A sermon for Ash Wedensday delivered at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

One of the first puzzles that often faces a person who believes that there is a good God who loves us and desires our love in return is this: how do I live with myself? A sense of spiritual inadequacy is one of the most common responses to the presence of God. Faced with the purity, holiness and perfect loving-kindness of God we realize how very different we are and we feel guilty – if there is something specific on our mind. Or, just as often, we feel ashamed that we are – well, such a disappointing human being.

The guilt response is what we heard illustrated in the Psalm that was the Introit to this service. Allegri’s Miserere is David’s long song of lament when he realized just how bad and sad a person he was by misusing his power as King.

And that is rightly where our Ash Wednesday service, and therefore our Lenten journey, begins – with the sense that we are in the wrong. Although some people may have to work hard to generate a sense of penitence or compunction or sorrow, for many it is not far below the surface of smiling happiness or earnest seriousness. It’s one of those things that people think about but don’t talk about; that feeling of not being right with yourself, not being right with God.

But although feeling that sort of feeling is the beginning of the Lenten journey, it is certainly not the end. Lent is not an invitation to wallow in guilt or sink in shame, but to acknowledge it in some way and then to move forward in our relationship with God and our neighbours.

So – what to do for Lent? What to give up? What to take up? Most of us could afford to be rather more adventurous and self-challenging in our Lenten disciplines. There are, after all, no rules that we must obey. We are free to do what we like. My most memorable Lenten exercise was to try to give up grumbling.

I have since persuaded quite a lot of people to try it. No one has found it easy. One person told me it almost ruined her social life. And yet the pleasure of complaining is indeed a sinful pleasure. It does nothing to reflect the glory or grace of God. Sometimes we must protest, sometimes we need to critique, but much of our grumbling and complaining is unworthy of us.

But if giving up grumbling is a new idea, our service this evening will end with an invitation to you to connect with a very ancient idea. Before the congregation is dismissed, a bowl of ashes will be blessed, and those who remain for a minute or two will have an ashen cross smeared on their forehead while the minister says, ‘remember that you are dust and to dust you will return’. This ancient ritual points to the truth that while people imagine the spiritual quest as a struggle upwards, against gravity, as it were, in truth Christian spirituality is mostly about the journey downwards, based as it is on the belief that God can cope with anything other than dishonesty, hypocrisy and pretense.

It’s the real you that God loves, even if you find yourself disappointing.

The journey of Lent is not one of self-improvement, or one in which you discover how to be a perfect, good or impressive person; nor is it a journey that teaches you calm and serenity. It’s a journey that teaches you that God is love, and that God loves you.

To do justice to Lent we need to remember that at the heart of Christian spirituality we do not find the quest to be good, but the struggle to allow yourself to be loved by God as the mortal and the sinner that you undoubtedly are.

Lilian Groves is an 87 year old volunteer guide at Durham Cathedral. Already voted the ‘tourism superstar’ for Durham, Lilian is in the finals of the competition to find the VisitEngland national superstar, 2016.

I have just voted for her – and this is why.

Like thousands of others I have seen Lilian in action. She gave me, my wife, children and parents a personal tour of the Cathedral when I first become a Canon of Durham in 2006.  A few years later I arranged for her to give Fr Michael Lapsley a tour and joined in myself. Michael is a South African priest and anti-apartheid activist who was sent a letter bomb that blew off his hands (You can see a 15 minute video The Michael Laspsley Story here). I remember Michael turning to me just after Lilian left us and whispering, ‘when it comes to Cathedral tours, that’s as good as it gets’.

Of course Lilian has, in some ways, a very easy job. Durham Cathedral is wonderful architecturally, the history is rich and it boasts two of the most distinctive, different and important saints in Cuthbert and Bede.  One the epitome of what people think of today as ‘Celtic Spirituality’, though you won’t find Lilian using the word ‘Celtic’ very often. The other ‘the historian’s historian’, as one undergraduate put it to me: Bede the Venerable.

Someone ought to work out how far Lilian walks in the course of year as a tour guide. There won’t be many 87 year olds who walk further. And few indeed who do so while talking in a way that is charming, informed, reverential and in the best possible way teacherly. Lilian quickly eyes people up and soon knows at what level to pitch her remarks. A committed Christian who is often at the 12.30 Cathedral eucharist on weekdays, and invariably in the congregation on Sunday morning, she doesn’t force her faith on anyone. Rather, working with the building, and Durham’s unique ethos, she eases people into the spirituality of the place which is spacious, gracious, kind and, above all else, living.

You might expect someone of Lilian’s age and experience to be quite set in her ways. Not a bit of it. When I went to see her in 2014 to suggest a new kind of tour focussed on war memorials that would be of interest doing the centenary years of the First World War, she immediately ‘got’ the idea and was keen to do the work that would make it happen.

Lilian has shared with me many stories about tours and encounters and experiences of them. What comes through to me most strongly when I have heard her anecdotes is not so much her passion for the Cathedral as her interest in and care about people. For Lilian it all becomes worthwhile when a child offers a fresh insight or there is a transformative moment when someone appreciates a minor detail that makes all the difference, or sees what is really in a stained glass window for the first time.

So, Lilian gets my vote as VisitEngland tourism superstar 2106 and I hope she might get yours too. You can vote here

And if I haven’t yet persuaded you, check out this amazing clip to get a glimpse of the legend that is Lilian.





Here are six ideas for Lent for anyone who feels too busy, or rushed, or hassled or stressed out by the pressure of things to do.

Don’t think ‘rush’, think ‘slow’.

Chill, take your time. Things have a habit of working themselves out unless your are in the middle of a full-blown crisis. If you are then you had better do what it takes to get the crisis sorted out and your life calmed down.  Life is not a crisis, it’s an opportunity.

Don’t think ‘busy’, think ‘involved’.

‘Busy’ is one of the more pernicious four-letter words in our vocabulary. Often, it’s a boast disguised as a complaint.  There are plenty of people who would love to have more to do, to feel more valued, and to be more fully involved. If you are too busy it may mean that you haven’t bothered to involve others.

Don’t think ‘me time’, think ‘soul time’.

It’s easy to persuade people to try to have more ‘me-anything’ these days. However, the point about Lent is not to think about your ego-needs but to make time for your soul-needs. Soul time can take many forms – but it’s never ‘all about me’.

Don’t think ‘give up’, think ‘appreciate’.

If we take time to savour and enjoy those petty vices that so often occupy our consciences and dominate our spirituality their power over us may begin to wane a bit and we might turn our attention to higher things. If you love chocolate don’t give it up this year but become a discerning and appreciative chocolate connoisseur – and see what comes of that.

Don’t think ‘work-life balance’, think ‘wholesome living’.

Of course your life can start to go wrong if your work is too important to you, or too all-consuming, or if it’s relentlessly stressful.  But this can be true of any activity – not just work. Life isn’t something that starts when work stops.

Don’t think ‘Lent is long’, think ‘Lent is short’.

Because it is. Just as life is short. Just as every day is short. Don’t miss out on life or Lent by rushing around as a lonely busybody, feeling guilty about petty things and starving your soul of the time it needs to breath.

Have a time wise Lent.

For more ideas about how to give up busyness check out this website Give up busyness for Lent

The Church of England has just launched into an epic consultation about whether or not clergy should be required to wear robes when taking services. A carefully worded consultation paper outlines the question and gives the background.  Inevitably it focuses on the meaning of the wording of the current legislation. It also offers some history, which makes it quite clear that the received norms of clerical vesture were never really thought out. In truth, there isn’t much theory here.

The consultation has already got the attention of the national press, which is presumably delighted at the prospect of endless column inches of harmless fun, and we can all begin to imagine some amusing cartoons. Though let it not be forgotten that this has been a very hot and even violent subject in the past. I remember reading about the nineteenth century surplice riots in Exeter when I studied church history. And I did so with a degree of astonishment. I mean, who cares what clergy wear in church.  The answer is that a lot of people seem to care very much.

The issue has arisen now because of a private member’s motion at the General Synod, but it’s one of those subjects that just goes round and round.  A quick internet search shows that it also came up 2008 – and the arguments were much the same. The main one being put forward being that wearing robes makes clergy look different from everyone else.

It’s a good point, come to think of it, but as it’s also the main argument for wearing robes it’s hardly decisive.

So, what’s the issue?

There are those who say that it’s by dressing distinctively that the clergy help make a special atmosphere where spiritual things can happen. And then other people who rightly say that spiritual things happen with people in all sorts of clothing.

This is a version of the dispute that has been going on for thousands of years about whether or not it’s a good idea to have a special building for religious matters – whether or not people should, or even can, build a ‘house’ for God. There are those who say that this is ridiculous – you can meet God anywhere God chooses to show up. And yet just because you can meet God anywhere – say on Dartmoor – it doesn’t follow that you might not rather go to Exeter Cathedral, or the parish church at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, for a service of Holy Communion, a Baptism or a Funeral, and feel that it wouldn’t really be right to celebrate these occasions at Hound Tor.

But let’s get back to the case against robes.  There are those who say that if the clergy don’t dress like other people the other people will think the clergy are aliens and conclude that their religion is a religion for aliens and so not for them – at least not on a day-to-day basis, though they might also feel that it’s nice to have the aliens help out when no one else knows what to do – such as at times of birth and death.

I have never really felt this to be a convincing argument, as even when dressed as an alien you can speak in everyday language, use familiar gestures and be a warm, sympathetic and empathic human being. Indeed it seems to me that this is just as much a duty for someone leading a religious ceremony as is looking the part.

My hunch is that there is actually no way to resolve the question of whether wearing robes is a matter of ‘may’, ‘should’ or ‘must’ for clergy. And so I wonder why we should worry about it. The reality today is that if clergy don’t want to wear robes they don’t wear robes and no one does anything much about it. And this is probably a good thing, or a good-enough thing, or at least a not very bad thing. I confess that I have taken at least one communion service without wearing vestments, and it all seemed to go just fine. I’ve also preached wearing a suit and even in less formal garb. There is something relaxed and friendly about it. But it’s not, and it shouldn’t be, the norm.

The sensible thing for the church to do on this matter would be to continue the current practice of having a norm expressed in Canon Law, but to carry on being tolerant about those who choose not to obey it. This is certainly a better way forward than one proposal on the table, which is that clergy should be allowed not to wear robes provided that ‘he or she had first ascertained, after consultation with the Parochial Church Council, that doing so would benefit the mission of the Church in the parish’.

The simple truth is that no one can ascertain any such thing. It’s all a matter of opinion, of personal choice; and if you have an institution with a weak centre and a strong and dispersed periphery you may as well recognise that the authorities are never going to have the energy to throw the book at you, so you don’t need to pretend that you know things that you don’t. You just need to get a local consensus and do the responsible thing.

However, this is manifestly not a debate about the sensible thing to do. It’s going to be a time and energy consuming exercise in which the wear-what-you-like clergy will try to make the robing clergy look even more odd than they do; and the robing clergy will probably oblige by pretending that there really are deep theological reasons for doing what is, in fact, at best only custom and practice.

There is no right answer to this one, and now the debate is open the smart thing for the church to do is to find some sort of compromise which allows local and sensible decisions be made about who wears what when, while insisting that there is a modest norm that involves dressing like an ‘other’; but not just any old other but like er, well, like a vicar. The norm needs to exist not so that clergy can dress themselves up like peacocks but so that they can be present with and for others but in not quite the same way as others. Because that’s the job, the role, the calling, the vocation.

Robe-wearing clergy are not aliens, but real people inhabiting a special and peculiar role on behalf of the community and by both vesture and demeanour signifying the possibility of that gracious mix of intimacy and transcendence that is Divine.

We should free the clergy from having to worry about what best to wear; we should certainly discourage them from looking like minor executives or life-style coaches. We need not insist on robes, precisely, but some sort of distinctive and objective dress is appropriate – and as there is no known way of designing such things from scratch we should let custom, not fashion, be our guide.

Let them wear robes!



My collection of poem-prayers Barefoot Ways comes to its natural end with the festival of Candlemas on 2nd February.  I hesitated quite a long time before including the Candlemas entry, as it emphasises the darker side of Luke’s account of the presentation of Christ in the Temple, namely the chilling words of old Simeon to the young mother Mary.

Focusing on them is perhaps especially appropriate this year when news of brutal persecution of Christians and others is all too commonly heard.  And also this year because there is such short gap between Candlemas and Ash Wednesday. We need to move very quickly from celebration to austerity.

Also, as it happens, because my Lent collection of poem prayers Barefoot Prayers begins on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, this year these two collections between them offer a poem-prayer every single day (apart from 4) from 1 December 2015 to 3 April 2016.

Enough of that, however.  The focus of this blog is Candlemas, which commemorates the story told in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, and on which the following is a meditation.

A Sword

We should have seen it coming, but

no one did. Luke’s version was so

tidy, a tale of two children,

two mothers, one silent man,

an angel, a walk, a leap and

two songs.

And then a third song, different in

tone: tired and yet fulfilled,

glimpsing the longed-for light

yet seeking escape.

A prelude to a blessing, and in the

blessing we had hoped, assumed,

dared to expect …


closure, perhaps.

Now there’s a hope.


How foolish!

How slow of heart!

How self-serving our understanding!


Words come: gnomic, unwelcome.

They speak of

disorder, opposition,

revelation, no less.


We had hoped for a new order.

We are offered a new chaos.

What light is this, but a new darkness?



At last it comes. The word that cleaves

the air and stuns us, arresting our

senses and losing Anna’s delight in its wake.

After this, her presence – calm itself – is lost

to us.


‘There will be a sword.’

A sword, no less.

A sword

through your young soul, young


I ponder that, as I pray to depart

in peace,

in peace,

in peace.

Women of Spirit

One of the many nice things about my job is that I can invite people to preach in one of the world’s most beautiful buildings. As it happens, Clive James says it’s the world’s most beautiful building, and maybe he’s right.

Whether he is or not, like many Cambridge clergy I think that it’s quite a good idea to have a series of sermons with a theme. These generally run for a term but I have come to the view that it’s a bit more interesting if the series is not a week-in, week-out matter, and that it’s also nice if it keeps going, off and on, for two or more terms.

And this is indeed the plan for our ‘Women of Spirit’ sermon series that begins this coming Sunday (24.1.16) when Jessica Martin preaches about Margaret Benson.  This is not perhaps the most obvious or famous person with whom to start. Margaret, or Maggie, Benson was a philosopher of religion, author and Egyptologist and a member of a remarkable Cambridge family where, on the whole, the men took the credit. Not that they were without personal achievements themselves:  one of her brothers wrote the words of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and her Dad became Archbishop of Canterbury.  Before that he was Bishop of Truro and when he found that the Cornish folk preferred going to the pub than going to Church on Christmas Eve he resurrected the medieval idea of a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. My predecessor Dean Milner White picked the idea up from him and the rest is history. King’s obviously owes a debt of gratitude to the Benson family, as does the Last Night of the Proms. But our focus on Sunday is not on that but on the under-celebrated Margaret. If you want to know more about her or how she can inspire us today you should come along …

As the series continues we will have sermons about Old Testament characters like Deborah and Naomi, there will be a sermon at the end of  term about Simone Weil and I am going to offer one on Hild – or Hilda – of Whitby.

For next term I have so far lined up Christina Rees CBE to contribute to the series, also Catherine Ogle, Dean of Birmingham.  I don’t yet know who they are going to speak about.  Also next term we will have a special dance event inspired by women depicted in art in the Chapel.

For more information about our services this terms follow this link: King’s College Chapel Services Booklet

And if you have thoughts about who should be on any self-respecting list of ‘Women of Spirit’, please do let me know.

Not Alone!

I wasn’t thinking putting this poem-prayer from Barefoot Ways – set for today January 4  – on this blog until I received a message from a complete stranger saying that it expressed some of her own disquiet, and that she was glad not to be alone.  Perhaps you resonate with it too.



Am I alone, I wonder, in being

torn by the dissonance of Christmas?


Am I alone, I wonder, in feeling

depleted by the festival?


Am I alone, I wonder, in longing

not for more, but for less

when the light of the word is beginning to

glow in the dark?


Am I alone, I wonder, in feeling

the spiritual magnetism of simplicity

at this time of long nights and fragile hopes?


Am I alone, I wonder, as I am achingly drawn

to profundity, and yet anguished by my own succumbing to the

barbed charms

of the superficial?


Am I alone, I wonder, when I feel

at cross-purposes with the world,

when I am disinclined

to meet it expectations?


No, I am not alone.

I am called.


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