Thursday, December 26, 2013


So that was Christmas.

My first Christmas back in Oxfordshire.

In Pontypridd, people used to say - "This will be your busy time of year then!" and I would smile a fixed, polite-enough smile and nod. It really wasn't that much busier than any other time of year. There were services to do, sermons to write, people to see, stuff happening. Life. And a few days off afterwards.

Here having three parishes, I got to do Christmas three times over. So yes, it turns out Christmas is my busy time of year. Good job I really enjoy it! (Christmas; and the job, come to think of it.)

From the Christingle in Tackley, where we saw about a fifth of the village pack into the church, to Christmas morning, it has been a real delight to take the Advent journey and see everything that happens here.

In a way it's invidious to pick out highlights, but I guess people will forgive me if I pull out one or two.

That Tackley Christingle was super - in no small part because it was such a surprise. We held it on a Friday afternoon after school as an experiment, and it worked. The school there were totally wonderful to work with, and really supportive - I am only sorry I missed the children singing at the Tackley Carol Service as I was at Steeple at the time. The Steeple Carol Service was fantastic - in no small part to the wonderful musicianship of Jonathan who played organ & ran the choir. North Aston was also a delight; I'm only sorry I had to run from one to the other! Miranda was tremendously prescient & chose music that Kings sang a couple of days later... Again, I am surprised by how good the choirs were in each of the churches. Remember: our largest village has around 1,000 inhabitants, so it's a bit like expecting Portugal to field a football team.

Here is a snippet of the Steeple Carol Service.

And another highlight was hearing the children from the school in Steeple sing a carol I wrote for them at their school Christmas service. Yes, inevitably - here's that too!

Crib Services are new to me. I've never actually done one before in almost 20 years of being ordained. Well, old dogs do learn new tricks. Steeple's was massive, and needed all the crowd control techniques I've learned over the years (never let them see the fear) in order to get to the money moment ("because you matter to God - and you - and you..." and suddenly we have pin-drop quiet) but meanwhile in North Aston...

In North Aston we had the epitome of rural ministry. Steeple has a Crib which can only be described as a mansion. North has a fold out table covered with sawdust, a candle lantern, and knitted figures. Simple and yet stunning. As we all stood around and looked at this naive scene, there was a sudden intimacy which was breathtakingly pure. I loved it.

 I could go on. I should go on. I've not mentioned Carols on the Green, or Midnight, or Christmas Morning -
And I will mention the last of those three, but not for the church services, which were glorious (stunning candles in Tackley, unbelievable attendance in North). No; rather I'm going for earlier in the morning when Harry and I went for our usual woodland path walk, and suddenly heard a noise up ahead. Harry started, and made to move forwards, and then froze to the spot. In front of us, facing away, was a huge deer. For a moment it was still, and then it leapt away - one, two three enormous bounds and it was off. The dog and I had been rooted to the spot as we watched, and only as the deer disappeared did Harry shake himself and set off to follow - but it had gone. A beautiful moment in the early sunlight, a gift.

A gift that sums up this joyful season, for it has all been gift. Gifts of people all around, in song, in worship, in the villages, in the pub, in the choirs, in concerts and gatherings of all sorts, not forgetting lunch with Benyons and Hayns families on Christmas afternoon.

Oh - One more thing.

There are a couple of lovely people here who have been in hospital over Christmas. So I popped across to Witney see them between Christmas morning services and lunch. Just for a few minutes conversation, just to wish them Happy Christmas, to read a little Scripture, and to pray.

And I confess that in that hospital, with the background noise of too-loud TVs and nurses calling down the corridor and the smell of disinfectant and the glare of cheap decorations - I was profoundly and deeply touched by the Lord who was born in a stable in order to be God with us. Always.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 06, 2013


I am hearing on the radio & reading on Twitter a number of tributes to Nelson Mandela that speak of how, in the 1980s, some people in the UK supported Mandela and the ANC whilst others regarded him as a terrorist.

With respect, Nelson Mandela lived reconciliation.

Isn't the point of the man who wore the Springbok shirt at the Rugby world cup final that sometimes (and this may well be such a fitting time) we forgive one another the past in order to have a chance of writing a different future? Such a man does not belong to the few.

And though he encouraged the remembering, it was to aid reconciliation, not to punish those who had failed him. We honour Mandela with his agenda; even if his great dream for his nation has (for now) only been realised with patchy success, his global legacy is how we all live reconciliation.

If some who got it wrong thirty years ago have since understood and changed, this is a tribute to the generous forgiveness of a true hero of our times. Small-minded reminders of bleaker choices put me in mind of something my grandmother used to say:

"Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

Or, perhaps, better:

"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." (The Long Walk to Freedom, 1995)

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Reporting Pilling

So the Pilling Report has been published.

The list of those who wrote or spoke to Joe Pilling's working group on human sexuality for the House of Bishops reveals that many conservatives were determined that their voice should be heard, and that many from the differing gay lobby groups also wanted to have a voice.

I'm not entirely clear how many non-interested parties wrote in, which is perhaps an inevitable shame.

The report is careful: it sets out its context very slowly, establishing methodology, its understanding of Anglicanism on several levels, and discussing the differing types of evidence brought before the group. It seeks to be practical and theoretical, and does not deliver any killer new doctrinal statements.

What it does do - importantly - is set out a generous, grace-shaped space for the future. The report understands that there is difficult work to be done, but I think at times instead of describing what the future might look like, it tries to describe what the future might feel like.

In the past, all our discussions on sexuality in Anglicanism have been extraordinarily angst-ridden, as if this was our most precious set of doctrines. But get real; we are about Jesus folks. The Pilling report doesn't say that sentence anywhere - indeed, the Bishop of Runcorn's dissenting statement appeals to Tom Wright's Durham address where he would not put this debate into the 'adiaphora' file. Yet the tone of the whole report gives the Bishop of Runcorn cause for his dissenting statement. All the way through there is a push to lower the angst, to up the grace, to look for the best in those with whom we may disagree and to accept that Christians differ.

That's the key, vital, Anglican nature of this report.

And it doesn't put the Scriptures to one side in order to allow for this. It engages in some debate (throughout; and in the two very lengthy and differing appendices), and has much room for references to more, and clearly shows that freshness and generosity will take us further - if not in changing minds then certainly in how we conduct ourselves as we speak with one another. And that has to be fundamentally Biblical.

I have to admit I am beginning to be saddened by a new popularity of the word 'revisionist'. It gets used when someone doesn't like someone else trying to look at the Scriptures from any fresh angle. 'Revisionist interpretations are to be avoided because the weight of scholarship is against them' is in fact like saying 'New things are to be avoided because there are more old things'. Biblical scholarship is always to be examined; if it handles the Scripture well, it is to be taken seriously whether it fits with our current understanding or not. I love 'revisionism', I thank God for 'revisionism' - in these terms Luther was a 'revisionist'. So was Cranmer. And Hooker. And Calvin. And Aquinas. And Wesley. NT Wright definitely is. These are all people who make us stop and change how we read the Bible. Thank God for these people. To suggest that we ever have everything right is - risking missing out on more. It's not suggesting the truth changes; it's saying that God is wonderful, and still may open our eyes.

But - and this is vital - whilst I don't like the attitude that wants to belittle change, I love the guys that sometimes come out with the attitude. They are vital to the church because their hearts are so good. I want new scholarship; I think the old scholarship doesn't do the Bible justice here because it doesn't work with the bigger picture of God. Yet I want to break bread with the people with whom I disagree - that's Church, that's what Jesus calls us to, and that's the tone I often find in Pilling.

On the day it was published I got sent a link to a new conservative evangelical website supporting gay people. LivingOut is clear: it upholds the trad line; here are a group of gay men who are (somewhat courageously) stating their sexuality very publicly, and adding that they will be celibate or look for a heterosexual relationship.

Honestly, as I read the site, I understand them completely, but disagree with their understanding and application of the Scripture. And I am glad we belong to the same church. It's a big house.

Because that's the other thing I found in Pilling, and this is priceless: nowhere in the findings or recommendations or general tone of the report did I find that it was in any way suggested gay people are sinful or second class. Gay people belong in the big house; there is - at last - officially room.

Even if there is work to be done, even if full equality is a long way off, even if the discipline of the church is still what it always was: there is room. I get that for some 'full equality' is not a goal; I get that for some the current discipline is quite good enough. As I said - I disagree, and with respect, do so because of the Bible.

I am grateful to the Pilling report as I read it for the first time and I hope it will see the Church of England move forward with generosity and grace and care, and perhaps with a few less raised voices along the way.

Monday, December 02, 2013


It's hard to express my wonder as an Old Mertonian returning to college for this year's Advent Carol Service.

I simply don't have the memory of chairs being put out in the sanctuary so that there was room for everyone who wanted to come to a service. We never had a choir like this. I never saw such spectacle as hundreds of candles flickering and glowing and processing out together. This is Merton College in its 750th year.

And then there is the brand new Dobson Organ, physically dominating the ante chapel, and thundering gloriously through preludes, hymns, anthems and voluntaries.

Mark, the chaplain when I was an undergraduate, is one of my heroes in life. He probably has no idea. I was a fairly unreconstructed evangelical as an undergraduate; vice-president of the OICCU, you name it. The years have added a little nuance for me to the black and white simplicity of those days, the odd grey here and there. And yet, for all that, I was up every morning and attending morning prayer in chapel with Mark and two or three others. He helped me to worship, and the vehicle, the tradition, was not the issue: the reality of the faith and the sight of God was.

These days, I'd be working out how he was using liturgy so well; then I just took it.

And my memory - for what it's worth - is that the life of the chapel ambled on, up and down, and Mark faithfully served us and several found a calling and went forward to ordained ministry, or into different kinds of orders. It was a warm place; he was a good man.

And now: this thing I always loved, watched over by this man I revered, has been transformed and I am truly, truly touched again by what I see and hear and feel today.

My parish here are learning that I am fussy about liturgy. It must be good, but it must be clear: I have no time for liturgy which is only useful to those who are liturgically literate. The in-crowd. Liturgy as a barrier to coming to worship is abhorrent.

Simon, Merton's current chaplain, is a superb liturgist. His materials are concise, readable, intelligent and straightforward to follow for the first-time or occasional visitor. The service booklet for the Advent Carol Service (given that we started in darkness) was excellent as a resource. The basic shape of the service was simple, with readings moving from promise in the Old Testament through the Prophets to the Annunciation in St Luke, surrounded by congregational carols and choir items, with a final procession to the ante chapel where all of us stood, candles in hand, organ blazing, glory descending. The execution of it was awe-inspiring.

The choir: This Christmas, most of us will hear choirs attempt Howells' A Spotless Rose. My heart usually sinks when I see it on a service order. It is a deceptive piece, which should ebb and flow and be like gossamer on the wind, and which more usually ends up like treacle on a spoon. Merton choir under Ben Nicholas' superb direction wove a web that was deliciously light. I can hear it still.

But the highlight was Matthew Martin's O Oriens, a magical, mysterious, breathtaking piece knotted around with glimpses of O Come O Come Emmanuel which quite simply moved me to tears. I didn't want it to end; ended, I wanted to stay in the moment of silence that followed for ever.

The organ: O Mertonians, the old days are gone. The platform, the pseudo-baroque tones that came straight from an early German period instrument recording of the 1960s, all gone. Now here be dragons. Monsters. Angels too - for a Leviathan it can sometimes play with an ethereal sweetness. And at the end, as we all sang out Lo, he comes I stood right by the Dobson and felt its full power, and the earth shook. Wonderful.

It was a real privilege to be with hundreds of others in Merton Chapel on Saturday. It is a real privilege to see what Simon and his team and his vision is achieving there. It was a special privilege to see Mark back for the occasion, and to speak briefly with him. Too briefly; I owe him so much.

It was the best start to Advent I can ever remember.