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I am just putting the finishing touches to a lecture I will give in London at 1.00pm on Thursday at Gresham College

The lecture is called ‘The Varieties of Forgiveness’ and in it I shall argue that there is not one right form of forgiveness but that there are many different forms.  I will talk about the ideas of such diverse people as C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, R.T. Kendall and Jacques Derrida. I will also refer to situations in which victims of atrocities have had important things to say about forgiveness, among them Stephen Ross and Gordon Wilson of Enniskillen and Michael Lapsley of South Africa.

I am also taking the opportunity to touch on two subjects I skirted over in my book Healing Agony (as I found them too difficult at that time). These are forgiveness in the aftermath of abuse, and the whole vexed question of whether self-forgiveness really is forgiveness.

All are welcome to come along to the lecture at Barnard’s Inn Hall on Chancery Lane. No reservations are required, and thre is no charge. The lecture will be run on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. Doors will open at 12.30.

If you can’t come along in person then you will soon be able to see the lecture online here The Varieties of Forgiveness







Against Revenge

I preached this sermon today in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.  It draws on my recent experience as a pilgrim in the Holy Land and refers to Holocaust Memorial Day. The text is Romans 12. 16-end

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God. These words from Paul’s letter to the Romans could not be clearer: do not take revenge. And yet no biblical injunction has been more flagrantly ignored.

Earlier this month I was able to make my first ever visit to Israel and Palestine – the ‘Holy Land’. I am delighted that I took the rather last-minute opportunity, and only regret not having gone many years previously. I have so many vivid memories – from the huge Christmas trees in Bethlehem and Nazareth, to the miracle wedding wine store in Cana, to a boat trip on the sea of Galilee, to walking the Via Dolorosa through the Islamic market stalls of Jerusalem, to the relentless liturgical competition of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

I was travelling with a group of Anglo-Catholics from the Pacific North West. It was a pilgrimage, and we had short services consisting of a reading, a hymn and a prayer at several places each day, and most days arranged to have a service of Holy Communion at a place of special significance. And while everyone wanted to enjoy having fun together, I felt that there was a serious pilgrimage intention in each person present; that all were open and expectant with regard to gaining insights or deepening their faith or spirituality.

Travelling brings it own challenges, and so does meeting new people. Both can make us more spiritually alert – and that’s not a bad start. The pressures of everyday life, even in a supercharged place like this, can dull our spiritual sensitivity and narrow our focus so that the real meaning and the greater implications of what is said and done are lost as we rush on to the next piece of music or sermon or prayer, the next meeting or supervision, the next administrative problem to solve or human predicament to seek to understand.

There are plenty of people who believe that such unreflective rushing is fine because there really is no more to life than what you see and do: that human life and human history simply are one damn thing after the other, a series of dots that do not join into a pattern that has more meaning than the isolated dots themselves. But that’s clearly not the only way to approach life. Nor is it without its problems. If a person choses to believe that there is no ultimate purpose in life then they should not be too surprised to find, when the thrill wears off, that it feels that life has no ultimate purpose. That’s not a great feeling.

Nor is it a great feeling when a person has a clear understanding of the purpose of all that it is, crowned by a careful and intricate understanding of the one true God who stands at the apex of their own pyramid of meaning, only to find that life isn’t actually working out as it would if this faith were entirely and exclusively true.

I am speaking here of the conundrum of monotheistic faiths, in particular Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which have coherent and comprehensive theologies; all of which make life meaningful and worthwhile and secure for millions of people; all of which give rise to art and charity and life and friendship and culture, but not one of which can really make sense of the persistent and successful existence of the other two.

This is an issue that is more then ever evident in the Holy Land in general, and Jerusalem, the Holy City, in particular. It’s both inevitable and ironic that the holiest place on earth is also the most contested and conflicted place on earth. The achingly beautiful mosque, the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mound is one symbol religious one-up-man-ship. The memory of the Crusaders is another. And what are we to make of the huge wire-topped walls that divide this Holy Land into sections? No wonder we should continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day – the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. That appalling ethical defacement of the western world cannot and should not be forgotten. When I visited Poland a decade or so ago I spent a day there. As well as people, like me, taking a sombre day out from more relaxed holiday activities, there were dozens of young Israeli soldiers, all of whom are sent to that dreadful place to learn and to feel something relevant to their own lives. Look what they did to us when we let out guard down!

The presence of many armed young people on the streets of Jerusalem is one of my abiding memories of my more recent visit. It made me wonder how I would feel if we armed say, twenty five per cent of the students of Cambridge, just to make sure that we were always safe.

I began this sermon with Paul’s point about the need not to take revenge. The truth of the matter is that religious people of all faiths, and dogmatic people of no faith, often see revenge as the most obvious, natural and just thing to do.

And yet if we listen to our most senior and wise religious guides they will direct us to take a different path. Paul again,

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.

Of course it’s not as easy as it sounds. It might be easy enough to live peaceably with nice people, but the challenge comes when people are being difficult, obdurate, unfair, threatening, or hostile towards us. The real challenge to peaceable-ness is when we have been hurt.

Might the challenge to be peaceable become a bit easier if we remember that almost always the person who harms us has been harmed in the past? That almost every act of dogmatism and hostility has its root in some kind of wounding experience and disturbing memory? Empathy may not solve all the world’s problems, but lack of empathy certainly loads the dice against the possibility of peace.

I sometimes think that revenge would be fine if it worked. The tragedy of the vengeful person is that they act on the belief that revenge will bring closure and justice. But it never has, and it never will. It just makes matters worse. Revenge leads to revenge which leads to revenge. Revenge is a car with an accelerator but no break pedal and a disconnected steering wheel. To put it another way, payback always comes with interest.

This seems to be a terribly difficult lesson for people to learn – especially in some of the more pressurized places on the planet, where cycles of revenge have dominated history and memory and motivation. All the more reason, then, for those of us fortunate enough to be here to take this particular message from St Paul to heart and to seek to build it into our daily habits of thought and mind: never avenge yourselves … in so far as it is possible, live peaceably with all. Only if we are prepared to do that will our prayers for peace be offered with integrity; only if we do that will we give peace a chance.

In Jerusalem

Until a few days ago Jerusalem was a myth to me. Not having been there it was a muddled and fuzzy construction in my mind – a mix of news headlines, general knowledge and biblical and liturgical references.

As I sit in Ben Gurion airport waiting for my flight home I realise full well that you don’t learn much in four days. But I feel the mythical Jerusalem of my mind has been transformed by my experiences and encounters in this magnificently beautiful, deeply troubled and relentlessly contested city, where the past is ever present and the future a matter of global politics.

To list the surprises may advertise my naivety, but I don’t see a reason to try to hide that.

I had expected the Temple to be as huge as it is and the church of the Holy Sepulchre to be noisy but I had not expected the city to be as green and hilly as it is today; or for there to be such treasures of modern art.

I had seen representations of the Chagall windows at the synagogue at Hadassah hospital but was not prepared for their dazzling beauty or the elegance and modernity of the synagogue they adorn and illuminate.

I had a feeling that walking the Via Dolorosa would be a little chaotic but hadn’t realised it was largely through the Muslim quarter and between stalls, with vendors offering us bargains all the way.

I preached a homily at the church called St Peter Gallicantu ( where Peter heard the cock crow) but hadn’t anticipated how difficult and yet easy the task would be. The shared experiences of the pilgrimage provided a context where a few words could ignite shared memories and excite personal and yet common feelings about the all too often lamentable nature of human attempts to do justice to our spiritual aspirations. My point was that Peter’s bitterly wept tears were the first steps of recovering the ‘disciple- consciousness’ that he had lost.

I went along to the Western Wall expecting to experience complete spiritual alienation and yet found tremendous peace praying my Christian prayers, my head covered with a borrowed kippah. And this not once but on two separate occasions.

I made three visits to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – one with the group and twice early in the morning. To arrive at 5am was to find the place peaceful and holy and awesome. The next day – today – I popped in at about 6.20 to find two sung masses in full-swing (literally) one at each end of the empty tomb. The sounds were absolutely cacophonous. Like a good Anglican I positioned myself equidistant between the competing priests and wryly pondered the Via Media.

There is so much more to say – finding crowns of thorns among the religious ‘souvenirs’ – is that the right word?

Equally surprising to me was the huge scale of Jewish and Muslim cemeteries, as were visits to Emmaus and Bethphage and to Qumran and the evaporating and astonishingly salty Dead Sea. Reader, I not only floated but caked myself in the mineral rich mud, feeling the need for an earth connection after all the spirituality. But what an extraordinarily lunar place that is, even though it is further from the moon than any other place on our planet.

In time I may be able to offer a blog of somewhat more mature reflections on all this – that would be the time to touch on the ongoing worry that even the reality of the present Jerusalem is a myth founded upon unsustainable politics. For now it is enough for me to try absorb something of the astonishing reality of Jerusalem, and to pray for its peace.

In Bethlehem

Yes, really. I am taking part in a ‘pilgrimage to the holy land’ with a group of Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians from Seattle. As you do.

The first few days were on the Sea of Galilee and it was delightful to think about Mary in Nazareth, wine and weddings in Cana, fisherfolk in Capernaum and transfiguration on a cloudy day on Mount Tabor. I especially enjoyed a short boat trip on the lake and the opportunity to paddle on he shore – discovering shortly afterwards that Americans don’t distinguish ‘paddling’ from ‘wading’. Quite how that works I don’t know. Do American children play in wading pools?

That, and a few surprising hymn-tunes, aside, I feel I have understood my new friends pretty well and they have certainly welcomed me kindly to their group. I have really enjoyed being with them for this rich experience of multiple challenges and strange blessings.

And I really do write this from Bethlehem – to which we travelled yesterday via Jericho; indeed I am even now within just a few yards of the stable. Visiting the Church of the Nativity which is planted over that most holy site was not, however, the highlight of the day. Nor was the visit to the Shepherds Fields. Nor was a nighttime stroll through Manger Square – impressive though the decorations were.

The highlight of the day was a series of morning encounters: with the wall built by Israel (using Palestinian labour) to keep Palestinians at bay;

with an account of recent regional history given by theologian Mitri Raheb; and with some tiny Palestinian children at an orphanage run by Christian nuns. These three encounters informed and educated me about life on the ground here in new ways, but also had a big emotional impact. And so they set deep questions running in my mind- most of which are too raw and inchoate to write down just yet.

For most of my life I have resisted the idea of a ‘pilgrimage to the holy land’ but I am very glad that I am here now. Every evening whoever wishes to gathers to talk through what they are thinking and feeling. This, ably and and lightly facilitated by pilgrimage leader Mother Sara Fischer, is becoming a daily highlight for me. This is not because questions are being answered but because it’s evident that people are not only listening to this place and it’s peoples but also to each other.

Pilgrimage, it seems to me, is as much about listening as it is about travelling and seeing.

It can be painful to listen; it’s certainly potentially frightening as you don’t know what you are going to hear. But true listening is an act of hope and love. And from what I have seen and heard so far there is plenty of faith here but it’s more hope and greater love that are needed.

A final comment. Of course the words of Christmas carols run through my mind all the time. Bethlehem is not a ‘little town’ these days but it’s hard not to believe that in profound ways it is completely true that, ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee’.

But what fears! Look again at that wall. And think of our rampant desire for walls and separation and safety. Dwell on that and you begin to realise how great the challenge of hope really is. Not only for this place but for the whole world. But Bethlehem is not a bad place to start if you wish to heal and save the world.

This is the text of my Thought for the Day given on Radio 4 on Christmas Eve. 

As part of my preparation for Christmas this year I went to Northern France to visit some of the First World War military cemeteries.  In a late July heatwave I walked up and down the countless rows looking for the grave of a young officer called Gerald Fitzgerald: a very close friend of my predecessor, (as Dean of King’s College, Cambridge) Eric Milner-White.

The two were at school together, and as students they shared rooms in College. Fitzgerald was called to the Bar and Milner-White was ordained. Then war broke out. Fitzgerald joined up and was killed in action in December 1915.  Milner-White volunteered as an army chaplain.  He shared the life of the troops, carried stretchers and comforted the dying.

As Dean of King’s when the war ended, Milner-White decided to replace the normal Christmas Eve service with something more responsive to the times.  In fact, he adapted a service that had been tried at Truro, but for King’s he changed a few of the readings and wrote a special bidding prayer which included, controversially at the time, prayer for the dead.

In 1918 no one imagined that King’s  Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols would be one day be broadcast, never mind become the touchstone of the beginning of Christmas that it is for so many across the world.

But the centenary of the service his has made me wonder what the atmosphere would have been like in the full, hushed and candlelit Chapel on Christmas Eve, 1918.  As well as members of College, dressed, like the choir, in white surplices, there would have been many people in uniform, as well as those wearing bandages or on crutches. Just about everyone present would have been keenly aware of the loss of a friend, or a son, or a brother.

That’s why Milner-White’s new prayer invited the congregation to remember not only ‘the babe lying in the manger’ but also ‘all those who rejoice with us but upon another shore and in a greater light’.

Tears would have been in many eyes as they did so. Including the Dean’s.

The centenary has really brought home to me the significance of the fact that this beautiful occasion has its origins in the attempt to make a meaningful response to the tragedy of war and the pain of bereavement.

It is deeply fitting, for the faith proclaimed at Christmas is that the word become flesh and dwelt among us; that, in Christ, God shared the vulnerability of the human condition.

It is this faith that makes the tear in the eye of the believer a tear not only of genuine sadness for what has been, but of hope of what shall come. A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has endured not only because of the carols, not only because of the lessons but because it makes a deep spiritual connection with life’s most difficult realities as well as its most wonderful hopes.

This is the text of my Christmas Day sermon, delivered in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. In it, I suggest that A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and Charles Dickens’ novel, A Christmas Carol point respectively to ‘grace’  and ‘response’; and that we need to be mindful of both as we celebrate Christmas.

Two great Victorian characters did more than any others to shape the spirituality of Christmas in the English-speaking world. One was Bishop Edward White Benson of Truro, who in 1880 instituted a Festal Service which he called Nine Lessons with Carols. It took place at 10pm on Christmas Eve, which as it happens, was when the pubs closed. The other was Mr Charles Dickens who in 1843 published a book called A Christmas Carol. Their influence and durability perhaps has something to do with the way in which they lock into deep aspects of the human spirit.

A good Christmas celebration will touch on the fundamentals of life. This is perhaps where the ninth of the nine lessons gets its power. The Provost reads of light shining in the darkness, not when the Chapel is bathed in the full glow of a midsummer noon, but after the sun is set and while the light comes from precariously flickering candles. The word is made flesh. A child is born. Gifts are given. People embark on journeys. This is a story we can all relate to. It touches and connects with everyday life as we know it, and invites us to believe that we are grounded in something deep and worthy; that human life itself is meaningful and possibly even glorious.

The nine lessons of the service have from time to time been changed, but the point of the sequence has always been to show what God has done to restore what humans have spoilt. The emphasis has been on divine promise and action.

Going back to the Truro original, the only human actions are in the Garden of Eden and in the Judean hills where the shepherds left their sheep to go to Bethlehem. The King’s readings make human beings a little more active, not least by including the story of the annunciation and Mary’s decisive ‘yes’. We also have the magi from the east – characters who for some reason didn’t appear in the West Country in 1880.

Even so, the readings in our own Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols don’t particularly emphasise the importance of human change. But for such a story we can turn to Mr Charles Dickens and Ebenezer Scrooge, for whom the problem was not that he had disobeyed God’s voice and ate of the forbidden fruit, but that he had become a mean and miserable misanthrope. There is drama in the Garden of Eden, but despite their sin Adam and Eve seem to us like approachable, if very distant, grandparents. But how would you feel if your great, great, great grandfather was one Ebenezer Scrooge? A little awkward, to say the least.

This is because it’s Dickens, rather than the author of the book of Genesis, who gives us a much more vivid understanding of what it means to be, and this is Dickens’ word, a sinner.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.

Scrooge hated Christmas because he hated everything, but he especially hated it because it was a season of goodwill and he had lost the ability to love.

The story tells us that he was shocked out of his miserable oyster-like state and that he changed his ways and became a person of generosity and kindness. It is a story of wonderful change.

These two great Victorian institutions – A Christmas Carol and A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols are precious parts of our Christian cultural heritage. They balance and answer each other. In one, the action is with God. In the other, the action is of personal rebirth. Both are important. Grace on the one hand, response on the other. These are the two beats of the Christian heart: grace, response; grace, response; grace, response.

Neither story would be the same without children. It’s around the Christ child, who is born to be the prince of peace, that all the action circles in the carol service, though he himself is silent and passive. And in Dickens’ book, it’s Tiny Tim who ends up having the last word, ‘God Bless Us, Every One!’

It’s a prayer as well as an exclamation. And well might we repeat it ourselves, for we live in days of confusing perplexity and complex threat. Many are materially better off than ever before, but we carry levels of anxiety and distress that undermine both personal mental health and, it seems, the possibility of coherent and positive politics. This Christmas it’s particularly easy to make the point that, left to their own devices, human beings will make a mess of things – whether it’s the Adam and Eve sort of mess, or the Scrooge sort of mess, or the plastic sort of mess, or the homelessness sort of mess, or the pensions sort of mess or any other sort of mess you care to think of.

It’s time to turn to God. It’s time to seek a saviour. It’s time to recognise the limits of what raw human intelligence, crude human competition and unbridled human ambition can achieve.

But we must be careful. Many false Gods are presented and many false prophets promise a kingdom that shall never come. It’s my duty and joy, however, to proclaim the majesty of the God who comes to us as a vulnerable child; the wonder of the God who comes to share our human condition, and the triumph of the God who is prepared not only to be on the receiving end of the sins of the world, but also to take them away so that we sinners can be restored to our original dignity: the dignity of loving our neighbours – that’s one challenge; the dignity of loving our enemies – that’s a greater challenge; and the dignity of loving ourselves – for some the biggest challenge of all.

It’s time to turn to God, and to rediscover two truths. First, the truth that God is the God of redeeming love. Second, the truth that we are invited to respond to that love by daring to love more and more thoroughly, and more and more deeply, all those with whom we share God’s gift of life on this planet.

This is the truth sent from above, the truth of God, the God of love; who lived and died and rose again that we may live by love.