place I can be still; and discover that I am dancing in the sunshine.
Where did this come from, this chapter that I recall at the time felt quite tough to write? I see I referenced Biblical texts like Genesis, the Psalms, Job and the passion narrative. But I can also see my own mid-life in it, for our late-thirties and early forties can be a highly significant, sometimes fraught, time in our personal development. For me, opening up a conversation with the Tapestry in this way, being inspired by it, but daring to question it too, marked an important step in my own theological and spiritual formation.  Maybe we can only speak about darkness and pain when we have lived long enough to reflect on it. Life has to be lived forwards but understood backwards. At all events, this chapter, and the one about the crucifixion tableau, emerge from a growing conviction that if religion has nothing to say about suffering, then it has nothing to say. To me, Christ in Glory, the human figure at his feet, and the crucified man on the cross below are all about the same fundamental theme of the Christian gospel, light and dark, suffering and transfiguration, death and resurrection inseparably held together. Glory can only speak to us when we trust that it knows about pain – the world’s pain, our collective human pain, our pain as individual people before God, flesh and blood women, children, men. Which is to say that the Tapestry is an icon of the Incarnation because its central truth is that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”.
That word icon is important. It was always central to how I approached the Tapestry, and there’s a whole chapter devoted to this in the first part of the book. I’ve said I recognised that I was not describing the Tapestry so much as entering into its meanings. My meditation felt closer to poetry than prose, more imaginative writing rather than descriptive analytical prose. The metaphor of the icon was obvious. It’s a metaphor, because technically the Tapestry isn’t an icon in the strict sense of having been “written” by an iconographer according to the rules of the Orthodox Church and the stylistic and colour conventions of its iconographers. It was not envisaged that it would function directly in the Cathedral’s ceremonial, be bowed towards as a conscious liturgical action, censed in the liturgy, have candles lit in front of it and so on.
Yet in a more general sense, icon meaning an image is precisely how the Tapestry functions for this Cathedral community at prayer. No-one calls it a picture – and if I have one regret about my book, it’s the title. In one way, A Picture of Faith­ does accurately suggest exploring faith: “a meditation on the imagery of Christ in glory” is precisely what it is. But using the word picture is bound to support the idea my Icon chapter is meant to resist. We come in, we notice the Tapestry, so we look at it. But “at it” maintains the distance between subject and object, observer and observed. On the contrary, the point of an icon is to be drawn into it, know your place within its world through active attention, contemplation, the exercise of the spiritual imagination. I wanted to promote the Tapestry as a spiritual icon, functioning in worship and prayer in the same kind of way as an Orthodox icon.
Some of you will recognise this approach. I wasn’t using the language of Ignatian prayer in those days, but I now see that the book intuited the methods of the Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius of Loyola was a wounded soldier who gave his life to being a pilgrim and missioner, a “knight-companion” in the service of Jesus Christ. For him immersion in the person of Christ, and deep reflection on his own experience led to a new understanding of faith and in the light of it, how to make good moral choices. He believed that we need to grasp how Jesus’ life, death and resurrection shape the whole of life. He said that two powers need to be brought into play if we are to encounter him: imagination and love. Imagination means the willingness to enter the world of the other, in this case God as we know him in Jesus. And love is both the fountainhead and fruit of all imaginative prayer and right action. The God who sent his Son into the world as a sign of love, now invites us to find him and love him in Christ, in the scriptures, in the church and in all creation. So imagination is the handmaid of spirituality because it enables us to enter more fully into our life in Christ, into God’s world, our neighbour’s worlds, our own inner worlds.
If I were writing the book today, I would more of these insights about how we might come before the Tapestry and learn to pray and work in its presence. But I think I was reaching out for them, because the big question the Tapestry put to me was always: how does Christ in Glory change things? How does he transform our lives? How does he speak truth to the Church? How does he energise us to play our part in the work of reconciliation and mission? How does he calibrate our notions of justice and ethics? How does he hold out hope for the world? To discover how a visual image can, with the exercise of imagination and love, help us to probe these great questions is, I now realise, a basically Ignatian approach, however rudimentary and intuitive it was at the time.
The point is to shine a light on our ordinary days so that they are transfigured. Illumination is, as we know, a step on the mystical path of prayer, the spiritual journey documented by St John of the Cross in, for instance, The Dark Night of the Soul. Illumination means being lit up by the grace and truth of God as we contemplate him. Again, this is not an escape from the complexities of life but a fuller way of understanding it and committing ourselves to it in a spiritually intelligent or “enlightened” way. Through it, fantasy and illusion is banished and we become aware in a more profound way of the presence of God in our ordinary human experience and in the world in which we follow Jesus.
It always struck me how powerfully light functions in the Tapestry: the brilliance of the sunburst that emanates out of the presence of the Eternal One at the top; the golden bands of light that both stabilise the Tapestry and travel across it energising, electrifying its surface; St Michael and the four living creatures lit up as holy presences, and of course the majestic figure of Christ himself, transfigured in brilliant white, illuminated as if from within, from which all the other light in the Tapestry is derived. But all this would only work for the spiritual imagination, I think, if there were places where light is dimmed and colour muted, as it is around the figure of the human being, and the crucifixion below. The spiritual task, as both Ignatius and John of the Cross understand it, is to recognise how these realities of light and shadow, what the artists call chiaroscuro, play off one another, how we learn to find God in darkness as well as light.
I want to mention one more aspect of the Tapestry. It comes out of an abrasive encounter I once had in the nave with Professor Daphne Hampson, a distinguished feminist theologian, who was visiting the Cathedral. She stabbed a finger towards the Tapestry and asked how we in the Cathedral could live with that image of unreconstructed masculinity. My response came down to two things. The first was that the work had to be judged by the criteria of the 1950s, not by those of the 1990s. That’s a basic hermeneutical principle: we can argue with a work of art, even an icon, so long as we respect it as a different voice from our own, speaking to us out of its own age and context that are not ours. That’s fundamental to the way we have to read scripture, a matter of huge relevance to the church today as we grapple with matters like same-sex marriage, for example.
But I also saw, in the Tapestry itself, a clue about how to glimpse a less gendered, more inclusive approach. It’s true that the figure of Christ, and of the human being below, are both unambiguously male. But what about Christ’s posture and the way the priest’s robe arranges itself around the body? Sutherland says of his portrayal of Christ: “I wanted the figure to be real, yet not real. I wanted it to be something slightly ambiguous: a human form, but with overtones of a nature form” (31). Ambiguous! The artist’s own licence to practise tolerance! But doesn’t it go with inclusive, offering at least a hint of the female form to modify the traditionally male depiction of Jesus? I would now certainly explore how this merest hint opens the door to fully inclusive readings of Christian faith where difference is welcomed and celebrated, whether of gender, social class, ethnicity, sexuality or politics. I wrote the book at the time we were preparing to ordain women to the priesthood. I quoted the saying of St Paul in Galatians: “In Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, bond or free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” I would now make much more of this, because I believe that the church’s reluctance to act on it in relation to, for example, equal marriage, is not just unfortunate but wrong.
You may say that this is stretching interpretation too far. I reply that this is precisely the function of the Tapestry – to stretch our horizons and challenge us to think again about our assumptions. If I’m guilty of a degree of deconstruction, it is only so that I can understand it in a more profound way. Yes, like any text of literature and poetry, like any work of art, it is a “given”. We have to contemplate it, negotiate its tight corners, interrogate it while it puts its questions to us. But I want to end by saying that these are basic to a healthy theological and spiritual mentality. Those biblical texts I mentioned earlier, Genesis, Job, the lament Psalms, Jesus in Gethsemane, all seem to say: arguing with God does not devalue reverence or cheapen piety. On the contrary. The more we love God, the more we confront him not as a remote disengaged deity but as a living presence who is among and within us as our contemporary. 
This is how I see the Tapestry. It tells me that Christ, majestic in his glory is not far from any of us – nearer to us than our own souls. He wants us to feel after him and find him, for he has given himself to us in undying love. The Tapestry is about Christ in Glory. But it’s also about us, as we are now, and as we hope one day to become. Augustine says of the eucharist that it is the mystery of ourselves that is upon the altar. It’s the mystery of ourselves that we see on the Tapestry, held and embraced within the mystery of God and his redemptive love. That’s the clue to reading it, I believe, not only as a beautiful work of art but as an icon of all that is central to our Christian faith and human life.
Michael Sadgrove
Coventry Cathedral, 7 July 2018

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Ordination Retreat in Newcastle Diocese: Signs of Ministry, Signs of Glory

The Wedding at Cana: John 2.1-11

For Jesus in the gospels, ministry meant words and works: mighty works, words of power that touched lives and changed them. In our public ministry as deacons and then priests, it’s the same.  Our calling is to speak the words and perform the works that bear witness to Jesus, that give glimpses of God’s kingdom and that touch human lives.
In our ordination retreat I want to focus on the works of Jesus in St John’s Gospel. I’ve chosen five out of the seven: the wedding at Cana, the healing of a royal official’s son, the feeding of the crowd, the blind man who is given sight, and the raising of Lazarus. As you know, in St John, Jesus does not work miracles but performs signs, that, says John, disclose Jesus’ glory. Where do we see glory? St John tells us in the prologue, the gospel we read on Christmas Day. “And we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”. Glory is what we see when we look on God’s incarnate Son. Glory is what we see when we look on grace and truth.
I want to make the bold claim that our own ministries, when we model them on his, if they are fashioned around grace and truth, will show signs of glory. If as ministers of the church our task, our call, our longing is to reveal him, to bring him to birth in the lives of others, then grace and truth and glory are what we are about. So I’ve taken as my title for these five addresses, “signs of ministry, signs of glory”. It’s a title, but it’s also my prayer for you all this week, that in everything you may walk in the path of the Lord whose words and works spoke of God’s glory and pointed to its coming in this world and in the lives of people who pray as Moses did, “Lord, show me your glory!”
First, then, the wedding at Cana in Galilee. St John pays great attention to the symbolism of this first sign with which Jesus launches his ministry, and so must we. “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”
Some of you may have been to Cana on pilgrimages to Israel-Palestine. It is not a place that reveals much glory today. There are some big old stone water jars, it’s true, but that’s about it, if you don’t include the souvenir shops where you can buy bottles of cheap red wine labelled Cana in Galilee, a long way from the best wine that was kept to the last thanks to Jesus, which must have been a Burgundy grand cru at the very least.
And I doubt Cana was much to write home about when Jesus and his disciples went there. You mustn’t imagine a grand society wedding in Chelsea. This was probably a peasant marriage, the kind you see depicted in genre paintings by the Dutch masters. It would be homely and humble. But the entire village would be there: it would be unthinkable not to join in the community’s life events of both lament and celebration. And there would be glory, too, long before Jesus arrived, for when people love each other, God is always present. But the wine runs out – for times are hard and funds are scarce. There’s a possibility that the party will peter out, a grave crisis when marriage festivities in the ancient near east usually last for a week, and grave for the reputations of the families concerned, for in these times, memories are long.
What does Jesus do? He doesn’t speak many words, only what is necessary to his mother and those responsible for the feast. In particular, he doesn’t make a speech to the crowd, though if ever there was an opportunity for witness, this is it. The deed is performed, done in the spirit of this wedding: modestly, unobtrusively and as far as the guests are concerned, silently. And he “revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him”.
Before I get to the principal point I want to make about Cana, let’s notice the lowly, unspectacular character of this first sign of glory. This is not like Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand that we’ll come to later, where people exclaim that all the world has gone after him. The changing of water into wine is so unobtrusive a sign that most people don’t even notice it. But people with eyes to see understand what has happened. They glimpse the glory. And I have to tell you that most of ordained ministry is like that: unseen to most people, hidden from the crowd, understated, modest. Indeed, that may often be the mark of its sheer authenticity, that it doesn’t cry out for attention saying “look at me!”. This is how Jesus begins his ministry in St John, quietly. This is how your ministry will begin, I suspect, I hope; “begun, continued and ended” in that way – that’s my experience after more than forty years as a deacon. The question is not, who is around to see this but, how does God reveal his glory through the works we do in his name in our ministry?
Ask that question of Cana and here’s the answer. Jesus reveals his glory by making sure that the party can go on. I once worked with a bishop who said that the essence of good religion was prayer and parties. For parties are about joy, pleasure, happiness, the conviviality that happens when human beings are glad to be together to eat and drink, tell stories, celebrate all that is lovely in life. This is what Jesus can’t bear to think might end before its time. And because the party can now go on, indeed, get better and better with this wine that excels anything they’ve ever tasted, their cup of happiness is complete. This first act of ministry has shown Jesus to be the bringer of joy. And by making people glad, he has revealed his glory. By making people glad.
I think this is very striking. Many people think of clergy as bringing comfort in distress, wisdom in crisis, hope in times of despair. And that is a large part of it as we’ll see in some of the later signs Jesus performs. Others regard clergy with wariness and caution, dangerous people who will open up matters you don’t want to explore, so you don’t want to sit too close to a dog collar on the train. Ministry baffles a lot of people. It even puzzles us at times when we ask ourselves, what are we really for? Jesus seems to say in this sign at Cana that one of the things we are for is to bring joy, to make others happy. Let’s think about this for a while.
There are of course many occasions in ministry where happiness is a given. When we baptise children or marry couples, when we celebrate the life events that make people glad, we clergy don’t bring joy for it’s already there. What we do is to help them interpret it, find meaning in what they are experiencing, glimpse how God is present at these high points of human life. That will often add greatly to the joy of the celebration, help to make it more conscious.
But what if the wine runs out? Think about it as a metaphor of a common human experience, our experience. We know what it’s like when ecstasy subsides and even the memory of shining happy days becomes dulled with time, and we revert to the treadmill of our ordinary days. For many people in our parishes, the treadmill is the rule, not the exception. And especially for those who are “just about managing”, or not managing at all, for whom simply surviving to the end of the day and not caving in to despair is a real achievement. How can we be bringers of joy to those who thirst for it as the wedding guests longed for fresh supplies of wine that day at Cana?
The first thing I want to say is that in the ordained ministry, we must never lose our sense of gratitude and wonder as those who are called to handle the holy gifts God entrusts to us. For many of us, becoming closer to these mysteries was what drew us to offer ourselves in the first place. We wanted to be better Christians, disciples who walked closer to Jesus, and being ordained was one way of doing this. I’m not saying this is all there is to vocation – far from it. I’m wanting us to acknowledge that it is there, somewhere, if we examine ourselves. And that is good if it keeps us wondering at how we came to be preaching God’s word, celebrating his sacraments, caring for those he loves, bringing people to faith. You may think it odd that since I’ve retired, I’ve pondered this miracle more and more, when I’ve found myself celebrating the eucharist in some remote Northumberland church or listening to the stories people bring in spiritual direction or preaching a retreat like this. Reverencing the gifts we bring helps guard against casualness and over-familiarity with sacred things. It keeps wonder and gratitude alive. For if we don’t cultivate joy ourselves as ministers of Christ, why should anyone else be joyful as a result of anything we do or say?
I’m saying that to be bringers of joy, we need to be joyful ourselves. I’m not confusing this with shallow behavioural advice like “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, don’t mess with Mr Inbetween”. We all have good days and bad days, times of light, times of shadow, and these are part of our human condition. When I was vicar of Alnwick just up the road, and learning how to be a good incumbent, I had yet to learn this lesson. What helped me more than anything was meeting the widow of my predecessor who had died suddenly in his fifties of a brain tumour. He had been vicar for just six months. She said to me: “clergy often say that they only have one sermon which they preach in a thousand different ways. John’s was about gratitude. Christians should be thank-you people because thankfulness is the basis of being alive. It’s what the word eucharist means. I’m trying now in my grief to learn that. Even in dark times, it’s possible to be joyful.” Or words to that effect.
I tried to learn that too in the parish. It wasn’t easy when I felt so exposed, so challenged. Much of what I learned then, and since, was learned the hard way by making mistakes, not trusting enough in the goodness and forgiveness of God, not noticing so much that was lovely and good all around me. (And, I can also say, being too busy in the role of incumbent to be present to the joy that was in my own vicarage where we were bringing up four young children, one of whom was born during that time. Like Martha, being distracted by many things is as likely in the church as it is in hearth and home.)
At times, joy comes upon us unexpectedly. We’d love to know what it was that brought the sudden rush recalled by William Wordsworth in his celebrated sonnet “Surprised by Joy”. But the poem is not about the joy, rather the absence of a beloved one to share it with, which is why C.S. Lewis chose it as the title of his great memoir of bereavement. We’ve all known moments when, often for reasons we can describe, but sometimes not, we are overwhelmed with a radiant sense of happiness, often the sheer gladness that we are alive and see what we see, hear what we hear and feel what we feel. They are among our best moments, these joyful mysteries of life.
However, I don’t think that most of the time, joy comes upon us spontaneously. I believe it’s a spiritual habit we can and should cultivate. When the scriptures command us to “rejoice in the Lord” or to be joyful “because he comes to judge the earth”, this isn’t to conjure up happy feelings but to focus our minds and hearts on the fundamental truth of God that we live and die by. That truth is that God loves us and has come among us in Jesus to transform our world, turn the water of mere existence into the wine that is a symbol of what it means to be truly alive. So it is not just wine but, says the story, good wine, the very best wine because it represents the good news, the best news, that is the meaning of the word gospel. You could say that the whole of the spiritual life, all of discipleship means making this the focus of our gratitude and our longing, practising eucharistia as I said just now. When once we grasp the basic insight that all of life is pure gift, we are on the way to living gratefully and joyfully.
Life-as-gift has infinitely many dimensions. But at the apex of the gifts we are most aware of and most thankful for is St John’s truth that God is love. It’s this love that moves the sun and the stars, sustains every living being, shines through our most precious relationships and experiences, lights up our dark times. By it we live, by it we learn love’s work, by it we serve God in whatever ways he calls us, and by it we shall die. All of prayer, all of ministry, all of mission, all of discipleship is an act of love for God and for our fellow human beings. If you take nothing else away from this retreat, I beg you to remember that.
Because all that we can ever bring to ministry is our selves, as life and experience and God have formed us. I think it’s vital if we are to flourish in this calling and if we are to touch the lives of others for good that the selves we offer are thankful, joyful selves. I have no doubt that on Saturday when you are ordained, when your life as “clergy” begins, you will never have felt more joyful, more thankful as you will at that moment. You may want to dance and dab in front of the cameras after the service. You will offer your lives to God in the service of the church out of pure gratitude that he has brought you to this point. But think ahead to ten years’ time, twenty, forty. The seeds of lifelong contentment, joy, gratitude in your ministry begin to be sown now. For it’s in these initial years of being a deacon and then a priest that spiritual habits are formed, often for a lifetime. You might like to imagine writing this week letters to your older self, to be opened on each decade’s anniversary of your ordination. Better still, why not do it? Why not remind yourself how grateful you are now, and how you long for the joy of your ordination to be sustained across the years to come?
Because ordained ministers are meant to be bearers of joy, just as Jesus brought joy to the wedding feast. In ways that you can’t yet foresee, you will turn water into wine for countless people whom God will lead across your path. The ordinal reminds us that deacons “serve as heralds of Christ’s kingdom”. That is your calling, and especially in “reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible”. It’s what it means to bring good news so that sorrow and sighing may flee away and humanity find joy and gladness by learning to be God’s people once again.

The Healing of the Official’s Son: John 4.46-end

Jesus has travelled far since the first sign. He has been up to Jerusalem for the first Passover in St John, overturned the tables of the temple traders, met the leading Pharisee Nicodemus for that unforgettable night-time conversation, baptised followers in the Judean wilderness, and turned north again through Samaria where he has had another encounter with a seeker-after-truth, the Samaritan woman. Now he is back in his home country, back at Cana where, John reminds us, “he had changed the water into wine”.
It’s here that Jesus performs the second sign of his ministry, the healing of the Roman official’s son. This man is probably an officer of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, the Herod you hear most about in the gospels and the one who beheaded John the Baptist. I think we can assume that he was a Roman, so this is the first time a pagan believes in St John. First the Jewish disciples find faith, then the woman of Samaria, now a gentile soldier, perhaps consciously echoing the spread of the gospel into the wider world as the Acts of the Apostles depict it. And the man is not alone. “He himself believed, along with his whole household.”
Like the wedding at Cana, this story feels modest, understated. Just as at the marriage feast, Jesus makes no speeches, offers no teaching unlike the later healing signs in St John, does not draw attention to his own powers. And he takes his time. At the wedding, Jesus had engaged in that intriguing dialogue with his mother, saying that his time had not yet come. Here it’s with the boy’s father who has travelled a day’s journey from Capernaum to find him. Instead of rushing out, which is what most of us would have done, Jesus seems to stall: “unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe”. But the official won’t be drawn into a theological argument. You can hear his voice catching with urgency and a father’s love for his son, and with the fear that even now, if Jesus set out at once, it could be too late. “Lord, come down before my little boy dies!” And then, Jesus speaks the word. “Go, your son will live.” In that wonderful instant everything is turned round. The sun breaks through the gloom. “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him.” The child lives.
If joy is at the heart of Christian ministry, so are suffering and pain. When we left Alnwick to go to Coventry, the community gave us a sampler that some parishioners had crafted, with images of the church and town on it, and the names of all our family. We treasure it after 35 years, not least for the lines by William Blake that are sewn into it.
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.

“Woven fine” – not just a sampler but all of life. In Coventry I wrote a book about Graham Sutherland’s great Tapestry of Christ in Glory where I explored the spirituality of how our life in God is “woven fine”. Next week I am going back to the Cathedral as part of the diocese’s centenary celebrations to revisit that book a quarter of a century after writing it. Blake’s imagery about joy and woe being “woven fine” feels as accurate now as did then, more so indeed, given that I’ve lived that bit longer to be able to confirm that this is indeed how things are for us human beings.

Hebrew and Christian faith have always stood in solidarity with people in both their joy and their woe. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” says St Paul. And when it comes to weeping, there is a rich seam of biblical texts to draw on. When we consider the Psalms of lament, the oracles of Jeremiah, the servant songs of the second Isaiah, the book of Job and, in the New Testament, the four passion narratives, it’s clear that suffering is a major theme in the Bible. If not unique among the world faiths, it’s a distinctive emphasis. These texts of pain and terror tell us three things. First, that God is close to all who cry out of the depths in the belief that there will be what the Psalm scholars call a “certainty of hearing”? Secondly, they tell us that to wonder why, to interrogate suffering, is not only a natural human response to pain but is a fundamental theological and spiritual task. Thirdly, and most profoundly of all, these texts culminate in a story of how God himself undergoes suffering in the person of his Son Jesus, whose cross is the emblem of our redemption and healing.

This is why the ordained minister is inevitably involved in suffering of every kind. The ordinal reminds us that deacons are to work “in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible”. That is a beautiful statement. For pastoral care is always an act of love in the name of the church and ultimately, of God. Once upon a time, when you began a new ministry in a parish or chaplaincy, the bishop would deliver you your licence with the words “receive the cure of souls which is both mine and yours, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. That time-honoured phrase cure of souls means simply the care of human lives committed to your charge. A curate is someone who has this care written into their role. What nobler calling could there be than to become a curate? It marks you out as men and women publicly destined to care, to serve, to love in God’s name. Vicars, according to the literal meaning of that title, act for someone else, and rectors rule. But curates care! At your ordination, the Bishop will ask you: “Will you strive to make the love of Christ known through word and example, and have a particular care for those in need?” A ministry that was not pastoral in this sense of embodying divine love and bringing it to the world would not be ministry as the Bible understands it. It would not be true diakonia, service.

I guess of the multitude of tasks we shall have performed as ministers by the time we die, the vast majority will be forgotten. All those sermons and services, social events and outreach activities, the visits and the fundraising – all important, all helping to build up the life of the church, all bearing witness to Jesus in one way or another, all will one day belong to history. It puts us in our place and that’s no bad thing. We shouldn’t set up memorials to ourselves. We must decrease, he must increase. But there’s perhaps one exception. Parishioners, I think, long remember the spirit in which we did these things, the kindness, the care, the self-giving love. Especially is this true of our pastoral activity: how we were at the bedside of a hospital patient, how we waited with a family while a parent or partner or child was dying, how we tried to comfort the bereaved. And pastoral care extends into liturgy too: how we conducted funerals, how we prayed for the sick and anointed them, how we imitated the compassion of Jesus as he performed his signs that spoke of God’s glory and his love. Compassion, suffering with. That’s what will be remembered, believe me.

What about that second strand in texts of suffering, those that ask the question why? Why this suffering, why me, why anyone? Why natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis? Why accidents and disasters? Why the endless tide of war and conflict, of cruelty and abuse, lives irreparably damaged through our human propensity to hurt and injure and maim? The why-question is universal. The Hebrew Bible is no stranger to it: recall Job and his wrestling with God out of his painful ordeal. Or the Psalm laments for whom questions like “how long O Lord?” beg for some insight into why God appears to side with the ungodly rather than bring relief to the afflicted. In the Bible, it is permitted to argue with the Almighty.

You won’t be surprised if, within days of your being ordained, you are asked by church members of parishioners why God has allowed this or that to happen, be it a terminal illness or the death of a youngster in a road accident, or some terrorist incident or natural disaster that hits the headlines. In holy orders, you are presumed to have divine wisdom conferred on you that is denied to ordinary mortals. How you handle such questions may be another of those things that get remembered.

I vividly recall one Ascension Day in the parish. The mid-morning eucharist was coming to an end on a beautiful spring morning. We heard the news that one of our most committed church members had been killed an hour earlier in a car crash on the A1 near Felton. It was one of those days you get in the North East when the sea fret drifts inland and without warning a patch of fog obliterates the road in front of you. Her husband had driven straight into the back of a slow-moving tractor. Her funeral was one of those where you had to hold on to the woodwork for dear life: utterly joyous, utterly painful at the same time. If ever I realised how joy and woe were woven fine, it was then. As the numbness began to wear off, her widowed husband tried to make sense of why it had happened. On Ascension Day of all days, it was hard not to imagine that the risen Jesus had indeed disappeared from us, left us alone in the world to make our way without him as best we could. I learned a lot simply by sharing his bafflement and admitting, probably for the first time out loud, that I did not know why God had let this happen any more than he did. But I also added that he, God, cared for Joan even more than John or any of us did or ever could. To say you don’t know but that God’s love holds us even in the darkest of times is, I believe, to place ourselves alongside people in pain, rather than above them. You can’t wash feet from above. In ministry, that’s a key lesson to learn.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work hard on your theodicy as curates – explore what you believe about pain and suffering in a broken world over which, claims Christianity, God reigns as king and Lord. I’m only suggesting that arguing with people who are walking in the valley of the shadow of death is not the tactic of a good pastor or a good theologian. It’s true that Jesus challenges the officer who begs him to heal his son, but it’s to purify his motives in coming to him, not his beliefs about why his boy is at death’s door. Unwittingly, the man rises to the challenge by exposing the sheer extent of his need. He appeals to Jesus’ feeling as a fellow human being, the compassion he senses in him. “Lord come down before my little boy dies.” And when he hears the words “your son will live”, he knows in his bones that it’s true, for here is a voice that can be trusted. You may or may not be blessed with the gift of healing, but in the deepest sense of that word, healing is what you bring whenever you take the side of the person who presents their pain, and you hold them in your heart before God. And because we know our own brokenness as men and women of faith, our ministry becomes all the more authentic. We take on the role of what Henri Nouwen classically called the Wounded Healer. And the words we speak and the human kindness with which we hold the people we care for take on a power beyond all our imagining.

In St John, Jesus’ signs of healing are directly connected, I think, to his vocation as the Son of God who is destined to suffer. In the first address I mentioned the link between the signs, the revealing of God’s glory, and the faith they brought to birth. “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” That, I’m sure, is meant as a template to shape our reading of this Gospel. Signs of glory lead to faith. I quoted the Christmas gospel in St John’s prologue: “We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”.

So if you had asked St John where he saw this glory most fully manifested, what would he answer? I think he would say: at the cross, at Golgotha, in the passion and death of the incarnate Son of God. Why would he point there? Because for John, the cross is Jesus’ moment of enthronement and transfiguration, the revelation of what it means to be the kind of king who pours himself out in love for the world. He often speaks of his hour not yet having come; but when it does, he says, there will be glory in his “lifting up”, and an appeal that will win the whole world to become his loyal subjects. “I, when I am lifted up, will draw all humanity to myself.”

And this is the third strand of those texts of suffering and terror I spoke about. The passion narrative proclaims for all time that God is no stranger to pain and dereliction and mortality and death. In Jesus, he has entered into this universal human experience and made it his own out of love for the world. The most precious verse in the Fourth Gospel is the one we know off by heart. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” God’s self-giving in life, but especially in death, is the source, says John, of our redemption.

So whether we are in pastor or theologian mode (and I want to urge you that it should always be both), our care for those who suffer and our exploration into what suffering means must always end by focusing on the cross. Golgotha is where all suffering is interpreted, not as an abstract concept but in the Person who in himself embodies and transfigures our suffering, afflicted, pain-ridden humanity. As theologians and pastors we look to the cross because we are about the business of humanity and the business of Jesus Christ. Which is why, so early on in John’s Gospel, we are introduced to suffering in the person of this Roman official and his dying boy, and to the idea that this sign of ministry, this sign of glory, brings about not only the boy’s healing but also the faith of an entire family. It’s as transformative as that. You never know what the effect may be when you perform a simple act of care in Christ’s name.

Christ not only crucified but raised from the dead. Of course: to read the Gospel stories and understand the signs of glory in the light of its ending is what John expects us to do. That’s the clue to what this transformation of human lives is about – lives lived forwards but understood backwards, in the theological and spiritual light of death-and-resurrection. Whether by word or work, to be an interpreter of peoples’ stories of life and death, and to be a sign of God’s eternal presence in the midst of joy and woe is precisely our vocation as the ordained.

The Feeding of the Crowd: John 6.1-15

We’ve looked at the first two works of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel that St John explicitly labels as “signs”: the turning of water into wine, and the healing of the Roman official’s son. The next one is the feeding of the crowd. And once again, John makes the link between Jesus performing the sign and people finding faith. “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world’.” I recognise that this isn’t yet the full flowering of faith in Jesus as the incarnate Word of God. But the journey of believing has to start somewhere. This is what the feeding of the five thousand marks, for those who grasp its significance.
Why is this story so important that all four gospels record it? St John makes explicit what is more implicit in the other gospels. In the long dialogue that follows, Jesus takes his hearers back to the Hebrew Bible and their ancestors’ wanderings in the wilderness. What they had to learn in the desert was to trust in the God who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and brought them to freedom. Specifically, they needed to look to him to be fed. “Can God make a table in the wilderness?” they ask scornfully in one of the psalms. Jesus replies, yes he can and he did, for what was the manna they ate daily if not the evidence of a God who nourishes his people? “It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven that gives life to the world.” “Lord, give us this bread always!” they exclaim. And Jesus says to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst”.
I’m wanting to suggest that in ordained life, we follow Jesus in performing works of God that are signs of his glory. If you don’t believe me, let me remind you of the conclusion of the ordination prayer that the Bishop will pray over you as new deacons. “May their life be disciplined and holy, their words declare your love and their actions reveal your glory, that your people may walk with them in the way of truth and be made ready for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”. So just as Jesus responded to the needs of a hungry crowd, I want to explore with you some aspects of the ordained ministry in which we imitate him and bring nourishment to people who need it.
Let me begin with what is specific to the ordained, our nourishment of the people of God through the ministry of word and sacrament. First, the deacon as a man or woman of the word. One of the highlights of my time as Dean of Durham was the visit of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the city in 2013. Some of you will have come to the peninsula to see this miraculous book on display on Palace Green in the shadow of the Cathedral where they once belonged. We were determined that this three-month residency was not simply going to be a celebration of Northumbrian identity, art and culture, though it was all those things. But what was more important than any of them was the historical fact that this book from the turn of the eighth and ninth centuries was a gospel book. It was written “in honour of God and St Cuthbert” as a manuscript that carried good news. So we believed we should encourage the churches of the North East to grasp this opportunity, and do something creative in mission and outreach on the theme of Gospels and gospel.
What we need to remember about a gospel book is that it was a liturgical object. In the Benedictine house that was Durham Cathedral Priory, the Lindisfarne Gospels didn’t reside in the spendement where all the other precious books and manuscripts were kept. The book was kept in the sacristy, for it was, we imagine, carried in procession and read from on grand ceremonial occasions. We had our own facsimile and used to process it at feasts of St Cuthbert. This was the liturgical deacon’s job. It is incredibly heavy. I used to think that was a good metaphor of the word of God. In Hebrew, the word for glory comes from a root meaning heavy. So if the word of God is charged with glory, it is bound to be weighty, if not physically, then metaphorically and spiritually. To be a man or woman of the word is, in an important sense, a necessary burden that we must carry.
At the eucharist, one of the deacon’s distinctive roles is to carry the gospel book and read the gospel from it. The deacon is marked out as the gospel man or woman. At your ordination on Saturday you will be presented with the scriptures and the Bishop will say, “Receive this book as a sign of the authority given you this day to speak God’s word to his people. Build them up in his truth and serve them in his name”. There’s an important association of ideas here, between the authority given to you as a public minister and speaking God’s word to build up God’s people and to serve them. It means sharing good news, bringing nourishment, just as Jesus served the crowd that was hungry and brought them the bread they craved.
In the reformed tradition in which Anglicanism stands, it’s an important emphasis that the ordained are ministers of both word and sacrament. They are equally significant in the life of the church, for both are its essence and its lifeblood. Your diaconate is an important year in which you begin to inhabit your public role in both these respects. When you are ordained priest next summer, God willing, some of you will make a special celebration of your first time at the altar presiding at the eucharist. I wonder why we don’t mark our first public reading of the gospel and our first sermon as ordained people in some way too? Of course, we have done both these things as lay people, not least during our training. But to me, it felt different once I had a dog-collar on and was dressed for the liturgy. Today is the anniversary of my own ordination as a deacon in 1975. A week later I preached for the first time as an ordained man. I don’t remember the content, mercifully, but I do recall the experience of getting up into a pulpit with the authority of a public minister to proclaim the word of God, to carry that burden and be part of the church’s calling to make us wise in God’s truth.
I can’t recall a time when preaching was as much discussed in the media as it has been since the royal wedding last month. Bishop Michael Curry’s remarkable sermon shows that even in our secular age, sermons still get talked about. There was a lot of comment on social media, much of it by clergy who were tempted to scrap what they had prepared for the following Sunday and start again in the light of it. I wrote a blog setting out what I had taken from watching this charismatic leader preach. It wasn’t that we must raise our homiletical game, try to imitate his style, attain his rhetorical gifts. It was that we must find our own voice as preachers. What I most envied in that sermon was that here was a preacher who was utterly authentic, not overawed by his audience, not controlled by expectations, simply a bishop who was as much himself as a preacher as he was a human being. It is a lifelong task to find our own voice in the pulpit. It begins with your ordination, when you receive not only the scriptures that will be given to you but the authority conferred on you to be a man or woman of the word.
One more point about being deacons of the word. When I spoke about being bringers of joy, I said that we needed to drink often at the sources of our own joy. When I spoke about suffering, I quoted the phrase “wounded healer”. It’s always the case in ministry that what we are to other people we must always be in ourselves. And this is true of us who are ministers of the word. George Herbert in his great work The Priest to the Temple says that before we preach a sermon to others, we must first preach it to ourselves, make sure that we are properly nourished as we endeavour to nourish those in our care. It’s about being authentic in our role, trustworthy enough to know we have the same need to be fed as everyone else. So when the Bishop asks you at your ordination, “Will you be diligent in prayer, in reading holy scripture, and in all studies that will deepen your faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel?”, don’t simply pay lip-service to it. Take it seriously, value the time you spend on your own nourishment not only as disciples now but as ministers.
Let’s turn from word to sacrament. This sixth chapter of St John’s Gospel is one of the classic sacramental texts of the New Testament. The Fourth Gospel does not have an institution narrative like the other three, yet it is arguably the most sacramental gospel of them all. When you hear words like “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day”, it’s impossible not to hear them as St John’s eucharistic words, bearing witness to Jesus the Living Bread and the True Vine who nourishes his people with the eternal life of God himself.
This time next year, you will be thinking hard about your role as presidents at the eucharist. We won’t get ahead of ourselves at this deacons’ retreat. Yet sacramental ministry is at the heart of diaconal service. For a start, it’s embodied by the very fact of your being “clergy” who are publicly marked out as you walk around your parishes in clerical collars. Austin Farrer famously called priests “walking sacraments” because their very presence was a sign of God’s care for the world, his involvement in its affairs, his commitment to the life of every human child of his. But if priests, why not deacons too? Why not especially deacons, who, as we’ve already said, have a special vocation to serve the poor and the helpless and the needy of our world? For in the Prayer Book definition, a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and this is precisely what we are as ministers in the Church of God.
For us who are ordained, taking up a visible role in the life of the church involves us in a highly symbolic world. This is inevitable when we are its visible representatives, God’s visible representatives. For the gospel opens up doors of perception, expands our horizons, gives us glimpses of worlds that were once hidden from our sight. We are learning how everything points beyond itself to what is deeper and richer and more wonderful than humanity had ever dreamed. Take the feeding of the five thousand in this sixth chapter of St John. The story begins with Jesus simply meeting a human need. The people are hungry, so he feeds them. But how does this sign happen? What brings it about? Above all, what does it mean? So Jesus speaks about the manna in the wilderness, as we’ve seen, helps the people grasp what they have witnessed, this work of God in their very midst. And as he goes on, the bread that has fed them becomes the richest possible symbol not only of the bread that offers eternal life, but of “God’s presence and his very self”, as Newman’s hymn puts it, the Lord incarnate who proclaims himself as the Bread of Life who has come down from heaven to be among his people.
And this is the essence of living sacramentally, performing signs of ministry that proclaim the eternal God here in our midst. The bread and wine of communion that you administer as deacons aren’t just bread and wine, but “visible words” of the gospel that nourish the faith of God’s people. The water with which you baptise isn’t just water but a symbol of the living water that wells up to eternal life. The oil with which you anoint the sick isn’t just oil but a sign of the oil of healing and gladness that gives hope to the afflicted. The words of scripture that you read and preach aren’t just words but bear meanings of eternal significance. The touch with which you pass the peace isn’t just about human friendship but a sign of how grace touches our lives and changes us. When you welcome people to church, it is God’s hospitality you are offering because the church is his sacred space. When you visit parishioners in their homes or in hospital or care home or hospice, you do it in God’s name as bearers of his mercy and goodness. When you say your prayers, you bring the parish with you and know that you’re in the presence of an innumerable company of saints and angels. And so on. All of ministry is sacramental because it goes beyond what we can see and touch. It bears witness to the things that are not seen, which Paul says are eternal. And it not only points to them but brings them into our very midst here in our material world where we are called to know and follow Jesus.
I’m saying that if we are to nourish people in ministry, we constantly need to think beyond ourselves. To do that is to know our place in a symbolic, sacramental world. It can take a real act of the imagination to begin with, or perhaps I mean re-imagination, for it entails seeing ourselves in a new way as God’s representatives, God’s envoys, God’s missionaries who bear good news to a world that longs to be fed. But imagination is important if our vocation to ordained ministry is not to collapse into merely doing a job. No-one entertains this thought on the eve of their ordination, nor for many years afterwards. But with the decades, it is possible to become despondent, wondering what difference our ministry has made. We can become disappointed because the ordained life is not quite what we imagined it would be. We can become tired, eroded by conflict or difficulty. If we are not going to lose heart, it’s essential that we think beyond ourselves, see ourselves as God sees us, recall what the liturgy said to us on the day the Bishop ordained us and trust that God will gather up the fragments of our ministry so that nothing is lost.
What Jesus did that day when he took the bread, gave thanks and fed the crowd was, above all, to bring blessing. It takes us back to the first address about joy. In a beautiful book by the Catholic writer Daniel O’Leary, Unmasking God, he says that the sacraments are a permanent blessing within the earth, “the releasing of all the seeds for good and for love implanted by God at the core of everything… What are we doing when we bless? Are we actually making something holy, adding on something that was missing, spiritually disinfecting a merely natural object? Or are we revealing a hidden richness, divining a wellspring of sacred presence, already secure below the surface of everything? Is this not the true meaning of Incarnation?”
Let Teresa of Ávila have the last word. “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” On this retreat we offer ourselves to God in humble thankfulness for the privilege he gives us as he sends us out to do love’s work in the world.

The Man Born Blind: John 9.1-12
In St John’s Gospel the theme of light is prominent. The first time is when Nicodemus comes to him “by night” and Jesus speaks about how darkness and light symbolise the human condition: “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil”. Not long afterwards he is in Jerusalem for the feast of Booths. Great golden lamps were lit in the Temple precincts at the pilgrim feasts, prompting Jesus to say: “I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life”. And later, on the eve of his passion, he elaborates on this theme: “the light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” As we read the gospel we recall how in the prologue, John has spoken about the incarnate Word: “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.
In the ninth chapter of St John, we have another healing, this time of the man born blind. By now, John has stopped marking every work of Jesus as a sign: he expects us to make the connection ourselves when faith is born as a result of Jesus’s acts. As it is here in an unforgettable way. In his second sign, Jesus had healed a powerful Roman officer’s son. This time it is a lowly beggar. High and low, rich and poor, there is no distinction: we are all equal when it comes to suffering, we are all in the same need of God’s grace and truth. The commemorative hearings at the Grenfell Tower inquiry have underlined how ordinary people died because they were among the neglected and forgotten of London’s wealthiest borough. When the Titanic went down, not one passenger from steerage survived. It moves me that St John devotes an entire chapter to this man whom the haughty Pharisees utterly disdain. When I was instituted as vicar of Alnwick, the Bishop looked across at me from the pulpit and said: “always remember the poor, who are God’s special treasure”. I recalled it on the day Pope Francis was elected. As he got up to acknowledge his election, one of his fellow cardinals tugged at his cassock and whispered, “never forget the poor”. As deacons, this is our particular vocation.
Seeing and not-seeing, walking in darkness, walking in light are the themes of this next sign. This is clear from the way Jesus answers the disciples’ opening question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That question which you’ll be asked in a thousand different ways during your lifetime of ministry – we’ve spoken about it already. And like Jesus, you won’t fall for it because it’s unanswerable. There is no “because”. There is suffering and there is pain, and these are facts on the ground. And there is a God, we believe, whose works can bring about a real transformation in lives blighted by affliction. This is Jesus’s task, to bear witness to the power of God. “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no-one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” As the ordained, we too must work the works of the One who has sent us while it is still day. What those works will be has not yet been revealed to us. But we can say for certain that like Jesus, they will involve opening eyes, bringing to sight, shining a light where before there was darkness. For this is always the work of the gospel.
I say that because of how the story ends. Once the blind man can see, he finds himself interrogated first by the people who knew him or had seen him beg, then by the Jewish authorities. The scrutiny becomes increasingly aggressive until he is driven out by the leaders of his own community. This is the point at which Jesus finds him again, the excluded outsider. Notice that. He asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” “Who is he, sir? Tell me so that I may believe in him.” “You have seen him” says Jesus, “and the one speaking with you is he.” You have seen him. That moment of recognition is when faith is born. “Lord, I believe.” And he worships him. It’s so Johannine – think of the woman at the well, or Martha in the story of Lazarus, or Mary’s Rabbouni in the garden on Easter morning, or Thomas’s “my Lord and my God” when the risen Jesus comes to find the man who would not believe unless he saw for himself. So it is here.  And Jesus sums up what this has all been for: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
In all the great religious traditions, a whole vocabulary of words to do with light and sight provide metaphors of the spiritual path. They speak of enlightenment, illumination, insight, dawning, having one’s eyes opened, all words of seeing that try to capture what happens when we gain understanding, become aware, begin to grasp some great mystery. In Plato’s Republic, he offers an allegory where human beings are chained facing into the walls of a great cave, aware only of shadows cast by some light behind them that they cannot see or even conceive of. The shadows are their only truth, and they want nothing more. If only they could turn around and see for themselves the sun shining in through the cave’s entrance! They would know at once that this was reality, not the shadows playing on the walls or in their stunted imaginations. What is truth and what is illusion? What is wisdom and what is folly? What gives life and what deals out death? These are the universal questions of humanity across the ages in its long search for meaning and purpose.
To which, says St John, the Word incarnate is God’s answer. We who are ordained are among the ways in which that answer is offered to men, women and children today. Let me explore some aspects of this with you in the rest of this address. What I want to say about ordination is that its focus is as much outward as it is inward. Deacons, priests and bishops are there to bear witness to God in the world as much as to serve, build up and care for the church. The buzz-word we use for this outwardly-turned attitude these days is missional. Thankfully, the ordinal speaks in plain English. But the idea is there. Let me quote from the words with which the Bishop will introduce your ordination as deacons.
God calls his people to follow Christ, and forms us into a royal priesthood, a holy nation, to declare the wonderful deeds of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light. The church is the body of Christ, the people of God and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. In baptism the whole church is summoned to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of the kingdom… Deacons are ordained so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known.
This is of a piece with what St John has been teaching us about the true Light that has come into the world to enlighten human lives. And because of this enlightenment, says the ordinal, the church is to bear witness to God’s love and point to the coming of the kingdom. This is precisely the activity that deacons are ordained for, so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known. For the church is called to be evangelical, that is, of the gospel, and deacons are among the ways it fulfils that calling. So the Bishop asks you, “Will you work with your fellow-servants in the gospel for the sake of the kingdom of God?” And you answer, “By the help of God, I will”. You identify on your ordination day with this mission-task of the church to carry the light of Jesus in the world.
When I was training for ordination, the curriculum made a distinction between ministry and mission. I doubt that this was right. As I read the New Testament, I see a church wholly orientated to the tasks of mission, whose worship and service and care and koinonia all bore witness to the marvellous light into which God has brought his people. To be outwardly-turned was in its life-blood. St Paul in that great passage in 2 Corinthians speaks of the “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God” and goes on to say: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out in darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This is worship and ministry and mission, for the transforming power of light is the church’s whole business.
What does it mean for deacons to be light-bearers? It seems to me to come down to that phrase in the ordinal, bearing witness. To bear witness is to tell a story of what you have seen and heard, the experience it has led you to have and the meanings it holds for you. As I’ve said, our visible presence as public ministers already bears witness, for we are identifiably God’s representatives in human life. And this, to me, is a reason for be recognisable as we go about God’s business in ministry, whether by wearing a cassock, a collar, or as French clergy often do, a discreet lapel cross that says of us, like John the Baptist: I am here to bear witness to the One who is coming, indeed, who is already among us even if we do not yet see him or fully know him. Let our works speak for themselves as signs of his presence, as they did for Jesus in St John’s Gospel. I doubt St Francis actually said, “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” But it’s a good saying nevertheless. There’s a lot of truth in it.
But the story of the man born blind leaves us in no doubt that words are necessary at times. As we’ve seen, it concludes with Jesus finding him and helping him to articulate the faith that is being born within him. In three short verses, he travels from not knowing how to answer Jesus’s question “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” to acclaiming with joy, “Lord, I believe” and worshipping him. For some it takes a few minutes to make this journey and find their eyes are opened. For others it can take months, years, a lifetime. The important thing, John is saying, is that this journey of finding faith and worshipping God is the most important a human being can ever make. If you, if I, if the people we serve are to find light, life and love, then this is “the true and living way” to it, as Jesus declares to the disciples later on when they ask how they can know where he is going.
It takes discernment to recognise where people are on this journey through the stages of faith. It’s telling that Jesus leaves this conversation with the healed man to the end. There is the sign, there is the debate about what it means, and last of all, the discovery of faith. Some of you will have had moments of recognition that you know you’ll never forget. But even if you don’t, I wager that you all owe the fact that you are being ordained to people who, over the years, listened to you, explored faith with you, helped you face the difficulties and challenges of believing, encouraged you to recognise the Lord who was calling you to know and love him. You are here as the evidence of the many who have accompanied you over a lifetime, not least in the discernment process towards ordained ministry. On the eve of your ordination, I hope you’ll spare all these good people who cared about you a thought, and a thanksgiving, and a prayer.
In these talks I’m asking how we imitate Jesus in our signs of ministry. Today’s chapter says to me that the place of faith-sharing is central to ministry. Put it like that and it sounds obvious: as we’ve seen, the ordinal could not be clearer about our call to bear witness to God’s kingdom in all that we say and do and are. But my point is that the preaching and proclamation we explored in the last address aren’t confined to the formal, set-piece events like sermons and talks. We are just as much preachers of the gospel when we have personal conversations with the spiritually curious. The ordinal says that deacons “accompany those searching for faith and bring them to baptism”.
There is a short story by Chekhov called The Student.  Ivan, a seminarian, is walking home on a cold Good Friday afternoon when he sees a mother and her daughter in their garden by a fire.  Both are widows.  They talk about the day, and Ivan reminds them how Peter warmed himself by just such a fire on the night of the passion, and denied Jesus there.  As he recalls the cock crowing and Peter’s tears, the older woman begins to weep and her daughter takes on a look great pain.  Ivan stops talking and in the silence they are alone with their thoughts.  He says goodnight and leaves.  Here is how the story ends. 
The student thought again that if Vasilisa had shed tears, and her daughter had been troubled, it was evident that what he had just been telling them about, which had happened nineteen centuries ago, had a relation to the present -- to both women, to the desolate village, to himself, to all people. The old woman had wept, not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter was near to her, because her whole being was interested in what was passing in Peter's soul. And joy suddenly stirred in his soul… ‘The past,’ he thought, ‘is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another.’ And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered. When he crossed the river by the ferry boat and afterwards, mounting the hill, looked at his village and towards the west where the cold crimson sunset lay a narrow streak of light, he thought that truth and beauty which had guided human life there in the garden and in the yard of the high priest had continued without interruption to this day, and had always been the chief thing in human life and in all earthly life, indeed;… and the inexpressible sweet expectation of … mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvellous, and full of meaning.
That to me is faith-sharing.  A man speaks naturally about God and uncovers a chain of connection between the gospel and the stories of two women who find that they are not simply observers of a drama that happened centuries ago but participants in an event that is happening now.  We never find out what their stories are, only that what Ivan says has this profound effect on them.  He stops speaking, for he knows that there is a time for speech and a time for silence.  But the inner work goes on, and we know that a profound change is taking place: not just in the women but in him as well. Out of his hopelessness springs joy.  He glimpses both ends of that chain of connection, touching one end and seeing the other quiver.  He knows he has been on the giving and receiving end of the gift of transformation we call ‘grace’.  This is what it is to preach. This is what it is to be a faith-sharer. This is what it means to be in ministry and like Jesus, bear God’s light to all who long to see.

The Raising of Lazarus: John 11.38-44
You have arrived at your ordination day. I wonder what you were thinking about when you woke up this morning (if you got any sleep, that is). I wonder what your hopes are today, your aspirations, your expectations. I wonder what else is happening in your soul. You wouldn’t be human if somewhere within, you didn’t tremble at this threshold. So much that lies across it is unknown, unknowable. I’m confident that you are full of a sense of privilege because of the calling you have been given. I’m sure you want to offer your lives to God in a new way today, all of them, not holding anything back. What will God do with you in the years ahead? What will God do through you? Where will he take you as you respond with the prophet, in great humility and poverty of spirit as well as in gratitude and highest joy, Here am I: send me?

In our retreat, we’ve been looking at five of the seven signs Jesus performs in St John’s Gospel. I’ve suggested how we can see them as modelling aspects of our own ministry as ordained men and women. For we too perform “signs” in God’s name, and through them we pray and hope and believe that something of God’s glory shines through, something of his grace and truth.

The last of the signs is the raising of Lazarus. It stands at a pivotal place in the Fourth Gospel, for it is the link between John’s stories of Jesus’s ministry in words and works on the one hand, and his death and resurrection on the other. We can see why John wants the death of Lazarus and his being raised back to life to foreshadow the events of Holy Week and Easter. Like the other signs, the story of Lazarus symbolises a central aspect of how God comes into the world to bring transformation to human lives. And because the death and resurrection of Jesus is the very core of Christian faith, John tells a story which, in the light of what follows, turns out to be of universal significance. When Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life: those who believe in me, even though they die, will live”, he isn’t speaking only about her, or Mary, or Lazarus. He is speaking about all humanity, all of us to whom he extends the invitation to find in him the way to God, the truth by which to live and die, and the life that is love and joy and peace.

I’ve explored with you how deacons are called to bring joy, wholeness, nourishment and sight. This last sign suggests that you are to bring life. When Jesus says in St John, “I have come that they may have life, and have it in all its fulness”, there’s a sense in which that is true of us too. Once again, daunting though it may seem, the ordinal isn’t afraid to name this aspect of the deacon’s ministry specifically. Just before you make the declarations this afternoon, you will hear these words. And just so that you are in no doubt, the liturgy goes out of its way to emphasise in the rubric that at this point in the service, “the bishop addresses the ordinands directly”. We trust that you are fully determined, by the grace of God, to give yourself wholly to his service, that you may draw his people into that new life which God has prepared for those who love him. “That you may draw his people into that new life.” What else can ordained ministry be for, if not this? New life is what gathers up all the themes of this retreat, everything that we have been preparing for during these last years and months and days. So let’s see how the story of Lazarus can help us glimpse what it means on this ordination day.

Life is one of St John’s great words. The Gospel begins with the statement that “in him was life, and the life was the light of all humanity”. It ends with the evangelist telling us why he has written his gospel, “that you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing may have life in his name.” “Life”, as John uses the word, means a new quality of being alive, a new dimension that transfigures everything we’ve ever known. Nearly twenty times John speaks about eternal life which, Jesus says in his final prayer before his passion, is to “know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”. And it becomes progressively clearer that as the gift of God in his Son, it is inextricably linked to God’s act of giving himself out of love for the sake of the world. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that all who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life.” “I, if I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.”

On Thursday you'll recall that we commemorated Irenaeus, one of the apostolic fathers who was Bishop of Lyon in southern France in the second century. He had heard Polycarp preach in his great old age, the saintly bishop who went cheerfully to his death at the hands of the Romans saying “Christ has done me no wrong in all these years I have served him. Why should I deny him now?” Polycarp was said to have known St John the Evangelist. That would make him John’s grandson in the faith. Who knows?  I mention him because he famously said, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive”. I want to ponder that great saying for a moment, for it seems to echo St John in the way it links God’s glory to the gift of life which in turn originates in God’s self-giving love, one of our key themes as we have listened to St John in this retreat.

I’ve said that the story of Lazarus looks forward to the death and resurrection of Jesus. For us as disciples and ministers, this is the beginning and the end of everything. Without it, there is no faith as the New Testament and catholic Christianity understand it, no hope that makes a lasting difference to our living and suffering and dying, no love to transform human experience and give it ultimate purpose and meaning in God. So to do as the ordinal says, and “draw God’s people into that new life which he has prepared for those who love him” is to bring people back to their God-given glory as men and women who are “fully alive”, in Irenaeus’s phrase. And this comes down to restoring the image of God in them, marred and broken by sin and suffering, yet for all that never irretrievably lost, always recognisable in the dignity and worth of every human being. Christianity, then, makes us more human because the gospel puts us back together again as the men and women God meant us to be.
And I want to end this retreat by drawing attention to our own need as ministers to bring glory to God by being as “fully alive” as it’s possible to be. During these addresses I’ve been pointing to this need to take good care of ourselves in ministry. If we are to bring joy to others, we need to nurture our own sense of gratitude and gladness. If we are to bring wholeness to others, our own wellbeing and healing matter too. If we are to nourish others, we need to make sure that we are not undernourished ourselves. If we are to help others to see, then sustaining our own clear-sightedness must always be a priority. 
There are no short cuts to being fully alive. It’s a lifelong task to realise our birth and fully become the human beings that we are. It’s a lifelong task to realise our baptism and fully become the Christians that we are. It’s a lifelong task to realise our ordination and fully become the deacons and priests that we are. This being made or remade in God’s image is what we call formation. It happens in God’s time. It will not be hurried. Often, our self-interest and self-serving gets in the way, and our purity of heart and motive is compromised, and the transparency of the God-given life becomes clouded for a while. Yet in all of us, the longing to be fully alive never goes away. And even our failures and disappointments can have the good effect of reminding us, convicting us of what we have lost sight of, so that we learn to feel after God and find him once again.
I want to urge you throughout your ordained ministry to make being “fully alive” your aim. And you say yes at once, for on your ordination day, how could you possibly want anything else? But I’m thinking further along the road of public ministry, when, as I said before, we can face real challenges and difficulties and wonder if it was all worthwhile. Here is where nurturing good spiritual habits early on in ministry comes in. And I want in particular to refer you back to the story of Lazarus, and that great saying of Jesus I’ve already quoted, “I am the resurrection and the life”.
Being “fully alive” is to find our daily inspiration in the cross and resurrection. That is to say, not only will our witness and proclamation be focused on Christ crucified and risen as it must always be, but our ministerial ambitions and our personal spiritual aims will themselves be shaped in this paschal, this cruciform way. The cross is the emblem of our faith, our ministry and our lives, not because it is the end of the story that we tell about Jesus, but because in it we find reconciliation and forgiveness, and out of it has sprung the new beginning that we celebrate in the resurrection. Redemption looks back to that saving event. Because of it there is a new creation. It defines the church, it defines us as its ministers, and it defines every follower of Jesus for all time. 
It is for each of us to discover our own spirituality in ministry. It takes time: we have to inhabit our new roles before we understand how best to pray within them. But if being “fully alive” is what we aspire to as ministers, then the cross and resurrection will be central to our spirituality. The daily office is one way in which the eternal patterns of death and resurrection are presented to us in the cycle of psalmody, scripture, canticle and prayer. The eucharist is another, for in it we celebrate the crucified and risen Christ of whom the bread and wine are symbols not only of a broken body and shed blood, but are also the food and drink of the heavenly banquet in which we are raised to feast with the risen Christ and his saints and angels. If you’re not used to making the sign of the cross, why not try it as a way of making cross-and-resurrection personal to you. You may want to find words to remind you of when you were signed with the cross at your baptism, like “Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, keep me faithful, and give me your blessing”. Use images and icons if they help. Get into the habit of thinking of Friday as the day of the cross, and Sunday as the day of resurrection and finding ways to honour that weekly rhythm. The possibilities are endless.
Why is this an important habit for us to cultivate in ministry? I’ve already given one answer to that question: because the cross and resurrection are the basis of our kerygma, our proclamation as public ministers, our witness to the gospel. But there’s another. It’s that it offers us a template through which we learn how to read the lives and experiences of those we minister to. I mean that the changes and chances of human existence so often turn out to be lived embodiments of death and resurrection. This is as true of what happens in society and the local community as it is of personal human lives.
Let me illustrate. People who are going through ordeals like serious illness or bereavement often speak as though God had abandoned them. In Matthew and Mark’s crucifixion, this is exactly how Jesus cries out to his Father from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To be able to sit with them in the midst of their pain, and remind them that they are not alone, for the Son of Man himself underwent such darkness as led him to the brink of despair can be extraordinarily helpful pastorally. When someone has experienced a deliverance that brings not only relief but ecstatic joy and gratitude, it is for them a real resurrection. Again, to make that spiritual and theological link can enable them to find a language in which to express their thankfulness and understand it as part of God’s movement from death to life and from alienation to reconciliation. We all know this intuitively. The story of Lazarus acts it out for us. I’m suggesting that we acquire the habit of reading all human life in this Christological cross-and-resurrection way. That’s how we learn to make the connections between the lived patterns of death and resurrection, and our pastoral care and prayers that invoke the aid of the One who died, but who is always among us as the risen and triumphant Lord.
I come back to ourselves and what makes us “fully alive”. If we are learning to read human life like this, then we are learning to read our own lives that way too. Socrates said that “the unreflected life is not worth living”. We speak of people in caring professions as “reflective practitioners”, and this is what we clergy need to be. The tides of death and resurrection move in our own lives too, and we need to be attuned to them if we are to be authentic as clergy. The story of Lazarus wasn’t simply death and resurrection for him only, or even his sisters Martha and Mary. John says that Jesus’ tears were as real as everyone else’s. So when the dead man came out of the tomb, didn’t Jesus share that family’s joy? Wasn’t it a rehearsal of his own death and resurrection?
So it is with us as ministers. “Man was made for joy and woe”. You will have joy enough and woe enough as deacons and priests – if, that is, you care sufficiently to be involved in people’s lives by loving not at a distance but face to face, incarnationally, as God does. Crucifixions and resurrections in abundance lie in wait for you, I promise. Be attentive to them, and to the God who is present within them, and discover how they belong to your journey of becoming “fully alive”. For the more we immerse ourselves in God’s work in the world, the more we look for him in the lives of others, the more fully alive we ourselves become, and the more our signs, the more our works bring glory to God.
That is my prayer for you on this day that you pledge yourselves to be men and women who will represent God in the world. Go with his blessing. Bring joy. Bring wholeness. Bring nourishment. Bring light. Bring life. Be fully alive. And always be thankful.
Given at the Friary, Alnmouth, Northumberland, June 2018