This is an extract from an address I gave at a school in South London yesterday, while the country was engaged in the referendum on Europe. Not anticipating the result, I did not at the time connect the two things. With hindsight it seems a little prescient.

You may think this is a very strange thing for me to say, but my message to you is this – if you want to be remembered well, to have a good reputation when you are no longer here to speak for yourself, you will have to learn how to welcome disappointment.

Great lives, wonderful reputations are not often built on straightforward success. They are built on the way in which we cope with adversary, distress and disappointment.

The young child who is unfortunate enough know what physical pain is like – that is the person who may go on to be come a great doctor, specializing in the pain relief of the young.

The person who feels really lonely and isolated – that is the person who might go on to form some new society or community that accepts and supports other lonely people.

The person who isn’t brilliant at school but learns how to work diligently and creatively – that’s the person who will go on to be an inspiring speaker, teacher  or writer.

Disappointment in life is like the grain of sand in the oyster. Of course not every grain of sand becomes the seed of a pearl; most sand is just sand, and will always be sand. And most disappointment is just disappointment, a sad turning out of events that leads on to more sadness.

But some disappointment is transformed by the person to whom it happens into something that could never have otherwise occurred.

True education, I believe, is not the education that enables us to excel when life is going well, but to cope brilliantly when life goes badly.

True education is not learning how to pass rather predictable though admittedly and sometimes cruelly difficult exams, but to come up with unpredictable, unexpected but perhaps rather simple situations to apparently impossible problems in life.

It’s easy to drive a car along a motorway. Life gets difficult when you get to a junction when the road ahead is blocked and you have to decide on a new route, or maybe a new destination. But that’s also the moment of possibility, the moment of potential brilliance, the moment at which, if we are not only educated but wise and spiritual, we will open ourselves up the guiding grace of God and make a decision not to do something dull and self-interested but exciting, creative and for the benefit of others.

Great things can happen when our plans are thwarted. That’s never pleasant or pleasing, but I believe it’s the way God very often works. And I pray that when disappointment comes in your life you will respond not by being cross with reality, but dig deep to discover the vision and determination to see what better future might unfold from the wreckage of your former dreams.

Doing well is great. Dealing well with disappointment, however, is the way to true and memorable greatness.

It is too early to say how we will do this now, but our unwanted challenge now really is to make Britain Great again.


I spent much of yesterday at a school in the London borough of Lambeth.  There, like in Cambridge where I live, the view was so resolutely ‘remain’ that the only remarks I heard were speculating about the extent of the Remain majority.  I liked hearing that.  Talk of Brexit was making me increasingly worried.

On the train I read the Financial Times.  There were articles about Brexit paranoia and the mental health issues being connected with the uncertainty that the referendum had precipitated.  But the general argument of the paper, expressed, in article after article was the argument for stability, for continuity, for connection – for Remain.

I had nagging doubts, of course. When significant people left the Brexit camp because of the misleading nature of its claims, I was aware that these were individuals moving, they didn’t seem to take people with them.  I noticed the way the Brexit leaders were able, far more than, the Remain campaigners, to strike the populist note, to raise what seemed like a positive cheer out of dire negativity.  Their product – uncertainty, instability and change should have been the most difficult sell, yet they managed to package and wrap it up to make it look like what people wanted – reassurance, nostalgia and calm.

It is too early to tell how this will play out, but that there will be many who find their decision haunting them for years to come seems to me to be inevitable. And these range from the huge mistake in leadership in promising this in the Conservative manifesto to the consequences for the local economy (I mean jobs) in areas so dependent on Europe for prosperity. Many eyes should be on Sunderland; will the job-giving Nissan plant survive?

The Conservatives have got us into this mess by failing to manage their internal affairs or negotiate a better set of reforms from Europe before this sorry referendum was launched. But Labour must carry huge responsibility for losing so much ground to UKIP. As for the Liberal Democrats, their failure to be a force for the values they espouse through what we may come back to view as years of golden calm and peaceful prosperity is also deeply culpable. It’s an odd world where the strongest feeling for Remain comes in the most nationalist of parties and eras.  This doesn’t make Nicola Sturgeon right, but it does offer a relatively attractive form of nationalism.

Among the many concerns I have about what has just taken place, not least the capacity of the University of which I am a part to retain its extraordinary international standing for research, is the fact that so many wise and leading people spoke out for Remain, only to be howled down as a self-interested elite, an establishment that needed a kicking. It was the lack of a convincing retort to this that now makes our politics look so thin and shabby, not least when, as you look at the demographics of the referendum, it is the young who wanted to remain and the old who want out.

The biggest mistake of all in this is to have called a referendum.  There was a time – when I was very young – that I thought that there should be regular referenda on all the major issues.  After all, I thought, democracy is at its best the matter of taking a vote. Therefore the more votes that are taken, the better the democracy.  The word wasn’t current then but you could say that I was imagining a ‘granular ‘approach to politics to replace the party political version.

I now see that as very childish thinking. And yet as I look forward I fear that in the absence of convincing political leadership (which is essentiality the art of selling principled compromise) the desire for binary questions based on unsubstantiated promises about what the new approach will deliver, will only increase. It panders to the deep desire we all have to believe things boil down to a simple yes / no and to believe that at last someone as noble and wise as ME is making the decision that counts.  This is really foolish – but also deeply seductive.  As someone said in a tweet, the remain campaign failed to take ‘original sin’ into account.  You can say that about all forms of stripped down, uncomplicated politics. My worry is that people will get a taste for it and as life gets more uncertain and stressful over the coming months and years they will want more.  I hesitate to say it but I don’t think that it will be long before there is a call for a referendum on the death penalty.  And when it comes the people in power will know that it is the referendum mentality that got them there.

But if that’s the depth of my pessimism where is my hope?


That, I fear, is a question for another day.  Today is a day of disappointment and as living with disappointment was a theme in the sermon I delivered at the school in South London yesterday. I am going to post there salient parts of that adders as my next blog.  At the time I was naive enough not to connect it with the referendum or Europe. I am not so naive now. Neither are any of us.










No Religion?

The recent British Social Attitudes Survey shows that more people now regard themselves as having no religion than being Christian.  The Guardian today offered a leading article on the subject saying, in essence, that the church has blown it.  Meanwhile an opinion piece has appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website saying that it’s not too late, we just need more evangelism – understood as advertising the good news.

Let me offer another angle.

The Guardian is right to say that there are many good and liberal minded people who find the way in which the church has failed to move with the times in terms of gender equality and the acceptance of diversity in the area of sexuality to be deeply off-putting. It’s wrong to say that this is primarily a problem for the church’s reputation with the young. There are plenty of silver sceptics out there when it comes to religion.  Religion  – even ‘no religion’ – is not a subject to be ageist about.

The Telegraph is right to say that the church needs to wake up, but wrong to say that evangelism, based on the model of advertising, is the answer.  That could conceivably be the right answer if the church had a product. But it doesn’t. And it doesn’t have a product because God is not a thing. Theologians have been saying this for a very long time, and Rupert Shortt has summarised the argument and pointed out many of its implications admirably in his recent book, God is No Thing.

These are definitely difficult days for religion.  But the difficulty is not the one anticipated by just about everyone since the late ninetieth century. Namely that the tide of religion would flow out, and the tide of a new secular era would flood in. On the contrary, what has happened is that religion has had an extraordinary if very strange and skewed resurgence. So that today those who self-identify as religious are more or less forced to place themselves within a frame on which the horizontal boundaries are created by new atheism and the vertical ones by radical fundamentalism.

What new atheism and radical fundamentalism have in common is a good deal of historical amnesia, not to say selective memory. And the problem is that once you accept that this is the framework in which you must find yourself as a religious person, you are caught in the same, unforgiving trap. This is cruelly sad, as the real frame of reference for ‘religion’ has been created by centuries of subtle theological reflection, sacred ritual, charitable action, poetry, art and architecture –  all of which seek to help us grow wiser about our relationship with the transcendent, with each other and with ourselves.

But we have all but jettisoned any respect for this huge map of cultural treasure and replaced it by a fascinated focus on a very noisy and ill-tempered squabble.


It is this that makes the ‘no religion’ option such an attractive one, not only on a questionnaire, but also when thinking about how to describe one’s personal quest for meaning and purpose. It also lies behind the rise and rise in the number of people who self-identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’.

I wish all the SBNR folk well, but I am sorry if they exclude themselves from the kind of connections with religious practice that seem to me to be so integral to being serious about spirituality. That crucially includes commitments that are deeper than feelings, both when it comes to the company one keeps, and the time for which one adheres to practices which may, in the short or medium term, seem unrewarding or pointless. Indeed, true religion offers its rewards slowly, silently, socially, and often uncomfortably.

This is one reason why evangelism in the form of advertising is so definitley not the answer. Certainly the author of the Telegraph article refers to the importance of significant times of revival, but I don’t believe that the church ever moved from decline into growth by focusing on telling people things.  The first priority of the Wesleys was not ‘church growth’, for instance, but holiness. Now that’s not a word that works very well today, but it’s an important part of the mix – especially if you recognise that today the word ‘holiness’ is better rendered ‘spirituality’.

But whether you call our ineffable struggle with transcendent mystery ‘holiness’ or ‘spirituality’ the word still needs to be qualified. Let me suggest ‘ethical’ or, if that is too priggish, ‘engaged’ as possible adjectives. Or maybe we could have both.

It is only when religions  are truly understood by their practitioners, and those who observe them, as focused on engaged and ethical spirituality that they will have either credibility or integrity. If that tide turns, and I suspect it is already turning, the ‘no religion’ box will begin to lose its attraction. Until then more and more people will put their cross in the ‘no religion’ box, not really knowing what they do.








Someone recently asked whether I could offer monthly instalments of time wisdom.  I am not sure that I can, but I do know that the question of how we live wisely and well in time is one that we all need to work on over the long haul.  So I thought I’d at least try.

One of the ideas I have found least satisfactory as an attempt at time wisdom is the idea of work-life balance.  You may think that this is because I am a  workaholic and like all such can’t see the point of life after or beyond work.

Certainly I feel that ‘work’ is often engaging and satisfying and worthwhile, but I feel the same about parts of life that are clearly not work. I quite enjoy eating, sleeping and strolling in the countryside, for instance, and happily spend time doing them.

My problem with the work-life balance cliche is that it opposes overlapping rather than contrasting realities. Think Venn diagrams. Work is a circle inside life. You can and perhaps should question how large that circle can healthily be, but to call that a question of balance is a little odd.

There’s another issue too. It’s whether or not you think of your life vocationally. If you do – if you believe there is an aspect of calling about what you do and that your work not only meets extrinsic needs but also some of your intrinsic needs – then you will approach the question of how you think about the time spent ‘working’ quite differently.

This issue was explored in an interview with the entrepreneur Sarah Wood in a recent interview in the Huffington Post. When she was asked for her key tip to help women integrate work and life, she answered like this.

First of all, I wouldn’t talk about work-life balance because that suggests that work is opposed to life. Actually, I think we all owe it to ourselves to be working in jobs we absolutely love, that are our vocation. I’ve always been a big believer in the idea of vocation. If you’re following your vocation, then that is your life. So I would say it’s more about work-home integration.

One thing that has worked for me is to break down the divisions between home life and work life. I’m not sure it works for everyone, but it has worked for me. I bring my children to the office a lot, my children come to work events, and the people who come to our home are often from Unruly. What this means is I can be me at home and me in the office, there is no inconsistency. With respect to the notion that you have to put on a mask and have a particular professional version of yourself in the office, that doesn’t work for me. I like to feel natural and authentic and that means being the same person at home as I am in the office.

My tip would be to do what’s right for you, and make sure you have a support network in place. That’s really crucial.

What I like about Sarah’s answer is that she suggests that the way ahead is to break down divisions – rather than the traditional time management advice of creating boundaries.

Find more thoughts about time wisdom here

You can see the full interview with Sarah Wood here

I have become increasingly convinced that Julian of Norwich is a person whose writing deserves real attention, and that she has many lessons to teach us today – not least about what worthwhile theology might be like.  Here is the text of a sermon I preached about her a couple of weeks ago.

No one today underestimates the importance of childhood experiences on the way in which people’s inner and outer lives unfold. And yet when the story of Julian of Norwich is told it is not always remarked that she was a child when the city of Norwich was ravaged by the plague. The year was 1349. Little Julian was six years old. Norwich was the second largest city in England with a population of about 13,000 people. That summer, about half of that population died of the plague, known then as ‘The Great Pestilence’.

It must have been a wretched time to be a child. The very nasty symptoms of this terminal disease were there to be seen on the faces and bodies of people in the household and on the streets. Young Julian would never have been able to forget those dreadful days – and indeed she would have been reminded of them when subsequent waves of the disease erupted during the course of her life.

There are those who believe that when she grew up, Julian became a nun at the convent in Norwich, but recent scholarship suggests that it is more likely that she was married when about fifteen and had one or two children, of whom one or both died, and that she long outlived her husband. So here was a woman who lived an ordinary life at an unusually unpleasant time.

So – why do we even mention her today?

The main reason we know anything about Julian is because of her writing. She wrote two books. This is more remarkable than it sounds because they were the first to be written by a woman in English and also because they were just the sort of books that could get a writer into real trouble with the authorities – and by real trouble I mean possibly being subject to the death penalty. Because Julian wrote theology.

That anyone should write theology and not write in Latin, is itself a matter of significance. That the writer should be a domestic woman with no ecclesiastical authority and some startling ideas makes it quite remarkable. It is one of the puzzles of the history of English theology and religion that for centuries Julian’s books were of relatively little influence, or for that matter interest. In the twentieth century, however, her work was rediscovered and T.S. Eliot quoted some of it in his poem Little Gidding which became one of the most formative texts in English spirituality of the twentieth century. ‘Sin is behovely’ she wrote, and he quoted without translating the word behovely which means ‘necessary’ or ‘inevitable’ – ‘but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’. Little Gidding would not have had the power and influence it had if Julian’s words had not been included.


I have said that she wrote two books. However she did not write two different books. She wrote the same book twice – twenty years apart. The first, or short, book was written in about 1413, and it describes the experiences that Julian had when, at the age of 30, she was so critically ill that she and everyone else believed her to be on her deathbed and she was given the last rites.

In the first book she tells us about a series of visions that she experienced as she lay on that deathbed. This is not the place to list them all, but the first vision was of Christ’s head bleeding under the crown of thorns. And one of the more famous ones was of a hazelnut or, rather, ‘a little thing the quantity of a hazelnut lying in the palm of my hand’. Seeing this she is puzzled, as puzzled as you are, perhaps, in hearing the preacher suddenly move from a deathbed scene to talking about a hazelnut. And, being puzzled, she kept asking herself questions. She asked herself what this little thing might be, and the astonishing answer occurred to her, ‘it is all that is made’. Her reflection didn’t stop there, however, because she went on to wonder, ‘how it might last – for it seemed to me it might suddenly fall into nought for its littleness.’

Today we are very used to thinking of the huge scale of the universe. We are familiar with the view of planet earth from outer space. We are also able to pose sophisticated questions about ‘existential risk’, that is questions about the possibilities for the survival of our race or our planet. I think that Julian was in this sort of intellectual territory, you could call it ‘existential wonder’, as she lay on her deathbed thinking about something as insignificant as a hazelnut. And her thinking developed further – ‘It lasteth and ever shall, because God loveth it. And so hath all things being by the love of God’.

There are many ways in which Julian’s life and mind and soul can seem strange and alien to us today, not least the final phase, where she was walled up as an anchorite at the Church of St Julian – after which she has retrospectively been named. But the main reason that I wanted to include her in this series was because of her pioneering and exemplary audacity in writing her experiences and reflections down, and also to honour her place in our culture as the first woman author in English. But I also wanted to talk about her as superb example of a theologian.


Julian wrote in the aftermath of devastating social and personal experience, and in all she wrote she sought to be true to the realities of life and death as she has witnessed them as well as to her inner and spiritual experiences. She had a deep and intelligent and Christian curiosity. She was always seeking a better answer, a more satisfactory way of understanding. You could say that there was in her a holy restlessness. Such restlessness is an important part of our spiritual journey. And if we find restlessness in ourselves we might well wonder how to make it holy. The answer is – to formulate the best possible next question and to allow a wise answer to emerge over time.

Julian’s writing begins in suffering, embraces vulnerability, seeks truth and ends with a vision of love and hope. Who could ask for more? She was and is an exemplary theologian. But she didn’t see theology as something for the few but for the many – writing not for prestige or credit but to inform the ordinary people of her time.

We all have deathbeds to look forward to, and, while the plague may seem like a barbaric medieval memory, our cities could begin to look a little like that if bacteria continue to develop resistance to antibiotics at their current rate, or if an especially virulent form of influenza evolves. And if we think it far-fetched to imagine that a child of six could experience what Julian went through we need think no further than some of the children who are refuges from the devastation in Syria, or who, for no fault of their own, have found themselves in a city or village taken over by Isis. If the theology of the future is not actually written by some these children when they grow up, it must at least be credible to them, as it must be credible to us as we reflect on their circumstances.

For it is only after looking such realities in the eye, feeling them deeply and pondering them slowly that we might dare to say ‘Amen’ to Julian’s message of profound hope: ‘all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

A sermon preached in King’s College Chapel, Sunday 1 May 2016.

There is much that is surprising and impressive about the story in the news this weekend about the Archbishop of Canterbury discovering that his biological father was not the man married to this mother at the time of his birth.

Apparently the rumour started at a dinner conversation with a journalist from the Daily Telegraph. When the journalist told about it he decided that the bet thing was to get the facts. The facts have come out and, according to Justin, have made no difference to the question of who he thinks he is.

The irony in this is that it seems to have made a lot of difference to the way in which people regard him. Rather than having gone down in people’s estimation, he has gone way up – and largely because of the straightforward way in which he has handled the situation, and the modest and humane way in which he has commented on it.

Facts, are, of course, facts. But facts can also make people wriggle and squirm, even when as unequivocal as these.  But Justin seems to be an entirely squirm-free person.

Of course he, like everyone else, has plenty of personality flaws and failings, but this is not the sort of situation to expose them. On the contrary – it is when dealing with the unexpected and the awkward that Justin is at his best because he is also his most straightforward and immediate.

People have written about the humility that has been evident in this episode, and that’s  fair comment. But I wonder whether there is also something here about the way in which a mature faith works. Faith that is which is so anchored in God’s love and transcendence that it embraces the world and its facts with a combination of curiosity and courage. If you felt pompous you could call this mysticism that faces two ways.  If you didn’t feel so pompous you could call it living in the real world. 

Either way, this has been good weekend for the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Hild is one of the more remarkable and vivid characters of the Anglo-Saxon era. The Venerable Bede calls her a ‘most devoted servant of Christ’ in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Hild was 66 years old when she died, having lived a life of two perfect halves: thirty three years as a lay person and thirty three years as a nun. Not that she was any ordinary lay person – or for that matter any ordinary nun.

She was born a princess in 614 – and grew up in Bamburgh castle on the north east coast not far at all from the holy island of Lindisfarne where Aidan had established a school of missionaries who were bringing Celtic Christianity to England. She was baptised at the age of 13 in York with her uncle the King. It’s impossible to know whether this was by choice or not, but it is clear from the way her life unfolded that her faith was a very deep and significant part of who she was and at some point she must have become, if I can put it this way, a voluntary Christian.

Hild lived in times of great change and upheaval. As well as the spiritual movements that were challenging and changing people’s hearts and souls there were constant disputes, and battles would have been frequent and brutal. She would have seen plenty of soldiers and battle-scarred people at the castle where she grew up – indeed her name, Hild, indeed means ‘battle’. But her own life at the castle would have focused on domestic duties and we can imagine her developing skills in embroidery and weaving. She did not marry and it was her own decision to become a nun.

Although by this time in her life she was probably living in Kent, and she initially intended to follow her widowed sister into a Frankish monastery, she returned to the north east and joined one of Aidan’s training monasteries not on Lindisfarne itself but on the banks of the Wear. She must have quickly impressed Aidan because he soon made her abbess of the convent at Hartlepool. According to Bede, Aidan ‘visited her frequently, instructed her assiduously, and loved her heartily for her innate wisdom and devotion to the service of God’. She also impressed King Oswui who put his own daughter into Hild’s monastery and later gave Hild land to establish a new double-monastery at Whitby.

We don’t know much about what life would have been like here, but double monasteries – those containing both men and women – were not rare in this era. We can imagine the windswept cliff-top community reflecting something of the Saxon culture that would have been everyday life at the equally windswept Bamburgh castle when Hild was young, though with a strong theme of Celtic spirituality running though it. This was a world of runes and the hallowing of the ordinary. The famous Whitby comb comes from this era. It is a small piece of bone on which a fragment of a one sentence prayer for help begins in Latin and then stumbles into the vernacular, making it an apt symbol of the cultural diversity that was everyday life in seventh century Yorkshire. The prayer is not unlike the sort of prayer that visitors leave when in our own St Edward’s Chapel ‘My God, almighty God, help – name’.

Bede tells us that ‘all who knew Hild, the handmaiden of Christ and abbess, used to call her mother because of her outstanding devotion and grace.’ Her monastery was a very successful training academy for clergy who would later rise to high office and make a significant difference, including five bishops. Hild’s reputation and story became well-known and had its own profound effect on many who heard of her. And there were many who travelled, in those days when travel was arduous and dangerous, to seek her advice and counsel. She made all the members of her monastery follow the Rule of life, insisting particularly on the study of the scriptures, and she ensured that not only was there fairness and justice but also peace and charity. In other words, she ran a happy and peaceful family as mother, and gained the trust of many.

It was for this reason perhaps that when the decision was made to gather a synod to discuss the future of the church it was decided that it should be held at Whitby. Hild was responsible for the hospitality – a not inconsiderable task that would have stretched the resources and abilities of her community to the limit.

The synod of Whitby was called to settle a hot ecclesiastical issue. Was the church in England to be Celtic or Roman? The answer, of course, was that it was to be Roman. This must have been hard for Hild to bear as she was, after all, hosting this event at great personal cost and her whole life was based on adherence to the ways of Aidan and the Irish monks. But Hild, like Cuthbert, understood that once the decision was made it was her job to help people accept it and to move forward with that same spirit of charity and peace. This was perhaps one of her greatest achievements.

And there is another one. Hild was not only a brilliant leader of a community, a forward-looking reconciler and wise and devout person; she was also a talent-spotter. There was a young man in her community who had a gift for poetry and music – Caedmon. He was also a very shy and retiring person, someone of great aesthetic and spiritual sensitivity. But Hild encouraged him and enabled him to develop his unique gift. And so it is that in the annals of English poetry Caedmon is the earliest entry. So if we wanted a patron saint of composers, or spiritual singer-songwriters, we might look to Mother Hild of Whitby.

Hild is one of very few women to make the headlines or achieve celebrity status in the church of the Middle Ages. And yet we see in her a person of rare gifts and profound influence. Taken as a whole she offers a vision of the sort of person whose life reflects the best values of British Christianity. For what we see in Hild is someone whose life is Christ-centred, focused on learning and generous in hospitality; we see someone who is personally and domestically wise, politically astute, conciliatory in defeat, open to inspiration, music and art and encouraging of the young and talented. If we are wise, if we want to live lives worthy of our faith, we could do a lot worse than to allow ourselves to be inspired by her story.


This sermon was preached in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge on 21 February 2016 as part of the series ‘Women of Spirit’.


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