The Cathedrals Working Group has issued a draft report.  It has to be said that the group has worked fast.  It was only set up towards the end of April last year and the 100 page report has no fewer than 65 recommendations – or ‘lxv’ as the report has it, choosing to list them with Roman numerals.  In fact, it has one more than lxv (that would be lxvi) as the authors also insist that the report is adopted wholesale; they believe that the necessary reform will not come if only the more congenial recommendations are cherry-picked.

And what is the necessary reform?  Well its not that Cathedrals should do a better job.  The belief is that English Cathedrals are very good at being English Cathedrals.  This is a not a generalisation that would be made of, say, Parish Churches today.

The problem with Cathedrals is the running them. Over the last couple of years two Cathedrals have got into such embarrassing messes that the Deans resigned. It might come as a surprise, then, to discover that what the draft report seems to be recommending is that Deans are given significantly more power and responsibility in the future.  Certainly in terms of the perennial cathedral dynamic of Deans and Residentiary Canons (sometimes parodied as a situation in which a cat is watched by several mice) it’s the Deans who go up while canonries are reimagined as early or mid-career posts which people would be expected to vacate within a decade.

But counterbalancing this is that the new super-deans will find that the Bishop, who also gains more power through this, will appoint the lay vice-chair of the Chapter  That will sometimes be very interesting, in a Chinese sort of way.

One aspect of the report that I wholeheartedly applaud is the attempt to make a clear distinction between governance and management in Cathedrals. And I agree that the best way to set about this is to abandon the experiment of ‘Cathedral Council’ and to stack Chapters with non-exective members who will know that their responsibilities are limited to governance, strategy and the long-term issues of sustainability.

I also welcome the emphasis on internal audit, though by the time I got to the end of the document I did have review-fatigue, and I find it hard to imagine that the amount of accounting, reviewing, auditing, reporting and managing will actually be sustainable.

People like me are supposed to critique such reports for being theologically light. I don’t feel inclined to do that. Not because I am especially convinced by the chapter on ‘mission, role and ecclesiology’  – indeed that chapter repeatedly points to its own limits – but because I don’t think that theology can or should be shoehorned into the sort of shape and structure that such reports must have. That Cathedrals should be places of theological exploration, discovery, conversation and above all else energy, is something that I do believe.  Quite how that it organised and encouraged is another matter; but perhaps that’s where the ‘bishop’s teaching ministry’ comes in.  We need our bishops not to be people who can tell us what they believe to be the most important points of doctrine in the manner of an old style instructor, but to be able to stimulate the imagination of individuals and communities so that theology is seen not as a dull spectator sport, but as an vital and vitalising part of the discipleship of adults and children of all ages – indeed anyone who can put a question mark at the end of a sentence containing the word ‘God’.

It will be fascinating to see how the report is received.  My guess is that the reviewers will get their way. Even if they don’t get all lxvi recommendations through I think they will get a good l accepted, maybe even lv. As a result risks will be better controlled, strategies better conceived, projects better managed and finances will be under control (this is where all should cheer). But I think it will be good at the human level too. Cathedrals are very complicated – the ‘palimpsest’ analogy used in the theology chapter  applies, in my view, to every aspect of their life.  And that makes them extremely difficult to read.  Perfect clarity, transparency and lucidity will never come to any human situation, never mind one that has history and spirituality, together with all manner of local and maybe national mythology, in the mix.  But the drive must be in the direction of clarity and accountability, and this report is to be welcomed for giving a clear lead in that direction.

You can find the report here  Cathedrals Working Group Draft Report


Happiness and Success

Richard Branson is a very rich man.  Why?

In a seasonal blog he lets us into the secret.  He is successful because he is happy.

Do note the paradox. It’s not that his success has made him happy; it’s that being happy has made him successful.

He certainly looks happy enough – not least in the photo illustrating his cheerful blog post.


This reminds me of the Chinese proverb quoted by Dale Carnegie in How to Make Friends and Influence People:  ‘a man without a smiling face should not open a shop’.

Which in turn reminds me of what Stephen Jenkinson says about ‘ad men’ in Die Wise:

Funny, clever, sage, insightful, and always with your best intentions at heart; the ad man’s emotional dexterity is the envy of counsellors, parents, bosses and lovers everywhere it is felt. You are the centre of the universe when you are being sold.

Jenkinson is critiquing the notion of ‘Quality of Life’ when used in the run up to death. He thinks it’s a mistaken quest, and that we would be wiser to think about Quality of Death. That’s a sobering thought, but one worth pondering – death being life’s only certainty.

When midnight strikes tonight the final chime will be drowned out by cheers and exclamations. The quest for a euphoric moment will be all-too-precisely rewarded.  We will celebrate one more tick of the clock and wish each other ‘Happy New Year’. And imagine, perhaps, that this happiness will be the key to our success and prosperity through the months to come.

But it does rather depend on what you mean by happiness and what you mean by success. If happiness is a jolly temperament and cheerful countenance – well, that’s very nice. If success is achievement in commercial and financial terms – well, that’s very nice too.

Really and truly, however, we are looking for something a bit deeper than jollity, and a bit richer than financial wealth as we look forward not only to that chiming bell but to  the future that lies beyond it.

We are looking for ways to feel good knowing that the oceans are groaning with plastic; for ways to love others knowing that every relationship enjoyed will lead one day to the grief of loss and bereavement; for ways to promote the well-being of others knowing how many live in poverty, with disease, in the shadow of war, or with fear or hatred (or both) dominating their imaginations. We are looking for ways of living a good life given the reality of the world as it is, as it has become, and as it will be. The words ‘happy’ and ‘success’ may pop up from time to time, but they only scratch the surface. They are not words of the soul. 

Reading Branson’s blog hasn’t dissuaded me of the wisdom the Chinese proverb. But it has persuaded that it is both facile and complacent to see happiness as a cause of success in any of life’s more significant projects.

So let me wish you not a ‘Happy New Year’, nor a prosperous one.  Though good luck to  you if you get either or both.

I do, however, wish you great adventures, together with wise and loving companions, for as long as you live.

You can read Richard Branson’s blog here:   Branson on happiness and success




Christmas Day sermon preached in King’s College Chapel

The music of this Chapel is a gift to the world.  Like the heavens that tell the glory of God, the sound of our music has gone out into all lands (Psalm 19.4).  It is part of our joy that that sound causes so much pleasure. As one of our Choristers said recently on CBBC’s Newsround, ‘I love to imagine  people smiling on the other side of the radio’.

There is a lot to be said for smiling, and for causing other people to smile. Of course there are different sorts of smile: the wry smile, the smile when you think someone is absurdly mistaken or when you can see the way in which they are deluding themselves. But there are lots of good smiles: the smile of recognition, the smile of welcome and greeting, the smile of sheer delight in the company of others, as well as the smile of aesthetic pleasure or spiritual enlightenment.

We celebrate today the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  This above all things should bring a warm smile to our faces.  But let us remember that the circumstances were not good. The future would have looked very precarious for that family, bringing a child into poverty and danger. Perhaps that is why the Bible tells us about the support that Mary and Joseph received ahead of the birth: Mary from her cousin Elizabeth, and Joseph through the angelic visions that strengthened and guided him.

Company matters. Support matters. Fellowship matters. Simply to see a familiar and friendly face, or to hear caring and kindly words, can warm our hearts.  This is why the word ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God with us’, is such a beautifully concise summary of the Christian gospel. And it is God with us; not God with me.

We all know the quip ‘hell is other people’ – but it’s just as true to say that ‘heaven is other people’.  Other people in all their variety and glory, in all their complexity and awkwardness, are part and parcel of the whole of life, and the whole of faith. And while there is an important role for solitude in all our lives, one of the most desperate of conditions known to human beings is the condition of loneliness.

I first started to think about loneliness when I began parish ministry in Manchester.  It seemed to me that people could cope with all sorts of misfortune in life, but if their disease or bereavement or poverty was compounded by loneliness then their misery was hugely greater, their pain more acute, their lives all the more tragically fractured and fragmented.

A decade or so later, when I was a vicar in the Midlands, I came to the view that one of the most important roles the church itself could play was to be a welcoming and warm presence in the community, striving defiantly against the rising tide of loneliness.

Such Canute-like aspirations are doomed to failure, perhaps, but if you want to be against anything in this life then loneliness is a prime candidate; especially if you are a church.

Why? Because if you are a church, then you should seek to reflect something of the truth of God as understood by the Christian faith. And you can’t get much closer to the core of the Christian understanding of God than to say that God is social in the most wonderful way imaginable. The dull word ‘trinity’ hardly does justice to this, but the phrase ‘God is love’ gets us closer.  God is not a solitary and distant entity. God constantly reaches out, and ultimately comes to us in a shape and form that even we can recognise and understand. God comes to us as child.

This coming of God to us is not an afterthought to the activity of creating. It has the full power of the divine momentum, which is summarized in rather technical language in the Creed, ‘begotten, not made’, and, ‘being of one substance with the Father’.

God is in Christ for us not as a mopping-up exercise necessary only because humanity has gone astray, but because it is intrinsic to God’s nature to reach out in love. Indeed, for Christians, there is no God other than the loving God who is with us, who is Emmanuel, who is in Christ. Just as in science it’s meaningless to ask what was going on before the big bang, so in Christian theology it’s meaningless to ask what God was like before the begetting of the Son. God’s loving outreach is eternal.

Many of us have enjoyed watching Howard’s End on BBC1 recently, and among all that is wonderful in that novel, it is Margaret’s speech to her husband that contains the book’s most famous phrase, ‘only connect’.  She’s talking about the life of the soul; about our inward integration. ‘Only connect the prose and the passion and everything will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.’ This interconnectedness is significant at every level of life, between us as well as within us.  Christianity is the religion of inward connection and eternal community. Christianity knows God to be social and loving, and therefore to be saving and sanctifying.

Not only is God love, but God loves loving. And we human beings are created in the image and likeness of the eternally loving God. It follows from this that all practical and real Christianity must be looking for an end to those twin disasters of inner fragmentation and actual loneliness; two disasters which are becoming ever more likely in today’s world.

And so I welcome very much the work that is being done in the name of murdered MP Jo Cox to combat loneliness. In the last year it has raised awareness of loneliness among ‘men, older people, carers, refugees and people seeking asylum, disabled people, children, young people and their parents’.

We could all add to the list, and extend it indefinitely, because loneliness can afflict anyone. But the point of loneliness is not the list; the issue here is not to work out who is the loneliest. What matters is to flag up the prevalence of loneliness and to begin to work out what we might do about it. For loneliness is completely contrary to the way and will of God; it is contradicted by God’s very nature, and our mandate to address it comes from the fact that it is confounded by the birth of Jesus.

As we celebrate that birth we rightly seek to put smiles on other people’s faces. We do this by reaching out to others, making an offering of our gifts and talents, and sharing our belief that the love of God is invincible; it’s the strongest power that can ever be. And yet, even as we make that proclamation, we know that God’s power works not by force, but through vulnerability, kindness and care.  And that is why, although the light of God seems to flicker precariously in the midst of malevolent darkness, and our lives seem to get ever more fragmented and lonely, the darkness can neither understand nor overcome it. For that light is nothing other than the grace and truth of God in Christ, the eternally begotten Son, the babe in the manger, the Saviour of the world.

Having just written a blog about vicar-ing I find the subject of bishop-ing pops up with the nomination of Sarah Mullally as the next Bishop of London.

Needless to say the point that she is the first woman to hold the post, and that the post is so hugely significant and prominent, no non-Archbishop comes anywhere near it, will dominate the headlines.

But for me the big issue is that Sarah has, like Justin Welby, risen to high ecclesiastical office very quickly, having had a very successful early career not in church jobs but in another realm. Justin was in the oil-industry, and Sarah in nursing.  When you bear in mind that the Archbishop of York was a judge before he was ordained, you begin to get the feeling that the most senior leadership in the church today is selected from the pool of those who in their twenties and thirties were being formed in the crucible of the real world.  Absent from the scene are those for whom the church decreed that an extended stay in or near the academy (theological college), and the protracted adolescence of full-time curacy were the right way to grow into mature ministry and full adulthood.

This may all be a coincidence, of course, and it may be something to do with the sort of values that inform appointment processes, but it may also be a very good thing.

One aspect of Justin’s archepiscopacy that I have admired is the extent to which a wide range of people respond warmly to what they feel is his unassuming, business-like and down-to-earth approach to life. People may disagree in detail, but they do connect, relate and admire. He’s a man of faith – but not too churchy.

I suspect and hope that the same will be true of Bishop Sarah. When appointed to Crediton she has the unusual pleasure of meeting my mother at the town’s ‘memory cafe’, which had been deemed a suitable place for the former nurse to have a media event on the day of the announcement. With wonderful irony the memory cafe folk  forgot that the event was happening and it was, I gather, a bit of a circus. But who cares? The new bishop made a very favourable impression on my Roman Catholic mother, who at that stage was well enough to know what was going on and phoned me later to tell me that she had met not one but two bishops that day, and that one was a very nice lady.

It must be clear from my blog yesterday that I place a huge value on the sort of parish ministry that priests like Alan Bartlett offer from their parish chruches and vicarages. But I do wonder whether the church has done enough over the last three or four decades to cherish, nurture and form those it ordained young.  I also wonder whether the huge investment that the church has made in leadership programmes over the last decade or so has really done enough to equip my generation with the qualities needed to be efficient organisational leaders and credible public figures as well as people of faithful and lively spirituality and mature and attractive theology.

With regard to Sarah’s translation, I am sure that there are those in Devon who will think she is going down in the world by moving to London, but it seems to me that she is finding her true and vocational level.  I have long thought that priesthood and nursing have a great deal in common, so I was heartened and moved by her mention of foot-washing in her  statement to the diocese of London this morning. I am going to quote it because I know that it was made by someone who first washed feet at work not for liturgical purposes, but because they needed washing.

I have always sought to live in the service of others. Washing feet is a powerful image which has shaped my vocation. As a nurse the way we wash feet affords dignity, respect and value. As a priest I am called to model Jesus Christ, who took off his outer garments and washed his disciples’ feet. As Bishop consecrated to be the shepherd of the flock and committed to those in my care I keep that model of service before me, seeking to serve others and value them.

I increasingly admire the ministerial style of those ordained later in life.  And I think it’s because of what they learnt before being ordained.  At work: doing what really needs to be done, learning the skills of collaboration and time management, becoming professionally competent and emotionally intelligent, gaining clarity of mind and a confident, if modest, assertiveness. At church:  spending more time praying than preaching, absorbing for years from the pews rather than inflicting theological juvenilia on the all too patient parishioners, and not having to manage the stresses that come from lonely and relentless exposure to other people’s sadness and loss.  I may be viewing the early adult years of those who came late to ordination through a rose-tinted rear view mirror, but I think there might be something in this.

In any case, I wish the new Bishop well and trust that she will be able to use all her experience in her new role.




More Stress, Vicar?

I have to be a tad careful with this post because I know that its subject – the Revd Canon Alan Bartlett – reads this blog. In fact, Alan and I were colleagues in the Diocese of Durham, and I am delighted that he has recently taken on responsibilities that, not so long ago, were mine.

Alan has an article in the Sunday Telegraph today, where he shares some of his recent parish experience; experience which makes it all too clear why so many clergy are close to the edge.

A Strange Life

Alan makes the point in the article about the strangeness of the way of life of the parish clergy.  This strangeness has many aspects, but one of the strangest is that for all that clergy live in the public gaze, the realities of the job are often hidden. When I was a parish priest I set up a parish office and got members of the congregation to come and help out on weekday mornings. The most common response after one or two sessions was, ‘oh my goodness, I had no idea’.

For the average family a death is a rare, major, heart-wrenching, clock-stopping event of great significance.  But for clergy like Alan, conducting at least one funeral every week,  a funeral is one of those things that have to be fitted into an already crowded diary. It’s really hard … no, let me stress this: it really is really hard  to summon the emotional  dexterity that makes it appear to the family that their bereavement is your most important concern, while the reality is that there are lots and lots of other things jostling for attention too, including some other deaths and other situations of raw suffering.

No More Reverend Nice Guy

If, from time to time, the inner tension that this generates means that a parishioner fussing about a nicety in a flower-rota gets short shrift, then (and I know it all very well for me to say… ) I think that’s okay. Indeed, if I have a complaint about the parish clergy its not that they are not nice enough, but that they are too nice.

Alan has recently taken on responsibility for clergy professional development in Durham diocese. Lucky Durham! It is extremely rare to see someone with such experience in such a role. And of course its super-rare to have those who know the truth of what he says from the inside in the most senior positions in the church. His voice needs to be heard. He needs to tell it as it is.

Minsters of the Intractable 

One of the most important things about the local ministry of the church is that the clergy are those who share in the vulnerability of those people whose problems are never going too be solved.  Being a vicar is an act of solidarity and fellowship with whoever comes across the worst luck in the time that you are in post.

I should add that for people like me this sharing in intractable and undeserved suffering is an extremely unattractive prospect. I do like a complex problem, and I like working with others to find a solution, and I like implementing it. I am all for strategies and improvements, but I also recognise that this isn’t, in fact, what local ministry is all about. It’s about something deeper and more eternally important than any of that.

The Care Option of Last Resort

Alan describes himself as part of the primary care team. I can see what he means but also feel the statement is a bit demeaning.  The real spiritual significance and power of the local clergy, indeed of all genuine Christian priesthood, is not that it is part of the care system but that its still there when the care runs out of steam or ideas or solutions or any other resources. Clergy are, by and large, the care option of last resort. Is this lonely? Yes, it is. Is it important? Hugely.

Care for the Clergy

Parishes need to be vibrant, to be sure, but many are not going be. The question for the church is not how to make the circumstances of the clergy better, but how to care for them, nourish them and love them in the sad loneliness that is, for those in the toughest parishes, the truth that is never going to go away.

Sorry that’s a bit gloomy, but I think is important to be realistic about this. It’s only on the basis of realism that the clergy of the future will develop the spirituality and the resilience needed to enable them to stand firm in their calling, and to be there for those who have no one else.

You can read the article that inspired this blog here

We recorded Carols from King’s with our friends from  BBC TV last weekend, with lots of snow on the ground outside the Chapel. It will be broadcast on BBC 2 on Christmas Eve at 5.45 pm and available on iPlayer, and to download, immediately after. The download facility will enable people around the world to enjoy the programme.  It is on the website of the College Recording Label, which is well worth a visit anytime,  but especialy at Christmas.

Carols from Kings – order of service

To pre-order the download of the service visit here


We have just finalised this and sent it to the printers. It is also on the College website as a PDF and this link should take you straight to it Order of Service F9LC