Beauty in Brokenness

Beauty for brokenness, hope for despair….God of the poor, friend of the weak, give us compassion we pray..

This is a song that I have grown up with and perhaps would have been part of my formation in the 80s and 90s. But singing it while on a reconciliation pilgrimage last weekend it suddenly jarred, Who is the ‘us’ in the chorus. Are ‘we’ the poor and weak or are we the rich and strong who need to have compassion for ‘them’ the weak and poor. Are beauty and brokenness incompatible – does one really replace the other or can they be found together? Is not hope seen its most pure and compelling form when it exists alongside despair – a phenomenon I have seen most clearly on visits to the Holy Lands.

The Church of England has suddenly got very interested in reconciliation. There are new courses being developed, the Archbishop’s Lent book is on the subject and for me personally its an emerging theme for my ministry post-curacy.

I don’t think that I or the church as a whole can approach reconciliation ministry as if we think we are whole and sorted and can rescue a broken world. The church has very public flaws and failing, its internal conflicts are well known nationally and internationally. I am glad my failings are not known nationally and internationally – but they are nonetheless real and deep – I cannot pretend to my friends, my family or even to my enemy to be sorted and sinless.

My ministry, now my time as St Peter’s as a curate is over, has several roles and channels of interest – as my focus on international conflict develops and I remain deeply concerned about the welfare of this city and nation. As a trustee, tutor, facilitator, deacon, networker and leader the one thing that holds everything together is reconciliation – the desire to bridge divides, bring people together, to embrace the other, love those considered to be our enemy and to form a more inclusive culture.

The debates and negotiations around Brexit have revealed hidden divisions in our community – these are not usually the obvious divides. I have friends from many different faiths and ethnicities, from different levels of wealth and education among my 450 friends on Facebook but I only had one person on there who is an open Leave supporter. I was recently describing the network of people I love in Birmingham who come from all faiths and none and encourage and support each other to make a difference wherever they can. “Is there anyone in your group who reads The Sun, or even The Telegraph? ” I was asked. I doubt it and wish there were – how to reach beyond people like us, way beyond the usual suspects, continues to challenge me as our network changes, morphs and develops.

The visible divides can still be problematic. I wonder if Shamima Begum would have been treated differently if she were a young, white, middle-class woman groomed by a far-right cult? It makes me sad that Jewish people in Birmingham need so much security when they gather for worship and that not everyone feels safe (whether they are safe or not is another matter) visiting every part of this city.

I hear the call to reconciliation most clearly through Jesus’s call  to love our enemies. His life, death and resurrection show me what it means to live for others, to resist evil with love and to journey in obedience to God even if the cost is crucifixion.  If any of us could live even with a fraction of his faithfulness it would have a huge impact on the world.

At the moment I am doing some work for a human rights charity, BRAP, running my women’s leadership programme, teaching and tutoring at Queens Theological Foundation and doing bits and pieces for local and national charities and for the diocese. The broad umbrella for all this work is reconciliation in my mind and heart and I hope to strengthen the focus on this as my developing ministry emerges, keeping my connection with Israel-Palestine and Bosnia too.

I am also being equipped and trained for this work too. So that’s why I was visiting a reconciliation centre in Yorkshire as part of a  pilgrimage visiting six centres around the UK experienced in this work and as part ofthe worship there I found myself singing Beauty for Brokenness. I  am also learning a lot about facilitation at BRAP  and am learning to be a coach at Warwick University. I am so grateful for the equipping and the experiences I am being given.

But most of all, I am grateful that I have people around me who help me see my brokenness, my weakness, my poverty and know that the beauty is found within the fragility. The people who inspire me are not those waiting for God to take them out of the mess, nor those who feel God has prevented them from getting into any mess but they are the people who know they are in the mess but know God is there too and they are doing all they can to keep glimmers of glory shining in the shadowy places of beauty and brokenness.



A Midnight Mass Sermon from Bethlehem

My sixth visit to Bethlehem happened to land in the week before Christmas. The city was full of lights and people were as usual welcoming and generous. But there was a hollowness too – latest statistics show the number of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza has fallen to just 1%, there are very few tourists and even few visitors from local villages, business is slow and there are no signs that lasting peace, justice and freedom will be born again in this city and region any time soon. Its a place that has come to be important to me spiritually, politically and personally and it was a privilege to spend time there again and to find a quiet moment to write my sermon to be given in Birmingham – at a service where we look forward to welcoming people from different faiths alongside our regular worshippers.

This reading from John’s Gospel will be read before the sermon.

John 1 1-14

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.[b]

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[d] full of grace and truth.


Allahu Akbar – you’ll have to imagine the gentle sound as I can’t add the sound file here

In the midst of the gentle plainsong of the call to prayer I picked out the familiar words. I was awake at 4 in the morning, in the quiet dead of night, staying in a small and rather chilly apartment not far from the centre of Bethlehem. The sounds float across the hills and valleys of this little town. Drifting over the shops, businesses, refugee camps, mosques, churches, walls, watchtowers and military installations. Allahu akbar – God is the greatest. The word takes form – as it drifts, filled with promise, comforting yet stirring, echoes of the eternal hope in a place where despair seems to be taking a terrible grip.

As I lay there listening I could not help thinking of the word taking flesh, right here in this town, just half a mile from where I lay. Living briefly among the people here, then in Nazareth, Jerusalem, the Galilee – places now familiar to me and visited by thousands who want to get as physically close as possible to the enfleshed word who shone God’s glory among us.

Last time I was here, we managed to sneak down to the grotto that marks the birthplace of Jesus and kneel at the spot where Jesus was supposed to have been born. There is an endless line of people shuffling, bowing, praying and leaving – at this time of year the queue comes out of the door of the church  as pilgrims dash in by bus and dash out again.

Why are people so drawn to this man Jesus, the man who is the Word, life, light and glory. Why do people fly thousands of miles to be close to the places that he inhabited, to touch stones and walk streets that he might once have walked?

I think the answer lies in the last verse of our reading.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son full of grace and truth.

Many, many, many of us, in our deepest being long for a unity with God. We long to know the embrace of the eternal, the unconditional love of the one who created us, the transforming tenderness of the one who can make us whole. But at the same time, deep within our minds and hearts we know God is so mysterious, so unlike us, so not human and so perfect that we are not sure if and how we can connect with such a being. And then there is somebody who can help us make that leap. Somebody who breathed, walked and talked like us but is bringing the fullness of divine glory to our tarnished, tired world.

So what is this glory of God that Jesus brings to earth. In the Hebrew tradition the word for glory is Shekinah – it’s a feminine word that permeates the Jewish understanding of God throughout the scriptures. In the Jewish, mystic tradition, as I understand it, the Kabbala tradition, shekinah is central to the understanding of creation.

In this understanding of the story God had to withdraw and become small in order to make room for the created world.  God contracted and there was darkness and then there was light- 10 vessels filled with the light of God’s glory were sent out to fill the earth. But the power and the light and the glory were too much for the vessels and they shattered – sending fragments of glory out into the universe, like sand, like stars, like seed. (And according to this myth, more of these fragments fell in the Holy Land than anywhere else).

So now humanity has a purpose. To find these shards of light and where they are imprisoned to free them, when they have become dull, to help them back to holiness. And when enough has been gathered – the world will be restored and healed.

For us as Christians, we can see in Jesus one who carries the light, restored and full, holy and whole, healthy and healing. We can see how we could be if we nurture and restore and knit back together the light that lives in us. We can see how others could be, even those we regard as unholy or unsacred, if their light too was whole and healed.

Jesus walked among us, full of grace and truth. It’s odd how virtues and gifts often seem to go in pairs. One of my favourite organisations is the Centre for Action and Contemplation,  because one of those is not enough on its own – we need new ways of being alongside new ways of doing.  And it is the same for grace and truth – they need each other. Grace, the unconditional love of God, the non-stop kindness, the unquenchable compassion. We need it. We need to know that we won’t be abandoned, that we cannot fall out of the circle of God’s care, that God never gives up on us. But if that were it we could become lazy, complacent, infantilized and purposeless. Grace needs truth alongside. Truth keeps us learning, changing, seeking and responding. Truth sets us free. It opens vistas, corrects our misunderstandings, widens our preconceptions and heals our prejudice. But on its own truth can feel overwhelming, threatening and scary. It can make us defensive and we may run away from it. But together truth and grace give us what we need to become whole.

Grace and truth, offered to us by the one who made the earth and walked among us,  let the divine light grow in us and we too can share God’s glory. And of course, we can be grace and truth for one another. We can offer support and love and care while making sure to be truthful, not to collude but to offer others new ways to see themselves and the world around them.

In Bethlehem I have met many who seek to live lives of grace and truth in difficult circumstances. Sometimes these people feel they are not changing anything, achieving anything, doing anything,  yet their presence is essential and their lives speak of divine love.  Our lives too, wherever we are, can be a sacrament, a tangible sign, of divine love.

At Christmas we may need plenty of grace, we may hear some truths for which we are not prepared. But as we spend times with those we love and those we sometimes find hard to love, let us look for the glory of God in them and offer them the priceless, timeless gift, that flows from the gift of God to humankind, the gift of grace and truth, working hand in hand to bring us all to the glory of God.


Hear again the call to peace – a sermon of remembrance for the people of Bosnia.

Shell-shocked. A war without weapons. Pock-marked. Scarred. Raw open wounds. Brokenness. Injustice.  My clearest memories of three days in Bosnia are abstract but vivid.

There is no doubt, Bosnia remains shattered by the war. Its politics, economy, the social fabric, cities and towns and individual lives remain in tatters nearly 23 years after the war ended. Perpetrators and victims meet in shops and libraries but justice has not been done and acts of denial continue the cycle of violation. Three presidents, representing different religious and ethnic identities take it in turns to lead the country but without real power or collaboration the economy is stagnant – only in the Democratic Republic of  Congo are more people unemployed than in Bosnia.  Many who can, leave.  Sarajevo, the capital city, is broken. The city bears physical scars of shooting and siege.  The river running through the centre of the city is a reminder of the fierce front line and schools, neighbourhoods and lives are divided by the legacy of the war. A city of co-existence and tolerance is now living with an uneasy truce.

But this beautiful country has another dimension. Survivors who have witnessed horrors and grieved and mourned seek to live without hatred and revenge. In Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 people were massacred, I saw the tenderness of a younger man, translating for an older woman – his hands resting lightly on her shoulders, he kisses the top of her head with affection and respect like the son she has lost.  The Mufti of Sarajevo, a senior Iman, brings young faith leaders together to train for peace, inspired by his Muslim faith he reaches out to those belonging to the same faiths as those who have killed and persecuted his family to offer a new way forward.  The city is permeated with time honoured traditions, coffee that can never be rushed, hospitality offered generously, good wine, great food, beautiful scenery, history and the fascinating mix of cultures – a line on the main road where east meets west – the Ottoman empire and the Austro-hungarian empire colliding.

Reading a travel book on the flight out – these words leap out  – the passage from coercion to co-operation, of people coming together because they choose to and not because they are forced to, is one of the greatest human journeys. My encounters in Bosnia bought home how different countries are in different places on that journey –  asserts the author.

But am I different? Are we different? What choices do we make about education, housing, socialising, worship, work and leisure?  Christians in Bosnia were perpetrators of horrific identity based violence. They waited to commit the Srebrenica genocide until July 11th so it could be an offering to St Benedict. They prayed the same prayers us as, read the same scriptures and worshipped the same God yet in a harrowing piece of film we watch them stop a brutal execution because the batteries on the video camera ran out and they wanted to go back to base for some more before finishing off the massacre.

How do we as Christians, as people who follow Jesus, make peace-making, reconciliation, love-building and boundary breaking central to our faith and practice? How are we formed and how are we forming others so that fear, greed and identity politics cannot turn friend against friend, neighbour against neighbour in an ‘intimate’ war like the one in Bosnia. Are we happy with an uneasy truce when we meet someone who threatens our beliefs, challenges our privilege or competes with us for resources we perceive as scarce?

I pray that the church will be seen and known as a community of people who live out the call to love our enemies, to embrace the other, to recognise that we are intimately connected and that every single human being carries the spark of the divine and is loved by the one we seek to worship. We remember today the terrible dangers of division, the carnage of hatred unleashed and the futility of violence but we listen too for the call of Christ, who embodied the way of peace, who gives us peace, who died for peace and we pray today for the grace to follow where Christ leads us. Amen.

Peace by Piece

Here is one I wrote earlier – about a month earlier – when we were just back from Israel-Palestine and the Women, Equality and Faith conference was still being planned. But it has just been published this week on the Heartedge newsletter. Hope it is worth an airing….

I’m writing this a week after flying back from Israel where I had been part of a group of 24 people from Birmingham. Drawn from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions, together we were exploring holiness, conflict and peace in one of the most contested places in the world.

As we returned I was plunged into preparations for a conference on Gender, Equality and Faith to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th. These two pieces of work may seem at first glance to have nothing in common but for me they are both about peace.

I believe the Bible is a narrative of peace and reconciliation, Jesus’s death was a cosmic peace-building moment and all Christians are called to be peace-makers. Policy makers call one part of peace ‘cohesion’ and for this reason I have got involved in various cohesion initiatives across the city.

But at a recent event we were presented with a report of findings drawn from a series of ‘Honest Conversations’ that challenged the idea that faith communities have a serious part to play in cohesion. The report concluded that peace-builders needed to offer spaces and places in which all were free to participate and contribute but faith communities often excluded groups of people from full participation for doctrinal reasons or cultural reasons and not only were non-believers marginalised, women’s voices were not often heard, minority ethnic Christians have struggled to find a place in established churches and LGBTI+ people were not welcome. These are some of the issues we’ll be exploring at our conference.

The importance of shared space and place was highlighted on our recent visit to the Holy Land. Peace-builders struggled to find spaces and places that all could access because of the way land was divided and controlled. Organising events for faith leaders generally meant no women were at the table and so we met activists who had switched their focus and terminology  from faith ‘leaders’ to faith ‘actors’ to make sure that women could be present and represented. I would like to see that happen here too. Another issue for peacemakers in Israel-Palestine is language – how can peace be built when people don’t share a common language?

Sometimes as Christians in the UK we speak a completely different language from our neighbours. I remember joining a mission organisation aged 18 and not speaking for two weeks as I had no idea what anyone was talking about because I came from a different church tradition from other participants. Our Christian culture can be baffling. Our confident pronouncements can leave people feeling judged.

Our neighbourhoods are crying out for places where all people are welcome, for activities that include all people, for encounters that turn the stranger into a friend. Our world is crying out for models of community that straddle difference, for people who love one another across perceived divides.

Ringing in my ears is the challenge from a Palestinian peacemaker, Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust: be a model for us of how to live well together. If you can do it in Birmingham the ripples will reach us here.

Every day, we pray the oldest Christian prayer – ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ I am sure that all in the kingdom of heaven are included, are free to participate and are valued. Let’s have a go – in Birmingham, in Bradford, in Bristol and beyond and we can be sure the ripples will be felt across the world.

PS The Gender conference has now happened and we had a great time as women and men together exploring what it means to flourish, to share leadership and to be fully engaged with our faith communities. Before the conference we commissioned our friends at BRAP to hold some focus groups exploring how women engage with their faith communities. You can read the report here.

Here is the graphic report produced during the conference

NN - IWD2018(S)

The Subjectiveness of Seeing

Walking along the canal today I passed a man who was intent on taking a photo. He stood for quite some time focussing and refocussing a professional looking camera, gazing at a spot over the water. After passing him I glanced back to try and understand what had caught his eye – but I could see nothing – just a bleak tree backed by a sixties tower.

This moment reminded me of the reflections we had yesterday, one month after our visit to Israel-Palestine as a group of Christian, Muslim and Jewish friends. The Israeli organisation which led the group is called ADAShA which means lens in Hebrew and Arabic.  They accompanied us with great expertise, giving us multi-faceted perspectives, helping us to understand nuance and complexity, stretching our understanding and challenging our preconceptions.

As we met yesterday one of our local group leaders commented that to some extent we had seen what we wished to see. I wanted to disagree and say what we saw are the facts on the ground, they are indisputable. But the conversation continued reminding me that on our first day in Jerusalem I had said I was unnerved by the predominance of guns because they spoke to me of violence and oppression. Other people saw guns and felt grateful for safety and security. For others who had lived abroad they were simply normal. The diversity of the group and leading and guiding of Adasha worked to move us on from our preconceptions and give us new understandings and new insights.

When I was a teenager, one of the few convincing things I heard about repentance – that was much more palatable than the no drinking, no smoking, no dating interpretation – was the idea that repentance means having new eyes, new lenses – it is a whole new way seeing.

I have been to Israel-Palestine four times and looked with four different perspectives at the situation there but I still carry fixed ideas, prejudices and judgements.

If there is anything I am learning over the last few months it seems to be one simple thing. It is probably something some people don’t need to learn or others learnt ages ago – that simple thing is that it is not important to be right.

In Scriptural Reasoning this evening we looked at King Hezekiah and his healing. He is described as man ‘who has walked before you (God) in truth and with a perfect heart and have done that which is good in your sight.’  Not a bad epitaph. To me a truthful character seems quite different from being right.

Right is about facts, truth is about virtue; right is about competition, truth is about an honest humility; right makes demands and will not necessarily bring peace, truth seeks to look beyond one’s own experience and limited knowlege; right is often knee-jerk, truth is the long slow gaze that focuses and refocuses the lens.

I know there is far more truth to learn in Israel-Palestine than can be learnt in four short visits and some of that truth will conflict. I know repentance is ongoing and my lenses need constant changing, cleaning and refining. So thank you to all of you who have broadened my vision, helped to challenge my prejudices and thanks to the man with a camera who has reminded me that truth needs a slow, thoughtful gaze, accurate focussing and the ability to see beauty where others see nothing.



Who is your teacher?

Today I had the priviledge of preaching about Jesus’s encounter with the Syrophonecian woman – one of my favourite stories in the Gospels. I love it because Jesus seems to learn from the woman and it’s her persistence and good humour that moves him to compassion.

Here is the reading  from Mark chapter 7 for those of you that don’t know it.

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.

For me, the last verse is one of the most interesting. It seems that after this encounter Jesus changed his route back to the familiar land around the Sea of Galilee and spent more time among the Gentile people, in the region of Decapolis.

Earlier this morning, the Gospel reading  I heard was the story of the Good Samaritan  – in that story again it is the religious other, the outsider, who is a model of discipleship. Jesus uses the story of kindness from a Samaritan to teach the disciples how to fulfil the commandment to love your neighbour. He could have had the Samaritan as the one who was beaten up and made the same point but he chose to have the outsider as the one who is the agent of grace, kindness and compassion.

I have found in may own life that people of other faiths and ethnicities have often  reminded me of what is so very important about my own faith. I could quote numerous examples that I witnessed or experienced on our recent trip to Israel/Palestine as a group of  Jewish, Muslim and Christian friends. The Jewish man who enabled a  female Christian priest to participate in a communion service where she could not preside by arranging for her to read the lesson. The Muslim woman who accompanied three women who were asked to leave a mosque at prayer time because she did not want to pray there if her friends were not welcome.  Another Muslim woman who shared her cucumbers and biscuits with seven other people who were unable to buy lunch and no-one was left hungry. I could go on.

But since I returned another example has been playing on my mind. I was chatting by text to a Muslim friend who was visiting a neighbour in prison. She had arrived early and was sitting waiting for visiting times and I mentioned that Jesus says in Matthew 25 that anyone who visits someone in prison is actually visiting him.

My friend  responded to this passage with such interest and with such seriousness that it made me ask if we, as a church, really understand what Jesus was saying. Have we really considered how we will be judged?  Last week I read an article saying that many nurses no longer had time to be with those who were dying. A friend who is a hospital chaplain talks about the huge stress and lack of resources she faces every days as corridors are filled with patients and care is stretched more and more thinly. Equally in prisons, where over-crowding and cuts are causing more and more stress and hardship, it is hard to recruit and retain chaplains to be with some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Unknowingly my Muslim friend rekindled in me an understanding of God’s unswerving commitment to the poor and the sense that nothing is more important than serving those in need,  offering food to those who are hungry and working tirelessly for a more just and equal society.  My conversations with friends from different faiths are like being both a teacher and a seeker alternately. I hope that, from time-to-time, something  I have said or done has deepened the faith of others.

Jesus seems ready to receive from those outside of his own faith traditions, those who are feared or despised, those whose religions are different from his own. This city sees many faithful Muslims caring for the homeless;  compassionate Jewish people welcoming refugees; chaplains from different faith communities being alongside the vulnerable. I am praying that we as Christians have our ears open to learn as we encounter God at work in the world and to listen widely as God leads us into a new phase of being church.

Middle-ground and sin or why I love ‘Bread Church’

Bread Church – or Bread for the World as its properly called – is a new service that we started in September. We have only met twice but it is already a highlight of my month. It is very simple – we meet, we make bread, we talk, we laugh.  When there is a pause in the baking process those of us who want to pray do so, and then we eat.  We are gathered for 2-3 hours and we are a diverse bunch drawn from different faiths and none, different ages, ethnicities, classes and with a very varied level of ability in the kitchen. I have now definitely earnt a reputation as the cack-handed curate!

At a meeting about cohesion on Wednesday one of the issues raised was that although religion thought it was promoting cohesion it was actually dividing people. Alongside this, and partly as a consequence of this, there are very few places that all people can belong without either keeping some part of their identity hidden or without risking outright rejection. For example, many religious groups would exclude not only on the basis of creed but also on sexuality and for many, gender may be a barrier to full participation. Coffee shops/cafes subtly separate us by class and wealth, other centres and activities are only really open to certain ethnicities: for example, pubs and restaurants are often not comfortable place if you have dietary requirements or alcohol is prohibited. In Jerusalem in May I heard it said that the only two places you see co-existence are the zoo, and the hospital.  I wonder how different Birmingham really is.

Bread Church meets in a building attached to the church and that might put some people off but looking round the room on Sunday I felt a twinge of delight as I saw people mixing that would not normally get to spend time together. There was so much laughter in the room, real conversations and very, very good food accompanying the chapatis and rotis we made.

At a study morning earlier today the speaker, Bishop Graham Tomlin, talked about some of the changes that the Reformation had wrought in the Church, 500 years ago. He said that there was a theological shift from a religion in which a person looked inwards and tried to accumulate enough points to get to heaven to a religion which turned the believer to being outward-focussed, facing God and neighbour, as Jesus commanded us to be.

I wonder if as a church we have recently begun to turn in, in that way. We have started to worry about what we need. We are anxious that not enough people are coming to church and there won’t be enough money to keep it all going. We want people to join us, become like and believe the same as us.

Bread Church was prompted by a conversation in which someone outside the church mentioned to our vicar (a fantastic baker) how much she would like to make bread. It was not started to meet our need for church growth or to bring in young people – although it is growing and young people come and enjoy it. It came about because the church was already turned outwards and engaging with neighbours from different faiths. Instead of asking what do we want, the church asked what would you like to do. Instead of worrying about what we need as church to survive, the church responded to the request from a neighbour.This shift has meant that people inside and outside church happily give up around three hours on a Sunday afternoon with enthusiasm and no sense of compulsion.

Bread for the World is not ‘the answer’ to the city and the church but it is a small contribution to the flourishing of life together, the growth of community and the establishment of middle ground. It makes me wonder if perhaps Bread Church and spaces and places like it are a ‘foretaste of the heavenly banquet.’


Finding A Voice

Tomorrow I am having my first singing lesson – 40 years after being told that I couldn’t sing and I should no longer be in the Primary School choir. It is a common experience – so many people tell me they can’t sing and have similar childhood stories. I empathise with them and joke about my nervousness that my singing voice will be caught on the microphone and  empty the church in an instance.

But over the decades I have heard other voices. Voices that say that everyone can sing and it’s a matter of confidence and technique. So two and a half years into my curacy, after dodging leading choral evensong and obsessively checking the on/off switch on the mic I have decided that I can sing, I just need to learn how. So tomorrow I am having my first singing lesson.

Finding a voice was an important phrase for me in my ordination story. Working in PR I felt I was giving my voice away to more powerful people in statements and press releases. I lost confidence in owning my opinions and truths and learning to preach has been a part of finding my own voice again – this blog has probably also been part of that.

I thought maybe that was enough – if I could preach and teach, surely it does not matter that I could not sing. But recently I was asked when I last tried to do something that scared me, when I last risked failure and as I realised I had been playing it quite safe the challenge of learning to sing started to take root.

Churches in my tradition hold a beautiful service on the evening before Easter, the Easter Vigil. The service starts in darkness, then the Easter candle is lit from a bonfire outside church and carried into the building. It is the job of the deacon to announce the resurrection of Christ – singing the words ‘The light of Christ’. Following this announcement the deacon leads the rejoicing of the church in a (long) song of praise called the Exsultet.

Last year I spoke the words, the year before the priest sang them for me. This year I plan to sing them. I hope I will manage all of it but I will have a trusty singing friend on standby just in case. This year the Easter vigil falls on my birthday, March 31st. After 40 years of saying ‘I can’t’ I thought the biggest gift I could give myself was saying ‘I can’ or at least ‘I will try.’ So tomorrow I am having my first singing lesson, I have got five months to find my voice – good job I trust in a God of miracles, a God of resurrection that can bring a hesitant and timid voice back to fullness of life.FullSizeRender (2)

America vs England – a rough and superficial comparison following a week long visit.

When my phone rang on my birthday and I was asked if I wanted to go to Denver as part of an exchange focusing on countering extremism my response was both yes and no. Of course I wanted to visit another country with a great bunch of people but I have never really considered that anything I do focuses on countering extremism. But I said yes, setting off with some trepidation- unsure what I have to offer.

I am so glad I did. I learnt a lot, laughed a lot and came back with some wonderful new friendships and strengthened relationships. I still can’t believe that a working trip, exploring a serious issue could be so much fun.

I am still no expert on countering extremism but  I continue to be inspired by one of the phrases I remember from my recent trip to Israel which was spoken, I think, by a Palestinian politician. He said: to fight extremism you have to strengthen the moderates. I think this is true in many ways and applies to religious as well as political life. I often wonder how we make ‘middle-of-the road’ Anglicanism look so boring. And, while it would be naive to think we do not need a Counter Terrorist Unit and appropriate support and safeguarding for those at risk from violent ideologies, my time focused on countering extremism has convinced me that we need to continue to strengthen the moderates. If the world can be viewed as a sandwich, we need to work together to ensure the filling is as thick and as tasty as possible and the edges are getting further apart and thinner and thinner.

This does not mean the middle is a homogeneous mush of blandness – but it is individuals, groups and communities who see the worth in one another and are committed to a greater good. People from many different political backgrounds, faiths, ethnicities and backgrounds who love their neighbour, their city and look for goodness, justice, mercy and generosity in their private lives and public systems.

That is it about countering extremism – below are my musings more generally after the week’s visit.

So back to America Vs England: Patriotism


If I were an Americans writing this blog I am pretty sure that I would have added -‘a person who loved their country’ into the last paragraph. Flags are part of daily life, swearing allegiance is normal and patriotism is not problematised. Many causes and campaigns happily use the stars and stripes in their campaigning – eg Hate Has no Home.

Do we have something to learn? Could a strong, positive national identity actually help us develop into a more inclusive and integrated society?

Mental Heath

A Denver participant on the exchange joked that Americans would see a therapist if an episode of their favourite soap was rescheduled. We generally think that that obsession with therapy is a bad thing but we also saw some good sides to this national hobby particularly in relation to refugees.


I remember feeling truly ashamed of our country when I discovered that creating ‘a hostile environment’ was a deliberate policy developed by Theresa May. In contrast we saw city departments dedicated to the welcome of migrants, free mental health services provided by post-graduate students at Denver University, a ‘resilience centre’ offering drop-in mental health support to refugees, asylum seekers and others affected by trauma. ‘Undocumented’ people have access to education and entrepreneurship amongst refugees is encouraged and supported by local government. This seemed a lot, lot better than the situation we have in the UK. I perceived that refugees were trusted and their trauma recognised while their potential was welcomed – this may not be all the time and everywhere but it was good to see and contrasted starkly with some British attitudes.


Were a complete nightmare. Their acceptance was astonishing. They made policing difficult in a myriad of ways. They took lives in collateral damage. They were permitted everywhere. Declaring a college a no-gun zone was deemed ‘unconstitutional.’ Young people living in poor areas were shot and feared being shot. Security in many buildings was tight. We never want to have a gun culture like the US. It feeds off and creates layers and layers of distrust and fear. (My American Godmother and others like her also think it is bonkers and the constitution is being poorly interpreted.)

This picture is not from America – it’s from Yorkshire!img_9573.jpg


Like guns, cannabis is legal in Colorado. This has raised some $5 billion in taxes and caused a population explosion of young entrepreneurial hipster-types. The money is funding schools and non-profits. However no-one is sure what the shadow side really is. There are rumours of a cannabis-inspired homicide and a fatal accident in which a young man jumped off a balcony. Cars are being driven (and guns used) by people who are high. Cannabis use is sometimes linked to psychosis. It is hard to control the strength of the products being sold – especially edibles. Good or bad – no-one seems to know.

White Supremacists

As is being currently demonstrated in Charlottesville, America has a problem with White Supremacy. In Denver, two or three generations ago, many civic leaders had been Klansmen. White supremacist movements and organisations continue to flourish in Colorado. Some of these have a Christian-based identity. This was deeply unsettling. Racist ideologies also flourish in the UK. Does the church have a role to play in interrupting such narratives here? We do know that far right groups in the UK connect with far right groups in America.

One man challenged us by saying that displaying images of a white man and naming him the son of God/God was an act of White supremacy. (He also said to have images of a black man on the cross and name him God would be an act of Black supremacy.)

Many far-right groups also support a virulently anti-LGBTI agenda. Many of these are churches and religious institutions. Clergy are protesting at Charlottesville today, the Bishop of Wolverhampton has declared a Britain First demo to be blasphemous – with whom should the church be working here to counter racist ideologies and other hate-fuelled beliefs?


The Episcopalian church in the USA has certainly distanced itself from homophobia in recent years and I am sure there is much we can learn from them on this and other issues too. The church in Denver appeared to be engaged in projects to support people living in poverty and we attended an interfaith event hosted by Denver Cathedral. But instinctively, I felt grateful for the parish system that roots and grounds us in a community. We, Anglicans in England, need to make sure we do not lose that or we could risk being a gathered club for people who happen to like worshiping in the same way as us and believe the same things as us. Some churches successfully navigate this without a parish system but I think a commitment to all people in one neighbourhood is really important. We are shaped by our context and in turn we hope to shape our context. We engage, hopefully, with the people who live close to us and we seek to reflect the diversity of our community in our congregation.


It seemed as tho’ people in American (when they had not been replaced by i-pads) were happy to serve food and drink and generally meant it when they said things like ‘Good job’ or ‘You’re welcome.’ Hospitality was generous and commonplace – especially at breakfast. We particularly liked coffee-boxes. Communication, on the whole, felt less complicated than the UK. Satire, particularly Trump satire, was everywhere.


Other random things – pedestrian lights don’t beep (bad), snacks are healthier and more interesting, cars are everywhere, the grid system keeps things moving and is so simple it is nearly confusing, Denver has an amphitheatre that is a gym by day, bars shut early (bad) and the hotel had a bagel-cutter (essential).

I leave you with this:

Love wins


A Day to Remember

The United Kingdom has found a new saint. Someone who is recognized as having lived in such a way that we want to be like her,  someone whose words and deeds are full of a practical holiness. A woman who was martyred  for her beliefs, a woman who is being quoted by many, whose life is being celebrated on her particular saint’s day, a woman who did not seem to profess a faith in God but who believed deeply in humanity.

Jo Cox had a vision for a just, connected, welcoming and loving society.  She campaigned tirelessly for the oppressed and stood in solidarity with those suffering from injustice. Her life, her beliefs, her unstoppable spirit are an inspiration to many of us – and perhaps to those of us who believe in God – they speak to us of God’s love, God’s kingdom and God’s call to service.

The nation does not need to wait for the Church to tell us that Jo was a saint and declare the 17th of June to be her day. It has happened already. The One Love concert in Manchester did not need a priest or an evangelist to talk about God in a meaningful and accessible way. In fact, last week I found myself using the words of Justin Bieber to talk about God in church in a way that might make sense to those who are not used to sermons, preaching and long services. I hope his words continue to make sense as the tragedy of Grenfell Tower unfolds.

This is what he said:

“I’m not going to let go of hope. I’m not going to let go of love. I’m not going to let go of God. Put your hand up if you’re not going to let go. God is good in the midst of the darkness. God is good in the midst of the evil. God is in the midst, no matter what’s happening in the world, God is in the midst and he loves you and he’s here for you.”


Inside and outside the church, inside and outside of what is called religious faith, God is revealing God’s love by raising up people who can talk about love, people who stand up for justice, people who truly love their neighbour as themselves.

People who live as if there is a God of love, as if their own needs are not paramount, as if death is not the end of life are incredibly inspiring. We can all probably name a few people like that. I hear quite a few people who do not profess to believe in God asking why are there not more people like that in our Churches – it is a good question. These people embody God’s love and help other’s believe.

The Catholic church apparently has 810 people it recognizes as saints and one of the things I like about the Anglican cycle of daily prayer is reading about the saints and martyrs celebrated on a calendar each year. Today (June 18th)  the church remembers Bernard Mizeki and you can read a wonderful blog about martyrdom here.

But perhaps some of those people are worth more attention than a couple of paragraphs, once a year.

Yesterday my daughter asked me about St Francis and his relationships with animals as she crammed for A’ level RE. I told her that he preached to birds and then we explored a bit more deeply. St Francis is one of my favourite saints. I think he and Jo Cox would have found a lot in common and in his interaction with a wolf, I found a wonderful model for reconciliation.

In short – there was a wolf that was killing people and terrorising the town. The people did not have capacity to kill the wolf and they asked St Francis to help. He went to the forest, found the wolf and listened to it’s story. (The wolf was injured and couldn’t catch its normal prey so had resorted to humans). St Francis explained the pain and damage the wolf was inflicting on the town and the wolf became remorseful. After a time of prayer, St Francis proposed to the wolf that it should stop killing people,  if they agreed to feed it and the wolf agreed. They return to the town together, the people hear the wolf’s story, agree (after a struggle) to forgive it, keep it fed and it lives with dignity in the town. I have missed much in this retelling – a wonderful, longer version can be found here.

The Church believes in this kind of reconciliation – as do many other people. The world needs this sort of reconciliation.  All sorts of people are being branded wolves, they never have the chance to explain that they are injured, fearful, confused, in need. Conflict is a part of every aspect of life – we need to make reconciliation as common-place.

On Tuesday I heard this quote from Archbishop Justin Welby:

“If the Church is not a place both of conflict and of reconciliation it is not merely hindering its mission and evangelism, appalling as such hindrance is, but it is a failing or failed church. It has ceased to be the miracle of diversity in unity, of the grace of God breaking down walls.

We must be reconciled reconcilers. When that happens we are unbelievably attractive, distinctively prophetic, not because we all agreed but because we disagree with passion in love.”

Reconciliation takes the courage to step into someone else’s shoes and see the world from their eyes. It takes the humility to realise that the whole truth is not contained in one point of view. It takes the commitment to advocate for the other and to risk a potentially hostile response. It takes the love to risk losing your life that others might gain their life.

Jo lived with buckets of empathy and passion. She was killed. Martin Luther King lived with vision and commitment. He was killed. Jesus gave up his life for others. He was killed.

These people remind us of the cost but their legacies remind us of the gain. Can we take the risk to become reconciled reconcilers? Can we be people who can really bring people together and help them see what they have in common. Moving beyond shared lunches, picnics and iftaars will we reach out to those  people right on the margins, to hear the stories of those people who are being excluded and to advocate for them, to be changed by them and to risk our comfort for the sake of others?